Scene: early 70s classroom. Actors: Mr. Lindsay, my beloved seventh grade civics teacher, the first person to take me seriously; me.
Mr. Lindsay: Okay, when we’re discussing mountains, Mt. Everest is the tallest mountain in the world.
Me, raising hand: No, it isn’t.
Mr. Lindsay: Yes, it is.
Me: No, it isn’t. If you look at the height of the mountain starting from its base, rather than sea level, Mauna Kea in Hawaii is taller than Everest.
Mr. Lindsay: Bring in proof.
A few days I brought in the reference book that discussed the height of mountains. After grudgingly admitting I was right, Mr. Lindsay said “Mt. Everest is the highest point on earth,” and looked challengingly in my direction. “I never disputed that,” I said.
Scene: a few months later.
Mr. Lindsay: When the witches at Salem were burned….
Me: They weren’t burned. They were hanged.
Mr. Lindsay: Don’t even start.
I was that girl in elementary and middle school. I was the one who knew all the answers. I was the one who had read all the books and some more on the side. (I was in hot demand for our weekly seventh grade civics class version of “Jeopardy!” — the only time in my life I have been picked first for teams.) In fifth grade, I had read the entire literature arts textbook before the end of the first week of school. I argued with teachers I liked and trolled ones I didn’t.*
I was Hermione.**
When I read the Harry Potter books, I recognized Hermione immediately, because I have known women like her all my life. Strong, capable women. Women who know things. Women like me.
But Rowling’s books — and even more so, the movies made from them — don’t give Hermione the respect she deserves. She’s read all the books — nobody does that. She’s too smart. She’s presented either as a freak or as an outsider trying to fit in by substituting knowledge for popularity.
I recognize this, too. When I was in high school, I was told “don’t act so smart” or “don’t try to answer so many questions in class” or “don’t use such big words”*** or “you’ll never be popular and boys won’t like you unless you play dumb a little bit.” I could never figure out how to take that advice. Not because I didn’t desperately want to be popular, but because no matter how I tried, I couldn’t not use big words, or raise my hand, or talk about the books I was reading, most of which were more sophisticated than anybody else.◊
I have heard Hermione referred to as a Mary Sue — she always knows what to do in any situation, as though there was something inherently unbelievable about that. The only way Hermione is a Mary Sue is if you don’t think women can be that strong, that capable. I don’t know what to do in any situation, but I know women who would.
I think the world is changing, that smart, capable women will be treasured and respected, and then there is… Gamergate. And Microsoft dancing schoolgirls. And the myriad of ways in which young women are told they are less worthy than their male counterparts. As though Hermione’s knowledge were not just as important as Harry’s courage or Ron’s loyalty.
As I said, I know Hermiones. A lot of them. And I say to them — to us —
You go, girl. You go, Hermione.
*During one assignment with a detested English teacher, we were supposed to talk about where our ancestors were from, and the history of our families. For complicated reasons I couldn’t do this, and rather than explaining them, I told the woman I was descended from Jack the Ripper. She left me alone pretty much the rest of the year. If it happened today I would be marched out in handcuffs. (I was very contemptuous that she seemed not to know that Jack the Ripper had never been caught and nobody knew who he was. Yes, I was pretty obnoxious.)
**I didn’t get Hermione’s grades, mainly because I couldn’t be bothered to do homework. In fourth grade, my mother came home from a parent-teacher conference steaming because I was getting a poor grade because I didn’t do any of the mandated book reports, even though I was reading three seventh-grade books a week. The way I saw it, homework just cut into my reading time.
***This one is not gender specific. We had middle-school counselors for all three of our sons tell us we should encourage them to use less sophisticated vocabulary. We refused the request far more politely than we wanted to, or really, than was appropriate.
◊I was one of the smartest people in my high school, in spite of my grades, except for my friend Betsy, who is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. And then there’s my friend Jane from Wellesley, who is wonderful and who I am very glad that I will never have to face in a courtroom, either as a hostile witness or opposing counsel. And my friend Sarah, who can run the systems for a scientific project and still cook for a camp full of people, including a salmon with blueberry sauce that I have been told was divine — did I mention she changed the spark plugs on the ATVs when they were out on traverse? And…