How Gender is like The Hogwarts Sorting Hat

When I was a young kid, I went to kind of a posh school. Later, when I read Harry Potter, I got this flash of recognition when I saw how the kids were sorted into different “houses”. Because that’s how it was at my school. Well, none of us were magical, and nobody was evil, but there really were differences between the kids from different houses.

Drake kids always won at sports. Head girls always came from Raleigh. Drake and Raleigh competed for the most house points and the most prizes.

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Sir Richard Grenville, C16 sailor and possible contender?

And then there was my house – Grenville. To this day I have no idea who “Grenville” was, but even at age 8 I had heard of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh and knew I had been shortchanged. Grenvilles were not the important ones. Grenvilles didn’t sing the solo first verse of Once in Royal David City at the annual carol concert. Grenvilles didn’t win prizes. Grenvilles were never good at sports. Grenvilles were frequently nerds, but never in a shiningly clever way.

I never really gave this much thought until Harry Potter came along. Only when I saw that Sorting Hat did it sink in. What sorting process assigned us to our houses on the first day of school, age five? How did they know we were going to be Raleigh types, Drake types, or those inferior Grenville types?

Of course, my school had no mystical sorting hat. The somewhat unnerving conclusion, then, was that being randomly assigned as a Grenville, a Raleigh or a Drake had some influence over our school successes, possibly over our very characters. Just a name, and yet it became so much more. It became an identity. It moulded us. There was a Raleigh culture, a Drake culture, a Grenville culture, that subtly shaped who we became.

The persistence of culture

Culture is a hard thing to understand. We like to think if we’re not in control of it ourselves, that someone at least is. I want to believe, since I was one of the poorer kids in my school that we Grenvilles were assigned from the poorer families – that it was oppression at work, and that’s why we never shone.

Except I’m pretty sure Jessica in the class below me was a Grenville and she came to school in a Daimler.

So maybe it really was random, how these cultures came to be.

A senior fireman once explained to me how individual firehouse cultures emerge across a city:

“There’s one where everyone’s always falling out, they just can’t work together. Another where they’re so committed, they all volunteer, work with local youth. Another where nobody washes up and the posters on the wall are all torn and scruffy and nobody seems to care about anything.”

He had been in the job more than 20 years. Some of the firehouses he knew had none of the same people in them that had been there when he started. Every single person had changed, but the culture remained the same. Culture can be unplanned, unpremeditated, but still difficult to shake free of.

The culture of gender

When we’re born, we have genitals, and you really cannot get away from that fact. There are things we call penises, and things we call vaginas, and there are intersex genitals that take a bit more working out and alas, are often unnecessarily operated on because we feel so very strongly that we need to turn these basic little biological differences into the ultimate version of the Hogwarts Sorting Hat.

sorting hat

We will look at your genitals, and place you in a house for life. There can be only two houses, so we’ll cut you if you don’t quite fit. And upon entry into these houses, you will be inducted into a pre-loaded culture that is somewhat random but nevertheless inexorably self-perpetuating. Oh, and structurally oppressive towards one of the two houses, let’s not forget that.

This is why trans folk are resistant to the term “biological sex” because biological sex is the sorting hat, or at least what the sorting hat pretends to be – in fact, that process of naming and allocating and segregating for life is more about gender than it is about sex – it’s a social construction, of course it is. We can’t deny our genitals, but just as race and eye colour and religion don’t find their way onto legal documents (heaven forbid), so our genital configuration takes on another layer of meaning through the process of becoming a legal entity. It goes from an attribute to an identity. So our sex takes on an importance beyond mere biology, and sex becomes a term more loaded than it deserves.

The counter-culture of trans people

If culture is self-perpetuating, gender variant folks could be mother nature’s safety valve, an essential ingredient to help us adapt, innovate and change course.

Because you see, when the gender sorting hat gets placed on our head, what it says out loud is different from what’s whispered in our ear.

sorting hat 2.png

Imagine if the Sorting Hat told the room you were Slytherin, but whispered “you’re really Ravenclaw, but don’t tell anyone”. The Slytherin attributes just wouldn’t stick in the same way, you would find stuff about yourself that better matched the Ravenclaw mould – in thinking of yourself as Ravenclaw, you would become more Ravenclaw.

Growing up with an instinct that tells you you’ve been assigned to the wrong house, or indeed that this whole Sorting Hat business is entirely dubious, gives a different perspective, helps shake gender out of its habitual grooves. I do believe nature sows the seeds of transness in its infinite variation.  We have our cultures too, and create our own “houses”, but our variations are beautiful and important, helping the world understand that the two-house system is flawed and inaccurate and permeable.

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19 thoughts on “How Gender is like The Hogwarts Sorting Hat

  1. Eleanor

    Fascinating analogy Sam. It struck several chords with me: as you know I went to a similar school to you (a bit posh, run by nuns), and I was one of the poorer kids (my best friend had a heated indoor swimming pool in her back garden! we didn’t even have a paddling pool). The difference for me was that we didn’t have houses at my school – we were all just kids! We were, of course, expected to behave in a particular way (to work hard, be respectful, do our best at everything) but there was no division of characteristics based on house. There’s a whole other argument that those who conformed were encouraged and those who rebelled were punished, but at least we had equal expectations to start with and as kids we didn’t feel pigeon-holed into being a particular kind of kid according to some arbitrary house selection.
    We were pigeon-holed into being a particular kind of kid according to our perceived gender, of course. Boys wore trousers and played rough games and tore the knees out of their trousers. Girls wore pinafore dresses and were supposed to play demure games. There was uproar when I was in the juniors and girls were caught (I was one of them!) playing British Bulldog ( a very rough and unladylike game!) and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, we were playing it WITH the boys!!!

    Reply
  2. Gareth

    This is a super analogy. It’s many years since I read/watched the first Harry Potter, but if I recall correctly the Sorting Hat considers putting Harry in Slytherin but in the end puts him in Gryffindor because it’s what Harry feels instinctively is the right house for him. The Hat lets its decision be influenced by Harry’s knowledge of himself. Our own practice of classifying gender on the basis of external characteristics has some way to go before it catches up with the subtlety of the Sorting Hat…

    Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      Yes! I was also aware when I wrote this how knowing he could have been allocated to Slytherin impacted how Harry thought of himself and led him to notice and wrestle with that side of his nature, giving him quite a non-binary experience of house-belonging!

      Reply
  3. Beck

    This has made me want to watch HP again, it’s got so many layers of political and social meaning and metaphor, I’m sure I missed some. I doubt JK Rolling In It ever considered the sorting hat anything like gender assignment but this is inspired! U should send a link to her! Very clearly expressed clever thoughts. :).

    Reply
  4. Deep Thinking

    Interesting analogy; thank you for sharing!

    ‘Imagine if the Sorting Hat told the room you were Slytherin, but whispered “you’re really Ravenclaw, but don’t tell anyone”.’

    That is analogous to being officially declared to be one sex, but being told in private by said official – a doctor, I imagine – that I am really another sex.

    ‘Growing up with an instinct that tells you you’ve been assigned to the wrong house, or indeed that this whole Sorting Hat business is entirely dubious, gives a different perspective, helps shake gender out of its habitual grooves.’

    That is analogous to growing up with an instinct that tells me that I’ve been assigned the wrong sex, or indeed that this whole assigning sex business is entirely dubious.

    Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      Hmm, I’m not sure it’s so. You are casting the Sorting Hat as a doctor or expert, whereas I am casting the Sorting Hat as what it actually was – something that has insight into the actual person and access to their self and mind. So I stand by my assertion that in a world where Sorting Hats were real, gender identity is very much analogous to having your identity whispered in your ear quite clearly and distinctly. It is self-knowledge, and should not be be minimised as something more vague or nebulous than that – other people’s experience of us (even experts) is, after all, much more superficial than our own self-experience.

      Reply
      1. Deep Thinking

        Thank you for replying. Would that make ‘the Sorting Hat told the room you were Slytherin, but whispered “you’re really Ravenclaw, but don’t tell anyone”’ analogous to telling the room you’re one sex while whispering to yourself you’re another sex – and if the Sorting Hat is analogous to biological sex, that your physical/visible biological sex (e.g. genitals) being one sex while your mental/instinctual biological sex (brain sex?) is another?

      2. Sam Hope Post author

        Hi, just got this having been on holiday. I can see why this is confusing, but we’re not talking about biological sex here, we’re talking about sex assignment, and that’s actually gender. Let me clarify . . . gender is what we socially construct around what we think we know about biological sex. So, assigning someone a social and legal status according to their genital shape is a process of gendering, not sexing. “Your child has a penis” is a statement about an aspect of the child’s sex. Of course, we now know that although generally dimorphic, there is a spectrum of sexual traits connected to reproduction, hormones and chromosomes, and that intersex people exists and are often coercively gendered in early childhood to fit the binary. “Your child is a boy and will be recorded as such on this legally binding piece of paper” is not a statement of sex, but of gender.

        As for the idea of “brain sex” – this is quite controversial. We know that much of the science that seeks to differentiate the brains of men and women has been debunked, although there is clearly something happening in the brains of trans people that is likely triggered by sex hormones past the 12th week of pregnancy. But there is no certainty about the science in terms of what makes someone trans, just enough data to be sure that transness exists. As such, I wouldn’t throw around terms like “brain sex”, given the history of male scientists trying to prove there is something different (and inferior) about the female brain.

        I think the whole point of my piece is to say that the process of gendering is as dubious as any arbitrary sorting process and that our own self-identifications are every bit as authentic, instinctive, and valid, and more to the point, they substantially determine our relationship with the gender we were assigned into.

  5. Deep Thinking

    Hi, hope you enjoyed your holiday. I think I agree with your point – I just got confused by how “what we socially construct around what we think we know about biological sex” can be biologically based. Thank you for clarifying.

    Reply

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