ONTD Political

The Hobbit: Why Are There No Women in Tolkien’s World?

7:10 pm - 12/31/2012
It has, at this point, become a bit obvious to point out the lack of female characters in children’s entertainment: the Pixar movies, the morning cartoon shows, even the Legos that they play with — unless, of course, the product in question was designed specifically for girls, which raises another set of issues about self-reinforcing stereotypes. But I was not prepared for the extreme skewing of the sexes in The Hobbit, which has been the No. 1 movie at the box office for the past three weeks.

The film opens in the nice domestic setting of hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ cozy home. Bilbo has a story to tell his young nephew or cousin — the relationship and intermediary relatives are unclear — named Frodo. We are introduced to the plight of the dwarf king Thorin, who is identified as “the son of Thráin, the son of Thrór.” Thorin’s precious-mineral-based kingdom was ransacked and occupied by a dragon and he wants it back. A wizard named Gandalf appoints Bilbo to help and soon a whole bunch of short men show up on his doorstep. They all set off into enemy territory, and about two-thirds in we finally meet someone without a Y chromosome, an elf princess played by Cate Blanchett who can read Gandalf’s mind. Although she’s on screen for only about five minutes, I was so grateful that it didn’t even bother me that her main character trait is that she’s intuitive. I have since found out that she doesn’t even appear in the book of The Hobbit but was added to the movie because, in the words of one screenwriter, “You start to feel the weight of 13 hairy dwarves.”

I did not read The Hobbit or the The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a child, and I have always felt a bit alienated from the fandom surrounding them. Now I think I know why: Tolkien seems to have wiped women off the face of Middle-earth. I suppose it’s understandable that a story in which the primary activity seems to be chopping off each other’s body parts for no particular reason might be a little heavy on male characters — although it’s not as though Tolkien had to hew to historical accuracy when he created his fantastical world. The problem is one of biological accuracy. Tolkien’s characters defy the basics of reproduction: dwarf fathers beget dwarf sons, hobbit uncles pass rings down to hobbit nephews. If there are any mothers or daughters, aunts or nieces, they make no appearances. Trolls and orcs especially seem to rely on asexual reproduction, breeding whole male populations, which of course come in handy when amassing an army to attack the dwarves and elves.

There are, no doubt, many who know the Tolkien oeuvre much better than I who will protest my complaint. “There are very few women, but those that there are have great power,” one such aficionado has reminded me. Others will point out that there are plenty of modern classics with hardly any female characters enjoyed by both boys and girls, from Tintin to The Muppets.

And then there is the argument that none of this should matter, that it’s not just fiction but fantasy after all. But Peter Jackson, the director of The Hobbit, has said, “To me, fantasy should be as real as possible. I don’t subscribe to the notion that because it’s fantastical it should be unrealistic. I think you have to have a sense of belief in the world that you’re going into, and the levels of detail are very important.” I should think that would include — especially in an intergenerational saga — something as important as the perpetuation of species, whether furry-footed or not.

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chaya 31st-Dec-2012 10:22 pm (UTC)
You've got some borked bolding in here, and it could use the 'opinion piece' tag as well, please.
aviv 31st-Dec-2012 10:28 pm (UTC)
communion 31st-Dec-2012 10:28 pm (UTC)
i wanted to give this a chance but stopped at "elf princess" because i had to just laugh.
windsong_moon 31st-Dec-2012 10:30 pm (UTC)
I don't know The Hobbit very well, but Peter Jackson actually invented a female OC that will appear in the later films. It's made quite a few book purists more than a little upset. It still doesn't make up for the lack of women in the main cast (or in LotR's cast), though.
maladaptive 31st-Dec-2012 10:46 pm (UTC)
Half of the dwarves could have been women and it wouldn't have impacted the plot in any way, shape, or form. I could only spot Bifur, Bofur, Thorin, Kili, and Fili-- and according to my friends I got more than most (they could spot Thorin and Kili). I know the purists would have howled, but geesh.

I'm also always really creeped out by people who demand realism by erasing women. Because the point that "dwarf fathers beget dwarf sons" is so true. The only time I saw any dwarf women was during the escape, and that actually surprised me. I was like "yup that's three dwarves in a line without a single woman between them." Thraine (sp?) carved Thorin out of the mountain.
mskye 31st-Dec-2012 10:33 pm (UTC)
"Why Are There No Women in Tolkien’s World?"

ericcoleman 31st-Dec-2012 10:34 pm (UTC)
You are looking at something from a different era and expecting it to go to the norms now. These books were written by a British man who was born in the 19th century. Women were practically a different species.
aviv 31st-Dec-2012 10:36 pm (UTC)
Virginia Woolf was awesome and was from the same era.
liret 31st-Dec-2012 10:35 pm (UTC)
I am fuzzy on my Tolkien details, but I seem to remember Galadriel being a lot more then an 'elf princess' - she's more like a living semi-diety. Granted, though, all you can tell in The Hobbit is that she's powerful because she glows.

Edited at 2012-12-31 10:38 pm (UTC)
communion 31st-Dec-2012 10:40 pm (UTC)
she is. she had one of the elven rings and it goes in depth in... the silmarillion? unfinished tales? that she had a pretty badass backstory and her giving gimli three hairs was a giant middle finger to some of her elven breathen.
staticmatrix 31st-Dec-2012 10:38 pm (UTC)
The whole 'absent mothers' thing about Tolkien always struck me as very weird... I mean, I haven't read the books in any great depth for several years but few of the main characters seem to have mother figures at all, and female leadership roles of any kind are pretty lacking. Even the significant female characters in the LOTR films are given much more complex, interesting arcs than they had in the books (where they are pretty underdeveloped to say the least). So I'm grateful for that, but yeah, the insertion of Galadriel in The Hobbit just didn't cut it for me in terms of genuine female representation in the film, but they're given pretty much entirely male-centred source material to work from too :/
valarltd 31st-Dec-2012 10:39 pm (UTC)
Because there aren't. Because in Tolkien's lifetime, women were support staff, not heroes.

Stories come as they come. And the author is under no obligation to be inclusive for the sake of diversity. This was not a problem in 1939. Today, you'd best be prepared for blowback.
coyotesuspect 31st-Dec-2012 11:40 pm (UTC)
~inclusive for the sake of diversity~

blackjedii 31st-Dec-2012 10:41 pm (UTC)

magic the gathering is pretty awesome with its female-types methinks

I never really thought about male-female representation in Tolkien's works because it was just an adventure for me. Of course retroactively this article makes me think of Pterry's books and I can't help thinking "Maybe some of those dwarves were female but they were old-school female dwarves so no one ever noticed until they donned a feather boa?"

Edited at 2012-12-31 10:53 pm (UTC)
othellia 1st-Jan-2013 01:53 am (UTC)
I apply PTerry's dwarf mechanics to every story in which no female dwarves are present, ngl.
darlahood 31st-Dec-2012 10:46 pm (UTC)
I have a 2 year old daughter and yeah, I'm tired of the cloisters of the cartoon world. (To say nothing of Tolkien. Glad I read C.S. Lewis as a kid - tho that's a whole 'nother bag of rice.)
milleniumrex 31st-Dec-2012 10:48 pm (UTC)
Because it was a story written by a man, for boys, in an era when no one really pointed these things out.

That balance will likely never be redressed with this property, although I'm glad Jackson is introducing a new female character in part two.
natyanayaki 1st-Jan-2013 01:50 am (UTC)
I agree with this (though I don't know how I feel about introducing a female character to the film, I feel like doing so is: a) a way to make money and b) an attempt to erase the misogyny). There really are so many problems with Tolkein's work in terms of race and ethnic portrayals, gender portrayals etc if I looked at his work as anything but pure escapism, I just wouldn't be able to deal.
evewithanapple 31st-Dec-2012 10:50 pm (UTC)
Reminder to the apologists already popping up in this post that there were multiple fantasy novels written in the same time period with female characters. They may not have been devoid of problems, but they existed.
lisaquestions 31st-Dec-2012 10:54 pm (UTC)
Thank you. The apologists seem fairly keen on the notion that criticism should not be allowed because it happened over half a century ago.

Very strange. Very unseemly.
thepikey 31st-Dec-2012 10:58 pm (UTC)
Also keep in mind that LOTR and (to a lesser extent) the Hobbit were war stories. As someone who served in WWI, I'm willing to bet JRRT didn't see many women near the front lines.

Personally, I'll agree it's a weakness of the story as a whole. But given the era from which it came, I'll kind of give it a pass.
coyotesuspect 31st-Dec-2012 11:41 pm (UTC)
Methinks JRRT didn't see many trolls either.
anolinde 31st-Dec-2012 11:00 pm (UTC)
Meh. Not only was Tolkien a privileged dude in a different time, but he was also writing in the style of old myths/legends (which, from what admittedly little I've read, seem to be heavily male-oriented).

So, yeah, kind of sucks that there aren't more female characters, but what female characters we do have are pretty awesome and don't seem to be handled in a sexist way, so... I'm not too upset about it.

Edited at 2012-12-31 11:02 pm (UTC)
ebay313 31st-Dec-2012 11:27 pm (UTC)
What myths/legends are you thinking of that are so equally lacking in women?
fishphile 31st-Dec-2012 11:09 pm (UTC)
I think what disappoints me most about Tolkein doesn't have much to do with him at all.

My problem is that the fantasy genre got itself stuck being mostly European (maybe Norse based? Don't know enough to expand on this) based, male-dominated. The genre has great potential and someone outside of this mold pops up now and again, but the Tolkein model of fantasy has become the standard of what fantasy is and it just hasn't grown enough from this model.
kaizopp 31st-Dec-2012 11:16 pm (UTC)
Yep. Fantasy is awesome and you can do so so many things with it, but most authors just... don't.
frith_in_thorns 31st-Dec-2012 11:18 pm (UTC)
Tolkien was very much the sort of man to put women on pedestals -- they could be semi-divine, like Galadriel and Arwen, but of course they were far too precious and delicate to do such sordid things as go on quests or fight in battle. (Eowyn is pretty much the only exception, and Luthien to a lesser degree. It's been years since I read The Silmarillion.)

Which is more than a little annoying, and I say this as someone who's a massive Tolkien geek. While I do see the reasons why Jackson didn't make some of the dwarves women, I'd definitely have loved it if he had, and am with the Pterry fans head-canoning some of them women anyway.

What I find far more annoying is how often Tolkien's work gets used as the archetype for fantasy writing by writers who don't take the opportunity to update glaring issues like the lack of women, the white elves=good black orcs=bad, etc rather than shrugging and going, "well, that's just how High Fantasy is."
natyanayaki 1st-Jan-2013 02:06 am (UTC)
THIS! It's pretty much why I love The Sundering series by Jacqueline Carey.
vampfan30 31st-Dec-2012 11:42 pm (UTC)

did everyone forget Eowyn? She freaking killed the Witchking of Angmar when " No Man could ". Goldberry - Radagast's wife, Luthien, Arwen, Celebrian,etc. etc. etc.

come on, people.
maryseif 31st-Dec-2012 11:50 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Eowyn was very much my hero as a young girl :)
hey_spectrum 31st-Dec-2012 11:52 pm (UTC)
Was anyone upset there were no minorities in any of tolkien's books or Jackson's movies?
anolinde 31st-Dec-2012 11:53 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think that's been the subject of a number of posts on ONTD proper (although maybe not _p).
oudeteron 31st-Dec-2012 11:53 pm (UTC)
Yes, it's an important point to analyze how the gender ratio is skewed in Tolkien's work but I about read "someone without a Y chromosome" and went FUCK YOU.

ETA: To make it clearer, basically my message to this writer: don't fight sexism with cissexism and trans* erasure.

Edited at 2012-12-31 11:58 pm (UTC)
ebay313 1st-Jan-2013 12:13 am (UTC)
Yeah, that annoyed me too -_-
blackjedii 31st-Dec-2012 11:57 pm (UTC)
and just because I keep poking around this thread -
While I completely get the argument about whether Tolkien and Middle Earth is or is not feminist enough (it isn't), I just don't feel the need to get upset over the books now.
What I do feel the need to get annoyed with is the current-day fantasy genre that isn't changing. Off the top of my head, let's see... I can think of two major cartoon series that I consider very feminist (My Little Pony and Adventure Time), maybe one animated movie in the past year (Brave) and maybe one large-scale game series in MtG.

That's a pretty slim list and either means that I don't do enough fantasy anymore or the Powers that Be don't really feel like changing the status-quo. Which is kind of sad because fantasy is one of the few things that you really can experiment in.

Edited at 2012-12-31 11:59 pm (UTC)
fishphile 1st-Jan-2013 12:18 am (UTC)
Yep. While I think it's beyond a bullshit excuse to say that Tolkein didn't write women because you just didn't write women (who was writing about trolls and dwarves and elves and orcs?), I'm not upset about actual Tolkein. Fantasy these days is what upsets me. There are still too few women/girl protagonists/main characters in today's literature and fantasy (all of speculative fiction to be honest because science fiction and horror aren't better) in particular.
chimbleysweep 31st-Dec-2012 11:57 pm (UTC)
I think that the women Tolkien does include are wonderful and fairly complete people who in many ways outstrip the men around them. However, it's truly a shame that he probably didn't even think about adding more. Probably never crossed his mind. Mmmm that internalized misogyny.

It's also a shame that everyone began to model their high fantasy on Tolkien's, thus making everything that followed pretty much without women and set in the same kind of environment. He invented his model. His model is not it. And it shouldn't be, because there are many areas to be improved upon in the telling.
ook 1st-Jan-2013 12:18 am (UTC)
Yeah, the female characters that Tolkien did include were pretty great characters. Not just Galadriel, but Arwen and Eowyn (who killed the Head Ringwraith). The hobbits Rosie and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins were good, too.
__nocturna 31st-Dec-2012 11:58 pm (UTC)
Maybe Tolkien didn't just feel like writing female characters. Oh well.
idemandjustice 1st-Jan-2013 03:22 am (UTC)
Except he did. There were plenty of them throughout The Silmarillion.
moonshaz 1st-Jan-2013 12:05 am (UTC)
Yes, there is a dearth of female characters in LoTR and (especially) in The Hobbit, and yes, that is and continues to be an annoyance for a lot of people. Many have speculated about the possible reasons for this. But the reality is that Tolkien wrote what he wrote, whatever his reasons may have been, and that is the material Peter Jackson has to work with. What does this writer expect him to do, completely rewrite Tolkien's books? He's already been criticized quite a bit for things like the expansion of Arwen's role in LoTR, as well as some things that have evidently been planned for the upcoming Hobbit movies.

I'm basically a Tolkien fan, but NOT a Tolkien purist. Personally, I find his depictions of women (and the lack thereof) to be rather quaint and old-fashioned, and this is one of my least favorite aspects of his work. I appreciate Peter Jackson's efforts to beef up the female presence a bit. But there's a limit to how far one can go without changing Tolkien's world into something he never conceived of or intended, and I for one would prefer that Jackson not go QUITE that far.

If someone else feels the need to rewrite Tolkien's work in order to create something more in line with 21st century sensibilities, fine—go write some fanfic or something. But don't expect Peter Jackson to do that in these movies. He's already trying to walk a difficult enough line between keeping things faithful enough to the source material to keep the purists at bay while still making the stories relevant enough to be captivating to modern filmgoers not all of whom are fans of the books. As far as I can see, he's done a pretty good job so far. Not a perfect one, but pretty darned good, all things considered.

P.S. All other issues aside, male hobbits at least definitely DO beget children, presumably through the traditional methods! Did this writer sleep through the end of The Return of the King, when Sam returned home to Rosie and their brood, or what?
ebay313 1st-Jan-2013 12:19 am (UTC)
He could have gone further though- just because YOU would prefer he not go further doesn't mean he couldn't have. There is no rule that the number of changes he did implement are the only ones that could possibly be done and that's it. He could have made some of the dwarves women as others have suggested- YOU and others may not have liked it, but that's your issue, your issue does not make it an impossibility. Movies change significant aspects of their source material frequently, so why not do so in a way that adds more women characters for women and girl movie goers to relate to? He had the option, he chose not to and that means you most certainly can be criticized for that choice!

Edited at 2013-01-01 12:19 am (UTC)
ook 1st-Jan-2013 12:13 am (UTC)
I am still sad that Lobelia Sackville-Baggins only gets mentioned in the Peter Jackson films. Lobelia was a spunky old lady hobbit who wasn't afraid to kick some ass during the Scouring of the Shire (at the end of the book Return of the King).
vyrdaeom 1st-Jan-2013 02:32 am (UTC)
The town I live in is called Sackville :O
ljtaylor 1st-Jan-2013 12:26 am (UTC)
One thing that annoys me when it comes to films being made from literature is the way folk get themselves in a twist about it not being canon enough. It is a modern interpretation, the books themselves still exist to be read as they were written. Futhermore, there were several ways female characters could have been weaved into this film without changing any integral plot points. Some of the dwarves in the group could easily have been women, for instance. Even Bilbo having more interaction with a female neighbour would've been nice.
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