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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Harry Potter: Would it still be big if Harry was Harriett?

I can't remember where I got the link to this thread at SFFWorld, but the second I saw it, I knew I had to talk about it here.  The thread was started by a user named Rilzik, who asked a very peculiar, but interesting question about the Harry Potter series.  Specifically, he or she asked:
Would the books and movies be as popular and/or have made as much money if harry was a female and the supporting roles switched to reflect that. Would it have been more, the same or less popular?
Could the story with a female lead have reached that sort of super stardom? Would/are females more willing to watch/read a male lead then males are of female leads?
Is the audience the same as with twilight which does have a female lead? are these comparable?
A lot of folks have said "it would be the same" to the first batch of questions and "no" to the very
last question, largely because the series is not oriented toward sex appeal, for the most part.  Aside from the fact that nobody can actually know what would or would not have happened if Harry Potter were a girl, I think it's great to see people seriously considering the place of female characters in the SF/F market, especially without some kind of controversy as the foreground.  There's a kind of openness to a discussion that isn't sparked by drama, and I think much more gets done and said that isn't oriented towards making anyone feel bad about themselves and their mistakes.  If you read the thread, you'll notice a great deal of people considering everything from the gender ambiguity of J. K. Rowling's name (who we all know is a woman), how gender forms opinions about characters, and so forth.  The discussion, I think, needs to happen in this way so more people are exposed to the problems and progressions without forcing anyone to pick a side (and, thus, subject individuals to the penalties of side-choosing, which all serious political/social debates in the SF/F community have been oriented towards).

In the case of Harry Potter--again, setting aside the unknowability of alternate history--I think there is something crucial that some individuals (with the exception of KatG) who have commented are missing:  namely that Harry Potter was centered at the dawn of YA fiction, which preceded the vast majority of the major YA fantasy series with female protagonists (such as Twilight and the dozens of other urban fantasy types that followed in its wake).  I would bet that if Harry Potter were Harriet Potter, the series would not have sold as well.  It's possible that we could chock this up to sexism, but I imagine it would be much more complicated than that.  Today, the climate is different.  Female readers are more common than ever (visually speaking), and female protagonists are in greater numbers in the YA market.  But in 1997, when the first Harry Potter book was released, the reading world was a very different place, not just in terms of who was reading (which was largely the same as it is today, though more people are reading now than thirteen years ago), but also in terms of how books were marketed, what was being picked up by publishers, and so forth.

That's not to say that things are all peachy on the gender front--because they aren't--but I think it's absolutely crucial to note how different the climate is today from 1997 overall.  Switching Harry's gender likely wouldn't have gone on so well with publishers, and maybe the same is true for readers.  It's not a simple task to switch the gender of a character, because to do so also means changing who the character is, how the character acts, and so forth.  Remember that Harry Potter is raised in a very specific kind of culture--ours--and that culture is one that frequently normalizes certain kinds of gender roles and gender constructions, even when individuals attempt to reorient their children toward more open forms of gender formations.  Harriett Potter undoubtedly would be an entirely different person; the result would be that readers would identify with the character differently and the books likely would not have become as popular as they are today, since it would not have appealed to the young male audience of 1997.

But, again, this is all guesswork.  Without a time machine, I don't think any of us can truly know what would and would not have happened if things were different.  We can guess, but guesses aren't necessarily truth (they can become truth, though).  In the end, it's a fun exercise, but not one that is productive on its own--the productive discussions are all those things people have pointed out in regards to gender and writing, which point directly to the middle questions in the quote above.  Maybe I'll talk some more about those questions another time.

So, what do you think?  Do you think Harry Potter would have been just as successful if the main character was a girl?

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