Charmed, I'm sure

"Welcome!" he said. ... "Before we begin our banquet, I'd like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Thank you." He sat back down.

This is a school-banquet speech made by venerated headmaster Albus Dumbledore in the novel "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." That's the first book in three volumes stuffed full of this cleverness -- chocolate as medicine, decapitated ghosts playing head hockey -- and little wonder everyone's enchanted. If I were 11 years old again, in miserable Catholic school, studying the principal exports of Bolivia and how everything human is hellworthy, I would have swallowed "Potter" like Prozac. I prefer it to real life now, and I haven't been 11 since I was 11.

"Potter" is not only a Dove bar for the brain, it's a phenomenon. Authoress J.K. Rowling has secured simultaneously the top three spots on the New York Times best-seller list, an unprecedented feat. The books are adventurous but soulful, surreal but universal, innocent without being saccharin. Giving "Potter" to a public that has been asked to accept "That '70s Show" as entertainment is like dropping the C.A.R.E. package out of the helicopter: Real sustenance gets devoured quickly.

Under its spell

Potter draws opinions out of the woodwork. Most people are just thrilled that their kids didn't look for an "on" switch when they picked up the book. I read a story whose source is lost to memory that said Harry Potter is a good role model for gay youth because he has to keep his identity as a wizard secret from a repressed, blockheaded society of Muggles (people with no magical powers).

While they haven't sought to ban it, no-nonsense Christians don't want the book read in schools. People have suggested I write something about that fact, but why? After a while you just feel like you're picking on the class idiot. Siding against the far right is often like being pro-environment or anti-child-abuse: Is anyone who would argue with you worth arguing with?

The most curious critique of "Potter" came from Christine Shoefer in Salon. She loved the books but had difficulty with their blatant sexism.

If Salon wasn't an online magazine I would have dropped it in surprise. I thought I was attuned to that kind of thing -- not enough to adopt the spelling "womyn" but enough to see when being female has caused me, or my coochie comrades, to wind up with the short end of the stick.

Aside from it being a boy's story, the powerful adults being mostly men, and their one girl friend, Hermoine, being a royal tight-ass, I didn't see any sexism in "Potter." Because of it being a boy's story, the powerful adults being mostly men, and Hermoine being a royal tight-ass, Shoefer found it offensively sexist. One woman's heart attack is another's McNuggets.

Shoefer's case isn't bad. Hermoine does make Martha Stewart look like Homer Simpson, but she shows as much guts and loyalty as the boys, one of whom quails at a spider. Shoefer cites high-ranking teacher Minerva McGonagal as being both strict and hypersensitive, as though her balance of duty and heart were embarrassing. Finally, she laments that the pinings of Little Ginny, who's just wild about Harry, are spotlighted as pathetic. But we are all pathetic when in the soppy, weighted soup of a crush, and besides, Harry nearly falls on his broomstick when he catches the eye of a fellow female athlete with skill to match his own.

Book learning

Shoefer isn't looking for the imbalance she sees. But in the same way I can't rent "You've Got Mail" because I get an ice-cream headache at the sight of that pip-squeak Meg Ryan, Shoefer can't help seeing big, black moles where I saw beauty marks. It's all perspective. Maybe my immediate willingness to accept a world so male-charged is proof that Shoefer is right: We take it for granted that they run the world.

But they do. So maybe this story of goblins and flying cars is more realistic than some barf-bag fairy tale like "Sleepless in Seattle."

My take is that my generation has come so far since my mother's that we don't automatically look at any role, apart from giving birth, as inherently belonging to one sex. It never occurs to us that we couldn't do what Harry does because we're just girls.

It does occur to us that we could never do what Harry does because Harry's a fictional wizard, and I'm glad I can enjoy a ripping yarn without caring what God or Gloria Steinem thinks. But in the end, it's a good idea to take a reality check on the sex roles. Harry, male, is made up. Dumbledore, male, is pretend. J.K. Rowling, female, is very real, a gazillionaire, owner of a superior imagination and a way with words, and when they make movies of her work, she will be rich enough to buy all the men she can handle. Not all the men I can handle, but all the men she can handle.

If that is what it's like to be "only a woman," who wouldn't enjoy being a girl?

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