Tolkien has a bad reputation for gender diversity but (and I say this as a female with strong feminist tendencies) I don’t care. I don’t think I’ve written a post before like I’m about to, but with the introduction of Tauriel in the recent Hobbit movie and my discovery of this article, I felt I should take advantage of my platform here.
But first, read this article: One Weird Old Trick to Undermine the Patriarchy. Go on, go read it. It’s short. I can wait.
Done? Good. Let’s continue.
First, let me just say that I have no issue with switching genders of main characters if your kid wants it. It’s a bit untraditional but if it works, then ok. Stories can and do change.
So now, can we just talk about that picture for a minute? Insert my hands thrown up and a long drawn out wail of “whhhhhhyyyyy” right here. We’re switching genders of the main character! So yes please, let’s take that frumpy middle-aged hobbit who loves nothing better than sitting comfortably and eating and change him into a cute young hobbittess with a spunky haircut, a figure to die for, and a look that clearly says she’s up for anything. We’re staying completely true to the story here!
And then there’s this: “Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry.” A PIECE OF JEWELRY?? Michelle Nijhuis is trying to make the point that gender isn’t an issue so she turns the quest to reclaim Erebor, the dwarven homeland, into some petty journey where girl Bilbo ends up with some pretty jewelry. If we’re trying to point out the gender of the main character doesn’t matter, maybe we should be avoiding blatantly feminine stereotypes? Just a thought. Not to mention that the Arkenstone isn’t even jewelry. (EDIT: Just realized Nijhuis might be referring to the One Ring here and not the Arkenstone- comment about female stereotypes still stands.)
I also find it interesting that Nijhuis adds “Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.” Except for us, that is. By writing the article, with the underlying idea that having a male hero is somehow detrimental to young female minds, WE are making an issue of gender. I find the idea incredibly patronizing that unless there is a female character, my enjoyment of the story will somehow be less.
I’ll be the first to tell you that women in our society, young, old, and in between, have serious image issues. But I don’t think that books with predominantly male characters are to blame. Instead of teaching our children (boys and girls) that they can use their gifts to overcome adversity and find clever solutions to tricky problems, we’re hung up on trying to convince them that girls can be tough too! And go on adventures! Even though they’re girls! Maybe we should be more focused on the fact that the majority of Disney movies and young adult novels, while having female protagonists, almost always have the female ending up in a relationship (this relationship is generally a main plot line). This is why Brave was so refreshing, because there was no love story for our heroine- except with her mother. And maybe we should be more concerned about the fact that women are praised more for their youth and beauty than anything else, whatever they are trying to do (I direct your attention to the picture accompanying the article once more).
So am I upset that the writer of this article changed the sex of Bilbo? No. Do I resent the creation of Tauriel in the movie? Absolutely not. I’m a firm believer that women can be just as competent and entertaining characters as any man. Don’t believe me? Try reading The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. Or The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman. Or Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. (True, there’s a love story in that one, but I’ve never read a more realistic character than Ellie. And the love story line is secondary to the plot.) It’s when we insist on making a point of saying “oh, this is a man, why can’t it be a woman?” or “oh good, a woman, that’s better” that I start to fume.
So here’s my suggestion: Instead of villainizing Tolkien (or any author) for writing books with mostly male characters, or instead of trying to make poor one-for-one substitutions of men for women, let’s encourage girls to write their own stories. Stories where women can be more than token characters, there just to make a point about gender. Or…not. Because that’s the thing: if gender doesn’t matter, then gender doesn’t matter. A good character is a good character regardless of their anatomy.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the article!