Harry Potter: Severus Snape as a representation of female heroism

At, I believe, Terminus, I gave a paper related to Snape and female heroism. I’ve threatened for years to turn it into something more formal, and no doubt should. But since people are always asking me for it, and I actually want to reference its arguments in a post I’m working on about the patterns in how people jump from one fandom to another, I’d thought I’d throw up an edited, bloggy version of it here.

I should warn you it’s profoundly dichotomous about gender, because with the possible exception of Tonks and various people expressing horror at having to polyjuice themselves into the form of another gender, the Harry Potter universe is profoundly dichotomous about gender, so I’m arguing from within its constraints.

One of the persistent criticisms of the Harry Potter series has been its portrayal of gender roles, and specifically its lack of representation when it comes to female heroism. While significant female characters exist in the form of Hermione Granger, Bellatrix Lestrange and Molly Weasley, each of these characters are largely defined by their relational roles: Hermione is Harry’s friend. Bellatrix is Voldemort’s romantically, or possibly erotically, chosen, and Molly Weasley is defined through her epitomization of motherhood.

In fact, while the Harry Potter series can only barely pass the Bechdel Test, the test is arguably a poor gauge of female strength for novels which center constantly on the status of both Harry Potter and his adversary, Lord Voldemort, within the plot.

Despite all this, adult fan involvement with the world of Harry Potter can look predominantly female (certainly HP cons are generally 90% female in attendance). This can be explained by many things, including word-of-mouth fandom culture in female-dominated spaces like Livejournal, the long-standing not not especially proven argument that “girl will read books about boys, but boys won’t read books about girls” and, of course, the possibility that the conservatism of the Harry Potter universe’s view of women may be reflective of real world norms and even desires.

Or, it might be something else entirely.

In fact, I’m now going to totally contradict myself and say that female heroism isn’t absent in the shadow of Harry’s journey, it’s just in a superficially male guise. That guise being the character of Severus Snape.

In many ways, none of what I’m about to go into regarding Snape is a particualrly unique phenomenon. There is, of course, a long history of queering the villain. However, as the series ultimately reveals, Severus Snape is no villain, which is what makes his representation of female attributes, and in fact, female heroism, so unique.

From the first time we meet Snape we are presented with a powerful figure, but not one who is overtly masculine. In fact, almost immediately, from his first speech about “foolish wand waving,” JK Rowling informs us that this character is, on some level, a rejection of masculinity, especially in light of the many moments of phallic humor wands provide us throughout the series.

This is compounded by other key details of Snape’s work from the cauldrons in which he brews to the very nature of the cultural associations we have with potions work. Potions are easily interpreted as women’s work, whether you examine them from the Muggle equivalent of cooking or the fairytale lexicon of witches stirring pots.

Even the violence in Snape’s work – from the dissection of ingredients to the presumed skill with poisoning – speaks to feminine archetypes. In traditional narratives (and Harry Potter is a decidedly traditional narrative, a man murders with a gun or a sword or a knife. A woman poisons.

Additionally, coded language about gender exists in almost every description offered of Snape throughout the series. Mad-Eye Moody is particularly vocal on the matter of Snape’s Dark Mark. He says in chapter 25 of The Goblet of Fire, “There are some spots that don’t come off, Snape. Spots that never come out.”

On the surface, this remark speaks solely to the series’s cultural centerpiece of the Death Eaters and their social structures. However, it also speaks to that thematic element of forgiveness and redemption that has so often been highlighted in the novels. That Mad-Eye Moody feels Snape is precluded from redemption, speaks to the nature of his perception of Snape’s sins in his time with the Death Eaters. However, to speak of an irremovable taint is to also invoke the spectre of Original Sin, which, in Christian mythos, of course, arose into the world through first Eve and not Adam.

And the idea of a woman being marked or tainted and ultimately of lesser social or commoditized value because of often youthful indiscretion – often sexual – is sadly ubiquitous in our culture.

While Snape’s indiscretion is arguably more one of violence than sexuality (although that issue does loom large through implication throughout the series both in terms of Snape’s own suspected sexual history, which I’ll address later, and and also through repeated instances of implied sexual violence in the series.), rape is an acknowledged crime in the Wizarding world, and one we must suspect Death Eaters of having committed.

Sirius Black and the Marauders of memory, too, offer commentary on Snape from a gendered perspective both in word and in deed. While “Snivellus” is a typical school-yard taunt – after all, in our gendered society bullies have long mocked children of both genders for non-strict compliance with expected rolls and behavior, the comment is of significance in light of both the other language used to address Snape and the fact that he does frequently deviate from the expected portrayal of masculinity in Harry’s world.

In fact, feminine references follow Snape back into his childhood. Not only does Harry note the handwriting in the Half-Blood Prince’s book looks like that of a girl, but in the memory presented of Snape’s first meeting with Lily Potter he is described as wearing something that looks like an old women’s blouse. This is not only the second reference the series gives us to Snape in women’s clothes (the other being Lupin’s encouragements to Neville to picture Snape in his grandmother’s wardrobe to defuse the boggart that has taken on the potions master’s appearance), but it references a common piece of generally British slang. To call someone a “girl’s blouse” is, according to urban dictionary, to call them “a male displaying percieved feminine characteristics through actions which cause his peers to think less of him.”

And as much as Snape is embroiled in both the first and second Wizarding wars, he is not a fighter, but a spy. He doesn’t duel at dawn (that training incident with Gilderoy Lockhart aside) or look a man in the eye and draw on the count of five. While Rowling gives us no clear portrayal of the violence Snape commits in the name of his mission, his function is clear from the moment Dumbledore asks him if he is ready, if he is prepared. He will not fight, but observe.

In war (and we must acknowledge the Harry Potter series is, in fact, that of a world at war, even if it is largely a guerilla war and not one of standing armies and open fields), women have historically not been open combatants. Even today’s American military theoretically bars women from combat positions. Yet, women have long fought in war through activities of support, resistance and covertcy. This is the role Snape takes in the struggle – that of secrecy and betrayal, characteristics historically portrayed in literature as women’s sins.

Snape has a range of other female roles throughout the series as well. His expertise at legillimency and occulmency are, as psychic arts, also stereotypically feminine skills.

Narcissa Malfoy’s request that Snape protect her son in the place where she is unable to do so, portrays Snape not as a father figure, but as a mother figure as he is to stand in her stead.

And, of course, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Snape takes on his most prominently female gendered role in his clandestine provision of the true Sword of Gryffindor to Harry through the use of his patronus. In this scene, Snape essentially plays the Lady of the Lake, which is consistent with broader Arthurian readings of the Harry Potter series.

Snape’s role as The Lady of the Lake is broader than the simple provision of a magical weapon, for not only does he lead Harry to this necessary tool, but he also reunites the young man with his most loyal companion, or, it might be said, knight – Ron Weasley.

Shades of Snape’s role as the Lady of the Lake also exist in his complex relationship with Albus Dumbledore. While Dumbledore has clearly served as a mentor, friend and confidant to Snape, Snape’s contempt for Dumbledore’s use, and, it can be argued, exploitation of him, is clear, implicitly throughout the series and explicitly in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. Additionally critical to Snape’s portrayal of the Lady of the Lake is his role in Dumbledore’s demise.

These matters of status and use between the two men mirror the problematic relationship between Merlin and The Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend. While there are many different versions of these tales –- in large part because Arthurian legend has been the subject of fanfiction-like cultural revision and expansion for centuries — one oft repeated theme in these stories is that Merlin mentored the Lady who took on her exile within the lake in response to and rejection of his unwanted romantic and sexual advances. In these stories, ultimately, it is the Lady who eventually helps to secure Merlin’s downfall.

Snape is clearly mentored by Dumbledore throughout his history, but he also rejects Dumbledore’s attempts to make him a truly different man. Just because Snape rejects the evil of the Death Eaters, does not mean he does so for noble purposes. Rather, they are selfish and so he essentially rejects Dumeblore’s own greedy advances to sway him to the side of light. Finally, it is Snape who assassinates Dumbledore. While this is planned between the two men and is clearly portrayed as a subject of grief for Snape, the fact remains that Avada Kedavra requires feelings of true hatred and it is certainly possibly that Snape found these feelings not just about Voldemort and his actions, but towards Dumbledore in the moment in which he utters the killing curse.

Snape’s actions in the Sword of Gryffindor scene also offer us another, non-Arthurian nod to his representation of female gender in the form of his patronus. Snape’s patronus is explicitly female, and this possession of a patronus of a different gender than its caster is, in fact, nearly unique in the series. While Tonks’s patronus is noted to be a dog or a wolf when she is harbouring her then unexpressed crush on Lupin (a feeling mistakenly thought to be directed at Sirius Black), its gender is not, in fact defined. Additionally, as a metamorphmagus, it’s arguable that Tonk’s gender is not really defined either despite the fact we always see her in female form. While it is certainly possible that her patronus is male to represent her feelings for Lupin, this seems unlikely or at least atypical in light James and Lily’s patronuses matching but being gender-consistent.

This leaves Snape’s Doe patronus as a startling anomaly for which we have no clue within the text on how to decode. In thinking about this, I kept trying to look at the way the daemons work in His Dark Materials – same sex demons only occur in gay individuals – what does a same sex patronus mean? Is it representative of great sexual or romantic love? Is it symptomatic of Snape’s profound covetousness of the woman he can’t have? Is it an expression of grief? Or, does it ultimately emphasize Snape’s feminine characteristics and underscore both Snape’s identification with, and the reader’s identification of Snape with, the feminine within the Harry Potter series?

Snape’s association with the feminine is also highlighted by his struggles to claim a masculine role. While being unable to claim masculinity must not be equated with being able to claim femininity, these two conditions so work together to help to establish Snape’s literary gender. For example, Snape’s insistence that he is “not a coward” is an attempt to claim masculine authority, as no idealized man, especially in a society as Western-tradition bound as the wizarding world, could if suffering under that label.

Snape’s performative masclininity is also challenged in his love for and loyalty to Lily Potter. Being so driven by romantic love is, of course, an arguably stereotypically feminine trait in the modern world. By contrast to Snape, Harry rejects his relationship with Ginny to be a warrior, whereas Snape only chooses to go to war out of his adoration of Lily Potter.

To a certain extent this mirrors the well-documented phenomena of women going to war, disguised as men, largely during the 19th century in order to follow lovers who had left them behind to fight.

Similarly, we learn that there have been no other women for Snape because of his devotion to Lily Potter, or, at least, her memory. This is, in the context of the books likely to be both an emotional and sexual fidelity. Snape can then, therefore, be speculated to be a virgin – a state often revered in women, but maligned in men.

It is, in fact, only in death that Snape achieves literary manhood, for his passions and desires are only revealed in the examination of his memories, which he emits in viscous fluid at the moment of his death. While this is no little death, that is, no orgasm, it is the culmination of all that Snape is, and stands in for the sexual and romantic life he subsumed to duty, obsession and error.

And it is in death, that even Harry acknowledges Snape’s manhood, calling him, “the bravest man [he] ever knew.”

23 thoughts on “Harry Potter: Severus Snape as a representation of female heroism”

  1. I always thought that comment about the spot was a Macbeth reference, but it makes a lot of sense to include original sin in there first.

    The motivation of so many characters, Snape included, always felt to me like love taken to extremes.

    1. Yes, I thought of Macbeth first too, when I read that line out of context here – though I suppose it can be interpreted in the sense of Original Sin in Macbeth, too.

      Found this post really interesting. Thank you for sharing!

      1. keep in mid that the Macbeth line is also a reference to original sin, and menstruation, et al. So the line in HP can be simultaneously referencing both.

  2. I took ““There are some spots that don’t come off, Snape. Spots that never come out,” as a reference to Lady MacBeth.

  3. While I see this as a clear Lady Macbeth reference too, the line back to original sin is a little more complicated. the “can a leopard change his spots” phrase comes from Jeremiah and in context means that certain people are just too evil to repent and avoid judgment, it’s part of a prophecy of God’s coming judgment on Judah. I do wonder whether this “insufficiently masculine = evil” is deliberate in HP, or just an unconscious reinforcement of traditional gender roles

  4. this was very intriguing and contained so many interesting views on snape, who is doubtlessly my favourite character in the hp universe! maybe his popularity with women is based on what you say: that he is actually a female hero disguised as man, almost like a shakespearean character.

    may women have to work harder than their male colleagues to be respected and maybe this is also something we identify with? snape has to work so much harder than others, has to sacrifice his life to earn recognition.

  5. I didn’t read Snape as female so much as feminine, but this was a very thought-provoking essay — thanks for posting it, RM! As eandh99 says, I’ve always felt JKR deliberately feminized Snape in order to make him seem creepy/shady/suspicious*, so that readers would be more surprised when he turned out to have been a Good Guy all along. I kind of hated the queer villain tactics for the way they played on the assumption most people make that that femme guys in media are creepy and sketchy and likely to be evil/unstable; but I also really enjoyed seeing that subverted in the end. And, hey, at least she didn’t make him a Foreign Other as well, right? /pathetically grateful for small favours.

    (*Not that this worked particularly well on me, but I’m sure it was effective for the general readership.)

  6. This is all completely true. I also wonder about what I perceive as stereotypically Jewish elements in Snape, and a vague sense that I have of Jewish men as feminized in Victorian British literature? (But this is all coming out of reading Daniel Deronda at a crucial point in my HP fan history, so is a bit underresearched/thought-through…)

  7. I never thought of him this way, but now that I do, it makes a lot of sense! Another interesting thing is that if you look at fanart for him, in almost all of them he has no hair on his chest.

    1. ”By contrast to Snape, Harry rejects his relationship with Ginny to be a warrior, whereas Snape only chooses to go to war out of his adoration of Lily Potter.”

      Although it makes sense in your reasoning, I do not quite agree with this. I think Harry breaks up with Ginny /out of love/, which is very selfless indeed. He does that to prevent the Death Eaters from hunting her family down, thus showing his love for her. True, Harry becomes a warrior and tries to kill Voldemort (which happens in the end), but that’s to protect his loved ones and to prevent more killings.

      Nonetheless, this is a very good article!

      1. Not to mention that Snape is always dressed in black, and is often portrayed in fanart holding a white lily. This evokes the “yin” side of the Chinese yin-yang (black side with a white dot) which represents feminine energy.

  8. Just wanted to let you know that I have enjoyed your thoughts, and recced this post today on the One Bad Man LJ comm.

  9. As much as I like the idea, I’m still not buying it. Snape doesn’t need to fit into standard Toxic Masculinity behaviors to be a man. Subtlety and sneakiness are the hallmarks of House Slytherin; that’s why poison is associated with Snape instead of gaining a feminized perspective. Snape is outcast (and sulky) enough to not care that he doesn’t fit into said stereotypes. He’s also very whiny over being “friend-zoned” by Lily and honestly there’s so little about his character that can redeem him when he’s still hung up on her and mad that she didn’t pick him, like so many other Nice Guys™.

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