The Hobbit: The Invisible Women

The Hobbit: an Unexpected Hotness. Credit: Warner Brothers

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Hotness. Credit: Warner Brothers

I’ve been carrying around some strong feelings about the movie The Hobbit. A lot of them are good. It’s charming, funny, poignant, it makes me feel nostalgic, and some of the dwarves are hotter than they have any right to be (hello, Kili, Fili, and Thorin Oakenshield). But I also walked out of the theatre in December feeling unsettled. The lack of diversity in that movie is staggering.

On top of that, we see the only named female character in the whole movie, Galadriel, for a grand total of five minutes. Even then, I understand that she is a character borrowed from Lord of the Rings, and doesn’t appear in the Hobbit book. I can’t even take a bat to The Hobbit like Kate did with Star Trek: Into Darkness because the women are simply not there.

Galadriel in all her soft focus glory. Credit: Warner Brothers

Galadriel in all her soft focus glory. Credit: Warner Brothers

Which leads me to a really strange argument and problem. I was an English literature and theatre double major in undergrad. I am no stranger to the problem that women in a lot of classic plays and novels are minor players, if even present. Female roles are often confined to mother, sister, wife. This doesn’t really bother us because the works are old, and we are in agreement that our past is sexist. Shakespeare has what I will politely call issues with women. But he lived hundreds of years ago, right? Can we blame him? (Well, yes, but that’s another story, and maybe another post.) However, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books are not 400 years old. They are less than 100. Yet Tolkien was a scholar and a professor of Old English literature and explores these themes in his work. You can clearly see their fingerprints on The Hobbit, which is why it can feel regressive,  but is also why we want to give it a pass. It presents as classic.

I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to make an argument about quality. Diversity is not synonymous with quality. I enjoy The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings as books, and they treasured for a reason. But what does it mean, now, to be turning them into movies? Movies with zero diversity and no women? Passing or failing the Bechtel test does not in itself speak to a film’s quality – but imagine for a second a sort of reverse Bechtel. Is there a single movie in which two men never talk to each other about something other than a woman? Why is this so hard to imagine? I think we are teaching little girls that adventure is not their place. That the most they can hope for is to wait at home like ever-faithful Penelope weaving her tapestry by day, unraveling it by night, while Odysseus has 20 years of adventures and is decidedly not faithful. We see it as totally normal for a movie to have 20 male characters and two women. In fact, one of my favorite movies, The Departed, has one real female character. One. Up against basically every award-winning male actor in Hollywood.

Linda Holmes just encapsulated of this neatly with her article: At the Movies, the Women Are Gone. This quote in particular sticks with me:

In many, many parts of the country right now, if you want to go to see a movie in the theater and see a current movie about a woman — any story about any woman that isn’t a documentary or a cartoon — you can’t.

What does it mean that we are not only not telling women’s stories well, we are not telling them at all?

Why do some works get a pass while others get criticism? A lot of movie topics are just not seen as a women realm. Action movies, science fiction, thrillers – we see all of these things as fundamentally male, while there is nothing inherently gendered in their DNA. This intersects with the TedTalk that Maddo linked to on Fathers Day; women who do appear in these films have to be overthetop badass, aggressive, and masculinized OR be sex objects. There is very little in between. If something has a high nostalgia factor or is generally seen as a prestigious or high quality film we give it a pass, even if it is sexist or racist. Whether or not we want to admit it, movies with female lead characters are seen as “chick flicks.” They are assumed to be lesser in value until they prove themselves. Films by women, about women are not only rare, but they are asked to prove themselves every minute. Men make terrible movies all the  time, but we don’t dismiss men in the same way.

To change gears a little bit (and I bet just me bringing this up makes you cringe) the Twilight phenomenon is an interesting lens through which to look at this. The Twilight books are written by a woman. The first movie was directed by a woman and stars a woman. So it’s seen as “women’s entertainment” and dismissed because of it. Personally, I’ve read all the books, and I think Twilight is deeply problematic. The gender roles are super troublesome; it’s poorly written, derivative, and kind of disturbing. Bella Swan is a terrible role model, and Edward Cullen is a controlling stalker. But these are not the reasons that Twilight gets dismissed. Let’s be clear about something: Twilight is not bad because it’s written by a women, about a teenage girl, and features vampires and werewolves. Those things can be awesome. Twilight is bad in spite of those things. I think we need to be honest with ourselves about why we pass these judgments. We’ve created a society where we can’t imagine that men would want to watch a movie about women, but women are expected to do the opposite on a daily basis with no complaint, and often, not even notice.

Would you like to tell this girl that vampires, werewolves and teenage girls aren't awesome?

Would you like to tell Buffy that vampires, werewolves, and teenage girls can’t be awesome?

The Hobbit isn’t itself the problem. It’s a symptom. So why am I focusing on it? Because it’s a well-loved book and a quite good movie. Because two more Hobbit movies are coming our way, and while the film makers made an effort to add in some female characters, it only goes a little way in correcting a flaw.  Because we are creating a world where little boys see themselves in every film, and little girls see themselves in the mothers left at home and soft-focused sweethearts. And no one really notices or questions it.

What is wrong with this picture?

What is wrong with this picture?

If we just keep saying, “It’s ok, the book is old, it’s just one movie,” nothing will ever change.

– Charlotte is ready to talk about how attractive Thorin Oakinshield is some more.

3 thoughts on “The Hobbit: The Invisible Women

  1. I brought up the idea of the Reverse Bechdel Test at work (after explaining the regular test), my coworkers loved it! Gales laughter over the idea of a such a movie, and then sad faces all around over how many movies don’t even manage to have such a laughably low presence of women. General consensus is that one of our author employees should write such a movie – I’ll let you know if I can talk one of them into actually doing so.

  2. Hey… this Reverse Bechtel sounds familiar.

    Also, I have trouble with Tolkein; he makes up the entire Elvish language and calls the volcano Mount Doom (thank you, internet). He also makes up many races of folk who work together, drawing from their unique strengths, to accomplish their goals, but all his characters are male and white. Boo

    Come on, Tolkein, you had so much potential.

  3. It would be interesting to compare Tolkien’s work with C.S. Lewis’s. Both The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia were my favorite books when I was a kid, and the two authors were close friends and colleagues. The Narnia books are definitely problematic to my adult self – portrayal of other races and religions are pretty bigoted, and the allegory is not subtle – but Lewis does have quite a few female protagonists. While gender roles in many instances are still pretty limiting, he does subvert them several times, and *women are clearly present and active in his world*, including going on adventures. Checking out Wikipedia, Lewis and Tolkien collaborated on works and traded ideas for sci-fi and fantasy novels. I’d love to learn a bit more about if any of their discussions commented on women in their worlds.

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