I’ve been ignoring American politics. And I’m going to keep ignoring American politics! I’m going to ignore Christine O’Donnell’s views on the proper use of genitalia and instead comment on her views on a much more important subject, the women of The Lord of the Rings.
You see, much as I disagree with her on just about everything, she’s articulate and she’s a Tolkien fan. And she’s written an article about her thoughts on the women of the LotR trilogy.
Every female fan of LotR has to come to grips at some point with the fact that it’s extremely male-centric. There just aren’t that many female characters, though the few that show up are memorable. O’Donnell’s rationalization is two-part: first, not every story has to be about women; second, actually the women who do make an appearance are complex characters.
I partly agree with the former argument – it’s a great set of books; I don’t want it to be anything else. This is largely how I approach the problem myself. But let me point out that this is practically the definition of privilege – I’m just going to do my thing (be a book about men), it’s not my fault everyone else keeps doing this too.
Now, about the women themselves. Do they “possess..authentic depth of character”? Most of them are present for so little of the story that it’s not apparent. The reader could imagine a great deal of nuance to, say Arwen’s decision to give up immortality for love, but there’s little writing devoted to that part of the story. The exception, I think, is Éowyn; I don’t mean that she’s a better or more interesting character but that she’s the most developed female character; we actually see her thoughts—and this is largely because she gets the most page time.
As for the women of LotR “manifest[ing] at their core, true womanly femininity”, well, I suppose they do manifest O’Donnell’s beliefs about what constitutes womanhood. Tolkien’s Middle Earth has fairly specific gender roles, and these women fulfill them. They are a source of strength, calm, and peace; they are strong-willed and noble; above all they do what’s right. Although their actions are widely different, they are cut from the same cloth. O’Donnell picks up on this – but to her, “His female characters, although drastically different from each other in personality, manifest at their core, true womanly femininity.”
The women of LotR are the same but different. O’Donnell emphasizes the differences and insists that they paint a complete picture of what women should be. I see them fitting into one rigid role and accept that as part of the universe in which Middle Earth exists (and ignore the fact that it’s supposed to be our own world’s past), and then I can think about the differences.*
I’m going to skip over O’Donnell’s brief analysis of Belladonna, Bilbo’s grandmother, because I don’t remember enough about her and don’t have the books on hand.
Arwen. Is she really “Tolkien’s most popular female character”? I’ve alwaysassumed that was Éowyn, but maybe that’s just me. O’Donnell’s assessment of Arwen is accurate: she is passive, she is tragic (she’ll have to watch Aragorn die someday), she is pure. This purity thing is interesting. I think it relates to the point I tried to make above, that Tolkien’s women are cut from the same cloth. They are all sexless; they don’t have to worry about naughty thoughts distracting them, ever. This is true of every character in the books, though. Again, something about the books that I accept but that O’Donnell probably wouldn’t mind becoming reality.** But it’s something that eliminates a huge dimension of human character. The fact that Tolkien wrote some many well-developed characters almost without reference to it is remarkable. (Also, I guess I lied about ignoring O’Donnell’s opinions about the proper use of genitalia.)
Back to Arwen. O’Donnell has a problem with the movie version. She’s too masculine and too saucy. When the Fellowship movie came out, the extra emphasis on Arwen bothered me too. But really, they needed to cut down a long story, Glorfindel was a minor character, and why not play up Arwen, since she’s important but it was hard to introduce her backstory on screen. And she’s not masculinized. She does show up with a naked blade, but she does not remotely fit into the warrior princess archetype. And the “sauciness” that seems to have offended O’Donnell so much just isn’t there. I think she’s constructed a straw man—evil feminists who wanted tough female characters and wouldn’t have watched the movie otherwise—to take down some of Peter Jackson’s understandable, if not fantastic, departures from the books. (On this note, the scene where Arwen changes her mind about going to the Grey Havens? She decides to stay in Middle Earth when she realizes she could have had BABIES.)
Now for Éowyn. O’Donnell takes Éowyn as proof that not all of Tolkien’s women are “pure and angelic”. Her inner conflict is a strong contrast to Arwen’s passivity. O’Donnell plays up Éowyn’s pivotal role—the fact that she has to disguise herself as a man, but only because she’s a woman is she able to defeat the Witch-King—appropriately, I think. But, again, I’m not that convinced that Éowyn is all that different from the other female characters. She’s still perfectly noble and pure. And her shieldmaiden role is a pretty well-established trope, one that Tolkien must have known about. Éowyn giving up her sword is something I was uncomfortable about, but it fits O’Donnell’s worldview perfectly – she “reconciles her femininity with her warrior spirit” and discovers her “true womanhood”.
This aspect of O’Donnell’s ideal gender roles interests me. To be a female politician, you clearly can’t believe that a woman’s place is in the house. O’Donnell seems to be more concerned with purity/chastity. She doesn’t mind whether a woman chooses a career over a husband or manages both, as long as that woman also manages her sexuality appropriately. And Middle Earth just isn’t that concerned with sexuality. Honestly, I’m not sure why more right-wingers aren’t total geeks.
I think I may have just argued that the mores of LotR are also Tea Party ideals…help?
*It occurs to me that this is rather like many biologists’ approach to human sex differences. We look for differences and ignore the large similarities. (And the whole non-binary thing.)
**I just want the part with dragons, magic, and swordfighting to become reality.