Even before Emma Watson took the stage at the UN to give a speech about feminism, and before the video was shared by everyone you know on Facebook, and everyone was talking about her and whether she should be the face of modern feminism…before all that, she was still our boss ass witch. Throughout all eight Harry Potter films, Watson played Hermione Granger, the female member of the Holy Trinity that also includes Harry and Ron Weasley. Though Harry is ostensibly the hero of the series, considering it’s named after him, Hermione is the ingenious character and the one that saves the day more often than not. Many have pointed this out, but it’s worth saying it explicitly: Hermione Granger is the hero of the Harry Potter series.
The Harry Potter books and films are a wealth of great characters, including many wizards, but the number of strong and complicated witches is most impressive for what is generally considered kids’ stuff. It is to J.K. Rowling’s credit that though we all love Dumbledore and he acts as the patriarch of Hogwarts, it is McGonagall that is there until the end, fighting for Harry and embodying the beating heart of the school. It is to Rowling’s credit that Luna Lovegood is allowed to be the oddest and most eccentric person in the room (by far, in a room full of very odd people), and that she is never fazed when people make fun of her and don’t accept her. She is who she is, and why would she pretend any different? It is to Rowling’s credit that Ginny Weasley is not made the main character’s love interest until the sixth book and until then (and afterwards) she is a fiery young woman who embraces her sexuality and dates whoever she wants and doesn’t take any shit from her brothers. She’s someone who knows what she believes in and will take what she wants (it’s she who first kisses Harry, remember).
It is also to Rowling’s credit that some of the absolute most horrid and grotesque characters are women. Though Voldemort is the series’ Big Bad, perhaps no character is as hated as Bellatrix Lestrange. She is a heartless woman that seemingly takes great pleasure in murder and darkness, even when it comes to her own family. By killing Sirius Black, she almost comes to symbolize the evil in the world more than Voldemort does, at least to Harry. She is a wild and unpredictable presence, completely lacking in humanity or sympathy. You also have Dolores Umbridge, a woman as hungry for power as she is unfit to hold it. Like Bellatrix, she, too, takes pleasure in torturing her victims, only for her it’s performed on the students she is supposedly meant to protect. She is sadistic and hides it behind a ridiculous pink veneer, making her true colours all the more terrifying.
As this illustrates, the Potter universe is replete with fully-formed female characters that run the gamut from courageous and bold to downright villainous. Only one of them is consistently given the spotlight, however, and that’s Hermione. Luckily, she knows what to do with the attention. Though she starts out as little more than a bookworm who needs to sort out her priorities, she quickly becomes the one saving the day. It is her mastery of the time-turner that allows her and Harry to save Buckbeak and Sirius in Prisoner of Azkaban, and it is her restraint that keeps Harry from making multiple mistakes while in the past. She’s the one that actually starts Dumbledore’s Army, but you know, I guess Harry is the leader because duh. It is her ingenuity that protects and saves them while they run around looking for horcruxes in Deathly Hallows. Seriously, Harry and Ron would have been dead fifty times over without Hermione.
As mentioned previously, much has been made of how Hermione is the true hero of the series, and how valuable the character is as a role model. But beyond her supposed feminist deification, what’s more interesting is simply the idea that she is a better, more complex and more compelling character than Harry. This harkens back to my argument about gateway characters, though the series is far too focused on Harry throughout eight straight films to completely fit the model. The point is that if one were to imagine the series from her perspective (as countless collections of fanfiction have done), it becomes immediately clear in what ways it would’ve been different, and perhaps even superior. There are certain advantages afforded to her character as is, most glaringly in that she is not encumbered by Harry’s central conflict over his murdered parents and rough upbringing. It goes without saying that these things are inseparable from the story Rowling had in mind and that Hermione works so well as a character in large part because of her secondary importance.
Maybe it’s better this way. Harry’s name may be the one on the marquee, but Hermione’s qualities and values are the ones that speak loudest, the ones that surely have left the biggest impression on an entire generation that grew up reading and watching her. Harry went through all his pain and came out on top, true, and Ron made us laugh and warmed our hearts, but Hermione was the most determined, the most brave, the most layered. All three go through changes and grow over the course of the series, but Hermione most of all. From the beginning, she is solving the obstacles in their way and using her quick thinking to get them out of trouble, and she doesn’t care about how she comes off. Then she grows up, realizes this behaviour can be alienating to boys, including ones she may be interested in…but keeps doing it anyway. Despite pressure, she rarely lets the focus be on her looks or her gender instead of her intelligence – and when she does, she exposes an all-too-real vulnerability. She’s smarter than everyone else, yes, but she’s also a bit of an outsider because of that, her extreme intelligence and focus on her studies setting her apart from most other characters. She’s an outsider, too, coming from two human parents, which must at least play a part in why she is so obsessively committed to prove herself here, at Hogwarts. This is her adopted world, full of witchcraft and wizardry, and she’s the one most passionate about protecting it. That’s pretty heroic to me.