The Lord of the Rings as a franchise doesn’t age well when subjected to critiques of feminism and racism; it is unfortunate that the original books were a product of a society that was entrenched in some very nasty attitudes towards those who were not eminently respectable white gentlemen. This does not mean that Tolkien and Lord of the Rings are ‘bad’, just that it’s an intensely male and white franchise. It is what it is, and it is as much a period piece as it is a great fantasy work.
So, along comes the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. They are undeniably great films, but have a definite gender problem. Middle Earth is a very male place indeed and there are four named women who hold prominence; Arwen, an elfish princess who is the love interest of Aragorn, Éowyn, a shield maiden of Rohan who is romantically interested in Aragorn and ends up pushed to the side to be with Faramir, Galadriel, who… gives presents and has wise voice overs, and Rosie, who is the love interest of Samwise (much to the disappointment of a generation of young women Tolkien could never have predicted). Can you see what the problem is here? Saving Galadriel, who barely features in the second and third films, the women have a function as love interests to men. And while I think Éowyn is an outstanding character, and she serves a vital function in the destruction of Sauron, she does get shoved off to Faramir right at the end. It’s as if the giant misogynistic finger of God descended from the heavens, pointed at poor old Miranda Otto in her battle gear, and loudly proclaimed for all to hear, ‘Well done, you have killed the Witch King in order to defy the boundaries of your patriarchal society. Now you can settle into babies and retirement with this man that you barely know. I hope you like beards!’.
Now, I know you’ll be saying that this is a silly criticism to make. The films were written by a predominately female writing team, can’t I be happy with that? And it’s not like Peter Jackson can just insert a female character just to fulfil your silly girly fantasies of riding around Middle Earth without washing and not having to settle for the first man that is free. They are a fairly accurate and loving adaptation of Tolkien’s epic trilogy, and the women can only perform the role proscribed by the canon text.
When it came to making The Hobbit into a film, the Jackson writing team decided that they would turn it into three films. There are plenty of pros and cons of that decision, but the team decided that a major problem was a lack of female representation. They could bring in Galadriel, as they adapted parts of The Silmarillion in order to make the films serve as a direct prequel to the original trilogy, but The Hobbit is a 100% sausage fest. It was absolutely unacceptable that there would be a three film series with only one named woman of importance. The question was, were would the original female character be inserted? The Mirkwood elves were the best choice, seeing as they play an important role in the second and third films, and expansions could be easily made. Enter Tauriel, the female captain of the guard, and an absolutely guaranteed ass kicker. Evangeline Lily took the role on the promise that her character would not be involved into overly complicated romance plots; after all, she was well known for playing Kate on the show Lost and was unfortunately despised for her boomeranging between Sawyer and Jack. Tauriel was going to be exciting and wonderful and remind all us twenty something female fans of the moment when we saw Éowyn or Arwen swing their swords and for a precious moment knew that strength, nobility, and courage does not solely come in a male package.
I sat anxiously on opening night, with my box of popcorn and my packet of Minstrels, and… well, Tauriel certainly does kick a lot of orc backside, but she unfortunately falls right into Beaton syndrome. What is Beaton syndrome? Kate Beaton, the artist and writer behind Hark A Vagrant!, identified that ‘strong’ women in films (‘strong’ being a synonym for ‘I may be a sexy [insert job here] but I can also kill a lot of things with my pinky finger’) often invariably get pushed into a relationship with one of the convenient men around her for no apparent reason. A woman’s existence must be vindicated by her connection to a male character, and love is an appropriate avenue.
Tauriel, for all that she is captain of the guard, falls squarely into ‘love interest’ territory. Not only is she the token woman on display – where are the elves of Mirkwood hiding all their other women, I wonder? – but she is double the amount of love interest. Tauriel, despite the promises Peter Jackson made to Lily, is the focus of a love triangle. The Prince of Mirkwood has feelings for a lowly, common elf, while she finds herself attracted to the bad boy dwarf prince. This is the kind of cliché I cut my teeth on as a fiction writer, and has all the bad smell of studio hacks all over it. After all, love triangles produce huge box office returns; the despised Twilight ‘saga’ brought in the big bucks with their ridiculous ‘Teams’, and the Hunger Games is marketed to teenage girls as being the intense struggle Katniss has between Peeta and Gale. If you want to bring in an audience of teenage girls, who have lots of money to spend, then you must include this latest market fad.
That is what Tauriel feels like. She feels like the creation of network executives. She has a love triangle. She is another archer, in a market where archery is very popular. She can be sold as a toy to both boys and girls, making the most profit the company can get from the great Tolkien cash cow. She is vaguely conflicted. Tauriel feels like something created by a group of men ticking boxes for maximum demographic appeal.
It is noticeable in a year where Bryan Fuller, the noted cult TV writer, has created a new adaptation of Thomas Harris’s ‘Hannibal’ novels. The Harris books, similar to the works of Tolkien, reflect the attitudes and society of the age in which they were written – in this case, the world of law enforcement in the 1980s. Fuller knew that the Hannibal books are not diverse to successfully reflect the modern world, and genders and ethnicities of characters have been changed. It makes not a lick of difference to the show, other than to highlight what other franchises are getting wrong.
This is a tragedy to what could have been a stunning achievement as a character. Tauriel, when taken away from the love aspect of her subplot, is an elf who dreams of seeing beyond the confines of her forest home. She wants to experience a whole new world. She knows the rank hypocrisy of the system that holds her up and yet would refuse to aid those who do not conform. Like the greatest of Tolkien’s characters, she looks beyond herself to fight against evil. In the film, her feelings about the evil that is spreading across Middle Earth must be related to how it impacts on the men in her life, not upon her own instincts. All that she does must be joined with a thick line to a man, denying her any agency of her own. She does not achieve the noble aim of diversifying Middle Earth.
However, this does not mean that I dislike Tauriel as a character. Yes. I know. That does sound massively contradictory considering I’ve spent over a thousand words summarising why she fails under a feminist critique. But there is something in my gut that means I cannot dislike a woman working and striving to achieve something in a masculine world that attempts to deny her presence. As soon as I saw her, kicking orc arse and being a general badass, I liked Tauriel. She is a lone woman surviving in a world that does not accept the different. She is a woman struggling with the pain of letting down those she cares about. She finds the token that humanises a creature she despises, and makes her turn away from an age-old animosity between races. She finds herself connected to someone she might lose because of old and powerful evil that she cannot fight against alone. Evangeline Lily is an immensely talented actress, and makes a part that feels so small and so proscribed so utterly real. Despite myself, I found myself believing in the connection that she made with Kili. To tell the truth, even though it was riddled with problems and felt like the decision of a network board, I found it utterly adorable. There is nothing like impossible, difficult, tragic love to melt my bitter heart.
No matter her faults under a feminist critique, Tauriel embodies the best traits of Tolkien’s characters; compassion, courage, a willingness to express and feel love, and the determination to fight for what she knows is right, no matter what the personal cost may be. When my young niece is old enough to watch these films with me, I will not be upset or angry if she wishes to be like Tauriel. I would only wish that she would take those values, and demand more from the unequal world around her.