Back in the day, I thought Belle was hardcore. Before you make your judgments, let's take a look at some of the only other women role models I had to choose from at the time:
Behind door number one: Snow White, the beautiful princess forced into exile by her jealous evil stepmother, who decides to live with seven strange men, spends her spare time cleaning a house with stray animals, is dumb enough to eat food from a creepy stranger, and is saved only by a prince, who for some reason thinks kissing a sleeping girl is totally acceptable.
Behind door number two: Sleeping Beauty, another beautiful princess who did nothing wrong, but still suffered from the jealousy of another woman (I'm seeing a theme here), pricks her finger on an "irresistible" spinning needle (sewing is really just so irresistible to us), and falls into a deep sleep (again with the themes!). She stays like that the rest of the story while her prince fights dragons and saves the day and blah blah blah.
The list, unfortunately, could go on and on. So forgive me if I thought Belle, with her books and her bravery, was a badass. Sure, she had Stockholm syndrome, but she was the best thing going.
For a while it seemed little girls like me were doomed to idolize women who slept through all the action and rode off into the sunset with their handsome soon-to-be husbands.
Then J.K. Rowling, in her infinite wisdom, rocked my princess-and-glitter-obsessed world with her first novel Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Through it, the world fell in love with a new kind of heroine: the bushy-haired, average-looking, extremely intelligent Hermione Granger.
("Actually I'm highly logical, which allows me to look past extraneous detail. And perceive clearly that which others overlook," she corrected in Deathly Hallows.)
Coming into my own as a woman has been a rocky road. The insecurity and damage of adolescence took a while to shake off, and one thing in particular held on tight: the fear of expressing my opinion. Through no fault of those who raised me (relax, Mom) somewhere along the line I was imprinted with the idea that accommodation is a prized feminine personality trait. Never make a scene, never make anyone feel bad, or worst of all, uncomfortable. Much like the metaphor in Teri Hatcher's book Burnt Toast, (in which she discusses the memory of her mother eating the toast she burnt so that nobody else had to) somewhere early on I got the idea that women accept the way things were and don't inconvenience anyone by changing it.
From the beginning, as a writer for BlogHer notes, it's clear that's something Hermione Granger couldn't care less about.
The early books were full of her eagerly answering question after question in class, much to the annoyance of the other characters. In the later books, that unapologetic intelligence very obviously saves Harry Potter's life on more than one occasion.
A post by Sarah Seltzer for RH Reality Check put it nicely within the context of the last novel:
"...it becomes particularly obvious that Harry and Ron wouldn't be in great shape without Hermione's smarts, both intellectual and emotional. From the get-go, she anticipates everything the trio will need to do to survive, and packs it all into her magical purse--including a tent to shelter them while they're on the run."
Essentially, without Hermione, Harry wouldn't have been "the boy who lived."
The dynamic of Hermione and Harry also throws a wrench in the "men-and-women-can't-really-be-just-friends" theory. Hermione is a partner to Harry, working intelligently alongside him, platonically. There are no "friends with benefits" illusions, and there is no sexual tension. For women seeking to be appreciated for their talents and work in tandem with men, the fictional friendship is empowering. Harry met Hermione is not "Harry met Sally," and I like it.
There are undoubtedly some people who think a character from a children's fantasy series can't really be that inspiring. They should talk to Emily, my best friend from high school, who dressed up as Hermione at least 6 (from what she can recall) years in a row for Halloween.
"She is what turned my scholastic attitude from chillaxed B's to driven A's in school," Emily told me recently.
"She was also muggle-born, which makes her an even more accessible heroine. She showed ... that success is not about the family you come from, or even supposed innate intellectual ability. She succeeded because she was incredibly persistent: always asking questions, reading books and correcting Ron and Harry's homework."
Emily recently graduated from MIT and is currently doing brainy things that I don't really understand around Europe for people who do (I'm assuming) understand them. At least for her, the Hermione effect seemed to work.
Much more than just making it okay to be smart and nerdy, however, Hermione reaffirmed that it was okay to ruffle feathers, take a stand, and back it up with some hardcore knowledge. She would never have eaten Teri Hatcher's burnt toast.
I look forward to the day when I read the Harry Potter series to my daughter, and through Hermione's character, instill in her the desire to take control of her own fate and never be afraid to voice an opinion or show her intelligence. I'm sure she'll like the books. I mean, witch hats trump tiaras any day.