Strong Female Characters: Dolores Umbridge

For those of you that don’t know, Dolores Umbridge is one of the secondary antagonists in the fifth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The book – set in Harry’s fifth year of Hogwarts – follows the Ministry of Magic’s attempts to bring Hogwarts further under its control, mainly through the efforts of Umbridge, who is forcibly instated as the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. While her role in the series is small – she only appears during the fifth book and a brief chapter in the seventh – she left a huge impression on fans of the series. The character is universally renowned for her nastiness, so much so that Stephen King himself described her as “the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter”.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Umbridge is an employee of the Ministry of Magic who’s a stickler for official policy. Thus, it’s pretty easy to argue that when it comes to her destiny as a larger whole, she might not be completely in control. It’s made very clear that she’s taking orders from the Ministry of Magic throughout most of the fifth book, although the full extent of these orders is never really made clear.

However, it’s also made pretty clear that part of the reason Umbridge has come to be in this position is that she is both power-hungry and sadistic. She has to persuade the Minister for Magic to pass the Educational Decrees that allow her to interfere at Hogwarts, we see her planning to keep things secret from the Minister, and in the seventh book we see her working for Voldemort’s ministry and lying about her family heritage in order to climb the ladder. These aren’t really the actions of someone who was ‘just following orders’, so I’ll give her the full point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

It’s well established that Umbridge has a deep and abiding love for all things saccharine. We see in the fifth book that she collects ornamental plates decorated with disgustingly cute kittens – they line the walls of her office.

This is her one redeeming feature. (image: giphy.com)
This is her one redeeming feature. (image: giphy.com)

Her goals and beliefs are pretty well-established too. We know from the very outset that her main purpose in the novels is to uphold the repressive policies of the Ministry, and it’s made pretty clear as the books progress that this is a direct result of her deep-seated prejudices against pretty much everyone who isn’t Umbridge. That’s some believable and consistent character traits, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Umbridge is a vindictive, spiteful, petty, sadistic woman who uses a cloak of girlish femininity in order to disguise her deep-rooted nastiness, and she remains this way throughout the whole series. Her skills don’t dramatically increase or decrease in order to push the plot along, and she consistently demonstrates an aptitude for dark magic in all her appearances. Once again, she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A sadistic, spiteful government official who’s determined to uphold the principles of the repressive governments she works for – regardless of who might get in her way.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Umbridge doesn’t have a love life.

And nor does anyone else, when she's around. (image: giphy.com)
And nor does anyone else, when she’s around. (image: giphy.com)

What really influences her decisions are her strongly-held beliefs in the governments she works for and her own personal prejudices. Umbridge is never really a character who’s seen in a romantic or sexual light in the Harry Potter series – and given the ‘Baroness’ trope that often surrounds female villains, this is very refreshing.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Umbridge doesn’t really develop over the course of her appearances in the Harry Potter novels. Although she seems to get nastier as the series goes on, it’s pretty clear that she was already nasty to begin with and simply chose to keep it secret – you only have to look at the cruel and unusual punishment she comes up with for Harry to prove this. The only other way her character progresses is the fear of centaurs she develops at the end of the fifth book, but as this doesn’t last, I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

For Villain Month, I’m defining weaknesses as something that holds these characters back, rather than as traditionally negative character traits. What really holds Umbridge back in the Harry Potter books is just how small-minded she is. She’s far too quick to believe she’s succeeded, often underestimates her opponents and is given to gloating.

The classic villain flaw. (image: giphy.com)
The classic villain flaw. (image: giphy.com)

This actually leads to some real set-backs. It’s this that allows Hermione to trick her into leading her into the Forbidden Forest, it’s this that allows Harry, Ron and Hermione to track down their first Horcrux – this is what helps her opponents to get the edge on her. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Umbridge is a real influence on the plot. Her quest to rigidly enforce Ministry law at Hogwarts dominates the fifth book. However, she’s not such a force in the seventh book – and, as I pointed out in question one, she does spend a lot of time following orders – sometimes I wonder if all this influence can really be ascribed to her. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In many ways, Umbridge defies a whole host of traditional gender stereotypes. She appears to be a very soft, feminine woman, with a clear preference for a traditionally girly aesthetic. However, she’s also a complete sadist with deep-rooted prejudices, seems utterly incapable of empathy and is ruthlessly ambitious – hardly traits you would expect to see in someone who looks like this:

But she's got a cup of tea, how could she be nasty? (image: photobucket.com)
But she’s got a cup of tea, how could she be nasty? (image: photobucket.com)

There’s only one incident where she falters – and that is at the end of the fifth book. For the uninitiated, at the end of the fifth book Umbridge is lured into the Forbidden Forest and carried off by centaurs. When we see her next, she’s in a hospital bed, seemingly unharmed, but reacts with terror to the sound of horses’ hooves. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t have any bearing on traditional gender stereotypes – apart from the fact that in Greek mythology (which Rowling has publicly stated as being a huge source of inspiration for the series), centaurs were known for carrying off and raping human women.

This throws the way Umbridge relates to gender stereotypes into a completely different light. The incident with the centaurs is portrayed as Umbridge’s comeuppance – it’s supposed to be seen as the direct result of all her nasty behaviour. This carries all sorts of unfortunate implications. Traditionally, rape has been used as a way of punishing women, and is often linked to enforcing gender roles when committed in this context. In light of these implications, the reader has to consider whether Umbridge is being punished for her misdeeds, or punished for being an unconventional woman.

As we don’t actually know what happened in the Forbidden Forest it’s difficult to say what this means for Umbridge in terms of gender stereotypes. JK Rowling has not given an official statement about the incident, so until she does we can only speculate. Personally, I think it’s unlikely. Given that the series is aimed at children, and that Rowling herself has advocated for women’s rights for some time, I have difficulty believing the theory that Umbridge was raped by centaurs. However, it does throw up some important questions and considerations which I don’t think can be ignored, so I’ll award half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Umbridge has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters, and these relationships mainly depend on what she wants from the other woman. On the whole she’s condescending towards her female students, unless she’s trying to get them to tell her something. If they’re members of her Inquisitorial Squad she’s very indulgent with them, clearly having favourites amongst her students. When we see her relate to adults, it’s a different story – she’s outright antagonistic to Professor McGonagall, gloats over Professor Trelawney’s sacking and lords it over her colleagues at the Ministry. Her relationships are defined by status and her own goals rather than gender, so she passes this round.

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

Dolores Umbridge is an unforgivably nasty character who displays a consistent level of skill, drives the plot forward and has some very well-established goals, hobbies and beliefs. She has weaknesses that hold her back, isn’t defined by her love life and has a range of relationships with different female characters. She might not develop much over the course of the story, and some parts of her story raise a few eyebrows when it comes to gender stereotypes, but she’s still passed my test.

Next week, I’ll be looking at Gone Girl. Amy, I’m coming for you.

 

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

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15 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Dolores Umbridge”

  1. Lol…that is certainly a different approach on female characters…ironically I decided to discuss ambiguous “villains” for this month. But there is nothing ambiguous about her.

        1. Definitely – they really shake things up! But to be honest, that’s why I like good villain characters so much – they can be so complex and so reprehensible at the same time. It makes for a really magnetic combination!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post. While she’s one of the most horrible characters in the series, we can’t deny she’s got strong character.
    Did you come up with this system to measure female character power? I think it is mostly accurate, but there are a couple of questions where you give marks for not being influenced by a love life. I don’t think that if you’re in love with someone you’re automatically not a strong female. That’s sort of a stereotype.

    1. Yeah – I came up with the system to measure how much female characters conform to stereotypes. That’s mainly why I included the love life question – because a lot of female characters are purely defined by their relationship with a male character.

        1. Well, pretty much all the Bond girls come under this umbrella, particularly in the earlier films – for the most part they’re just in the films to provide Bond with a love interest. It seems to be a trope that’s particularly common in action movies and superhero films (which, unfortunately, are two of my favourite genres) – I’d also consider applying it to characters such as Mary Jane Watson, Trinity and Arwen.

          Essentially, that question really functions as a way to determine whether the female characters have been developed to the point where their love lives aren’t their only motivation. Ideally, I think that female characters should have something else that they care about even if they’re in a love story – it makes them much more well-rounded and realistic, and is a very good way of adding depth.

          1. Wow – this is giving me a lot to think about. On one hand, I totally agree that women should have a sense of true purpose in their lives, or a goal, or beliefs, not concerning their love lives. On the other hand, women should be totally free to be in love. They can’t be denied that, or judged about it. Something just doesn’t feel right about a woman being weak because she loves…

            1. Well, this is really only a test that applies to fictional characters! Of course being in love doesn’t make people weak, but if a fictional character is only motivated by their love life, it’s often a sign that the author hasn’t invested enough in their character development. It isn’t always the case, but so far I’ve found that most female characters who are only motivated by their love lives don’t tend to be quite as well-developed and tend to be based around gender stereotypes. This definitely isn’t something that applies to real people!

              1. Oh! This test’s purpose is to see whether the author has developed the character enough and have it substance. I thought it was about the character’s strength in the book/movie ^^’ well that explains why you give points for weaknesses, because if it doesn’t have any it’s not realistic. Great thinking! I’m enjoying reading all the strong-female posts.

  3. Great post. It is not unusual in fiction for there to be characters like Umbridge. However I think it is highly unusual for those kinds of characters to be a woman, especially one that appeared very feminine by looks.

    Regarding marriage – JKR I believe said on Pottermore that Umbridge is someone who would marry a man if it means he can bring her more power, so she is someone motivated purely by power and ambition even in her non-existent love life.

    Regarding centaurs – I am aware of the interpretations of what happened when Umbridge was carried off by the centaurs and it’s likely Hermione was aware of them as well when she made that plan to lure Umbridge into the Forest. However I really don’t think the centaurs raped Umbridge. In JKR’s world, the centaurs regard human beings with contempt and they consider themselves to be far above the petty humans and their own intelligence far exceeds the humans (which is something Hermione didn’t grasp fully). I think they would think having sex with a human being would contaminate them, just like how the pure-blood death eaters would feel about having a sexual relationship with a Muggle-born or Muggle.

    1. There’s quite a bit of info about Umbridge’s life on Pottermore which I used when writing this post – if you haven’t read it I’d really recommend checking it out!

      As far as the whole centaur thing goes, I still can’t say I’m completely comfortable with it. As I said in the post, I don’t think it’s likely that she was raped (it’s a children’s series, and JKR has gone on the record as being pro-women’s rights on more than one occasion). But I do think that it is still worth talking about. JKR has admitted that she took inspiration from classical mythology for the HP series, and as she studied it at university I think it’s likely she would have known about it. Her decision to draw a veil over what actually happened in the Forbidden Forest has kind of backfired, given the reputation centaurs have in classical mythology.

  4. Yeah, I have checked Pottermore after its access was made public and when I was interested in reading some fanfictions where Umbridge was put on trial for the crimes she committed.

    I agree with you about the centaurs here. I am certain she does know what the implications were and leaving it vague generally lead people to draw the worst conclusion. I also think that like you said, it’s a children series so any implications to sex is kept to a minimum. This is probably why we only saw the students at Hogwarts doing a lot of snogging when their boyfriends/girlfriends but nothing more.

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