Today marks the U.S. theatrical debut of Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, which I won’t watch for reasons I already explained in my last preview article. So instead, I’d like to take a look back at something those awful movies sorely lack: an interesting character. Specifically an interesting villain. Specifically specifically a villain like Dolores Umbridge, the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor who is quickly promoted to High Inquisitor of Hogwarts and is the main villain of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This sprightly, overtly “nice”-but-vindictive tyrant is rivaled only by Severus Snape and maybe Hermione Granger as the best-written character of the entire “Wizarding World” franchise.
Of course, a major reason why she’s so memorable in the film adaptation should not only be credited to J.K. Rowling, but also to actress Imelda Staunton, who clearly had a ball breathing so much wicked life into this character. I especially appreciate the hairpin turns in her portrayal from outward giddiness to stern malice, making Umbridge not just a loathsome adversary to Harry but an unpredictable one. True Story: I actually worked for a boss with a similar personality about a decade ago, and she too would switch between this performative disarming girlishness to ferociousness, and the fact that she could so suddenly deploy these opposite emotional states seemingly on a dime made working for her far more traumatic than if she was just consistently unpleasant. Staunton’s approach to this character was definitely – and to my mind, correctly – very “heightened,” but there is absolutely a deeper truth underlining how she embodied this on-paper cartoon villainess, and it should have made her more of a contender for awards fifteen years ago (she didn’t even win the Saturn that year!).
Despite Umbridge’s position as an instructor charged with teaching young students how to properly defend themselves, she has no real interest in teaching hers any lessons that will meaningfully equip them to address what they’ll face as adult wizards. She fixates on an outdated curriculum preparing them for one standardized test slotting them into rigidly-defined categories of wizardry, but as soon as Harry pries her for practical applications and challenges her geriatric complacency in the face of the looming threat that the Death Eaters pose, she throws a fit and punishes him. Because for a powerful old person like her who has done well for herself under the status quo, the most important thing on her mind is just reinforcing deference to that. Genuinely empowering younger wizards and witches gives them the ability to significantly influence the world around them in the future, and maybe even change things away from what she’s content with. The way the Ministry of Magic has run things since she was a young witch-in-training is, in her mind, sufficient forever and there’s no need to question if it’s out-of-touch or inadequate to defeat the new darkness threatening everyone right now.
She is very much a Might Makes Right absolutist as well. The entire legitimacy of her dictatorial rule over Hogwarts solely derives from her position of power, which in her mind is valid as a function of its existence. At no point does she believe she could ever possibly wield her abilities unjustly or immorally, no matter how cruel her actions are. After all, if that was possible, then why would she have all this authority in the first place? It’s such a twisted möbius strip belief about power as a self-justifying status that unfortunately seems to be shared by virtually everyone with vast unaccountable levels of influence over our lives at the moment.
And of course, like so many narcissists, this unwavering confidence in her own righteousness is paired with a violent paranoia about a conspiracy working against her. Despite the fact that she is, objectively, the one in charge, objectively the one with nearly all the power and material resources and institutional backing and authority, she actually believes the ragtag rebels of “Dumbledore’s Army” are the intolerant bullies and she’s the poor persecuted victim. It’s the same mindset you see with the self-pitying elites in heavily wealth and class-stratified societies; this idea that bosses are the ones who are really oppressed by employees and landlords are oppressed by their tenants.
There’s something instantly recognizable about the kind of villainy she represents that puts her above the other antagonists in the series. Any chump can take one look at every other bad guy – Voldemort, Bellatrix Lestrange, Peter Pettigrew, everyone in Slytherin House – and immediately suss out that they’re The Bad Guys. They wear black and practice something called the “Dark Arts” and meet up in ominous locations and have transparently evil master plans. They’re the faces of malevolence we all have been conditioned from birth to be on the lookout for, despite not being as common as we keep believing they are. But Dolores Umbridge is different. She reflects a far more common and trusted form of evil. She is the pleasant face of dominant, unjust hierarchies, happily climbing up the ladder for her own advancement before pulling it up from behind her while shouting “Nope! This far! No further!” to the next generation, gleefully lording her power and judgment over those with less.
Anyway, for whatever reason, Umbridge is the first character I think of whenever I’m reminded of series creator J.K. Rowling. Not Harry. Not Ron. Not Hermione, Dumbledore, Snape, or Hagrid. As soon as I see this face:
I immediately think of this character:
Strange, huh? Wonder why that is…