Critics reviewing the latest installment in the wildly popular Harry Potter franchise have been distracted to no end by the spell of attraction that has been added into the magic mix. They can’t get over the fact that the films’ three young stars, once gawky misfits, are now good-looking young adults worthy of cover shots. And it’s true: in the sixth book and film, Harry, Hermione, Ron and sundry others are caught up in a tangled web of hormones and confusion. They have to figure out where making out (or "snogging") can fit into their schedule of conquering evil, saving the world and puzzling out the cryptic, possibly universe-altering, intentions of the adults around them.
What’s fascinating about the rather gentle sexification of the characters–and it would certainly be weird if it they remained chaste, let’s be honest–is mostly how it brings out the anxieties in their muggle (human) observers. A number of reviewers have been particularly put off by the lovely and lithe Emma Watson, who plays brainiac Hermione, complaining that her good looks make it impossible to accept her character’s nerdy persona. It’s as though we live in a society where women aren’t supposed to be sexy and sharply intelligent at the same time–oh wait, we do live in that society. Indeed, those who aren’t complaining about Watson’s sexuality are exploiting it, as the stories from her 18th birthday, when the paparazzi decided she was "fair game," demonstrate.
But both the folks crying foul and salivating over Hermione’s good looks ought to go back to the source material and feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves. JK Rowling may not be perfect in terms of writing gender roles, but she does a great job illustrating how Hermione’s intellectual assertiveness blinds the men around her to her growing attractiveness. In the fourth book, when Hermione dresses up in a gown, the boys who are her best friends literally don’t recognize her because they’ve de-sexualized her. That’s why Hermione’s blossoming, and the other characters’ eventual acceptance of her as both brilliant and womanly, has made her into a patron saint for girl geeks around the world who want to be proud of who they are without being pigeonholed as asexual.
On the other end of the spectrum from the hand-wringing, we have those who lament the lack of "real" sexuality and depth in Rowling’s depiction of romantic love. Alyssa Rosenberg wrote last week:
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First, in Rowling’s universe, everyone ends up with their first real love, and I mean everyone…There is not a single example in the entire series of a serious relationship that does not end in marriage or life-long devotion.
Second, Rowling never gives readers a single detailed description of an adult sexual relationship.
The problem with her interpretation is that Rowling is writing within a specific genre–young-reader fantasy–that always uses kissing as shorthand for sex and features characters forming deep, life-long attachments at early ages (well, except for pious C.S. Lewis who locked his one sexual female character out of heaven as punishment. But that’s another story.) Go back and think about books like A Wrinkle in Time or His Dark Materials to see those conventions at work; even Twilight uses biting as an allegory for sex, never showing its characters doing more than lie together kissing until they’re legally wed. In this kind of fantasy novel, sexual maturation is often expressed under the surface, as characters accompany each other on perilous but necessary journeys involving unbearable tension and an uncertain fate, a metaphor for both coming-of-age and falling in love.
Given that Rowling is trying to keep the very young age of some of her readers in mind while also enticing adults, I’d say she and film-maker Richard Yates in turn manage that balancing act incredibly well. They focus on the feelings produced by budding sexuality: the shock felt by teenagers who suddenly discover their romantic inclinations, and the self-consciousness of teens weighing those desires with social expectations. In this latest installment Ron is torn between his surface attraction to the very amorous Lavender–and the social status having a girlfriend conveys–and his deeper, more confusing feelings towards Hermione. Hermione is smart enough to recognize her own feelings for Ron, but also angry at herself for caring so much about a boy who seems so clueless. She resorts to flirting with an arrogant jock to make him jealous. And Harry has woken up to his affection for Ron’s sister Ginny after years of being amused by her unrequited crush on him–but now she’s moved on. And he knows that even if he did win her back, he’d alienate his best friend.
The truth is, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince contains a few basic, poignant truths about teenage psychological development: the conflict of individual desires with group rules, the heightened electricity of previously platonic friendships, the exploration of relationships that are more sexual than emotional to see what they’re like, and the sheer ridiculous awkwardness of it all. Sure, if necking couples in the enchanted halls of Hogwarts were real teenagers they might be experimenting more explicitly and risking pregnancy and disease–but on the other hand real teenagers don’t face hexes and deadly potions. Real teenagers aren’t doomed to face down the Dark Lord in a final confrontation that will leave one of them dead, either. So perhaps the real and fictional perils pretty much even out. Rowling leaves in enough joking hints about the juicy stuff to satisfy her grown-up fans and provide fodder for erotic fanfic, but she does it subtly enough not to confuse the kids, which is quite a feat.
But all that juggling on her part is in the service of something bigger. Another prevalent theme of YA novels besides budding romance is the inevitability of death, and the two themes are often quite intentionally paired by authors as a way of teaching characters and readers alike about the bittersweet nature of the human life cycle. Rowling, as many have said, is very much part of this tradition. Throughout the Harry Potter books but most pointedly in the last few, Rowling is preparing her young characters to understand both love and death. She has them learn that love can’t conquer death but it can transcend death, a piece of wisdom that will help them face their entrance into the wider world with courage. This may not involve sex education, but it’s the ultimate lesson about growing up, a lesson even jaded adult readers have been all-too-happy to absorb from Harry’s tale.