“The cleverest witch of her age…”
It’s a moniker lovingly bestowed upon Hermione Granger from early on in the massively successful Harry Potter series, and she has proven it to be true every step of the way. Her story is a true classic: triumph in the face of adversity. Not only is she the only female in her friend group, but she’s also the wizarding world equivalent of a racial minority with her Muggle-born heritage. She’s the underdog that rises admirably to every challenge thrown at her, proving that the drive to succeed far outweighs the circumstances someone is born into.
As of June 2011, the Harry Potter novels have sold over 450 million copies in Britain and the United States alone. It’s been, arguably, the book series that has most strongly defined the Millennial Generation. Hermione is the most prominent female character in the series. Whether intended or not, she’s an influential character in the lives of young girls. While she’s shown that women shouldn’t hide their intelligence or determination, it would’ve been even more powerful had she shown that it’s okay to screw up sometimes too.
Hermione is intelligent, loyal, determined, and persistent—traits that allow her to see continued success throughout the series. There’s no denying that she’s a positive role model for young women, demonstrating that there’s more value in one’s strength of character than one’s appearance. While she has many admirable traits, there’s one thing missing from her story arc: failure.
Failure is inevitable in life. You miss a deadline for an important college application. You get mixed up with the wrong group of friends. You damage a relationship with a prominent client at work. Slipups happens.
Harry and Ron both screw up on a massive scale. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry’s desire to help in the fight against Voldemort causes him to become obsessed with Draco Malfoy, culminating in a wizard that leaves Draco slashed and bloodied on the bathroom floor. Ron’s defining mistake, on the other hand, came in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. After weeks of fruitless Horcrux hunting, aided by the presence of the locket, Ron gives into his insecurities and abandons Harry and Hermione in a time of need.
Both characters deeply regret these decisions. Harry chooses to finally rid himself of the Prince’s potions book and accepts his punishment from Snape without any complaints. Ron eventually makes his way back to his friends after realizing he let his emotions get the best of him. Their failures had ramifications that affected others and reshaped the story’s plotline.
Hermione, on the other hand, never disappoints anyone to this degree. She has minor missteps, sure. Her visions of launching S.P.E.W. fall flat, she accidentally used a cat hair in her Polyjuice Potion, and neither she nor Ron were particularly upfront about their feelings toward one another, resulting in plenty of teenage angst.
These, however, were simple miscues that didn’t really affect anyone outside of Hermione herself. She doesn’t betray her friends. She doesn’t let her ego cloud her judgment. She doesn’t really fail at all—and that’s a shame.
J.K. Rowling is no stranger to the importance of making false steps in life. Her June 2008 Harvard commencement speech, in fact, focused on that very topic. “Failure,” she said, “gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way.”
So with these lessons in mind, why was it that Rowling chose to make Hermione so untouchable? The pessimistic, surface-level answer would be that because Hermione is based, in part, on Rowling’s childhood self, she felt compelled to wipe away any scuff marks, choosing to remember herself in a narcissistic state of near perfection.
I don’t, however, think that’s the case here. I think Rowling’s goal, especially as the series catapulted into mainstream popularity, was to simply provide young girls with a hard-working, intelligent female role model. Hermione is the literary representation of a feminist Pavlovian experiment. Speaking up in class usually earns house points. She studies hard and is rewarded with good grades. The audience is being conditioned, in a way, to associate Hermione’s positive attributes with success. I believe Rowling feared that deviating from that pattern and introducing a negative outcome would leave a bad taste in the readers’ mouths, perhaps even overshadowing all that came before.
The fear of screwing up can be crippling, especially for women. A July 2013 article in Entrepreneur revealed that women around the world were more afraid of failure, on average, than their male counterparts, which the researchers involved with the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2012 Women’s Report believe is connected to the lack of women in leadership roles. Fear of one’s shortcomings, in other words, has prevented women from taking risks and attaining their full potential.
According to a 2010 grading analysis featured in The Washington Post, one of the reasons why women are less likely to pursue STEM fields of study is because they’re scared of mediocrity. Girls who get Bs in math are less likely to pursue a math career than boys who get Bs in math. Researchers claim this is due to a perception that women will need to work twice as hard in order to succeed in a male-dominated field and are, therefore, more likely to abandon those pursuits, stunting the potential diversification of the work force.
What these young women need are role models to show them that there’s value in resilience. The path to success and happiness isn’t perfect, but overcoming setbacks is vital to sparking innovation.
Allowing Hermione to make a false step—and recover from that letdown—would show young girls that even the perfectionists make mistakes. Everyone screws up—not just small, personal blunders but massive failures that affect the people around them. Her ability to recover from a setback would’ve demonstrated a new facet of her Gryffindor courage: the fact that merely trying is a success in and of itself.