I’ve enjoyed the spate of articles praising Hermione Granger as a total rockstar that have come out as the Harry Potter series have come to a close, though I think Sady Doyle goes a little overboard in chastising J.K. Rowling for writing under her initials and choosing to have Harry as a main character. Harry’s respect for Hermoine, and the fact that they manage to forge an extremely durable friendship without any awkward will-they-or-won’t-they questions is a really useful argument for the idea that boys should value girls and women for multi-dimensional reasons. Not every story has to be about girls to be feminist, and in fact, some kinds of feminist arguments might be better delivered by male protagonists.
But more to the point, I think Doyle misses the point of Rowling’s series. Both the Harry Potter series and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books are about what happen when you use young people as mascots and as instruments for larger causes. The reason Harry Potter is the main character in the series isn’t that he’s awesome — to the contrary, he’s a fairly average kid, and Snape’s assessment of his overall abilities as a wizard is probably correct. The idea that he’s extraordinary — and really, that extraordinary things can happen in the cause of righteousness — inspires other people to rise to and above their potential. Harry provides a motivating impulse for the Order of the Phoenix, and for Dumbledore’s Army. The most interesting moment in the entire series is when he’s presented as dead to the people who have been fighting for him — and they keep fighting, in particular Neville Longbottom, who exists as an illustration of the arbitrariness of Harry’s prestige, and who rises to the occasion, killing the hell out of Nagini even when he’s been set on fire. Ron dashes down to the Chamber of Secrets and just pretends he knows Parseltongue, and it works: again, Harry’s not magically special, but the special things he does inspire people to try crazy and unusual things. Hermione Granger might have been the smartest witch of her age even if Harry Potter had never come to Hogwarts, but Harry and Ron encourage he to become something more than an academic know-it all with rigid behavioral rules. All the characters need each other. It’s not a matter of Rowling having chosen the wrong main character, it’s understanding how that character functions.
If we understand Harry as a mascot whose function is ultimately to surrender, it’s interesting to consider The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen in the same terms. Katniss, who is a totally badass hunter, is probably more talented by the standards of her society than Harry Potter is in his. But the elevation of her as a mascot for rebellion against the leadership of Panem actually illustrates the weaknesses of the movement that elevates her. Despite her talents, Katniss is unsociable, and basically an unstable person. The leadership of District 13 never does a particularly good job of getting her on board with their specific program: they mostly just aim her and hope things come out okay. She’s good at being a general motivator, but at the end of the day, Katniss doesn’t fall in line when the movement really needs her to, and she ends up being cut out of future conversations about reform.
In the end, both of these stories are about what happens when political movements choose pretty vulnerable figureheads. It turns out that surrounding that figurehead with a strong educational system like Hogwarts and a mentor like Albus Dumbledore is a safer bet than forcing kids to work for a living and giving them a drunken veteran of a kill-or-be-killed contest. The anti-Voldemort movement has a more limited task — it’s easier to keep someone from rising to power than to topple and entrenched government — but they also do a much better job of organizing for it over the long term than the District 13 folks, who are isolated from most of Panem, hindering long-term insurrection planning, and who end up choosing Katniss kind of on the fly. Movement-building’s hard work. And in both of these franchises, but especially with the Hunger Games books, I’m actually more interested in the people who plan the grand architecture of insurrections rather than those who are the public faces of them.