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Tauriel and the Love Interest Trap

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Well, that was a disappointment.

Over the weekend, I finally watched The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and I was particularly intrigued to see where Tauriel’s storyline would go. As Tauriel was invented entirely for the movie franchise, the writers had complete freedom in building her character and her place in Middle Earth, and although her subplot with Kili in The Desolation of Smaug was too insta-love for my tastes, she also had a lot of potential as a character.

Unfortunately, all of that was abandoned in The Battle of the Five Armies. In the third Hobbit movie, Tauriel is reduced to just a love interest, although one that everyone pretends is something more.

I want to be clear: no female character is weaker or less worthwhile because she has a love interest. It’s not anti-feminist for a female character to fall in love, and the suggestion that it is only furthers the idea that Strong Female Characters should not express softer human emotions.

But it is a problem when the love story is a female character’s ONLY plot point, and that is what happened with Tauriel here.

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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.

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How The Lord of the Rings Broke My Heart

Eowyn

When I was a teenager, I was a massive Lord of the Rings fan. I would count down to the release of each movie, see them multiple times in the theater, and could pretty much recite Fellowship of the Ring from memory. I read the books over and over, my internet usernames were all elf-inspired, and I dreamed of one day owning a replica of the Evenstar.

I loved Arwen, but my favorite female character (not that there were many to choose from) was Eowyn. What a badass she was. To my teenage mind, The Lord of the Rings didn’t have many female characters, but the ones that existed were awesome. 

Then I made the mistake of rereading the books in college. Suddenly I wondered why everyone was male, except for a couple of elegant elves who were mostly off-screen and a hobbit who exists to get married. I was disturbed by the racist tones that ran through the whole thing. But most of all, I was heartbroken by Eowyn.

Because Eowyn, as she exists in the books, is not a badass feminist figure. Not by a long shot. She does several badass things, disguising herself as a man to ride with the Rohirrim and defying and killing the Witch King to protect Theoden. But the book always presents her from a distance, with constant references to her “fairness” and her “beauty,” as though she is something to be seen, rather than a person who acts. And in the end, her fighting, her defiance, is presented as unnatural. She’s a delicate and beautiful lily, warped by necessity, and as soon as she sets eyes on Faramir, “her heart changes.” She declares that she will be a shieldmaiden no longer, and instead dedicate herself to being a healer — a far more suitable female pursuit. It’s almost as though she fought the Witch King because the legend needed someone weak and otherwise unlikely to do it (after all, no MAN can kill him), because the world was wrong and it needed something similarly wrong to do it, something that left Eowyn utterly broken and scarred and as hard as steel. And once the world is healed, she can heal too, and be the womanly figure she was always supposed to be.

The release of The Hobbit was equally sad for me. I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to love it. But all I could think was why, barring a somewhat forced appearance of Galadriel, did not a single female face appear in the movie. Never mind significant female characters. Never mind flat or stereotyped or useless female characters. None. A huge cast of main characters, and all of them were male. My thirteen year old self would have just accepted it as normal (in fact, I did, when I read the book for the first time). Now, I have to wonder why this was considered a good, normal thing.

I still love many things about The Lord of the Rings. Its perspective on good and evil is incredibly simplistic, but it has some compelling elements, and the movies manage to avoid a lot of problems I found in the books. But as I read the books, I can tell that it clearly wasn’t written for anyone like me. The female characters weren’t intended to be characters. They were not intended to be people with independent roles in the story. And I have to wonder — why did I miss these things at 13, or 15? Had I just been trained to see these things as normal? Or was I so desperate to see fantasy and adventure stories with any female characters that I was more than willing to overlook the problems in what I was seeing? These women were warriors and elf princesses, with pretty fantasy dresses and awesome horseriding skills and swords. It was great to imagine being them, and to skim over the details in the books themselves that suggested the characters had never been who I hoped and pictured them to be.

And so finding out that I had misread the characters, that Eowyn and Arwen were never intended to be heroines in that way, that in fact their “heroine” status was taken away by the end of the story? That was a heartbreaking moment.

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The Hobbit

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.

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Anticipating The Hobbit

I’m not excited for The Hobbit.

I’ve been trying to avoid this for months. Telling myself that I am excited, really. That I’m just nervous it won’t live up to wonder that was Lord of the Rings, and that I should have faith. Because what ex-Lord of the Rings teenage fangirl, who counted down to the release of each movie, and watched Fellowship so many times she could probably still recite it from memory, wouldn’t be excited about the release of three new movies?

This one, apparently.

The Lord of the Rings is mostly a boys’ club, but (at least in the movie version) Eowyn is a pretty kickass figure, and one of my favorite fictional characters. They built up Arwen’s role in the story, and Galadriel is one of the Elven ringbearers, so at least there are women there, doing things, even if they are only a small fraction of the visible population.

Not so for The Hobbit. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I think I’m right in saying that there are basically no female characters in the story. Perhaps one of the elves or villagers is a woman? I’m not sure. But women don’t play a named, significant (or even insignificant) role in the story. They don’t matter. They basically don’t exist.

Of course, Peter Jackson can’t put out a film that is 100% male characters, so he’s put Galadriel into the story, and invented a new elf called Tauriel. But unless Jackson diverts quite dramatically from the books (and, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind), these characters can’t be much more than window dressing. They can’t play an integral part in the story. And I think these character posters make it clear: with the exception of Galadriel, it is male character after male character after male character, adventuring together and doing their white male things.

So now my past, Lord of the Rings-loving self is clashing with the new self, who hates “boys club” epic fantasy. And I have no idea who is going to win when the first film is finally released next month.

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