Society’s Mores and Harry Potter: Lily, Snape, and Sexism


Katie Majka examines the sexist undertones present in Lily and Snape’s relationship in the Harry Potter series.

Since the big reveal at series’ end that Snape was on the good side of his double-crossing-snake-in-the-grass act, there has been an influx of fans who think he deserves more than what he was given—namely, to have all of his romantic fantasies realized in the winning of Lily Evans. But in their eagerness to see Snape get the girl, a question that people neglect to ask is, is that what Lily deserves?

In my travels across the world wide web, I’ve found that Lily is more often than not condemned amongst Snape loyalists for dooming him to a life of pining, unrequited love. I myself have been called an “elitist [I’m-too-polite-to-record-the-expletive-that-followed]” for claiming that James Potter proves himself to be vastly superior to Snape. Truly, the Jily vs. Snily ship war is a minefield, and—as with any minefield—I don’t recommend walking on it.

The relationship in and of itself does indeed abound with a power imbalance that isn’t constrained to blood purity alone.

However, the more thought I gave it, the more I came to realize how inherently sexist the Lily/Snape relationship is. I’m certainly not accusing anyone of deliberate sexism, but the relationship in and of itself does indeed abound with a power imbalance that isn’t constrained to blood purity alone.

To begin, we have to look at the claims that Lily is some cold-hearted shrew who probably isn’t worthy of Snape’s undying and all-encompassing love, anyway. Let us ask, what if the tables had been turned—in the world of genderbent Harry Potter, how would we react to a female Snape’s relationship with and mistreatment of a male Lily? Perhaps the switch would yield the same results, but more likely they would take a different tack entirely. In cases of unrequited love, we’re quick to swoon over the romance of a man’s longing, but condemn the women as disillusioned, pathetic stalkers.

And yet, despite the fact that Snape literally hides in the bushes to watch Lily when they were children, his “Always” is regarded as a declaration of the most romantic, true love. Meanwhile, more disturbing displays of Snape’s behavior are swept under the rug. Rowling writes in “The Prince’s Tale” that Snape looks at Lily with “undisguised greed,” “he watched her as greedily as he had watched her in the playground,” and—perhaps the most telling—“His black eyes, eager in the greenish gloom, moved over the pale face, the dark red hair.”   

Rowling’s writing has always been exceptionally deliberate, and what she reveals here is virtually all we need in order to dissect Snape’s desire for Lily: It’s greedy to the point of selfishness, obsessive, and a little uncomfortably sexualized for an eleven-year-old. This later evolves into Snape’s obliviousness when it comes to Lily’s principles and her very basic personhood, which is outlined in a mere two passages, once again taken from “The Prince’s Tale”:

"“I won’t let you…. I just don’t want to see you made a fool of—he fancies you, James Potter fancies you!” The words seemed wrenched from him against his will. Harry doubted that Snape had even heard her strictures on Mulciber and Avery. The moment she had insulted James Potter, his whole body had relaxed, and as they walked away there was a new spring in Snape’s step."

Here we see that Snape turns Lily’s concerns about his burgeoning affections for the Dark Arts into a shallow and ill-conceived tantrum over her dating pool. While the matter at hand is certainly more pressing, Snape’s sole concern is whether or not Lily would ever accompany James Potter to Hogsmeade, or perhaps wear his Quidditch jersey. Snape cares less about Lily’s worries, and entirely about her romantic availability to him. It’s such an overwhelmingly unpleasant concern that the fact of James’ interest in Lily is “wrenched from [Snape] against his will,” and yet he later has no issue spitting out a classist slur against Lily.  

When we revisit that particular scene in “The Prince’s Tale,” it is described from Harry’s vantage point as, “Distantly he heard Snape shout at her in his humiliation and his fury, the unforgivable word: ‘Mudblood.’”

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I’ve no doubt that Snape was angry and embarrassed. I’ve even less doubt—that would be negative doubt—that Lily wasn’t the instigator of either, and yet she pays for his ire as assuredly as James when hit with Snape’s Sectumsempra. I’m equally as sure that Snape was forever sorry for what he said and did, and yet it wasn’t enough to stop him from pursuing a life path that, by this point, had led to the end of his friendship with Lily. Rowling said of Snape, “Given his time over again, he would not have become a Death Eater,” a fact which is obvious in his regret over Lily’s death, but, alas, hindsight is 20/20.

Of course, Snape really needn’t have waited so long to realize the error of his ways. Rowling went on to say that “He never really understood Lily’s aversion; he was so blinded by his attraction to the dark side he thought she would find him impressive if he became a real Death Eater.”

It’s a testament to Snape’s love for the Dark Arts that he would be so obtuse as to think that Lily, a Muggle-born, would be swayed by his allegiance to Voldemort. Had Snape offered her the courtesy of listening to her objections to his relationship with the likes of Avery and Mulciber, he would have realized that he and Lily don’t see eye-to-eye on Muggle abuse and genocide. Instead, he is too preoccupied with Lily’s feelings for his potential competition for her affections. Instead of listening to what Lily had to say, treating her as a friend and a person, Snape reacts to her as an object to be bickered over, a catalyst in his rivalry with James Potter.

Although, yes, it is nearly impossible to discuss Lily/Snape without at some point bringing Lily/James into the conversation—a practice that is admittedly sexist in itself, as we can’t seem to talk about Lily without weighing in her romantic options; however, the difference between the two is Lily’s choice in the matter.

Rowling has said that Lily “might even have grown to love [Snape] romantically… if he had not loved Dark Magic so much, and been drawn to such loathsome people and acts.” This fact is unsurprising, considering Lily and Snape’s close friendship, but since Lily chooses to cut ties due to the pure toxicity of what that friendship had become, we must move on to the man Lily did grow to love. In the same aforementioned interview, when asked about the relevance of Lily and James’ doe and stag Patronuses, Rowling said, “The Patronus often mutates to take the image of the love of one’s life.”

Now, while Snape’s Patronus is also evidence of his lasting love for Lily, there remains an important distinction: Snape’s Patronus is a direct copy of Lily’s, while James’ is a companion to hers. This tells us more than what is originally let on—and that’s that Lily and James’ love is a complementary one, companionable, a dual effort and partnership. And that, my chickadees, is what love—real, true, healthy love—is all about.   

By comparison, Lily is the exception to Snape’s anti-Muggle bigotry, as she herself points out in “The Prince’s Tale” when she says, “You call everyone of my birth ‘Mudblood,’ Severus. Why should I be any different?”

“You call everyone of my birth ‘Mudblood,’ Severus. Why should I be any different?”

Pausing my disbelief that Snape’s love is a pure and true one, even when we entertain that it is, Snape was willing to overlook Lily’s blood status while abusing Muggle-borns in general for the same alleged indiscretion. Why Snape believed that would be enough is unclear, but the fact that he believed it at all goes to show that he truly doesn’t understand Lily. This is a woman who would go on to join the Order of the Phoenix to openly and actively fight against Voldemort’s regime, and Snape harbored the delusion that she would love him in spite of his bigotry that fueled that regime?

So, no, in the end, it was never a matter of Lily choosing between Snape and James, but rather a matter of Lily choosing herself and her ideologies over Snape. Yes, eventually Lily falls for James—by seventh year, according to Lupin in “Career Advice”—but Snape had no bearings on their relationship, as his own friendship with Lily is severed two years prior.

What the Lily/Snape dynamic ultimately boils down to is Snape himself—his motives, his love, his desires. There is zero emphasis on Lily, and as such her identity and agency are stripped away in favor of Snape reaping his reward for his eventual redemption. No matter how strict Lily’s finality when she tells Snape, “You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine,” her decision in the matter is overlooked by fans who consider Snape to be the tragic, romantic hero. While the man is most assuredly tragic and an arguable sort of hero, he still made his bed and has to lie in it, and Lily shouldn’t suffer for his indiscretions against her.

In fact, we should look to Lily Evans as an example. She was Snape’s friend, and tried to maintain that relationship despite their clashing worldviews; and when that proves to be too much to overcome, she severs a friendship that had subsequently proved too toxic for her to continue. She realized she couldn’t change who he was, and she wouldn’t change herself to suit him. Lily Evans’ character is the stuff of true heroes, of everyday victories in self-assurance and realization, and she should not be burned at the stake for asserting herself against an assailant—because no matter their relationship, Snape turned on Lily, and she doesn’t owe him anything.   

As Dumbledore says in Sorcerer’s Stone, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” And after initial hesitation due to her apparent desire to see the best in her loved ones, Lily holds her head high and does the right thing for herself. She serves as a reminder to us all that you have to be what’s most important to you, or else you won’t grow, thrive, and be a better person for yourself and those around you.  

Next: Best Harry Potter Characters Cut from the Movies

A moment of silence, please, for our lord and savior Lily Evans.

All art belongs to writer of the post, Katie Majka.