Gender and Tolkien

Tauriel

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!

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15 thoughts on “Gender and Tolkien

  1. thereallotr says:

    I think if Gandalf the Grey were to be commenting on this, he would say that choices are the most important things that people can make. Regardless of gender, the choices that the characters make end up defining who they are and the outcomes that occur. I believe that Tauriel was definitely a token female character in the second hobbit film, but who is to say that type of story didn’t happen in Middle Earth? I think fan-fiction can add a lot more female oriented stories to Tolkien’s work that he may not have stumbled upon before his death. Do note though, that in his many writings, there are several female oriented stories, even though they are mainly in the romantic sense instead of heroic. This is an interesting piece of thought for future fantasy/epic fiction reading.

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    • Mary says:

      I don’t think I expressed this well above but Tauriel doesn’t bother me. I agree that she was created to be a token female (intentionally or unintentionally, I don’t know) but Tolkien left a lot of room for addition/adjustment to the Mirkwood elves. And like you mention, who’s to say a female Elf wasn’t heavily involved in the capture? There’s no reason to think that all the elves were male, or even that the females were all in the kitchens.

      I have read a good bit of his other writing but it’s been a while so I don’t remember much. But I’ve always seen Tolkien’s female characters as ideals. Specifically, HIS ideals. Dickens’ might have written novel after novel with the same essential female character (young, lovely, kind and obedient to a fault, etc.) but that doesn’t lesson my enjoyment of his superior story-telling abilities. Same with Tolkien. And even though Tolkien’s females did usually have some romantic attachment to their stories, they also achieved some pretty amazing feats- I mean Eowyn, Luthien- I wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of those ladies!

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  2. thereallotr says:

    I agree with you fully, there is a lot left to discover with females in Tolkien’s writing. My next question then is, did Jackson appropriately utilize a female presence in the last hobbit film? I think overall, he did do a good job because stylistically she added a great female presence and a heroic nature similar to Eowyns. However, I hope that Jackson does not use Tauriel’s ability to love as a weakness in the last film, I hope it is a nice addition to her awesome arrow slinging, orc killing style.

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    • Mary says:

      To be honest, I was initially worried about Tauriel because before seeing the movie, it seemed very clear to me that she was there simply as a female presence. But after seeing the movie, I was pleasantly surprised. Tauriel turned out to be a well rounded character- strong and capable without being a stereotype, but still soft and feminine. I also loved that Evangeline Lilly insisted that if there was going to be a love triangle, she wanted no part of this movie. And originally, there wasn’t. But then Peter Jackson and Co. tweaked some things in pick ups to add one in. But honestly, it’s not irritating to me. Legolas never really seemed to be anything but a friend and I felt that her attraction to Kili was more because he was different and she cared about him as she would have cared about anyone.

      That being said, however, I am very worried about what’s going to happen to her in the next movie. I have a horrible feeling that she is going to either die in the battle, and it will probably be related to Kili’s fate, or else we will see her going to the Grey Havens. Being an elf, though, as envisioned by Jackson, I am sure she will be making kills to rival the most amazing of Legolas’s before we see her exit.

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  3. Rob says:

    Interesting timing on this one seeing as how my wife and I watched the TNT production of “The Mists of Avalon” yesterday. You don’t get many women stronger than Morgan or Margause. Or Anjelica Huston or Joan Allen for that matter!

    Having said that, I think the article over at “Last Word” is more of an example of the Postmodern mind at work rather than our obsession with gender roles. The Postmodern worldview sees everything as open to revision, for whatever reason. If you don’t like something, whether it be a story, a “truth,” or a definition, then change it. There’s no such thing as “meaning” anyway. Nothing is right or wrong except in its context, and even that can be questioned or rejected.

    I find this worldview, and the “Last Word” article, to be more frightening than frustrating.

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  4. Briana says:

    I may have mentioned this before on your blog, but I’ve never had an issue with Tolkien’s “lack of female characters.” In fact, I never noticed a lack while reading; I had to read an article pointing it out. I would argue this is because, as you suggest, gender doesn’t particularly matter. I didn’t care who was having adventures or saving the world, just that they were and that it was a good story.

    On a more general note, I dislike this growing movement to insert more women into art to make it “less sexist” or “more accurate” or whatever. In the first place, like you, I don’t want women as token characters; I don’t want them in my movies or my books just because they “have to be there” and not because they’re actually playing an important role in the story. In the second place, the world isn’t always politically correct, and I think art should be allowed to represent that. Historically, men would go on ships, or into battle, or on adventures without women. So men in books and film should be able to do so, too. In fact, groups of just men still do things together, without women, even if it’s something as simple as some fraternity activity or a group of male friends taking a trip together. Representing that in art isn’t necessarily some evil ploy to imply women aren’t important; it’s just realistically portraying one type of social dynamic that actually exists.

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    • Mary says:

      I can’t remember where I read this now but one review of Brave I read said that people criticizing Brave for not going far enough, i.e. Merida should give up marriage altogether or become the queen on her own, were missing the point. That Merida could make the change she did within the realistic parameters of her patriarchal society were why the story worked so well. So, right! The world isn’t always politically correct and I don’t even think it needs to be.

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  5. Briana says:

    Also, I know this is kind of missing the point about gender, but I wouldn’t want to swap genders of major characters while reading to my child just because I would want them to have an accurate knowledge of classic literature. Kids could go years thinking there’s actually a character named Diana in The Secret Garden, for example, unless parents are very clear about the fact that they’re changing character genders as they read. (Hopefully they would explain why they’re doing it as well.)

    On one level, the child might just be embarrassed if they eventually mention “Diana” in passing and someone has to correct them. On another, they could be drawing certain academic conclusions and interpretations about classic literature that aren’t really accurate, because they’re interpreting invented characters. (I have to believe there are some books where gender does matter, despite my comment above.)

    Maybe I’m just a literature purist, but I think children should be introduced to books as they’re written, and parents can play around with characters and genders after knowledge of the original story is acquired. I’d hate to get all the way to high school “knowing” an incorrect version of some classic book.

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    • Mary says:

      No I can’t imagine doing this either. I guess I’m a bit of a purist as well because it just feels very wrong. I saw a lot of criticism out there for this article directed at the little girl though, which I thought was ludicrous. Kids have very fluid imaginations so if they really insist on something like this, I’m kind of indifferent to it. But something tells me that this little girl got the idea of gender swapping from her mom- maybe not this book in particular but the idea in general. I can’t say this is something I would have ever thought to do as a kid.

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  6. […] Grimmella takes on the issue of Tolkien and gender […]

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  7. jubilare says:

    ” 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, yes!

    I try to react to an author’s attitude towards the sexes rather than the sexes of their characters. I never felt that Tolkien had a low opinion of women (in fact, he gives me the impression of thinking quite a lot of them) but I felt that he was not comfortable in writing them. I have no problem with the monolitically male Hobbit story, whereas I have all kinds of problems with stories that have female heroines but that thoughtlessly follow restrictive female stereotypes, like the idea that women exist to be involved in a romance… bleh.
    Yes, we need more good stories with female characters, but in order for those stories to be written we need more writers to have a grasp of the real issue. The question is not “can Jane do what Jack can do?”
    but rather “can Jane be Jane as Jack is Jack?” And, as with most questions of that kind, we will only answer it when it no longer needs to be asked. 😛

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    • Mary says:

      He certainly does seem to think a lot of them! His women characters, while few, do as much or more than his male characters.

      “Can Jane be Jane as Jack is Jack?” Yes. Yes, this is a perfect way of expressing it.

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  8. […] Gender and Tolkien-Grimmella […]

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