In his review of the new Ghostbusters movie, Steve Sailer makes a very insightful point: that the original 1980s film was itself a repurposing of a traditionally female genre- the ghost story- for an audience of dudes. This gives me an excuse to put out one of my few original (but maybe wrong!) ideas, that the Harry Potter books were able to market a traditionally male genre of children’s fantasy books to a gigantic mainly female, adult audience in large part by making them a ghost story, in particular by making the true emotional center of the book and implicit narrator Lily Potter’s ghost.
This isn’t something I think J.K. Rowling was conscious of and is keeping secret; instead, I think it is a way of reading the books that both explains their weak points and buttresses why the strong moments are so very strong. The success of the books- which are in many ways pastiches of earlier genres and influences- is often left as a mystery, and insofar as critics discuss the gendered nature of their appeal it is often to point to Hermione as a Mary Sue whose perfection of ability is particularly appealing to female readers, or to wring their hands and say that women are just conditioned to view boys’ self-actualization as more important than their own. This, I think, ignores why women who never in a million years would voluntarily read Lloyd Alexander or Barbara Hambly or Ursula Le Guin’s fantasies were lining up around the block for J.K. Rowling’s, even before the movies made them an unstoppable cultural force.
The reason, I think, is that the Harry Potter books are a particularly maternal fantasy: a boy can relate to Taran’s Assistant Pig Keeper in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books, slowly moving from foolish impulsivity to manhood, but an adult woman can enter into Rowling’s books with Harry as an object of attention, pity, and love. This is how he first appears to us, as a baby delivered from danger by a mother’s titanic love, and while Harry changes in appearance and abilities over the course of the books, he doesn’t exactly grow in the Bildungsroman /1 Corinthians 13:11 sense; he is perfect, in his own way, from day one, as through a mother’s protective eyes, and only intermittently in the later books shows fleeting signs of adolescent willfulness.
More to the point, at many turning points of the story it is Lily’s past that makes the difference- her sacrifice of her life in the first book, the gift of the magical fish to Slughorn in the sixth, Snape’s secret love for her revealed in the fifth and seventh (and implicitly in all of the previous books.) Other key moments parallel or mirror Lily’s story and perspective. Moaning Myrtle’s killing by Voldemort (the key mystery of the second book) is a foil to Lily’s own death. The key image in the third book (Harry seeing himself across the lake, casting the stag Patronus, and believing it to be his father) is also a maternal one, seeing the father in the son. Lily’s ghost herself steps into view in the Mirror of Erised in the first book and during Harry’s battles with Voldemort in the fourth and seventh.
There’s obviously a danger with this kind of reading of trying to fit everything into a single “secret perspective,” like Buck Mulligan saying of Stephen Dedalus “He proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father” in the first chapter of Ulysses. There’s no doubt a lot more going on in the Harry Potter books that made them so appealing– the nods to Roald Dahl and Susan Cooper, the Latinate language of magic mixed with more Anglo-Saxon puns, the sense of school as a time of lost discovery for adult readers, the sense of a hidden, magical Britain of the storied past hiding behind the veil of grey and dumpy Muggle modernity.
Rowling has said the books came first to her as an image of Harry, while she was dozing on a long delayed train ride, during which several other characters (Ron and Nearly Headless Nick among others) came to her; Lily’s story itself may not have come to her until much later in her creative process.
But insofar as we are barraged with the perception that appealing to female audiences is solely about creating uncomplicated agents of female self-actualization, the Harry Potter books are a reminder that female perspective– often on male characters and their development- is often far more important.