Today, we celebrate the birth of one Hermione Granger, the true hero of the Harry Potter novels. Lacking a Messiah complex, her character is a paean to the virtues of reading and research.
Without her devotion to books, the world would not have been saved. Yes, she's a little pompous in the early novels and films, and her upper-middle-class status, it is implied, is normative (whereas the Weasleys' poverty is picturesque and sentimental) but she becomes an exemplary young woman: intellectual, thoughtful and independent.
She's also a skeptic of the finest kind, turning down Divination lessons and evoking a response which warms my own shrivelled heart:
I disagree with Hermione in only one regard:
"Books! And cleverness! There are more important things--friendship and bravery"
Nonsense. Friends can unpick the locks and escape while you're asleep, whereas books stay exactly where you leave them and don't whine about needing daylight or to 'go home' or another bowl of gruel. More trouble than they're worth.
Another hero who spent a lot of time in libraries was Buffy: you younger readers may not remember her but Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a superb satire on teenage hopes and dreams, in which Buffy discovered (rather to her dismay) that she was another Chosen One (adolescent literature teems with them: perhaps they need a union), which promised to put a severe dent in her plans for dating and teen high-jinks. Conveniently, the opening to hell is located in her school, providing a neat opportunity for an even odder examination of the American education system than the many other fine sit-coms and dramas set there. Props too for Blossom, My So-Called Life and Canadian Degrassi Junior High, Lisa Simpson and for BBC2 for showing them all: without them I'd have assumed that all other girls were like my myriad sisters and become a socially maladjusted weirdo. Oh, wait…
Aided by Giles, the dryly humorous British school librarian and mentor ('What are you going to do?' 'Get my books, look stuff up'), Buffy saves the world from assorted hell-beasts in every episode, through a combination of book-smarts, sarcasm and roundhouse kicks.
Both Hermione and Buffy negotiate the demands of adolescence (sexuality, education, isolation, socialisation, soul-sucking monsters) with aplomb. They aren't obsessed with appearance or validation through boys and popularity. They don't always wear pink and they aren't simpering sidekicks to some macho male here. Being the products of a capitalist, patriarchal media industry, they aren't ideal feminists, especially the film version of Hermione, and their post-adventure trajectories are fairly conservative, but looking around the fiction landscape, they're quite impressive. They do and know things rather than aspiring to fame or attachment to some equally vacuous man. As characters, they have intrinsic worth, rather than existing to accentuate a male hero's attractive qualities. When Hermione and Ron get together, they enrich each other: she's not a prize.
There are some pretty awful role models relentlessly promoted in the media. Hermione and Buffy are good alternatives from pop culture - and not just for girls.
(And while we're at it, here's my boss explaining to students why they need to talk in seminars: 'you don't get fit by going down to the gym and watching someone else work out').