Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Feminist's Guide to Watching "The Lord of the Rings"

For years, I resisted watching The Lord of the Rings because I could barely drag myself through the books, though I victoriously made it to the final page, nearly crying with happiness that it was over. My quibbles with the books actually have nothing to do with feminism (though a few more female characters would have been a vast improvement); rather, I completely lost patience with Tolkien's apparently desperate need to describe everything, from innocuous fields and mountains to clothes and sword hilts and seemingly endless meals. I really do think (fully aware that for many Tolkien fans this is rank blasphemy) that the books could be vastly improved by simply excising unnecessary descriptive passages. This would very likely result in one gloriously succinct volume, which the less obsessive of us could enjoy without sacrificing months of our reading lives. As a result of what was truly a miserable reading experience, I flatly refused to watch the movies.

Over the past few years, I've been making a concerted effort to be more open-minded about movies, in part because I've discovered great movies this way. This month, I finally watched The Lord of the Rings, all three films, and now I'm hooked. So much so that I might conceivably reread the books. But as head-over-heels as I am about these films, as a feminist, I must say they're a bit... lacking. For one thing, the films basically have three female characters. I know there are all those dancing hobbit ladies in the Shire, a handful of elven women, and the poor cowering peasant women needing protection and so on, but in the end, there are three: Arwen (Liv Tyler), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Eowyn (Miranda Otto). These women do not at any point in the films talk to each other, nor do they appear to have any relationships with other female characters. The Lord of the Rings notoriously fails the Bechdel test, and more importantly in a film that emphasizes above all else the profound bonds of friendship, fails to portray any kind of emotional bond between women. Women are also depicted without moral complexity - good, but without having to try. It's particularly interesting to note that the orcs are solely male, thus denying the possibility of an inherent evil in a female being. 

Galadriel, the elven queen who advises Frodo (Elijah Wood) in his quest to destroy the ring, is the least defined of the three characters. Though she appears in all three films and is the narrator of the initial prologue, her scenes are few and short. It is clear that she is enormously powerful and wise, the peer of Gandalf (Ian McKellan), like him able to read portents and work magic. She is able to withstand the temptation of the ring when Frodo offers it to her freely, but her ordeal of combating that temptation is the sole glimpse we get of a female character engaged in a moral struggle.

Arwen, an elven woman in love with the mortal Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), should be, at first glance, the character that feminists will loathe. She chooses to give up her family, her people, and her immortality for the sake of her love for Aragorn and the acme of her dreams is to have Aragorn's son. She nearly dies when she is separated from the man she loves and the only other strong emotional bond she has is with her father Elrond (Hugo Weaving). This portrait of feminine subjugation is somewhat tempered, however, by the fact that Arwen makes a choice. Both Aragorn and Elrond attempt to convince her to leave Middle-earth with the rest of the elves and accept her place among them, retaining her immortality. She defies both of them, making a purposeful choice and refusing the paternalistic protection of both, even prepared to make the same choice in the event that Aragorn refuses to accept her sacrifice. Her deliberate election may be made for the sake of her love for a man, but in so making it, she determines her own destiny, rather than allowing the men in her life to determine it for her.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Arwen saves Frodo's life, protecting him from the Nazgul and delivering him to a healer. In so doing, she proves herself an able horsewoman, a person of no little courage, and a capable sorceress, summoning a river to her aid. These scenes of daring rescue also mitigate the more patriarchal aspects of Arwen's character, though unfortunately these traits, particularly the horsemanship and magic, seem tied directly to her status as an elf, rather than her individual talents, and pale when compared with the feats of Legolas (Orlando Bloom).

Eowyn, of all the characters, is the closest to a feminist heroine that The Lord of the Rings offers. Her status as a swordswoman is the most obvious trait that differentiates her, but it must be said that physical prowess and fighting ability do not a feminist make. Aragorn consistently belittles her, insisting she stay out of the fighting she longs to join and treating her as a mere apprentice in swordsmanship, though she is more than capable, while her uncle and brother speak frequently about safeguarding her and chide her when she protests. All the men around her treat her like a child and when she does ride into battle in The Return of the King she keeps Merry (Dominic Monaghan) always at her side. In The Two Towers, she is subjected to the vile attentions of the traitor Grima and her defiance and disgust are only faintly expressed. It's clear that she is vulnerable at court as a woman, but it's really rather disappointing that a woman prepared to ride into battle proves unequal to firmly rejecting a lecher.

The one moment in the films that should prick the feminist ear is in The Return of the King. King Theoden (Bernard Hill) lies mortally wounded and the Witch King of Angmar, leader of the Nazgul, prepares to finish him off. Eowyn, seeing her beloved uncle in mortal peril, steps between them and fights the Witch King. He nearly kills her, laughing at her defiance because he can be killed by no man. At this point, Eowyn reveals herself to be a woman and she stabs the Witch King, destroying him and proving the prophecy true - no man has killed him. This victory is, however, very much mitigated by the fact that Eowyn does not act alone. The Witch King is weakened first by Merry, a hobbit (thus the prophecy holds true), who stabs him with an enchanted blade and gives Eowyn an opening.

The prophecy about the Witch King is dependent on a fundamental weakness of patriarchal ideas. The Witch King assumes himself invulnerable because it is inconceivable to him that any creature but a man could be a mighty enough warrior to challenge him. Hobbits are described as retiring, adventure-shy, and too small and weak to be fighters; the same view is held of women. In the end however, the hobbits earn the adulation and gratitude of an entire world, having proved themselves creatures of courage through their adventures. Eowyn is destined to be the bride of Faramir (David Wenham). Oh, yay.

While I was watching The Two Towers, I turned to my sister and pointed out that the Rohirrim could double their armed forces if they armed the women as well as the men. And then maybe they could not arm all those little kids that definitely did not survive the battle of Helm's Deep.The decidedly patriarchal attitudes of the Middle-earth world thus make the road to victory quite a bit harder. Luckily, Sauron seems intent on a world run by orcs and thus free of women, so he doesn't realize the potential of doubling armies by training both genders, but unluckily, the men of Rohan and Gondor are equally clueless and thus take greater risks than needed by fighting with vastly out-numbered forces. They are constantly frustrated by the small size of their armies, in every single battle fought; I say, arm the women.

The most unfortunate aspect of the treatment of female characters in The Lord of the Rings is that there are no female characters that are not, by the end, romantically attached. Galadriel is married and shares the rule of her realm with her husband. Arwen, as expected, becomes Aragorn's queen. And Eowyn, having first pined for Aragorn, falls in love with Faramir. Male characters are not treated in the same way. Frodo, Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, Merry, Pippin, Bilbo - none of them are romantically attached. The women's destinies are wrapped up in the men; the men's destinies are their own.

As a feminist, I'm quite used to seeing films that fail to reflect my own values as far as gender is concerned, but I find the exercise of a feminist analysis both instructive and, in a way, cathartic. I love The Lord of the Rings films; The Lord of the Rings films reflect values in opposition to my own. Through this process of analysis, it is possible to complicate the patriarchal values of these films, without losing an appreciation for them and without compromising my own politics.

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