Commentary Media

A Feminist Goodbye (For Now) To “Harry Potter” and “Friday Night Lights”

Sarah Seltzer

Even more than that, the women in these stories have transcended being "good female characters" who subvert stereotyps into just being good characters, period; real ones, ones whose journeys we are, sometimes to a desperate extent, obsessed with.

It seems like an absurd challenge I’ve given myself: write a goodbye column, a joint elegy as the runs of two pop-culture masterpieces come to a close the same weekend. One is an insanely popular book and film series about a fictional wizard in England, and the other an under-appreciated television show about a football loving town in Texas, seemingly only connected by the coincidental timing of their final installments.

But for me, and the Rewire readership who has shared my intense experience in these two fictional universes over the past few years, there is a strong connection: these are stories that we, as a community with feminist values and concern for the erosion of our rights, have adored. These are stories that brought us comfort in a bleak climate, stories that have given us confidence. We have appreciated genuine female pop culture presences, spunky, smart girls and tough, loving women–and just as importantly, sensitive portrayals of male characters and their emotional lives. Even more than that, the women in these stories have transcended being “good female characters” who subvert stereotypes into just being good characters, period; real ones, ones whose journeys we are, sometimes to a desperate extent, obsessed with.

As we lament the dearth of good role models on TV, the troubling portrayals of female sexuality in the media, Reality TV’s forays into obsession with external appearance and the news-media’s penchant for victim-blaming, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what has been done right in these two series. Feel free to bid them your own proper goodbyes in the comments section.


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Hogwarts, England

So much–perhaps too much– has been written about Harry Potter in recent days as the “think pieces” about what this series’ ultimate film installment means for a generation weaned on the books, about the franchise’s literary and celluloid flaws and its triumphs, about its significance to our era and so on. Still, let’s swoop in on our brooms one last time.

In recent months, I have noticed a lot of fairly legitimate complaints about how JK Rowling’s prodigious creativity doesn’t entirely extend to upending gender roles–she has a few bad-ass ladies who fight, but mostly her female characters are brainiacs like Hermione or fussing moms like Mrs. Weasley.

However, what fascinates me is Rowling’s ability to push a subtly feminist agenda even within that traditional gender structure. Hermione’s blossoming role as more than girl with her hand in the air and nose in a book of spells–as Harry’s companion and partner in ingenuity, and in suffering, and in a desperate desire to make the world better, was obvious in the last installment of the film series, which I felt was really “her movie.

A cult of Hermione has grown up, wondering why isn’t she the star? But she is, in her way. Harry Potter is a classic hero’s quest, and having Hermione play the supporting role may not be as denigrating as you think. The supporting role is often more interesting than the hero: think Han Solo and Princess Leia compared to bland Luke, spunky Samwise Gamgee and brooding Aragorn next to beatific Frodo. This is the tradition we’re working in, and to have that role be played by a brilliant girl who labors on behalf of oppressed workers and always has her hand raised is, in my opinion, pretty darn awesome.

And beyond Hermione, Rowling’s commitment to feminist storytelling holds true as well. As the events of the final movie released today unfold, it’s going to be clear that JK Rowling also has a lot (a lot) to say about motherhood and its importance: Lily Potter, Harry’s deceased mother, and Mrs. Weasley, Ron’s mom, are in many ways the heroines of this final chapter  because of their fierce attachment to their offspring (the latter’s “Not my daughter, you bitch!” is probably the winning tagline of the entire series, isn’t it?). Lily Potter’s past kindness to double agent Severus Snape keeps him on the right side of the fight and we learn that her generous heart reformed her rogue of a sweetheart, James. Meanwhile, the protective spell she’s cast on Harry by dying for him has basically been what’s saved him throughout the book– that and Hermione’s cleverness. Oh and in the very, very end? Another mother, Narcissa Malfoy, has worries for her own which son cause her to betray Voldemort and save Harry.

Not to get too Freudian, but the final book’s crucial moment involves Harry rejecting the pursuit of the “elder wand” and immortality, as Hermione long urged him to. Rowling’s absolutely saying something about the role of “traditionally feminine” values in a male world: love, compassion, empathy, self-sacrifice, thinking things through carefully and rationally. These, in Rowling’s imagination, are values far superior to courage, anger and power. 


Dillon, Texas

Love, self-sacrifice, thinking things through carefully and rationally, empathy and compassion: these are the same qualities Tami Taylor and her football-coach extraordinaire husband Eric bring to the extremely patriarchal town of Dillon. Like Harry Potter, “Friday Night Lights” infused these traditionally “feminine values” into its narratives, focusing on the importance of subsuming one’s ego for the good of the team, the community.

Unlike Harry Potter, which had a hilarious but chaste obsession with snogging, FNL dealt with sex: directly, unashamedly, and perhaps most remarkably for a network, non-judgmentally. The idea that two teenagers in love would have sex was treated as a given, and the idea that different young people had different sexual desires, urges, needs and maturity levels was also a thread that lasted throughout the entire series.

Who can forget the way Lyla bit her lip when her evangelical boyfriend refused to have sex? That girl was, well, she was horny, and that was okay. The series made it clear: she was with the wrong guy. Or what about when Tyra grew to see herself as having more value than a sex object–as someone with a brain, and more importantly, a future?  

Of course a highlight has been the immortal Tami and Juli “sex talks,” which we’ve dissected here with such fascination, as emblematic of the ways in which the show unlike anything we’ve ever seen on TV before: painful, and honest, and only the beginning of a long conversation between mother and daughter.

And then there was Becky’s abortion–which remains, to this date, and probably will for a long time, one of the only truly strong treatments of abortion on a TV series, cable or network. And that it was a teenage girl’s choice–an even bigger TV no-no–makes the episode’s resonance all the more powerful, as does the fact that Becky has emerged this new season being able to talk about her ordeal: substantially wiser without losing her girlishness.

Yes, this season the writers gave us an irritating, perhaps cliched, storyline about Julie sleeping with her TA, but it wasn’t entirely inconsistent with her character. She’s consistently been attracted to slightly smarmy older men, and her status as the golden child in her stable household might lead her to seek out approval from an authority figure in college. 

Still, the less said on that the better. Because in the final season, the FNL writers focused less on sexuality and more on other kinds of gender inequality. We had a girl trying to become a football coach and we had Tami thinking about advancing her career for once, after being the dutiful coach’s wife for almost two decades–and Eric having to confront this reality about their marriage. How wonderful and painful the fights between them were in these last few episodes. How brave of the show’s creators to highlight the marital and gender imbalance, the support structure of women and girls that buttresses the glory-gaining football team again and again over a beautiful five years.

Shameless plug: if you want to read and think more about feminism and Friday Night Lights, my somewhat lengthy essay on Tami as a stand-in for the writers’ views on girls sexuality is part of this awesome book, a Friday Night Lights Companion, that’s about to hit shelves. 

Even though these two stories come to an end this weekend, we’re so lucky that we can come back to them again and again and relive the best moments. We can forever hold them up as an example of how good art can sustain feminist values without leaving a commitment to emotional truth behind.


News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

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Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.

News Human Rights

Feds Prep for Second Mass Deportation of Asylum Seekers in Three Months

Tina Vasquez

Those asylum seekers include Mahbubur Rahman, the leader of #FreedomGiving, the nationwide hunger strike that spanned nine detention centers last year and ended when an Alabama judge ordered one of the hunger strikers to be force fed.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for the second time in three months, will conduct a mass deportation of at least four dozen South Asian asylum seekers.

Those asylum seekers include Mahbubur Rahman, the leader of #FreedomGiving, the nationwide hunger strike that spanned nine detention centers last year and ended when an Alabama judge ordered one of the hunger strikers to be force-fed.

Rahman’s case is moving quickly. The asylum seeker had an emergency stay pending with the immigration appeals court, but on Monday morning, Fahd Ahmed, executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a New York-based organization of youth and low-wage South Asian immigrant workers, told Rewire that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer called Rahman’s attorney saying Rahman would be deported within 48 hours. As of 4 p.m. Monday, Rahman’s attorney told Ahmed that Rahman was on a plane to be deported.

As of Monday afternoon, Rahman’s emergency stay was granted while his appeal was still pending, which meant he wouldn’t be deported until the appeal decision. Ahmed told Rewire earlier Monday that an appeal decision could come at any moment, and concerns about the process, and Rahman’s case, remain.

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An online petition was created in hopes of saving Rahman from deportation.

ICE has yet to confirm that a mass deportation of South Asian asylum seekers is set to take place this week. Katherine Weathers, a visitor volunteer with the Etowah Visitation Project, an organization that enables community members to visit with men in detention at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, told Rewire that last week eight South Asian men were moved from Etowah to Louisiana, the same transfer route made in April when 85 mostly Muslim South Asian asylum seekers were deported.

One of the men in detention told Weathers that an ICE officer said to him a “mass deportation was being arranged.” The South Asian asylum seeker who contacted Weathers lived in the United States for more than 20 years before being detained. He said he would call her Monday morning if he wasn’t transferred out of Etowah for deportation. He never called.

In the weeks following the mass deportation in April, it was alleged by the deported South Asian migrants that ICE forcefully placed them in “body bags” and that officers shocked them with Tasers. DRUM has been in touch with some of the Bangladeshis who were deported. Ahmed said many returned to Bangladesh, but there were others who remain in hiding.

“There are a few of them [who were deported] who despite being in Bangladesh for three months, have not returned to their homes because their homes keep getting visited by police or intelligence,” Ahmed said.

The Bangladeshi men escaped to the United States because of their affiliations and activities with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the opposition party in Bangladesh, as Rewire reported in April. Being affiliated with this party, advocates said, has made them targets of the Bangladesh Awami League, the country’s governing party.

DHS last year adopted the position that BNP, the second largest political party in Bangladesh, is an “undesignated ‘Tier III’ terrorist organization” and that members of the BNP are ineligible for asylum or withholding of removal due to alleged engagement in terrorist activities. It is unclear how many of the estimated four dozen men who will be deported this week are from Bangladesh.

Ahmed said that mass deportations of a particular group are not unusual. When there are many migrants from the same country who are going to be deported, DHS arranges large charter flights. However, South Asian asylum seekers appear to be targeted in a different way. After two years in detention, the four dozen men set to be deported have been denied due process for their asylum requests, according to Ahmed.

“South Asians are coming here and being locked in detention for indefinite periods and the ability for anybody, but especially smaller communities, to win their asylum cases while inside detention is nearly impossible,” Ahmed told Rewire. “South Asians also continue to get the highest bond amounts, from $20,000 to $50,000. All of this prevents them from being able to properly present their asylum cases. The fact that those who have been deported back to Bangladesh are still afraid to go back to their homes proves that they were in the United States because they feared for their safety. They don’t get a chance to properly file their cases while in detention.”

Winning an asylum claim while in detention is rare. Access to legal counsel is limited inside detention centers, which are often in remote, rural areas.

As the Tahirih Justice Center reported, attorneys face “enormous hurdles in representing their clients, such as difficulty communicating regularly, prohibitions on meeting with and accompanying clients to appointments with immigration officials, restrictions on the use of office equipment in client meetings, and other difficulties would not exist if refugees were free to attend meetings in attorneys’ offices.”

“I worry about the situation they’re returning to and how they fear for their lives,” Ahmed said. “They’ve been identified by the government they were trying to escape and because of their participation in the hunger strike, they are believed to have dishonored their country. These men fear for their lives.”