Fanfic vs. Canon: Female Characters in Harry Potter

As we well know, fanfiction is dominated by stories about male characters, which can appear a bit paradoxical at first, since it is predominantly written by women.

Several explanations can be advanced on the subject:

  • Canon books, movies and TV series are more often centered around male characters than female ones
  • Even when there are canon female characters, canon male characters are deemed more interesting than female ones in terms of story development and character arcs
  • Or it could be due to internalized misogyny: we would be taught since infancy that men are more of the hero-type than female

The aim of this post is not to solve the question entirely. However, I was thinking that in the case of fandoms based on books, it could be relatively easy to measure how often female characters appear in canon and make a comparison with their presence in fanfiction.

With this question in mind, I naturally turned over to Harry Potter:

hp_yay

  • Whereas centered around a male character, the book has an interesting —if limited— list of female characters that provide ample matter for fanfic authors
  • The fandom is still huge, with so many fics to look at

I honestly wondered what the results would be: while a huge part of the fics in the fandom are dudeslash (mainly Drarry – Harry/Draco), and as such are centered around male protagonists, I also read lots of good stories expanding on female characters that were underdeveloped in canon (Luna Lovegood, Hestia Jones, Millicent Bulstrode, etc.).

Many female characters… And yet so difficult to find any image with a significant number of them interacting. HP has a few difficulties passing the Bechdel test.
Female characters in Harry Potter

So, first, what is the place of female characters in canon?

Basing myself on this list, and taking into account only humans, I counted 109 (62%) male and 66 (38%) female characters. This is already a bit disappointing with respect to representation, but we also have to take into consideration that many of these characters are very very minor ones. So what do we find in the text itself?

page394
Snape being benevolent at giving instructions, as always.

A very crude measure of the prevalence of female vs. male characters is to compare the proportion of she/her pronouns to he/him/his in the books.

HP1
To compute these ratios I used text mining with R and the tm package.

Unsurprisingly the ratio is pretty low, particularly for the first three volumes of the saga (less than 20%, that is 5.5 times more male pronouns than female ones!), where Harry’s interactions with girls are pretty much restricted to Hermione, and women are virtually non-existent (McGonagall, Molly Weasley or Pomfrey appearing only very occasionally by contrast with Snape, Dumbledore or even Quirrell, Lockhart and (fake)Moody).

Starting with the fourth volume, the ratio gets a bit higher, around 25%, as new female characters are given a place in the story: Ginny gets more room, there are dating plots around Cho Chang and Lavender Brown, Tonks and Luna get more important roles, etc. The exception is The Order of the Phoenix which gets a ratio of 34%, I think primarily due to Umbridge, rather than Luna, Tonks or Bellatrix, since the ratio falls again around 25% in the last two volumes of the saga.

umbridge2
Evil, evil woman.

If we group all the books together, the number of male pronouns is 4.2 times higher than the number of female pronouns (that means a ratio of 24%): most of our 66 female characters are pretty far in the background.

Female characters in HP fanfiction

Are female characters given better representation in fanfiction than in canon? The fandom is so huge and diverse and creative that it is I think impossible to get a “representative” sample of works, if even the word “representative” has a sense here.

So my findings are not representative of anything. But, I chose to build a corpus of “well loved” 100 HP fanfics by selecting the 50 HP fics with the more favs on fanfiction.net (FF.net) and the 50 HP fics with the more kudos on Archive of our Own (AO3) excluding crossovers. HP fics tend to be very different across these two platforms, and in particular, AO3 fics are quite shorter, so I looked only at fics there with at least 18 000+ words (the minimum length of the fics in my FF.net sample), to make them more comparable in this respect at least.

Even with that, AO3 stories are definitively shorter. The median length for the 50 AO3 fics is 74 100 words, against 215 310 words for FF.net fics!

hermione_book
Hermione lending Harry just some short ffnet fic.

They are also more recent: the median date for the last update was 22 Sep 2014 for AO3 fics and 20 Jul 2013 for FF.net fics.

For who is familiar with HP fanfiction on both platforms, these are obviously not the main differences. As stats on Destination Toast‘s blog show, FF.net fics tend to be more often gen (no romantic pairing) or centered on pairings involving women, such as Dramione (Draco/Hermione) or Snamione (Snape/Hermione), whereas AO3 fics are primarily dudeslash with a lot of Drarry (Draco/Harry) and rarer ships. And for sure, amongst our 50 AO3 fics, the overwhelming majority (34) is Drarry, the second pairing being Harry/Tom Riddle or Voldemort (9) and then a few instances of Wolfstar (Remus/Sirius).

wolfstar

FF.net does not offer an easy way to see at the first glance which ships are involved in a fic and anyway, a larger proportion of fics are gen. Descriptions however indicate the major characters involved in the story. Out of the 50 FF.net fics, 12 indicated both Harry and Hermione as major characters, 6 indicated Harry and Fleur, 3 Harry and Luna, 4 Harry with another female character (Ginny, Bellatrix or Daphne, Susan and Hannah), 4 Harry and Sirius, 3 Harry and Severus, 3 Draco and Hermione, 2 Harry and Tom Riddle or Voldemort. There was only one potential occurrence of Drarry (Draco and Harry).

Out of this description alone, we can sense that female characters will have a smaller place in HP fics published on AO3 than in those published on FF.net. Indeed, once we compute the feminine/masculine pronouns ratio, the result is quite striking.

The following table is sorted by increasing relative importance of feminine pronouns, and fics coming from AO3 are depicted in red, fics coming from FF.net in blue, whereas the original books are in yellow.

HP2HP3 HP4HP5

Only three fics out of 100 have a ratio greater than 1:

Three Drarry fics have a ratio greater than the canon average:

Even if they are centered around Harry (for he first two) or Draco (for the last one), characters such as Hermione, Narcissa or Pansy have also a proeminent role.

However, most dudeslash fics in our sample do not feature strong secondary female characters. 40 fics have a ratio lower than The Philosopher’s Stone‘s, that is lower than 15%, and 28 fics a ratio higher than The Order of the Phoenix (34%). If we group all the original HP books together, the ratio of feminine pronouns over masculine pronouns is 24%: 36 fics only do better than that, and 92% of them were published on FF.net.

Female heroes in HP fanfiction

What have we learned so far? That as Harry Potter is a book series centered around a male character with predominantly male supporting characters so there are relatively few occurrences of female agency, visible through the use of female pronouns. That since a large share of fics is Harry-centric, most of them do little better than canon in terms of female representation.

What about fics with a female hero? There is I think two major subgenres of these in the Harry Potter fandom: Hermione-centric fics and fics that star Harry Potter as a girl.

To gather a sample of these, I looked at two popular communities (also known as “C2” – I never really understood what the “2” stood for) on FF.net: Miss Potter, that lists fics where Harry is a girl, and Hermione Granger: Time Traveler, Spy, Heroine or More, that lists Hermione-centric fics with her being badass.

Hermione Granger: certified badass. By dellbelle39.

Again, I looked at the most-loved stories for each list: the first 50 for the Hermione-centric fics, the first 20 for the fem!Harry fics (this is a more minor genre), excluding crossovers, and compared them to canon.


HPFHPF-bHPF-c

All but one fic have better female representation than canon. However, despite staring a female hero, 27 fics (that is 29%) have a ratio of female/male pronouns lower than 1.

Fics with a female hero do not, for the most part, exhibit the same extent of gender disequilibrium as canon, where the ratio female/male pronouns is around 24%. All but two fics in our list have a ratio male over female pronouns higher than 40%.

What surprised me a bit, was that the highest ratio were for female Harry fics. I must admit never having read a fic about a genderbent Harry. I assumed people wrote female Harry primarily to pair her with a male character, because they were upset by slash, and that if writing about a strong female character was the main concern, people generally chose Hermione or another canonically female character. Obviously I was wrong. Among our 20 well-loved fem!Harry fics, many are femslash, and quite a few of them deal almost exclusively with female characters. Lily Potter and the Witches of Salem, by xDreamlessx, is the extreme example, which results in it having almost no male pronouns in it.

genderbent
A genderbent golden trio, by flomaniaque.
Conclusion

Harry Potter surely is a book that does very little for female representation. For the first three volumes at least, Hermione Granger is the only female character of importance, and she is quite the epitome of the Trinity syndrome. As shown in this article (unfortunately in French), despite being a superior witch compared to Harry, she is bound to be secondary to him, in a quite arbitrary manner (he is the Chosen One, because of the prophecy). She has to be punished for her bossyness (from Harry’s and Ron’s points of view) in order to evolve into a likable character. For example, in the first volume, when she tries to teach Ron how to do a proper Wingardium Leviosa charm, she is ridiculed by him behind her back. Having no friends is her own fault, because of her supposed pretientiousness.

leviosa
It’s leviosa, not leviosar …

During their adventures, if her intelligence is frequently put forward, it is presented as a secondary quality compared to Harry’s courage. This is stated in full words when Hermione solves the potions puzzle in order to access the Philosopher’s stone, and yet gives way to Harry because she only learned it in books and courage is more important.

The lack of interesting female characters in canon is apparently quite hard to counterbalance in fanfiction. A lot of popular fics include almost no female characters, and exhibit ratios of female representation actually worse than canon. Over our 100 popular fics, a negligible amount (around 5%) have equal male/female representation. The imbalance is so great in canon that authors that write female-hero fics in the Harry Potter universe have a hard time reproducing it in the reverse. Out of our 20 popular fem!Harry fics, only 1 does worse (in reverse) than the first Harry Potter books.

This is due in my opinion to at least two factors:

  • Given the huge proportion of male characters in canon, even authors that choose to develop female characters in fanfiction have to introduce a disproportionate amount of boys and men in the background in order to keep to story in line with the HP universe
  • We have a distorted image of what equal gender representation is: people (especially men) tend to think that a population has a female/male composition of 50-50, even when the ratio is close to 20-80 or 30-70. (Is there a name for this effect?)

To end with a funny note (it made me laugh out loud): If Hermione Granger Were The Main Character in Harry Potter.

Want to read more stats about the place of women in fanfiction? Check out our previous post The 100 most popular ships in 2015 on AO3: what place for women?.

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