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Giggly emotional pawns of patriarchy?

HARRY Potter is caught in the middle of a battle, and it has nothing to do with goblets of fire or philosophers' stones. This time the muggles are fighting over gender. A fierce debate is raging about whether J K Rowling's popular childrens' novels are sexist, and if it matters.

American academic Elizabeth Heilman says the books perpetrate "demeaning" stereotypes. Rowling's girls are "giggly, emotional, gossipy and anti-intellectual," while males are "wiser, braver, more powerful and more fun".

Harry's brainy best friend, clever-clogs Hermione, plays a decidedly second fiddle. She does help the hero solve mysteries. But then Hermione takes a back seat or, worse, needs rescuing, complains Dr Heilman of Purdue University, Indiana.

A similar debate has been raging on academic websites. The books have already come under fire for their ultra-traditional boarding school setting."Capitalist and patriarchal" is Dr Heilman's verdict in a paper to the recent American Educational Research Association conference.

But girl readers don't seem to see the books that way. And Pat Pinsent, senior research fellow at the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature at Roehampton, Surrey, says, "I don't come away with the image of Hermione as helpless. She has a great deal of ability to get herself out of situations and bounce back."

Hermione was as sympathetic as Harry's other sidekick, Ron, and there were many other negative portrayals of boys, she added.

"You can get too despondent about female readers imbibing female characteristics. A lot of them identify with the hero and don't stop to consider that they're a female reader," she said.

Or as Hermione says in Potter Book One: "Books and cleverness! There are more important things."

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