The Importance of Being Bellatrix Lestrange

Bellatrix Lestrange, as portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter, a pale woman with a mop of dark, thick curly hair lightly tinged with strands of grey, smirking devilishly in a black dress with white embroidery, pointing her wand at her own face.It is odd the way that The Guy and I have these conversations…or maybe it is a sign that we watch our Harry Potter movies too much, but one night while viewing HPatHBP for appoximately the nonillionth time I turned to him during the Unbreakable Vow scene at Spinner’s End, and began the following thought train (all quotes should be presumed to be “air quotes”):

Me: You know, all of Snape and Dumbledore’s plans would have been shot if anyone at all would have listened to Bellatrix.

The Guy: No kidding! She never trusted Snape. Look at how she taunts him!

Me: It’s because everyone dismisses her as just being “insane”, you know.

The Guy: Because she was in Azkaban, you know, and it has “driven her mad”, so she obviously doesn’t know what she is talking about.

Me: Obviously.

See, I am not in anyway advocating for Team Voldemort or something. There is a great discussion on racism that can be had about the antics of the Death Eaters (and the dynamics of having that point made from a primarily White PoV) in another post, but more interestingly to me right now in this particular post is that Bellatrix was completely right in her mistrust of Severus Snape and his position beside Lord Voldemort. Her feelings go much deeper than mere jealousy (but why shouldn’t she be jealous, since she alone stood proudly, unafraid of the consequences of supporting Voldemort when others did not?) to a practical mistrust of someone who seemed to benefit all to much from a convenient and literal get out of jail free card.

We know that Bellatrix was described as having a personality that bordered on displaying psychopathic tendencies* (from a lay perspective), in that she showed little to no conscience. We know that her cold and callousness was often played up if for no other reason than to reinforce that Bellatrix was someone who was a little unbalanced. Her pride in being a “pure blood” was over the top to a “normal” person, and we are to presume that no rational person would behave the way that she would. So, no rational person would honestly believe that anyone would dare betray the Dark Lord. She goads people with baby talk and laughs at inappropriate times which all adds to the image of the mentally unstable woman who just can’t be taken seriously, but is tolerated for whatever reasons (in Bellatrix’ case, it is more than likely her undeniable talent and power. Even Death Eaters can’t look that gift horse in the mouth, mental illness or no!).

I am not a doctor, nor anyone qualified to make medical opinions about the fictional personality of Bellatrix Lestrange, but I do know that often in real life people who have mental illness, to any degree, are in fact taken less seriously than those who do not. They are dismissed in everyday goings on, dismissed when it comes to their own medical care, told they shouldn’t have children, told they are not suitable parents if they do already, and when they leave the room you had best believe that people snicker that “poor crazy Bellatrix is raving again”… The importance of Bellatrix Lestrange is that she represents real people…real women who exist — whether intentional on the part of J.K. Rowling or no — who have valid concerns in the world, and who can not get their voices heard because their mental illness (or any disability) creates a barrier between what they say and what others are willing to hear.

So J.K. was free to write this character, whose madness and temper were often mirrored in her own cousin, Sirius Black (interesting, no?), who could go on and on at will about Severus and how he was not to be trusted, how he was really going to betray the Dark Lord. Severus was able to rest easy through her rantings, knowing full well that no one was going to believe her, that his triple agent status was going to remain unscathed, because, after all, who would ever believe a crazy person, right? Voldemort might have been better served had someone actually listened to her.

But no one did.

Interesting, that.

I mean, I guess it is a good thing, both for Harry himself, and for the sales of books five through seven or so and the corresponding movies, since the story might have stopped cold had any of that happened. Something to consider, I suppose.

Oh, how I do love discussing Harry Potter.

*These descriptions I take mostly from the Harry Potter wiki.

Photo: The Harry Potter wiki

Cross Posted at random babble…

16 Comments

  1. Mother of a child who stutters

    This actually fits well with the disability/superpower discussion earlier. “Insanity” is so often depicted as hidden wisdom in films and literature. The “crazy” person is ignored until the very end when suddenly they say what they have been saying all along and everyone figures out the truth. The “insanity” makes the characters into oracles who have been forshadowing the final outcome the whole time, but the other characters just dismissed them until it was too late. There is often an implication that this incredible wisdom is what made the person “crazy” in the first place, because it was just so hard to deal with. So you have both a depiction of a person with disability being ignored, as we all know happens IRL, too, plus the superpower trope.

  2. Not to mention that she is one of the few female Death Eaters who goes out and fights (as opposed to staying home breeding purebloods and such, which has its own parallels with fascist regimes supporting sexism and racism) and therefore I think there is some sexism in people dismissing her ideas. What would a woman know about manly combat, spies and wars? Even if she is a soldier.

  3. To be fair, Sirius isn’t taken very seriously either (no pun intended), except by Harry, and sometimes then, to his detriment.

  4. Which is not to say that this point is invalid. First off, I think there’s definitely a fair amount of sexism and ableism involved in Bellatrix’s position within the death eaters. She’s definitely more competent than either Malfoy or Snape, but taken less seriously at a lot of points.

    There’s probably some ableism involved when dealing with Sirius, too, for that matter.

  5. @Mother of a child who stutters: There is also that element of the “crazy” person foreshadowing the final outcome but not being believed in the Terminator movies. Following the events of the first Terminator movie, Sarah Connor acts on her knowledge of the Judgement Day (she knows that the human race will face an apocalyptic future because Kyle Reese, a man who traveled to the 1980s from the 2020s told her about it because it happened in his past) by training her son John to be a military leader any way she can in lieu of sending him to a mainstream school and by attempting to hinder the work that will lead to the creation of Skynet and thus to Judgement Day. As a result of her attempting to bomb the computer factory that ends up creating Skynet and her telling of what she knows from having gone through the events of the first movie, she is committed to a mental hospital and faces all sorts of abuses as well as being forcibly separated from her son. Because of her reactions to the abuse she receives while she is institutionalized, that is used by the people running the institution as further proof that she is “crazy.” Of course, there is also that thing where the audience, having presumably seen the first movie “know” that she is not mentally ill and that she is telling the truth. It is because of this that the abuse Sarah Connor receives is supposed to be unjust.

  6. Let’s not forget all the other “crazy” characters in the Harry Potter franchise who were ridiculed and never taken seriously:

    Professor Trewalny, the divinations professor who’s CLEARLY loopy in the head and of no worth whatsoever (stated quite explicitly) but who’s foreshadowings ultimately prove critical in the fight against the Dark Lord.

    Moaning Myrtle: the “crazy” ghost of a dead girl who lives (is that the right word) with what might be called depression and/or borderline disorder who’s a laughing stock and comedic relief for most of the franchise except when she’s down right awesome.

    Professor Quirrel: The spy carrying Voldemort’s soul in the first book, nobody takes seriously as the real threat (he’s just crazy) until they, gosh, bump into him at the end!

    there are a couple others, too, I’m sure!

  7. This is so true. Women’s voices, particularly the voices of those considered ‘not sane’ (whatever sane means) are often dismissed in fiction. I always think about Cassandra from the Iliad, whose fate it was to speak prophesy and not be believed. She is almost an archetypal figure for this tradition.

    Lucy, from the Chronicles of Narnia, was almost always disbelieved when she spoke the truth about Narnia (in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) or Aslan (in Prince Caspian). There was, of course, an element of ageism there as well, but remember that Peter and Susan thought that she was ‘going mad’ in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

    I personally know that when I spoke the truth how I saw it during the worst stages of my mental illness, my concerns were dismissed and I was silenced. Even when I was the one getting the treatments, my family did not believe me when I told them some of the seriously terrible stuff that was happening in treatment. They dismissed what I had to say. Only in recent years have I been able to get them to understand that my school and one of my treatment centers was emotionally abusive. The assumption seemed to be that I, the patient, couldn’t be trusted to see the truth about my situation. I had to be lying. Only, I wasn’t and I didn’t start to get better until I had a therapist who believed me and made my family listen.

  8. Agreed with Mother of a Child Who Stutters about the crazy oracle trope. There’s a line I vaguely remember from “The Trojan Women,” by Euripedes, that I love. The play features Cassandra, probably one of the original crazy oracles. She’s channeling Apollo or something, she’s talking in nonsense, she’s predicting the future, if only people would listen, etc.

    But at one point she says something like, “Let me stand outside this god-drunken ecstasy, and speak as if my words were my own.” Seriously. In media it’s like there are two options, crazy people are either speaking for the devil or for god. Why is it so hard to believe that we are speaking for ourselves?

  9. I want to come back to this later, because there is a lot going on here, but before I head out the door:

    @mightydoll: I think part of the reason Sirius seems as if he isn’t taken seriously (really, there is no way to say that w/o making puns) is due to his having to be confined to the house — the whole fugitive thing. The other members of the Order were far more willing to listen to him when he spoke than I ever felt anyone was willing to listen to Bellatrix. It is only my opinion and interpretation, but if you take away the element that kept Sirius hidden (and I felt that his recklessness was seen as a bit of his “unhingedness” if you will) then I think he would have been treated much differently. Even considering Snape, because their mistrust went both ways, but for many different reasons (stemming back to childhood grudges).

    I’ll be back later!

  10. Cassandra Truth indeed. And now I wonder if Bellatrix openly questioning Snape’s loyalties actually enabled him to stay undercover for so long. I wonder if he would have been seriously doubted if she didn’t say anything at all, if the accusation wasn’t coming from someone ‘out of her mind’.

  11. Just picking (because I’m a dork): I wouldn’t necessarily categorize Moaning Myrtle and Quirrel as having mental illness. Moaning Myrtle has a lot of trouble socially (which can be read as various things) and Quirrel stutters and is very shy and nervous (which can be read as various things). Not arguing with the larger point though, they can clearly be read as some of disabled or on the borderline of being disabled.

    I always loved Neville–that things were massively hard for him and everyone just laughed at him, but he consistently kept trying and working hard. He was my hero when I was younger.

  12. The “if only they had listened and not insisted it was just crazy talk” works the other way around as well. I mean, pretty much everything that goes wrong in the fifth book would not have happened if Fudge had not ingnored the truth about Voldemort being back- something that incredibly easy for him to do both because Harry was young and because Rita Skeeter had been smearing him, writing articles about the curse scar making him crazy.

    (There is also, I think, a weird disability/ superpower thing going on with the scar, which causes immense pain and mental distress but at the same time allowes Harry to gain information. I am not yet quite sure how to fit the consequences of the wrong information into the trope, but it is interesting.)

  13. @ lauren: Yes. That is a good point. I think that also we have to consider that Harry was “just an attention starved orphaned teenager” and that Dumbledore was “a raving old man”, which played into it, whereas Bellatrix was dismissible merely by being mentally ill and female alone.

    Please note, that I am trying to make the point here that Harry and Dumbledore needed the trifecta of (perceived) mental illness and age along with their inconvenient notoriety in order for either of them to be disregarded by those who found themselves not their friends…an important distinction, because Bellatrix was dismissed with only two strikes against her — routinely — by those closest to her, including her own family.

  14. Luna “Loony” Lovegood is another female character whose eccentricities and perceived mental illness are frequently used against her; yet she retains a pivotal role in the final books precisely because she is out of the “norm”…

    And people have made very excellent points about the discourses around Bellatrix… Glad to see I’m not the only one who noticed! 😀

  15. Oh, I absolutely agree that the situation with Harry is not the same as the way Bellatrix is treated. I just find it interesting that the “crazy person telling the real truth” happens several times in the book. And, sadly, the only time we (the readers) are expected to disagree with the claim that the character is “crazy” is when it’s about Harry.

    When the character in question is female, we are supposed to find them crazy/ weird, even if they are beloved characters like Luna is.

    With Harry, it is a politically motivated smear campaign. I don’t remember anyone in the books making the jump from “it was wrong to spread rumors about Harry being crazy and about him not being trustworthy because of that” to “hey, maybe it is just wrong to consider anybody crazy, and to not believe them just because they are different.”

  16. Luna is a good figure to study as well. I remember one line in the book where Harry thought that an off-hand remark that Luna made was really a good observation (I can’t remember the context- I think it was a comment about Ron). But since she was ‘crazy’ it wasn’t really seen as important to pay that much attention to. Also, look at Luna’s dad. *****SPOILER FOR LAST BOOK BELOW*******

    The main trio call his discussion of the Hallows nonsense, they are real and part of way to defeat Voldermort.

    I have to admit, I have a great deal of fondness for Luna because I have been told by people that I remind them of her. I somehow simultaneously remind other people of Hermione. I take both as a compliment, though I’m not always sure if the Luna comparison is meant in a kind way.