Today, I will attempt to parse the fascinating character that is Dolores Umbridge. Because she is fascinating, regardless of – or quite possibly, because of – her ruthlessness, racist and classist agenda, and the bad name she brings to cat lovers.
There aren’t many named female characters in the Potterverse. Sure, the books and films, beginning with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), showcase a variety of fascinating women – Hermione, Molly, Luna, Tonks, Bellatrix, Cho, McGonagall, etc. – but after a while, that list of female characters with full first and last names, backstories, agendas, and life apart from Harry comes to a stop. We just assume there is a sea of faceless, nameless ladies who drift along the periphery, making up the numbers of people in Hogwarts, in Diagon Alley, in the families of the Triwizard Tournament participants, in Ministry workers, and so on.
Umbridge, then, is one of the handful of powerful female characters who make repeat appearances throughout the series. Sure, she nicely fills in the role of villain while Voldemort waits for Wormtail to collect all the ingredients necessary to make him corporeal, and she’s a bit one-dimensional in her screeching and hatred toward children, but we have in Umbridge a fleshed-out character.
We meet Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), the fifth book and film of the series, and from the moment of her introduction she’s looking down with complete disdain at the supposed hero of the wizarding world. We quickly discover that, to her, the Ministry is No. 1. She has unfailing loyalty to the Minister and absolutely does not approve of any dissent toward members of or factions of the Ministry. She’s more of the sort who stubbornly sticks to a political opinion and loudly argues against differing opinion, regardless of the facts laid bare in front of her. Through Umbridge, Rowling seems to critique the career politician who is less concerned with the real consequences of her policies than with the business of constantly making and changing politics to affirm her own place in society.
If viewed in a certain light, Umbridge might claim a number of positive attributes. Admirably, Umbridge is a successful female professional who works in a male-dominated workspace. She defiantly sticks to a pink wardrobe, refusing to be cowed by the mass of men who wear somber dress robes to work every day. She remains incredibly logical and seemingly practical – at least from her point of view – in her decision-making. She doesn’t blink, even when confronted by Dumbledore, who has a history of assuming most people are beneath him in intellect and life experience. She has mutually beneficial professional relationships with men like Runcorn, an intimidating hulk of scowl and loom. And she knows when to use the stereotypical feminine charms that a pink-loving lady is supposedly equipped with – soft, childish voice and sugary disposition – to her advantage, as a mask to cover up her true sadistic, psychotic nature.
Which brings us to her ruthlessness. There’s no need to mince words: Umbridge is a classist, racist, species-ist piece of turd with zero tolerance or understanding of anyone less privileged than her. She finds success at the Ministry because of her iron will. However, not once does she waver from her stance, despite her own half-blood status. She doesn’t understand familial loyalty or why family members or friends would band together to support and reassure each other (this is most probably due to her absolutely messed-up childhood). She doesn’t bend to either student or public opinion. She has no qualms about snatching up Salazar Slytherin’s locket from Mundungus Fletcher, so that she may wear it as proof of deserved witch status. In fact, unlike the central Harry Potter trio, who are negatively affected by the locket’s Horcrux innards, Umbridge experiences only positive and strengthening effects from the evil artifact. She is finally able to embrace her stunted moral character (physically manifested by her extremely short wand length) during her reign as Muggle-born interrogator. Accordingly, her entire Ministry legacy before that particular government position is made up of her stringent, anti-“half breeds” restrictive legislation.
Umbridge has no mitigating circumstances or redeeming characteristics to soften her character. She has neither maternal instinct nor tragic backstory. It’s unthinkable to imagine her story rewritten along the lines of Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent or Miranda Richardson’s Queen Elspeth for she has no personal charm or charisma. Umbridge can’t even play the “successful but at every cost” card because the readers never find out whether she had to sacrifice any personal relationship to get to her current situation. From everything JKR and the films have indicated, Umbridge simply doesn’t have the natural human capability to empathize or sympathize. And honestly – that’s refreshing. In Umbridge, Harry Potter goes back to the old school tactic of telling stories, wherein the villains get to stay villainous. They are bad people who do bad things without remorse because that’s their role in the story. (In life, too, there are plenty of people doing villainous things who need to be fought rather than excused.) There’s no need to redeem them; it is the hero’s job to defeat the bad guy – we don’t need a sob story – and meanwhile, the hero can be as gray and complicated as the author or director wants.
Read this article in entirety at MuggleNet.com: http://www.mugglenet.com/2015/10/in-defense-of-umbridge/
Read Patrick Ross (patrickross.net)’s more political take on the book version of Umbridge here: http://issuu.com/swarthmorereview/docs/issue_10/46