Featured in the January 2023 issue of The Rowling Library Magazine.

That Skeeter Woman

1266 words.
By Oliver Horton.

“Attractive blonde Rita Skeeter, forty-three, whose savage quill has punctured many inflated reputations…”
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – Warming up the Quick Quotes Quill

Rita Skeeter is a talented journalist who uses her gifts not for good or evil but for commercial gain: to profit the Prophet. Introduced in Goblet of Fire, she is an opinion leader, an influencer. Her anti-Harry stories in the latter half of the fourth book set the tone for the general media abuse aimed at him in Order of the Phoenix.

In-book criticism of Rita Skeeter cleaves to her gender. Rita is an ambitious witch in a wizard’s world. The first thing anyone says about her is “That woman” – the speaker is Percy Weasley: “That woman’s got it in for the Ministry.” Sirius refers to her as: “That Skeeter woman.” At the Yule Ball, Percy again, unwittingly perceptive: “That revolting Skeeter woman buzzing around.” Hermione dubs her “That horrible woman” and, later the same chapter, “You horrible woman” and “That foul Skeeter woman”. Harry chimes in: “That Skeeter cow […] That – woman.”

Books Three, Four and Five each introduce an unreliable female character as a presence at Hogwarts school: Sybill Trelawney, Rita Skeeter, Dolores Umbridge. All trigger Hermione to unusual action: quit an entire subject, kidnap and blackmail, rebellion. Both Rita Skeeter and Dolores Umbridge act nice on the surface and have their own agendas. Like Umbridge, Rita is an unattractive woman who overdoes the feminine styling. Both go after Hagrid. Both have special quills that do not require ink. But like Professor Trelawney’s fortune-telling, Rita’s journalism can be more exact than it first appears.

A WRITER WRITES

“Dear Batty, Thanks for your help. Here’s a copy of the book; hope you like it. You said everything, even if you don’t remember it. Rita.”
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Note attached to Bathilda Bagshot’s copy of the Dumbledore biography.

When Rita targets the powerful, she is a force to be reckoned with. The Ministry of Magic fully deserves the poison in her pen. “Ministry blunders… culprits not apprehended… lax security… Dark wizards running unchecked… national disgrace…” is an accurate depiction of the Death Eaters’ after-party at the Quidditch World Cup. Rita paints in broad brush strokes and makes minor mistakes in her rush to publish, but she has a good nose for a story and runs ahead of the pack.

Rita Skeeter, despite her smarts, is not wealthy. When forced out of work, she deteriorates visibly. Her house is described in the Daily Prophet as “cosy”, the same word Rita herself uses to describe a broom cupboard. She serves pound cake. Rita’s glasses glimmer with rhinestones in a world where diamonds and rubies are used to measure a school’s House points. Her handbag is not dragonskin but crocodile. Indeed, the prosaic wardrobe and cuisine suggest a Muggle parent. To colourize the biography, best guess: wizard or witch parent hid the secret of their magic from the Muggle spouse. Little Rita grew up in an environment plagued by deceit, and learned secrecy at mummy or daddy’s knee.

The Queen of the Quills works hard. She is a grafter. Becoming an Animagus – in secret – is no stroll down a country lane. Nor is being a beetle. Nor is obtaining Veritaserum. Rita probably invented the Quick Quotes Quill. And she writes a 900-page biography of Dumbledore in just a few weeks. “The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore” is mostly truthful if not the whole story, as Harry concedes in Godric’s Hollow: So Rita Skeeter and [Ron’s aunt] Muriel had got some of their facts right. A professional sensationalist, Rita Skeeter’s style reads as encyclopedically vicious, but her fat tome helps the Trio move the mission forward.

ENCHANTINGLY NASTY

“You horrible woman […] you don’t care, do you, anything for a story, and anyone will do, won’t they?”
Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireHermione turns on Rita Skeeter

Even Rita’s harsher pearls have wisdom. Bill Weasley’s mother agrees that his hair is too long, the pillock. Ginny christens her pygmy puff Arnold, the name Rita mistakenly gives Arthur Weasley in print. Hagrid really is a half-giant. And before Golbet of Fire was published half the readership thought Harry and Hermione were a couple-in-waiting. In the same book Hermione goes from “plain but ambitious girl” to “stunningly pretty” – except in Rita Skeeter’s articles, where the transformation happens in reverse. Rita claims that Hermione has a “taste for famous wizards”. Ron Weasley’s final line in the series? “I’m extremely famous.”

In the chapter “The Weighing of the Wands” (from the fourth book), the blokey photographer focuses on Fleur. Attractive young women sell newspapers. But Rita Skeeter intervenes. The hackette is smarter and better than the lowest common denominator. Rita puts the Boy Who Lived front and centre. Because Harry Potter is the story of the Triwizard Tournament, not Cedric Diggory or Fleur Delacour or Viktor Krum. Harry Potter is the story full stop.

J.K. Rowling said Rita’s biography of Harry Potter would be “one quarter truth to three quarters rubbish.” But three parts truth to one part rubbish is more on the nose. Rita’s World Cup newspaper story airs the rumour that bodies were removed from the woods. The body turns out to be Barty Crouch Jr, FakeMoody-in-embryo. Rita pokes the Ministry about Bertha Jorkins’ disappearance and the ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody break-in: vital stages in Voldemort’s plan to return. Were it not for the Triwizard Tournament and the distraction of her grudge match with Hermione, Rita would uncover the Dark Lord’s plot!

NOT VERY SPORTING

“Do we have to start a vendetta against Rita Skeeter as well?”
– Harry Potter and Goblet of Fire – Ron questions Hermione’s priorities

Hermione takes Rita Skeeter head-on to protect Harry and Hagrid, to combat injustice. She removes Rita from journalism at the end of Goblet of Fire and neutralizes one of the Ministry of Magic’s most scathing criticism – which treats Fudge & co., the old boys club, to an easy ride for most of Order of the Phoenix. (If little miss perfect understood Quidditch, she might call this an own goal.) Hermione turns her adversary into a weapon and restores Rita to the pinnacle of her profession, via the soar-away success of The Quibbler’s exclusive Harry Potter interview.

Seven years after the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a postscript online: Rita returned to give a “live” commentary of the 2014 Quidditch World Cup Final, Brazil vs Bulgaria. Age has not withered her rudeness. While fellow announcer Ginevra Potter covers the sport, Rita focuses on VIP Box Two, which shelters Dumbledore’s Army. Her barbs become increasingly personal until Ginny decks her with a jinx to the solar plexus.

The commentary serves as an update on various beloved characters (sixteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts), as Viktor Krum finally wins the World Cup. George Weasley has married “his dead brother’s ex-girlfriend” Angelina Johnson. They have two children, Fred and Roxanne. Neville Longbottom is described as a celebrity, elitist and callous (for enjoying himself). When Bulgaria’s Veela cheerleaders perform, Ron goes catatonic. Albus is the only Potter to support Brazil.

Rita nails Hermione as a “ruthless careerist whose long-term ambition is undoubtedly to be Minister for Magic”. As she ascends to the role of Minister, Hermione Granger will jostle with Rita Skeeter every step of the way. They are bound together, like some warped version of the Prophecy. Neither can relax while the other thrives.

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