Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Alternate Narratives

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In looking for the movie equivalent of the supporting female roles in video games I described in my last missive, I came across Laurie Penny’s article I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, where she describes the trope of a role:

Not being sure what story you’re in anymore is a different experience depending on whether or not you were expecting to be the hero of that story. Low-status men, and especially women and girls, often don’t have that expectation. We expect to be forgettable supporting characters, or sometimes, if we’re lucky, attainable objects to be slung over the hero’s shoulder and carried off the end of the final page. The only way we get to be in stories is to be stories ourselves. If we want anything interesting at all to happen to us we have to be a story that happens to somebody else…


Part of the reason I’m writing this is that the MPDG trope isn’t properly explored, in any of the genres I read and watch and enjoy. She’s never a point-of-view character, and she isn’t understood from the inside. She’s one of those female tropes who is permitted precisely no interiority. Instead of a personality, she has eccentricities, a vaguely-offbeat favourite band, a funky fringe.

These ‘quirky’ plot devices tend to go hand in hand and indeed play opposite to the lead in a repertoire of movies about manchildren: You know, the collected works of the likes of Seth Rogen, Zach Galifianakis, Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith, men who are themselves good examples of overgrown teenage boys. They’re fantasies made for a young male audience by a young male industry cadre. The Guardian posed suggestions as to why so many of those movies have gotten popular play: The successes of feminism questions traditional male roles, the difficulty of the economic climate prolongs adolescence, et cetera.

I think it’s simpler than that: They’re there because they always were there. We’ve just gotten slightly better at noticing them. Michael Cera and Will Ferrell aren’t doing anything but what Chris Farley and Adam Sandler did in the 90s, and they weren’t doing anything but what Tom Hanks and Bill Murray did in the 80s. Of course it goes further back than that, but one of the things from Penny’s article that struck me was this line:

Lady hobbits didn’t bring the ring to Mordor. They stayed at home in the shire.

Now, Lord of the Rings is a hotbed of ugly social assumptions at the best of times – as lampooned humorously in this McSweeney satire – and Tolkien was no feminist. After all, the number of active female roles in his books, which he clearly spared no detail, can be counted on one hand. When people tend to defend his credentials in that field, however, they tend to gravitate towards Eowyn (of the no living man” crisis, hur hur) and Galadriel as examples of powerful women. The thing is, they’re both mainly fleshed out in supporting texts like the Silmarillion, and in the main text tend to be defined by their love interests or weigh heavily on the madonna side of the madonna/whore dichotomy. Either way, they’re far from lead characters, serving as pedestals and plot points before they’re people. Peter Jackson indeed had to inject new content to make actual female characters for the movies, citing a general lack of material.

Eowyn, a character who masked herself as a man to get things done but eventually settled into a traditional female role, did get touted by, of all people, Tea Party Republican Christine O’Donnell, who then went on in true GOP fashion to argue for traditional female roles from an ironically nontraditional female role. Apparently she’s never heard of the term ‘tokenism,’ but then neither did Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin.

I’m somewhat loathe to criticize the book, however, because at times it feels like criticizing the bible: You know what point you want to make, but some nut somewhere will quote scripture at you until your ears bleed. Regardless, the reason that quote set me going was that it prompted something of a thought experiment of what the plot could be if the hobbit contingent was gender equal. Bear with me here: Pippin and Merry are now female, and in Manic Pixie Dream Girl style still largely comprise their roles to uplift Frodo from his often morose and weak-willed angst.

This time, however, they have actual personalities, so they quickly bore of dragging these sops around and instead ditch them to solve the world’s problem themselves. The boys, angered at being left behind, feel the need to prove themselves as the true captains of the expedition and follow them under the assumption that the girls will need their help eventually.

Suddenly, there’s no need for the Smeagol character, for Frodo assumes that role without difficulty. Furthermore, what we get is a Smeagol that is less physically ugly and more emotionally ugly, as befitting a character who learns halfway through the plot that they’re not the protagonist. Not only would it be far more compelling narrative – something the series sorely lacks – but we wouldn’t then have to rely on the “amazon,” as Tolkien described her, who ended up married off under another autocratic lineage, to be the standard-bearer for feminism in fantasy fiction.

In it I’m just swapping one fantasy enablement for another, but considering the paucity of diversity in what is clearly supposed to be escapism, what could it possibly hurt? It might even help.

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