I’m not going to lie;
when I was reading the Harry Potter books, I loved Snape. I even have a t-shirt that says, “I trusted Snape” on the front, and on the back it says, “Oh, the cleverness of me. *smirk*”. So yeah, I really liked Snape. I mean, I’m a self-identified Slytherin, so of course I did. But now that I’m older and consider myself a feminist (I knew nothing about feminism while reading Harry Potter), I decided to go back and look at Snape from a critical feminist lens. And now I wonder if I was too kind to Snape.
Okay, let’s be real. The story of Snape’s love for Lily fulfills the nice guy trope to a tee.
Snape and Lily had been childhood friends, but Snape’s inability to express his feelings for her, partly because of his abusive childhood and partly because of (I assume) Lily’s blood status, leads Lily to fall for a different guy. Granted, James Potter started out as an utter asshole who bullied Snape mercilessly, but Snape’s response to the situation is just awful. Snape lashes out at Lily because she likes James, and he does so in the worst way possible, by making a derogatory comment about Lily’s blood status. On top of this, we can assume as Lily and James became more serious, Snape delved more into the Dark Arts and hung out more with his pureblood friends, who would eventually become Death Eaters.
You could retell Snape and Lily’s love story by replacing Lily with a woman of color and Snape with a conflicted white supremacist who eventually joins the KKK—it would pretty much be the same story.
And in that light, Snape’s “Always” love for Lily seems really creepy and immature (at the very least). I really can’t regard Snape’s “love” for Lily as actual love. Infatuation, admiration, and lust, maybe, but certainly not love.
I don’t think Snape really loves Lily because he doesn’t respect her. He doesn’t respect her heritage, and he doesn’t her ability to make her own choices as far as who she dates or who she hangs out with. He respects her so little he joins a group of people whose sole purpose is to hate people like Lily. I think Lily definitely saw Snape as a friend, and do think they could have been something more, but where James apparently grew and matured, Snape never did. Yes, we never actually see James grow and mature, but it’s at least implied. Snape however, we do get to see all grown up, and he hasn’t matured. He still jealously covets Lily, whom he never had to begin with, and punishes Harry for the mere fact of his existence. But I’m jumping ahead now. So let’s talk about Harry and then I’ll expand on this a bit more.
While Snape’s bad childhood and lack of romantic experience may be enough for some people to sympathize with him, it’s what happened after that that makes most people like Snape. For those of you who might not remember, Snape hears that Lily’s family is being targeted by Voldemort, so he goes to Dumbledore and turns spy. Of course, Lily still dies and Snape dedicates his life to protecting and looking after her son, Harry. However, Snape’s way of caring for Harry turns out to be largely made up of verbal, emotional, and mental abuse. On top of this, Snape seems pretty damn abusive to most of the
other students, except of course the Slytherins.
Now the main problem with Snape is we only get a few snatches of who he is, but based on
what’s in the books, Snape definitely felt entitled to Lily’s affection and made derogatory comments to her when she didn’t return his feelings. Snape was always a pureblood supremacist, and considering how he treated Lily later on, it seems he felt she was the exception to blood purity and not the rule. Basically, you can see Snape saying something like, “But Lily, you aren’t like the other dirty Mudbloods or Muggles.” We see that in Snape’s own flashbacks when Snape insults Petunia and Lily yells at him. To me that’s the only thing that makes logical sense. You don’t go from being rejected romantically by a woman of color to joining the KKK unless you’re already a racist. Remember, you don’t have be an active bigot to still be a bigot. What I am saying is Snape didn’t have to actively be killing Muggle-borns or promoting Death Eater agendas to be a pureblood supremacist. In the books, Snape hesitates before telling Lily that blood doesn’t matter. Snape is raised in a bigoted environment/society, and you can tell he struggles with it as a half-blood. But those little microaggressions toward non-purebloods comes out in his treatment of Petunia and even his hesitation with Lily.
On top of this, Snape doesn’t seem to change even after he becomes a spy. He becomes a turncoat only because Lily is in danger and protects Harry because he feels he failed Lily. And as a teacher he treats only the Slytherins, a predominantly pureblood house, with any sort of dignity. Now I have heard some people argue that Snape just hates the stupidity of his students in general, but if that were the case then he would show people like Crabbe and Goyle the same contempt he shows Neville.
Hell, in book three Snape tries to get Sirius’s soul sucked out even though he knows he’s innocent of the crime he was convicted for, and, when he doesn’t get his way, throws a tantrum and reveals that Remus is a werewolf, relying on the Wizarding World’s bigotry to get him fired. And I’m sorry, but the fact that Remus and Sirius bullied him when he was a kid is not an acceptable excuse for Snape’s actions. Now, someone’s going to yell “Sirius tried to kill Snape!” and yes, Sirius did. And yes, Sirius was never punished for it when he should have at least been expelled (at least). I am not excusing Sirius’s behavior in any way. I could even write another post about how Sirius is also a terrible person. However, Sirius was a teenager when that happened. Even in our own justice system there is leeway for offenders under the age of eighteen. Snape, during book three, is an adult and still behaving like a whiny teenager even when there are much bigger issues (like Peter Pettigrew) to deal with.
So even after Snape joins forces with Dumbledore and is teaching at Hogwarts, he still is a bigoted asshole. Maybe a conflicted and confused bigoted asshole, but you know, still a bigoted asshole.
Now, I’m not saying Snape is all bad. Certainly looking back on much of Harry and Snape’s interactions, you can tell that Snape was trying to help Harry even if he went about it very poorly. But that doesn’t excuse Snape’s other actions at all.
So let me get back to the famous “always” love that Snape has for Lily. As I said before, I don’t think Snape really loved her, and I believe that largely because of how he treats Harry. Let me lay down some facts: no mother would believe a guy when he says “I love you” while he simultaneously treats her child like shit (unless she’s in an abusive relationship, but Snape and Lily were never in a relationship, so the point is moot). Lily loved Harry so much she made the choice to die for him. If Snape really respected and loved Lily, he would have treated Harry like a precious gem. But he doesn’t, and right near the end of book seven, just when you think Snape has started to care about Harry, he’s very adamant in saying that it’s just about Lily. I like to think (hope, pray, dream) that Snape did care about Harry before he died, but I don’t have any evidence to back this up.
Snape’s story is not one of the poor “friendzoned” guy who protects the child of the love of his life and saves the world. Snape’s story is of the bigoted sixteen year old who never matured and now slaves away trying to protect the son of the girl he was infatuated with out of obligation and guilt, because he blames himself for her death.
Yet despite all this, Harry calls Snape one of the greatest men he ever knew and even names one of his children after him. Now, it should be pointed out that Harry also names the same kid after Albus Dumbledore, who is arguably as much of an ass as Snape. I mean Snape is an ass, but at least he’s honest about it, whereas Dumbledore’s a manipulative bastard. But I digress. The point is, Harry realizes that Snape redeemed himself at the end of the book. Snape’s redemption arc doesn’t end when Snape becomes a spy for Dumbledore. That’s the start of it. Snape is in no way reformed until the end of the books and Snape’s reform largely happens because of Albus Dumbledore. Now again, I hate Dumbledore, but I have to give it to him with Snape; he really helped Snape out. Dumbledore is arguable the only person who knows Snape’s whole story. I think that Snape eventually respects Dumbledore and even develops something of a friendship with him. Then of course he has to kill Dumbledore, arguably his only real friend at this point.
And then Voldemort really starts to take over and for the first time Snape realizes that the world Voldemort promised him, that he used to believe in, isn’t really what he thought it would be. I believe Dumbledore’s death really forces Snape to finally mature from the angry teenager who didn’t get the girl into an actual adult human being. Harry sees that and despite how Snape treated him, Harry also sees how much Snape helped him, and how much he changed. I think Harry preferred to honor the man Snape became at the end of his life and not the one that tortured him through school. No, I don’t think Snape was truly redeemed until book six. If the story was told through Snape’s perspective, killing Dumbledore would certainly be the climax, and all of book seven would just be falling action.
I don’t want you guys to think I hate Snape. I’m not a goodie-goodie Gryffindor, after all. Snape is certainly an interesting and complex character, but he’s a redeemed villain or anti-hero at best. He certainly isn’t the tragic hero some people paint him to be. I don’t think he would have been better off with Lily and I certainly don’t excuse Snape’s abusive behavior in the books, but he isn’t completely bad either. I suppose the reason that Snape is so interesting to so many fans is because J.K. Rowling created a truly human character. And like most humans, Snape can be a terrible, terrible person, but you know, he can be kind of all right too. He did good things for the wrong reasons, but the wrong reasons don’t nullify all the good that he did, and the good things don’t nullify all the wrong things he believed in. Let’s not talk about Snape as the greatest or the worst—let’s talk about him as a layered, human character.