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Unseen Hobbits, Un-noticed Prejudices 8 January 2013

Posted by Dr Moose in Life, Ponderings, Self-criticism.
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One of the beauties of Twitter, and social media in general, is that by participation you are exposed to contrary viewpoints. Obviously we already pre-filter our contacts to some degree, and I must confess to occasionally de-friending and un-following people who stridently promote positions I find offensive. I would expect people to do the same to me. However, even with a degree of selectiveness, there are still those glimpses of the world-view of the other, or more significantly, the others’ critique of your own world-view, without those observations being directed at you personally.

One of the hashtags that crosses my path every so often on Twitter is #everydaysexism. I do not think of myself as being deliberately sexist, and have had to learn along the way, like anyone else (although the sub-set of “courteous behaviour” is a bit of a minefield in this regard…) Certainly with female twitter friends and followeds it seems to arise more often than on Facebook, even without the hashtag.

Yesterday I was part of a conversation over J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit which started with the film and moved into the book, and by turns The Lord of Rings (book). The opening gambit was something like, “I don’t remember Galadriel being in the book, but then again, I don’t remember there being any female characters in the book.” (We also took a side-trip into Dwarfish women, but that’s another story). The truth is that Galadriel doesn’t appear in The Hobbit and her placement in the film (I refuse to use the word ‘movie’, horrible word) is part of the sweep of background from the appendices of the LOTR and the wider backstory. We could only think of one living female character the original book, a hobbit nemesis, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins (a miniature Hyacinth Bucket with added acid). She may be a strong female character, but not in a way that any would wish to emulate!

So where are the women? Well, with the exception of the tangential Pratchettism that some of the dwarfs may actually be female, but that we wouldn’t notice, a long shot, the truth is that they simply are not there. They do not figure at all in the bigger picture, however much (or little) influence they may have had in shaping the lives of the central characters.

My point to all this? I would never have really noticed or passed comment! I’ve known the story for years, about 30 of them, and it’s never been an issue. It’s just the way it is. Tolkien was a man of his time, in fact in many ways he was a man of a time before his own. For me as a 10 year old (and me as a 40-something 10 year old) the story is complete.

I have heard rumours of an extra female character being introduced as a love interest later on, and I am disturbed. I thought it was because I am something of a purist when it comes to Tolkien, but is there more, buried a little deeper? To my way of thinking such an addition is un-necessary (as are the vast majority of rom-coms and much television!) I would even have ventured to say that it adds nothing of value. Of course, it seeks to engage a wider audience, which must be a good thing from a box office perspective, and since that wider audience constitutes about 50% of the species, it’s rather important!

The challenge for me is not to accept the demands and real needs of our times, and is only a small one to my “purism” and concerns about inherent tradition “the way it’s always been done”. No, the challenge to me, on occasion,  is to even notice, and maybe that noticing comes hardest in the oldest and most deep set patterns, like much-beloved stories of childhood. Now you’ve got me thinking whether there are any women in W E John’s Biggles….

(As an aside I will admit that when my daughters are deep in their Daisy Meadows Fairy books, I’m always rooting for Jack Frost and the Goblins too! Fairies? Bah! Humbug!)

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Comments»

1. Jane Williams - 8 January 2013

I enjoyed the Hobbit as a kid, and identified with Bilbo as I was meant to. Did it bother me that he was male and I was female? About as much as the fact that we had different colour hair – it was about as relevant. He’s a different species from me, as is almost everyone else in the book – why should I worry about a little thing like gender?
Irrelevant differentiators only become relevant if the author makes them relevant. If Gandalf had refused to take one of the dwarves because he had red hair, that would have been a problem for any red-heads reading: since in fact none of them did, any prejudice on the matter never showed up.

Reading it now? No, none of the characters are female. Much more importantly to their match to my self-identification, none of them are programmers! None have a bad back, or swollen legs. None of them wear glasses! They don’t like knitting! Aargh! How can I possibly identify with people so unlike me?

Going back to childhood, C.S.Lewis, on the other hand, got it wrong. We’re sailing nicely along with a mix of characters, half of whom happen to be female (though Edmund was the one I identified with), then “War is wicked when women fight”. Huh? And it’s perfectly OK when men do it, is it? Jarred me right out of the story, that did. He’d suddenly made an irrelevant differentiator blatantly relevant, and that wasn’t a good idea at all.

2. Nick Brooke - 8 January 2013

Women in “Biggles”? Surely there’s a beautiful French woman who after a brief romantic involvement turns out to be spying for the Boche in “Pioneer Air Fighter”. Or am I deluding myself again?

3. Carys Underdown - 8 January 2013

A woman being introduced as a love interest would bug me more – women are more than love interest.

Interestingly the lack of women in The Hobbit and to a fair degree LOTR (though Arwen rocks) doesn’t bother me – it’s mediaeval in some sense (though actually there are strong women in the Mabinogion as the in the Silmarillion). Whereas it really got on my nerves in Asimov’s Foundation, a woman appeared eventally on about p. 91 and vanished pretty quickly. I think because that’s the future.

4. tzunder - 9 January 2013

It is probably more male-only than many books of it’s day. If you look at contemporary juvenile fiction it has plucky girls and a much broader gender range, but as Jane says, it’s not actively promulgating a sexist agenda. On the other hand CS Lewis was actively promoting a very clear Christian morality, and he did it with a more recognisably mid 20th century range of peoples.

5. Peter Bensley - 12 January 2013

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. Modern feminism has almost moved past the fight against overt sexism, legal restrictions on what women are allowed to do and so on, and into the realm of identifying unspoken, unacknowledged biases.

Sometimes this can lead to tokenism and agonising over things that simply do not matter. Other times, it can reveal profound and largely invisible injustices.

While ‘jobs and votes’ is pretty intuitive, these sort of issues are less so. For instance, it’s common in movies these days to have a tough female warrior, either as the protagonist or the love interest, who either overcomes the sexism of her society or surprises the hero by showing her combat skills.

These sort of movies present themselves as feminist, (and in many ways are) but they actually reinforce the idea that fighting is a man’s game by consistently presenting these women as rare, exceptional, and surprising.

I don’t think we need to rewrite old stories to be more sexually and racially inclusive (though I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it if someone has a good idea for it – casting Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury hasn’t been to the detriment of the character) but there’s a lot to consider about how we write new ones, and why Hollywood can seemingly only write a decent, non-cliched female protagonist by writing the script for a male or gender-neutral character, and then later casting a woman. (Ripley from Alien being one of the most notable examples.)


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