Wednesday, 28 November 2012

One film to rule them all

I have no good feminist reasons to love Middle Earth, and plenty to find it problematic.  Tolkien was clearly uninterested in women - Lord of the Rings features powerful women primarily as supplementary love interests to powerful men (Arwen and Eowyn) or as much less important to the storyline than corresponding male characters (Galadriel - cf say, Elrond).

But long before New Zealand was packaged up as the perfect scenic holiday, I was in love with LOTR.  I read both the Hobbit and LOTR for the first time when I was eight, my parents desperate to give me something that would take me longer than Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew and the Famous Five.

Then, what thrilled me were the different creatures, the imagined world of good vs evil, the adventures and bravery and friendships and loyalty.  My favourite character was - and still is - Aragorn, the self-doubting hero who tests himself over and over again.  But I loved the magic of the wizards, the wry humour of Gandalf, the idea of living in trees and travelling over different lands.  I loved the bravery of the hobbits and the sheer genius of the only creature who ever gives up the one ring that rules them all being a short dude with furry feet who likes singing with the Aryans elves.

The problems - apart from no women - were pretty lost on me at eight but have been part of my experience everytime I've read it since.  The obvious racism of the elves (white and fair and pure and true) and the orcs (dark and ugly and nasty and abusive).  The racial essentialism of all the different "races" - undermined slightly by the big man-love between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf, but let's face it, that's just so we can reinforce how natural it is usually for different "races" to hate and distrust one another.  The pre-version of the American Superhero narrative - really, we're supposed to believe huge life events like battles between thousands of people hinge on Aragorn and his big sword?

Yet love the Hobbit and LOTR I do, passionately.  I know lots of the dialogue by heart, and had to be politely asked to stop my critique when watching the films, disturbed by what a significant narrative arc loss it was to leave out Tom Bombadil (there were other digressions equally disturbing, for reader interest I'll stop there.)  Alongside the explicit critique Tolkien is making of industrialisation, for me the fascination sits with the wrestling with issues of power.

Which is where I'll try and make a slightly feminist argument.  If there was really one ring to rule them all, liberal feminists would want that ring for themselves, rather than having that horrid patriarch Sauron in charge.  Because women would do absolute power differently, right?

Actually, the solution in LOTR is more anarchist, at least briefly.  Absolute power has to go, and the joys of watching powerful characters (Gandalf, Galadriel, Aragorn) repeatedly choose not to take up this power, knowing it corrupts, is one of my fave ideas to explore.

Of course, Tolkien went a bit established power structures on us then - long before New Zealand's own Sauron Peter Jackson smashed worker power in his quest for the one film to make him rich.

Absolute power went, but all the different races are still led by their king-dudes, and only brave men and true (Pippin, Merry, Sam and Frodo) can free the oppressed.  Power is still operating in traditional, anti-collective or community sharing ways.  And the races are still essentially different, even if Gimli and Legolas have taken up Marriage Equality long before New Zealand parliament.

I can't get excited about seeing the Hobbit, despite my love of all things Middle Earth.  Wellington is covered in merchandise, I can't get the sour taste out of my mouth over the union-busting, and the cynicism of turning a slight story (trip with the boys to a mountain far, far away, a dragon, inter-racial warfare over resources, then home again) into three films just kills it for me.

Capitalism stole my problematic love.  It's not the first time.


Daniel Copeland said...

The Lord of the Rings was an improvement over what had gone before, as far as the roles of women went. Have you read Andrea Dworkin's pieces on women in fairy-tales? The dreadfully passive roles they're squeezed into?
With Galadriel, Tolkien subverts the trope of the Wicked Witch in the Forest (lampshaded by Boromir's suspicion). Eowyn can hardly be called passive, either.
Arwen I'll grant you, but Arwen was a late-comer to the story; Aragorn's role and origins grew with each draft, and earlier he was to have been paired with Eowyn. (Originally, he was another hobbit.)
There's another female figure in Middle-Earth (in its far past) who's referred to in LotR, as well: Luthien Tinuviel. She's found in the Silmarillion, but Tolkien originally told her story in a long poem called the Geste of Beren and Luthien -- never finished, and published years after his death by his son. Luthien is not a passive fairy-tale princess either, and at one point Tolkien turns the Rapunzel story on its head -- Luthien, imprisoned in a high tree, grows her hair to a tremendous length by magic, then cuts it off and makes a rope of it to escape.

Julie said...

I too want to be a Hobbit lover but can't. I was just reflecting tonight that I without the union-bashing (and the rest as it turns out) I would have been significantly more excited about this movie than the LOTR ones. The Hobbit was the book that really turned me on to reading - I remember Miss McDonald trying to read it to our Standard 1 class for mat time and it didn't work out well, as I was the only kid into it. She stopped part way through and switched to something more popular, and I just had to know what happened so I got it out of the library and finished it myself. It was a bit of a watershed moment for me in terms of realising I could read independently!

Stupid capitalism, stole my precioussss!

LudditeJourno said...

Oh, lovely story Julie :-)

Hey Daniel, loving the shared attention to detail. But can't quite defend LOTR in the way you are here. I like both Eowyn and Galadriel as characters - but Eowyn goes to battle feeling hopeless and resigned to death at least partly because Aragorn is not single - imagine her character not so focused on love in this way? And even if those two characters were less problematic, it's still not enough. Absence of women completely vs damaging stories of fairytales - I'm not sure which is more awful personally. Thanks for your detailed comment, much enjoyed :-)

ChundaMars said...

We are talking about a 75 year old book here, so the role of women in the book probably reflects the time it was written. And tinkering with the female roles in the movie would have purists calling for Peter Jacksons blood, so no surprises if there isn't much improvement in the film either.

No wait - films. Can't believe they're managing to stretch this one across 3 full movies. Talk about milking something for all it's worth...

Brett Dale said...

Cant wait for the Hobbit movie, a remarkable achievement for New Zealand and might I say, female screenwriters.

AnneE said...

I'm so pleased to see this post - a much-needed counterpoint to the pervasive adulation going on, and on, and on - much like the films. Thank you!

Brett Dale said...

Any project with Martin Freeman in it, is going to have artistic metric and be worth seeing.

A_Nonny_Moose said...

Brett: you mean racist, transphobic Martin Freeman? Yeah, coz I just love actors who say shit about their American opposite (Lucy Liu) and casually chuck transphobic slurs around...

And you mean the women screenwriters who no matter how much they bloody try will always be over shadowed in name by geek overlord Peter Jackson?

Brett Dale said...

I am unaware of any thing that Martin Freeman said about Lucy Liu.

Do you have a link to his actual comments, and not just some media report saying what he said.

Also I mean the woman screenwriters who Peter Jackson fought for to write the screen play for The Hobbit, they should be applaud.

In movie making, The director will always be on top, doesn't matter if they're male or female, that is the industry of film making.

The Hobbit will open doors for so many people, male or female.

A_Nonny_Moose said...

Brett: I see you're incapable of Google-Fu. Pity.

And I'm still seeing a complete lack of understanding of the gender divide in Hollywood. We should be giving Jackson cookies for "uplifting" women now? Aren't knighthoods, kicking the shit out of our unions, and millions of tax free dollars enough?

Brett Dale said...

Real Classy, Nonny Moose.

I googled Martin freeman and lucy liu, and all I could find, was people complaining that in the American version of Sherlock, they thought that Freeman should've played Holmes.

In terms of Peter Jackson, creating 1000's of jobs should be enough for people to congratulated him.

But it would appear, ideology rules over, what is best, with some on the left.