A few weeks ago, I wrote that I wasn’t particularly excited about seeing the Hobbit, due the story’s slight “no women in Middle Earth” problem.
I don’t know whether this is a sign of the enjoyability of the movie, or simply of habits ingrained by years of movie watching, but the lack of female characters (excepting, of course, the powerful Galadriel) did not stop me enjoying the story. The film was what it was, and that was a retelling of one of the oldest, most classic, and so most male and white modern fantasy tales we have. And in that context, the film was actually quite an interesting achievement.
I’m not going to try to argue that The Hobbit was a feminist movie — with only one female character in the whole film, that feels a bit of a stretch. I’m not even going to claim that the film was perfectly executed, because I think it had many flaws. But I think it presented the all-male fantasy adventure in a somewhat new way, valuing strengths other than sheer might and blunt, obvious bravery.
The Hobbit was, sadly, a little too conscious of its connection to The Lord of the Rings. The whole introductory sequence, with Frodo and old!Bilbo, seemed unnecessary, as though the writers didn’t believe that this story could stand on its own two feet. The indecision over whether the film should be dark and epic, like The Lord of the Rings, or light and fun, like the book of The Hobbit, left the movie feeling a bit uneven and confused in tone, and the pacing was all over the shop.
But, like The Lord of the Rings before it, it told the tale of an otherwise quiet, small, unextraordinary person going on to do extraordinary things. Although we have a brave, famous warrior in the form of Thorin Oakenshield, he is a little too bitter and a little too aggressive to be entirely successful on his adventure alone. On the other hand, Bilbo gets them out of trouble repeatedly with “softer” strengths — his wits, his understanding, and his quiet bravery that allows him to creep into dangerous situations or stand up and speak when others would rush in, swords out. One of the key emotional points of the film (and a vital plot point for the future) occurs when Bilbo sees Gollum, the creature who had tried to eat him, crying over the loss of his ring, and decides not to kill him. Another occurs only a few minutes later, when Bilbo declares that he will continue on the adventure with the dwarfs, not because he yearns for adventure or because he wants to fight the dragon, but because he misses home, and he believes that the dwarfs deserve a home as well.
I’m not going to claim that these are “feminine” strengths. But I think they are traits that many other adventure movies would brush over, or present as weaknesses, a lack of proper, adventurous masculinity. The fact that the Hobbit focuses on these traits and integrates them into its adventure is admirable. Similarly, the dwarfs are all more traditional adventurers — but they still have a huge range of personalities and hobbies, including love of things like cooking and knitting.
Of course, with 13 dwarfs, most of whom lack any personality in the book itself, it would have been easy to simply make some of them female. The fannish uproar would have been incredible to see. However, I can understand why they didn’t, as they would have entered a minefield that would be almost impossible to escape from unscathed. If the female dwarfs were pure adventurers, they might come off a bit too Strong Female Character (TM). If they had feminine traits, including anything from cooking through to being the ones who offer Bilbo advice, they might have been criticized for taking too much of a feminine role instead of proper adventuring. One major problem with the current dearth of female characters in fantasy and adventure is that any female character who does appear — especially one who has been created from an initially male character — is expected to represent all women, and no single character can do that without making some offensive implications about what “all women” should be.
The answer, of course, would be to make half of the dwarfs women, with as large a range of personalities and roles as the male dwarfs we actually see. But… well. That would never happen, would it?