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On Tauriel, Love Triangles, and Girls in Fantasy

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It’s kind of late for a post on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The movie came out almost a year ago now, but after being disappointed by There and Back Again, I never went to see it in the theater. But I finally watched it a few days ago, and I’m now full of Thoughts on Tauriel, the original character created to address the slight problem that there isn’t a single female character in the entire novel.

How could I resist writing about that? I have such strong and contradictory feelings about her character. She made me want to jump up and cheer. I want a Tauriel action figure, I want her own spinoff series, I wanted her in every scene… and I left the movie knowing that I was cheering for one of the most cut-and-paste “strong female characters” I’d ever seen.

And this contradiction, I think, comes from Tauriel being the only significant female character in the movie.

Tauriel is undeniably a good character. As the captain of the guard in Mirkwood, she’s a warrior elf full of badass fighting skills who longs to see more of the world outside the forest. She is unquestionably capable and brave, and I think the thirteen-year-old me who first saw Fellowship of the Ring would have died of fangirlish happiness if she’d had a Tauriel to idolize.

But of course there is a “but.” And this one is all about romance.

I’m firmly of the opinion that romantic subplots don’t weaken female characters, and that it’s absurd to even suggest that a character is somehow lesser because they make eyes at someone else. But Tauriel was invented to make up for the fact that the book has no female characters, and then she’s immediately stuck into a love subplot. And not, so far, a well-developed one that takes into consideration elf-dwarf hatred and her desire to see more of the world outside the forest and generally adds to the plot. It feels shoe-horned in. The conversation between Tauriel and Kili in the prison was pretty perfect, in my opinion, a great balance between humor and confidence and vulnerability, revealing things about both characters and suggesting that yes, there could be a connection there. But once the two characters had interacted, the writers seemed happy to slip into old cliches. Kili is in love with Tauriel. Tauriel will run from the forest and risk herself to save his life.

Add the fact that this strange romantic subplot was turned into a love triangle, apparently against Evangeline Lily’s wishes during pick-up filming, and it becomes rather uncomfortable. It feels a little too cut and paste. Tauriel is badass with a bow because audiences like female characters who are badass with a bow. She is in a love triangle because audiences like female characters in love triangles. She’s the modern movie female character default. And although she’s fun to watch, and although Evangeline Lily’s acting does elevate her above that status in many scenes, she doesn’t quite escape it.

Worse, the love triangle’s flimsy existence allows people to claim that she was only added in for unnecessary romance, probably to “appeal to girls,” rather than because the series needs more awesome female characters.

Honestly, these cliches wouldn’t matter as much if Tauriel wasn’t the only significant female character. But when a movie only has one woman, there’s a lot of pressure on her to be all things for all people. Every character choice becomes a statement on Women in Fantasy. A non-fighter seems weak. A badass fighter feels very “strong female character.” Whoever she is, she can never feel quite enough, because she’s expected to represent Who All Women Are, rather than just herself. You need multiple female characters for them to become people who stand and fail on their own merits.

So I’m really glad that Tauriel was added to the movie, and she’s one of the things I’m most excited about seeing in the final instalment. But I think she was sloppily handled, in part because the writers thought that adding her in would be enough. The movies are already playing fast and loose with the book. So why invent just one new character, when they could easily have switched up some genders? Some of the thirteen dwarves could have been female. Bard could have been a female smuggling hero. The townmaster could have been the townmistress. Smaug could have been a female dragon. Heck, even the sketchy minion of the townmaster could have been a woman. A few of bard’s daughters and one named hero don’t quite cut it. And it means that, despite Tauriel’s many moments of awesome, she’s constantly being analyzed as The Female Character. She isn’t Tauriel; she’s The Girl. The Girl With The Bow And The Love Triangle. And so every squee-inspiring moment is marred by one question — do I like her because she’s awesome, or because she’s the only significant female character in sight? And is she actually an awesome character who is female, or is she the cookie cutter Awesome Female Character, with all lazy writing that implies?

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

12 thoughts on “On Tauriel, Love Triangles, and Girls in Fantasy

  1. Your post makes me think about something which was left out of the Lord of The Rings movies. In the novels there is a love subplot were the dwarf Gimli falls in love with the elven queen Galadriel and she somewhat returned his affection, even if the romance never became physical.

    Tolkien described Galadriel as “the mightiest and fairest of all the Elves that remained in Middle-earth” (after the death of Gil-galad) and the “greatest of elven women”. There is a character which should be expanded, even if she couldn’t be made part of the movies about Bilbo.

    1. I would really love to see something like that! Unfortunately, I think they’re restricted because they don’t have the rights for the Silmarilion – otherwise I’d really love a movie about Luthien as well.

  2. This post basically summed up my conflicted thoughts on Tauriel. I loved her when I was watching the movie (though I hated the forced love triangle), but later the more I thought about her the more I realized that my squee-ing probably had less to do with her being genuinely awesome and more to do with the fact that I was just happy to see any female character in the movie at all. I guess we’ll see how things go in the last movie.

  3. I would have accepted a total lack of female characters if the movie makers had stayed true to the novel. But they haven´t. The basic plot is the same, but so many details are changed. Therefore I don´t understad why they just put in one significant female character (though I agree Tauriel is awsome) AND the stupied romance / love triangle.

    It doesn´t make sense at all in a movie with SO many unneccessary scenes. The “golden statue”, too long action scenes, too much of Bard running around in Laketown etc etc. At the same time, some scenes in the movie are really great, but the makers need to overlook their priorities.
    It would have been great with Tauriel beeing just Tauriel (and perhaps some romance with Legolas), and more focus on – for example – Bard´s daughters and the eldest of them falling for Kili or something. And why not a female town master? All that would have been enough.

    It´s not about changing half of the dwarves or half of the characters into women. But if you are going to change the novel plot at all: Improve it. Don´t add stupied computer game scenes and forced love triangles when you can just put in one or two more female characters with lines and some importance. Tauriel IS an improvement, but not the whole romance thing.

  4. The problem is not only that she is the only significant female character in the movie. Why are there also no insignificant female characters, besides Bard’s daughters? I am bothered that Tauriel is the only female Mirkwood elf we see. She is the Captain of the Guard, and no one finds that unusual. This suggests that female warriors are common in Mirkwood. But then why do we see none among the extras? We see plenty of Mirkwood warriors and palace guards, and they are all male. I have the bad feeling that the writers thought introducing another female elf, even as an extra, would divert the attention from Tauriel, would make her less special. It is as if they preferred to make her special because she is female, instead of relying on her characterization.

    In any kind of work having a single female character among many male does the character disservice. She will always be “the girl”. Viewers and readers may describe the male characters as “the smart one”, “the short one”, “the funny one”, but the single female character will be “the girl” just because this is the first thing that comes to mind. Her personality becomes less noticeable and less memorable, and writers and viewers seem to forget that being female is not a character trait.

    And you are right that if there is only one female character, she can never satisfy everyone. If she is a fighter, it makes us wonder if the writers are saying that only physically strong and capable women can be strong characters. If she is not a fighter, are they saying women cannot be warriors? She has to represent all women, and there is no way this could work.

    Tauriel being the only female wood-elf we see raises some other unfortunate questions. Is Kili interested in her because he genuinely likes her, or because she is the only woman around?

    Some of the Kili romance scenes worked better than I expected, and yet it all happened too fast. Kili has just appeared and Legolas suddenly acts jealous, without any justification. Tauriel drops both duty and old friendships to help Kili. It might have worked if not for the love triangle – why couldn’t Tauriel and Legolas just be very good friends? It is so seldom that we see purely platonic female-male strong friendships (the only examples that readily come to my mind are Elementary and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland). I like to think that Thranduil is imagining things and there is no romantic interest, but Legolas’ glances and words in the dungeons suggest otherwise. And if the writers really, really wanted a triangle, they could have tried to make something sweet and beautiful – instead Legolas came off as childish, unreasonable and possessive.

    On a slightly unrelated note, I was not too happy with the way they treated Galadriel in “An Unexpected Journey”. She was more like a god-like creature on a high pedestal that had to be worshipped, instead of a real person. Gandalf was being snarky with Elrond and Saruman, challenging their ideas and not bothering with being respectful. Whenever he said anything to Galadriel, his voice and demeanor changed completely and he became overly admiring and servile. Yes, she is almost a god-like creature, but not more so than Saruman, and yet Gandalf has no problem arguing with him. It might have made sense if Galadriel was supporting Gandalf’s side, but she was not supporting any side really. In fact, she was barely there, just saying something with a mysterious voice and not driving the argument one way or another. Sometimes I had a feeling her thought process was something like: “Hm, which way should I turn so that my dress and hair look perfect and elvishly mysterious? There, but I have to do it slowly so that my dress makes a perfect circle on the ground. And I must make sure my back is towards the sun…” Yes, she is the Lady of Light, she is graceful and one of the most beautiful elves in Middle-earth, but again, being beautiful is not a character trait. It could have been so much better.

    1. It’s depressing that I didn’t even notice that she was the only female elf we see. It just feels so natural to see mostly or all-male background characters. Ugh.

      I’m glad that Galadriel looks like she’ll be playing a role in the third movie, but the trailers do make it seem like she’s going to continue what you rightfully complain about… looking elegant, being god-like and generally standing back from events as a symbol of perfection.

    2. Even though I am too not satisfied with having no other female elf characters at all, I don’t think having only one female elf warrior is really the problem.

      I recall the traditions and culture of elves (I don’t recall its exact name) written by Tolkien himself, which states that it is only a matter of tradition that male elves are warriors and females are healers, and their status are equal. One reason is that an elf cannot be both because killing reduces the power of healing. But if a female has to fight in desperate circumstances or if she chooses to to br a warrior, she can fight as well and as fierce as any male.

      And so what I have in mind is really to have to movie to show more about the elf culture, more female elves (where are the healers really?), and if possible, depict how equal they are.

  5. Hmmm, So being about to fight and kill warrants being considered to be a “Strong” person?Interesting indeed. I can’t relate fully to the “excitement” of adding a character that simply doesn’t fit into a storyline and destroying that story by doing so. I’m an African American man living in Australia. I think that gives me some insight into at least some parallels of biases and unjust cultural standards and exclusions. I remember the spate of African American television and Movie stars back in the 90’s. It was horrible. A ton of poorly scripted, stereotypical characters and scenarios that made me cringe. Characters and situations that were, “Bad ass”, filled with corny humour and some poor interpretation of cool. Having seen that sort of crap done with race, I can’t figure out why some one would want the same thing done with gender. It doesn’t do anythign except strengthen harmful stereotypes and widen any gaps in equality. If Peter Jackson had a cowriter who decided to add a Black man simply because there are no black people in Tolkiens Middle Earth…( oh wait there actually are, but Jackson decided to make them tattooed middle eastern people instead… ) I would have cringed and thought to myself, way to go dumb ass, you actually just succeeded in making a mockery of any movements toward equality. Imagine a Black Elf king, or a few dark skinned dwarves. It would be the sort of facepalmable decision that has, cash grab and marketing ploy combined with a really twisted outdated agenda attached to it. I certainly wouldn’t feel excited about the character just because of his/her race. That sort of forced agenda making only leads to further stagnation of actual forward movement.

    There is all this fuss about no “strong” female characters despite the fact that arguable the most powerful character in both trilogies is Galadriel. Why does she need to be superseded by by a character that would better fit in a Disney made for kids movie than a screen adaptation of one of the most celebrated novels of all time.

    I agree with the original poster that the character is shoe horned into the storyline at the expense of the story itself. I disagree that it was a good addition at all. The source material had more than enough great “stuff” to make a couple of brilliant films. Instead it’s just low brow Hollywood crap that serves only to entertain for a a few minutes with so so CGI. The addition of these extra characters only serves to make the film marketable after it leaves theaters while taking focus away from one of the best actors in characters in the series, The Hobbit Bilbo Baggins.

    If they thought that the film needed a “Strong” female character added to the cast, maybe they should have just made a different film. Take The Edge of tomorrow as an example. Great story adapted from a novel. Main character is a woman. She’s not at all weakened by cliches and silly agendas. She is an integral part of the story, in fact she is the main thing that makes the story work. Their are a ton of films with women situated in key roles that viewers can choose to watch. Why ruin a perfectly good story with these poorly done additions.

    That’s my take on it anyway.

  6. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a shame that Tauriel is the only female elf out there. I haven’t read the book yet, but i assume that there are even fewer woman, which makes me kind of sad. Can’t authors accept that there are not only strong man, but also strong woman? “Behind every strong man there is a strong woman” or not? Just look at the heroes of lord of the rings and the hobbit. Frodo and Bilbo are both male. Wouldn’t it be cooler to have a female master thief? Or a female ring bearer, trying to face the evil in assistance with her mule sam? I think that would be really awesome, but instead they’ve made the same mistake as everyone..

  7. It’s really depressing that Peter Jacksond didn’t even think of the subject. Even my psychologist agreed, that it’s a shame woman are opressed in (pop)culture. It’s like they didn’t even try to show a strong woman. I mean Tauriel is the typical girly characterr that falls in love with one of the main characters, that’s bullshit. She leads the entire elven guard, such a great leader shouldn’t bother about love. Love could be used as a weakness by her enemies.

    1. I really don’t think that Tauriel is a “typical girly character,” or that she’s weak or a bad leader because she has a romance subplot. After all, “loved ones ones are weaknesses” plots are used by the enemies of male guards and leaders all the time. 😛 But the plotline definitely wasn’t well-executed — more romance because they thought a female character should have one, rather than romance because it fit that character and her story arc.

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