Tolkien News

Women and Chauvinism in Middle-earth

Image Credit: EW Weekly

Image Credit: EW Weekly

In light of recent events, the question of women and their role in Middle-earth arises once again. Even though we have only seen a few seconds of Tauriel, a lot of controversy has been built around her character already. Yes, Tauriel does not exist in Tolkien’s version of The Hobbit (and I can understand Tolkien purists that are unhappy with any changes to the original plot), but the amount of hate that people have specifically towards Tauriel is, in my opinion, growing out of hand. I will not focus on Tauriel and the unjustified criticism towards Evangeline Lilly in this article, however Middle-earth News will be devoting an article on this issue alone in the future.

Whether one likes Tauriel or not, one cannot deny that Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit, lacks female characters. Actually, there are very few female characters in Middle-earth in general. Many accused Tolkien (and his books) for that reason, the lack of female characters and their representation, to be  paternalistic,  misogynist, or chauvinist. I count myself among those who disagree with the aforementioned accusations.

For a news team that consists entirely of women, the issue of women in Middle-earth is of great interest to us at Middle-earth news. However, this subject is far too complex for one article alone. Instead, I want to devote several articles for individual characters.

Before analysing the definitions of misogyny, chauvinism, or any female character in detail, I have to mention one more thing. During my research, I realised that many tend to confuse the author Tolkien with the narrator of the story and characters within the story. What a character says within the story cannot (and should not) be seen as a representation of an author’s opinion. The same thing applies to the narrator; the narrator is not the author (even though many tend to forget that).

I will try to provide various examples that show how the narration of The Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion do not represent women in a degrading way but how individual (male) characters are chauvinistic or misogynist. For example, the German Tolkien scholar Dr. Frank Weinreich already analysed it in more detail, “whenever [paternalism or chauvinism] appears within The Lord of the Rings, it is not only stigmatized as wrong, the behaviour against paternalistic tendencies has positive outcomes” (cf. Fantasy-eine Polemik).

But what are misogyny, paternalism, and chauvinism? The Oxford English Dictionary defines male chauvinism as “the belief held by some men that men are more important, intelligent etc. than women.” Misogyny or a Misogynist is defined as “a man who hates women,” and paternalism is described as a “… system in which a government […] protects the people who are governed […] by providing them with what they need, but does not give them any responsibility or freedom of choice”.

EowynDernhelmMy first analysis will focus on Eowyn, since she has always been among my favorite characters.When reading The Two Towers and Return of the King one cannot deny the impression that Theoden’s ideology appears to be most likely either paternalistic or chauvinistic It is not my intention to imply that Theoden hates Eowyn or women in general, instead I want to show the division of gender roles within the society shape the relationship between Theoden and Eowyn.

Anyway, I do not want to go into too much detail yet. If you want to know more about Eowyn and other female characters you’ll have to stay tuned!

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  1. Ooh, okay. These articles will be an interesting read! I’m excited to read about the women in Middle-earth.
    Are you planning on writing one about Erendis? That may be an interesting article. 😀

    • To be honest, I haven’t thought about any specific ones yet (except for Eowyn), my plan is to focus on as many female characters as possible, so yeah I will probably write about Erendis as well.

  2. christine says:

    looking forward to this series!

  3. Looking forward to this series, even Shelob and Ungoliant before her could be interesting to look at.

  4. I’m looking forward to the series – precisely because I disagree on the idea that Tolkien and his writings were not sexist. There were some strong female characters, and like you I sincerely doubt Tolkien hated women, but the astonishing indifference to them in his works (there are only 19% female characters in the Hobbit, LotR and the Silmarillion according to the LotR Project) and the trend of male domination across various cultures I find pretty troubling. About as troubling as the behaviour in fandom currently, to be quite honest.

    Looking forward to your articles.

    • I don’t know whether Tolkien was sexist (and we will never know), but I want to provide some examples to show why I think (and that is really just my personal opinion)that while there is chauvinism and paternalism in Middle-earth, the over all message is not chauvinistic or paternalistic.
      But I totally agree with you, chauvinism nowasays, whether it is in various cultures across theglobe, the media or the fandom, is troublesome

  5. I disagree with people’s perception of Tolkien as sexist; I think, although it takes place in another world, his story stays pretty true to the way men and women interacted with the world around them in medieval times. Tolkien could not help the way things were during that time frame.

  6. Hi Maria,

    thank you for taking on this subject; it is a very touchy one and a very difficult one to discuss, given the fact that most people equate omission with discrimination when Tolkien’s sources make it ‘quasi’ impossible to have more female characters. I am very much looking forward to this.

    There are three points I would disagree on right from the very start, though.

    Firstly, the concept of the “purist” is something of a knockout argument as there haven’t been many people who could really explain to me what this is supposed to be – and particularly not what the opposite would be called. I’d definitely consider myself a purist but I do have the Burger King figurines from FotR at home 🙂

    Second, I don’t like Tauriel not because she is in the film – I don’t like her because she is a fig-leaf for a film production company and a marketing team to exploit. Why not a female bataillon? It is very obvious that elvish women were very apt warriors and influential in all decision-making. I’d love to see an all-female-cast theatre production of “The Lord of the Rings.” If you really were for “equality in interpretations of classical fantasy writing” then you should have more than one character; this way, Tauriel is simply reduced to her role as eye-catcher. Guess what people would call that?

    And thirdly,

    “Whether one likes Tauriel or not, one cannot deny that Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit, lacks female characters.”

    Honestly? I don’t see why but then the gender barrier might hindert me in understanding this. To me this children’s story does work very well. What does not work are modern expectations but that is probably one of the topics you will address throughout your series. So yes, I could definitely deny that. Just sayin’ 🙂

    Very much looking forward to this!

    • You’re right, my usage of the term “purist” is oversimplyfying things. But I’ve met many people (internet and real life) that wanted the movie adaptation to be a one to one copy of the book. There have been changes in the plot (LOTR and the Hobbit) that I wasn’t happy with, but what I wanted to emphasise is (and thats an issue that needs to be dealt with in more detail) that there there are some people attacking Evangeline Lilly personally. There was even a headline saying “the woman that ruined the Hobbit”.
      Maybe she is just an eye-catcher. We don’t know it yet. And that is the issue, atleast when it comes to Tauriel. I think she has great potential to be an interesting character. But that is something we all able to judge after we’ve seen the Desolation of Smaug.

      As for the Hobbit, I share your opinion. It is a children’s story and I can live with the lack of female characters. It’s my favorite book. But, the fact that there are so many male characters than female ones is something that that female readers have a problem with. Maybe it is a gender barrier, maybe not. I really hope to get some more comments on all these issues in the future to get an idea.

      • Fionnuala says:

        My husband and I both consider ourselves to be hardcore purists, but neither of us wanted the movies to be exact copies of the books. I’ve never met anyone who sincerely felt that way. Are you sure you have? Have they actually said that? I find most people tend to assume that anyone who thinks the movies were terrible adaptations (me) wanted them to be exactly like the book, but that just isn’t so.

        • Yes I’ve head people saying that they wanted the movies exactly like the book.
          True, I came across this notion as well that criticism towards the movies are equalled with the idea of replicating the book one to one. My personal opinion is that the movie has its flaws (can’t say anything about the upcoming ones yet)and is not as good as it could have been (but, yes I do like them nonetheless)

  7. Fionnuala says:

    If you define “sexism” as “having any views about gender and sex which do not agree with modernist philosophies like feminism” then yes, Tolkien was sexist. But so am I.

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  9. the.aspiring.madwoman says:

    Admittedly, I only have the movies and the dvd featurettes to work from re Tolkien himself, but I have interpreted the ‘lack’ of women as a simple reflection of the era Tolkien grew up and lived in. As a product of the British boarding school system and the tail end of Victorian mores, women (as a species) would likely have been nearly totally alien to him, whereas he was intimately acquainted with the spectrum of male personalities and war friendships. I don’t see any sort of belittling or hatred, merely an unfamiliarity that did not allow him to include them in the same depth that he approached his male characters. It is, perhaps, unfortunate, but probably better than him attempting to write what he did not know.

  10. Aspiring madwoman I think you are right and that is an insight that is lost on many people today. everyone is a product of their own time. It is the rare person that transcends it.

    Maria, as for the series, I look forward to it. I believe it is best to judge the films – and the actress’s performance – after the films have come out and not before. Creating websites dedicated to attacking Lilly personally are beyond the pale.

  11. Great subject! And a good start putlining and problemising the subject.
    I grew up devouring Fantasy, as a child I loved C S Lewis, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynen Jones and Lloyd Alexander to name a few.

    I am the kind of reader that do need to connect and identify with at least one female character in a book, even if she’s mostly supporting. Right or wrong, that’s who I am. I could never get through The Hobbit. I dragged myself through LOTR in stops and starts all through my teenage years and only after I turned Merry into a female hobbit i my head. I LOVED Silmarillion!

    While I do think Tolkien is complex and not misogynistic we should not be too dismissive of his lack of female protagonists in the earlier works. His close friend Lewis certainly included quite a few. Though I will say Lewis seemed more at ease with young girls as protagonists and adult women tend to be more… problematic/dangerous.

    It is interesting that Tolkien seemed to progress over time to think of women as important players in his world. If I may proffer a request for future installments: Lúthien. While there are a llot of tropes in her story, she still subverts some by being the one who saves the captive boy.

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