A Feminist Goodbye (For Now) To “Harry Potter” and “Friday Night Lights”


It seems like an absurd challenge I’ve given myself: write a goodbye column, a joint elegy as the runs of two pop-culture masterpieces come to a close the same weekend. One is an insanely popular book and film series about a fictional wizard in England, and the other an under-appreciated television show about a football loving town in Texas, seemingly only connected by the coincidental timing of their final installments.

But for me, and the RHRC readership who has shared my intense experience in these two fictional universes over the past few years, there is a strong connection: these are stories that we, as a community with feminist values and concern for the erosion of our rights, have adored. These are stories that brought us comfort in a bleak climate, stories that have given us confidence. We have appreciated genuine female pop culture presences, spunky, smart girls and tough, loving women–and just as importantly, sensitive portrayals of male characters and their emotional lives. Even more than that, the women in these stories have transcended being “good female characters” who subvert stereotypes into just being good characters, period; real ones, ones whose journeys we are, sometimes to a desperate extent, obsessed with.

As we lament the dearth of good role models on TV, the troubling portrayals of female sexuality in the media, Reality TV’s forays into obsession with external appearance and the news-media’s penchant for victim-blaming, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what has been done right in these two series. Feel free to bid them your own proper goodbyes in the comments section.

 

Hogwarts, England

So much–perhaps too much– has been written about Harry Potter in recent days as the “think pieces” about what this series’ ultimate film installment means for a generation weaned on the books, about the franchise’s literary and celluloid flaws and its triumphs, about its significance to our era and so on. Still, let’s swoop in on our brooms one last time.

In recent months, I have noticed a lot of fairly legitimate complaints about how JK Rowling’s prodigious creativity doesn’t entirely extend to upending gender roles–she has a few bad-ass ladies who fight, but mostly her female characters are brainiacs like Hermione or fussing moms like Mrs. Weasley.

However, what fascinates me is Rowling’s ability to push a subtly feminist agenda even within that traditional gender structure. Hermione’s blossoming role as more than girl with her hand in the air and nose in a book of spells–as Harry’s companion and partner in ingenuity, and in suffering, and in a desperate desire to make the world better, was obvious in the last installment of the film series, which I felt was really “her movie.

A cult of Hermione has grown up, wondering why isn’t she the star? But she is, in her way. Harry Potter is a classic hero’s quest, and having Hermione play the supporting role may not be as denigrating as you think. The supporting role is often more interesting than the hero: think Han Solo and Princess Leia compared to bland Luke, spunky Samwise Gamgee and brooding Aragorn next to beatific Frodo. This is the tradition we’re working in, and to have that role be played by a brilliant girl who labors on behalf of oppressed workers and always has her hand raised is, in my opinion, pretty darn awesome.

And beyond Hermione, Rowling’s commitment to feminist storytelling holds true as well. As the events of the final movie released today unfold, it’s going to be clear that JK Rowling also has a lot (a lot) to say about motherhood and its importance: Lily Potter, Harry’s deceased mother, and Mrs. Weasley, Ron’s mom, are in many ways the heroines of this final chapter  because of their fierce attachment to their offspring (the latter’s “Not my daughter, you bitch!” is probably the winning tagline of the entire series, isn’t it?). Lily Potter’s past kindness to double agent Severus Snape keeps him on the right side of the fight and we learn that her generous heart reformed her rogue of a sweetheart, James. Meanwhile, the protective spell she’s cast on Harry by dying for him has basically been what’s saved him throughout the book– that and Hermione’s cleverness. Oh and in the very, very end? Another mother, Narcissa Malfoy, has worries for her own which son cause her to betray Voldemort and save Harry.

Not to get too Freudian, but the final book’s crucial moment involves Harry rejecting the pursuit of the “elder wand” and immortality, as Hermione long urged him to. Rowling’s absolutely saying something about the role of “traditionally feminine” values in a male world: love, compassion, empathy, self-sacrifice, thinking things through carefully and rationally. These, in Rowling’s imagination, are values far superior to courage, anger and power. 

 

Dillon, Texas

Love, self-sacrifice, thinking things through carefully and rationally, empathy and compassion: these are the same qualities Tami Taylor and her football-coach extraordinaire husband Eric bring to the extremely patriarchal town of Dillon. Like Harry Potter, “Friday Night Lights” infused these traditionally “feminine values” into its narratives, focusing on the importance of subsuming one’s ego for the good of the team, the community.

Unlike Harry Potter, which had a hilarious but chaste obsession with snogging, FNL dealt with sex: directly, unashamedly, and perhaps most remarkably for a network, non-judgmentally. The idea that two teenagers in love would have sex was treated as a given, and the idea that different young people had different sexual desires, urges, needs and maturity levels was also a thread that lasted throughout the entire series.

Who can forget the way Lyla bit her lip when her evangelical boyfriend refused to have sex? That girl was, well, she was horny, and that was okay. The series made it clear: she was with the wrong guy. Or what about when Tyra grew to see herself as having more value than a sex object–as someone with a brain, and more importantly, a future?  

Of course a highlight has been the immortal Tami and Juli “sex talks,” which we’ve dissected here with such fascination, as emblematic of the ways in which the show unlike anything we’ve ever seen on TV before: painful, and honest, and only the beginning of a long conversation between mother and daughter.

And then there was Becky’s abortion–which remains, to this date, and probably will for a long time, one of the only truly strong treatments of abortion on a TV series, cable or network. And that it was a teenage girl’s choice–an even bigger TV no-no–makes the episode’s resonance all the more powerful, as does the fact that Becky has emerged this new season being able to talk about her ordeal: substantially wiser without losing her girlishness.

Yes, this season the writers gave us an irritating, perhaps cliched, storyline about Julie sleeping with her TA, but it wasn’t entirely inconsistent with her character. She’s consistently been attracted to slightly smarmy older men, and her status as the golden child in her stable household might lead her to seek out approval from an authority figure in college. 

Still, the less said on that the better. Because in the final season, the FNL writers focused less on sexuality and more on other kinds of gender inequality. We had a girl trying to become a football coach and we had Tami thinking about advancing her career for once, after being the dutiful coach’s wife for almost two decades–and Eric having to confront this reality about their marriage. How wonderful and painful the fights between them were in these last few episodes. How brave of the show’s creators to highlight the marital and gender imbalance, the support structure of women and girls that buttresses the glory-gaining football team again and again over a beautiful five years.

Shameless plug: if you want to read and think more about feminism and Friday Night Lights, my somewhat lengthy essay on Tami as a stand-in for the writers’ views on girls sexuality is part of this awesome book, a Friday Night Lights Companion, that’s about to hit shelves. 


Even though these two stories come to an end this weekend, we’re so lucky that we can come back to them again and again and relive the best moments. We can forever hold them up as an example of how good art can sustain feminist values without leaving a commitment to emotional truth behind.

 

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Follow Sarah Seltzer on twitter: @sarahmseltzer