Posted by: mzbitca | December 21, 2008

The Divination Professor

“The Rites of Beauty offer to sell women back an imitation of the light that is ours already, the central grace that we are forbidden to say that we see.”
            Naomi Wolf “The Beauty Myth”

The women of Harry Potter have long been talked about as strong characters and good role models for the younger girls reading the books.  The biggest part that appeals to me is that they all seem to own their power and intelligence.  They are aware of their strengths and are confidant in their decisions and actions.  Even Molly Weasley, was always self-assured and intimidating, even when she seemed relegated to the kitchen.  If you had asked me to pick out the weakest female character it would have undoubtedly been Professor Trelawney.

Sybil Trelawney is the Divination teacher and is supposed to use her ability as a ”seer” to help the students learn to predict the future.  However, it is established early on in the third book that she is nothing more than a fake or a fraud.  It is made clear that both Hermione and Prof. McGonagall (both intelligent, well respected women) find her nothing more than a fake and over-emotional.  Combine that with her obvious flair for the dramatic and her tendency to put her focus on Harry and his impending death and she is not very likeable and relatively flakey.  Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil flock to her, and, seeing as how they are often portrayed, it does nothing for her reputation in the reader’s eyes.  Then, near the end of the third book, Trelawney has a real vision that warns of the danger of the Dark Lord and the events that will transpire later that day.  Harry believes her but she has no recollection of the vision and dismisses it as impossible

It is not until the fifth book that we realize that not only does Prof. Trelawney have real power; she is in fact the catalyst for the entire story behind the Potter Series.  Her prophecy, overheard by Snape, causes the chain of events for Harry to become the person he is and for Voldemort to finally reach his downfall.  The main difference between Trelawney and the other women is not their ability or power it is that SHE DOESN’T KNOW WHAT POWER SHE HAS.  Sybil has the true gift of the seer but is unaware of this.  Instead of owning what power is hers, she attempts to recreate a power and feels that it is necessary to put on the show that she does for her co-workers and in her Divination class.  Her lack of confidence is exposed in the fifth book when she goes up against Dolores Umbridge. 

When faced with her facade disintegrating around her Trelawney falls apart and panics.  When she is fired she has a breakdown and develops a drinking problem that continues throughout the rest of the series.  She is replaced as a teacher and her two favorite students soon prefer him over her and she is consistently hit over the head with how useless she is, and how so many people can see right through her. 

Prof. Trelawney is a tragic figure because she is denied what so many other females in the series take for granted: the ability to know and own their power and role in the story.  Prof. Trelawney is “protected” from the information about her prophecy but although this may keep her safe from Voldemort it does nothing to keep her safe from society and what is expected of her as a witch.  Her persona is a fake and she is aware of it, she presents a certain way, but when confronted by a woman who owns and knows how to wield her power she crumbles to pieces.  She could easily throw the smack down and be like “Hey, it’s my info that helped Lord V. get slapped down by a one year old, so step the fuck off”  but instead she drinks to take away the pain, ends up wandering the hallways whispering to herself and being bitter about her lack of student respect.

Prof. Trelawney is one of the most important characters in the series in terms of plot development but she has no agency in her role.  She belittles the first prophecy we hear from her.  Her lack of self-esteem and desire to build what she views as a powerful image also prevents her from recognizing her skills when they are brought to her attention.  Her most important prophecy is never heard directly from her lips and is instead related to Harry through Dumbledore and to Lord Voldemort through Snape. Her words are never truly hers and the damage this does to her psyche is immense.





  1. I thought you were going to say that Narcissa Malfoy is the weakest female HP character (I didn’t read the title of the post). Not because I think so, but because it seems like a lot of HP fans think so. I agree that Trelawney is the weakest. I think she’s a good example of how not to be.

  2. I would not say that Narcissa is weak at all. She lied and manipulated Lord Voldemort in order to service her needs and save her son. That is some brave shit right there. Something her sister never would have dared to do.

    I think of Trelawney less as an example of how not to be and more as an example of how, when we don’t let women own their own power and agency (whether it be their sexuality or intelligence or strength or body) we are intrinsically harming them by forcing them to create a persona based not on their truth but on what they think they need to be.

    I would link it to eating disorders, in the wizarding world her grandmother is famous and she’s surrounded by other witches who are strong, intelligent and capable. She cannot see those qualities in herself so she attempts to create an image that is damaging. Much like women who see the impossible standards of beauty and, not being taught or not understanding how to see their own beauty and power, resort to meeting these ideals. That’s why I quoted the Beauty Myth at the beginning of the post.

  3. I think Trelawney is such a tragic character in the series. She is certainly the weakest woman in the series.

    Dumbledore (and others) made clear throughout the series that a real seer is very rare. I also think it’s implied, if not flat-out stated, that the few instances of ability Trelawney shows are more flukes than anything else. That is why she can’t remember them, because she is merely a vehicle to get the vision to somebody else. From the way they speak about her ancestor, the real seer, it seems that a seer knows they are a real seer.

    I do wonder sometimes — apparently I need a life b/c I randomly think about HP on a regular basis — what kind of visions does Trelawney have when we don’t see her interact with somebody else?

    I think another angle for this might be perhaps that Trelawney’s character is too weak to recognize that she’s not a true seer. She is too busy trying to live up to the expectation of what she’s supposed to be that she can’t accept that she might have talents suited better for another field.

  4. Spot on.

    I think of Trelawney less as an example of how not to be and more as an example of how, when we don’t let women own their own power and agency (whether it be their sexuality or intelligence or strength or body) we are intrinsically harming them by forcing them to create a persona based not on their truth but on what they think they need to be.

    Instead of teaching her how to use what talents she has (which we never learn what they are, she could possibly teach children how to interpret divination signs or learn to detect seer abilities in themselves) she is guarded and protected b/c it serves to protect the purposes of those protecting her. Had she not been useful would she have been lavished w/ her own tower and allowed to teach the most powerful wizards of the future?

    Her own prophecy, a secret to her, a botched message to others, was a key that could have turned the course of the whole story. Like FSB, I think I need a life, b/c I have often given a lot of thought to how events could have transpired if…

    If that prophecy hadn’t only been partially overheard and properly relayed, and Voldemort had paid attention and marked Neville as his nemesis instead…

    If in that case Harry hadn’t been The Boy Who Lived and been famous, would he have been half the wizard he was? He seems to get a lot of chances that other wizards would not b/c of who he is…sometimes deserved b/c of the harsh hand dealt him, sometimes not.

    I could go on…but I think my movers just showed up!

  5. I just finished reading all of HP for the first time. What stuck me about ALL the female characters — they all embodied stereotypes. Maybe they had more than one in them, but each female character was stereotypical. Mrs. Weasley was a good wife/mother who cooked a lot and only ever fought to save her kids; Tonks was a kinda punky subculture; the Black sisters and Lestrange were the cold, evil witches; Lavender & Co. were as mentioned above; Hermione was a brainiac but also filled the you-don’t-know-you-actually-love-your-friend role with Ron; McGonagall does the grown up tomboy/tough teacher thing; the librarian at Hogwarts is stereotyped librarian through and through.

  6. I think Molly Weasley gets a lot of unfair criticism for being a SAHM. I get frustrated in the feminist sphere w/ criticism of SAHMs and the assumption that theirs is somehow less of a valid choice.

    Yes, Molly Weasley is a SAHM, yes, we only see her whip out the bad ass side of her when it comes to protecting Ginny from being hit w/ an unforgivable curse. IIRC, Molly was an original member of the OotP, and doesn’t really cook on her own w/o magical help. In fact, all of her domestic chores are done via magical means.

    Also, what about the stereotypes of the men, if we are going to discuss them? If Rowling wrote an example of all of these female stereotypes, there is an equal example of male stereotypes as well. The man w/ the grudge. The goofy husband who needs his wife to take care of him. The rebellious cool uncle w/ the suspect past. The old man who knows what is best for you for your own good. It’s a good thought to get me thinking, rowmyboat, really it is. Interesting.
    Molly Weasley is the embodiment of all things that Harry never had growing up, a caring and nurturing person to watch out for him. Her character is not to be w/o critique, for sure (I agree that perhaps Rowling could have written in a couple of out of home working or single mothers, being one herself, but I digress), but I find in the feminist world that we give a lot of harsh criticism to someone who is “just a mom” as being the paragon of stereotypical antifeminism. It just isn’t so. Molly Weasley also didn’t treat her daughter any differently than she did her sons, except in regards to age. She never asked Ginny to sacrifice more than Ron or the Twins or Percy or anyone. She never demanded unquestioning silence from her. From the brief view we have of the Weasley homelife inside The Burrow, we see a woman who embraced a choice to be a SAHM, but decided to raise her children to see and find their own paths. SAHM doesn’t necessarily = stereotype.

    I am not sure I am following the other stereotype examples, except the one about Hermione, which can also be taken down in a good critique. There is plenty of depth to Hermione that can be discussed aside from her proximity to books and her relationship w/ Ron. I do see the point, and find it worth discussing.

  7. Hermione was much more than a brainiac, she was loyal and brave, strong, wise, had a social conscious and wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believes in. Also, as much as their was a relationship with her and Ron that was not a major part of her character. They had a growing relationship that matured over time. I think like Ouyang Dan said, we could find stereotypes if we looked at every character but I think the difference between rowling’s characters are that they are much more than stereotypes. Even Lavendar and Parvati join the DA and return to fight in the final battle.

  8. Yes.

    The characters in this universe have depth, they have a past and are going somewhere. There are layers and stories and glimpses of them that we don’t quite see clearly, some which are important to the story, some are not. We watch the children grow (Ginny from a young shy girl to a powerful witch w/ incredible talent, Draco from a young bully to a young man who must struggle w/decisions of grown ups) and can step inside their lives. We get the idea that there are people in there, even sometimes people we don’t always like (Snape), and that is important. You aren’t always supposed to always like everyone (sometimes even I get annoyed when Hermione is insufferably a goody two shoes, but it is who she is), b/c that would be boring. Hermione, aside from being every bit as brilliant and smart as the girl who plays her on the big screen is an itty bitty growing feminist spreading her wings. Yes, she grows into a relationship w/ Ron, but she develops who she is first. They grow together almost naturally as a part of who they are, and not as a focal point of the story telling.

    I don’t see how McGonagall is a tomboy or anything else (I always saw her as kind of the epitome of British manners), but she is one of my favorite teachers, but it always bothered me that she didn’t seem to have any family apart from her close friendship w/ Dumbledore. I often (again, b/c I have no real life I guess) wondered why she couldn’t have been written a sister or a girlfriend or child…anything to show her successful in career and family. Why was there no example of a woman who had both, especially from a woman who was a successful single mother herself?

    It’s very interesting. Perhaps after this Twilight fiasco (now that I am in I have to trudge through) I can get into a critique of people in HP. Maybe.

  9. Yiikes! Look at me yammering away and taking up all the comment space!


    • I dont mind at all. I finished the first twilight so there will probably be one more post. I need to see if the local library has the second because I will not give that woman my money. I was thinking about writing a post about McGonogall. I did notice that none of the teachers have what is considered a family outside of their teaching. I think Tonks is the one one can think of that kept her job while married and with child

  10. I thought of Tonks…and then look how that ended…*grumbles* Maybe I should tackle single parenting in HP books sometime…

    I want to keep doing the twilight posting…but I have to return my borrowed books…if we keep going I may have to *groan* buy them. damnitall…

  11. YES. Spot on.

    I normally don’t like portrayals of weak willed, flaky female characters who don’t have any agency and nobody respects. That’s because they are normally THE female character, or one of a few badly-written female characters with no depth.

    Here, in a cast of diverse women (not as perfect a diverse cast as I could possibly conceive, but that’s not to say it’s not very good), where many show strength (emotional, intellectual, physical, magical prowess, resilience etc) in different ways, she occupies a spot that deserves to exist, because female characters of course don’t need to be perfect (as anyone points out any time a feminist criticises bad character design). She is a complicated character, whose life is controlled by the fact that she is not given agency, and an example that not everyone manages to find their inner strength or make friends.

    As for McGonagall, I think the real epitome of British manners is more like the Dursleys. Obsessed with propriety, always looking at the neighbours and all that. though McGonagall would be an example of how to do it right, how following ‘manners’ doesn’t necessarily make someone heartless. But I guess all the characters are, in some way demonstrating them, because they all demonstrate what it is to be British by being it, if that makes any sense.

    But thanks for this reminder why, for all its faults, the Harry Potter series is worth reading, and worth reading to our kids. Just as problematic messages affect us in subtle ways, so I hope the themes in these books may shape a generation of men and women.

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