The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug: Why Tauriel is Cooler Than Legolas

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Only one woman has a direct role in the narrative of The Lord of the Rings (two, if you count Galadriel), and there are literally no women AT ALL in The Hobbit. So really, you can’t blame them for adding a girl. And not just a token female; a serious and badass character with a direct influence on the plot.

And damn, what a woman they added. Look, I could talk about how interesting this movie is, how it comments on greed and rulership and how these change depending on which societal lens one uses. I could go on about the sheer brilliance of  the metaphor of ethereal elves living in a cave they’ve carved to look like a forest, worshiping stars they never see, ruled by a king filled with fear whose perfect face is a lie. But this is a gender blog, so we’re going to talk about Tauriel–and how impressive it is that the writers managed to make the first Tolkien film to pass the Bechdel Test.

Why Tauriel is Cool

First off, look at her:

Tauriel_portrait_-_EmpireMagThis lady came in swinging. She took out five terrifying spiders in about a minute. She charged headfirst into two packs of Orcs. She battled four Orcs at once–all of which were twice her size. She’s the only character in the whole movie whose life never got saved by ANYONE else, and who in fact saved at least two boy’s lives.

I know, Legolas has some unspeakably cool moments (for those of you who’ve seen the movie, OH MY GOD THE ORC IN THE BOAT). But she’s both cool and doesn’t make you want to smack her. She’s cool while not treating people’s heads as a hopscotch board.

I've never seen a guy get the ass shot and a girl get to look badass.

I’ve never seen a guy get the ass shot and a girl get to look badass. The switch gives me hope for media.

Now, aside from the sheer I-want-to-be-you-please coolness, Tauriel also has a very conscious role as the film’s only girl. And this is a GOOD THING. Women and men are obviously equal, but equal does not mean identical. Tauriel brings the film some beauty, old-school feminine healing energy and assorted lovey-dovey stuff, and some compassion and tenderness that no other character offers. She makes the film seem more about people, instead of about men.

Why it’s important that Tauriel is Girly1381233197_desolation-of-smaug-trailer

Early on, Beorn says that he hates dwarves because they easily ignore the value of all life they deem less worthy than their’s. All through the film, we see characters doing this. Thorin judges more and more lives unworthy. Thranduil clearly judges only his own elves to have lives of value, and even then it is a variable value–Tauriel has less worth than Legolas, for instance. Smaug and the Orcs view all life as valueless.

Tauriel doesn’t think like this. When Legolas tells her to leave Kili to his fate, she doesn’t do it. She judges his life to be valuable enough to save. She judges the lives of strangers in other lands valuable enough to protect. She tells Legolas that they are part of the world, and that they have a responsibility to protect it.  She’s not willing to just hide behind her borders, in safety–she wants to walk among the stars.

Power in this film appease most clearly when people make a value judgement of another’s life against their own.  Tauriel values other’s lives as worth risking her own, no matter what race they happen to be. Legolas doesn’t, which is what makes him an ass. Same goes for the Master, for Thranduil–who is basically preying off Lake Town, bankrolling a tyrant–and for Thorin, who has to be persuaded to help his friends.

Tauriel has power, and she uses it for good. She tempers her elven holier-than-thou attitude with kindness, with caring. She’s willing not only to kill, but to save.

Why Tauriel is the Film’s Surprise Heroinethe-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaug-banner-2

One of the main complaints leveled against LOTR is the lack of moral ambiguity. Evil is evil, good is basically incorruptible, and no one ever has to challenge these basic ideas. Boromir–and, to a lesser extent, Faramir–is cited as the main exception to this rule.

In “Smaug,” EVERYONE is Boromir. Everyone is sorely tempted, not by the ring but by riches. No matter their race: Thorin, the Master of Lake Town, and Thranduil all long after the treasures of the Lonely Mountain. The rest of the characters are driven more by desires than by noble ideals, more by their hearts than by their honor.

The only two exceptions to this rule are Tauriel and Gandalf. Gandalf is working on a grand scale of “the Enemy” and those who oppose him, but even so he is plagued by self-doubt, painfully aware of how easy it is to make mistakes. e4e327a6-5e62-11e3-_486623b

Like Gandalf, Tauriel is a straight good guy, and it suffuses her character. We are always on her side. Unlike Gandalf, she’s working on a far more complex scale. We meet her at a critical time, when her loyalties to her King and to our old friend Legolas are in conflict. She may be the loneliest character we meet in the film, because all her relationships are laden with the racial politics that LOTR skidded over. She’s the person caught in the cultural machine, and she doesn’t really know what to do.

Above and beyond that, Tauriel has a calling like Gandalf’s: to fight evil, wherever it hides itself. She believes in things bigger than herself, bigger than her little love triangle.

Yet, even though Gandalf and Tauriel are the least morally ambiguous characters, they are still faced with conflicts far more complex than anything anyone had to deal with in LOTR. They find themselves forced to make hard choices, which challenge their ideas of right and wrong, of loyalty and love. Their choices have no easy answers, and only time will tell if they were right.

Yes, she’s cool even with the love triangleThe-Hobbit-The-Desolation-of-Smaug-2

Yeah, it’s a bit annoying that the only lady in the 3 movies is in the middle of a damn love triangle. But whenever I start to get irritated, I think about this: Kili literally has a personality only because of the lady. She straight-up defines his character. And Legolas’s motivations come entirely down to Tauriel. As in that’s literally why he’s still in the movie after a while. Also, he only becomes remotely tolerable when Tauriel’s in the room (seriously, what an asshole). So love triangle it may be, but the boys are in way more over their heads than the girl.

And the writers go out of their way to make sure Tauriel’s motivations–unlike the boys’–aren’t solely down to a love interest. She does this whole speech thing to Legolas, and it makes it clear that this is bigger than a dwarf with a crush, bigger than one land and its borders. This triangle does not define her.

Race in Middle Earth

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Race was a really uncomplicated concept in LOTR. Legolas and Gimli were embodiments of their respective races, and had no other individual traits. The hobbits all shared basic characteristics stemming from being hobbits.

Tauriel makes race complicated. Tauriel is the wrong kind of elf (did you know there were wrong kinds of elves?) She’s an individual, one we can empathize with, and she’s caught in the middle of a racially supercharged love triangle. No matter what she does, she’s violating taboos. Her very existence is devalued by her King solely because of her race. Everything she does is loaded with racial judgements. And no matter what sort of choices she makes, the racial politics of Middle Earth are such that she is bound to unhappiness.

This is crap, and these people are kind of crap for buying into it all. Tauriel’s voice breaks when she calls herself “A lowly Silvan elf,” and you know she doesn’t really want to believe that. Kili thinks she walks among the stars, but enchanting as that is Tauriel knows how tightly bound she is to the earth.

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I’ll just leave this prediction here:

Tauriel has a 100% chance of dying next movie. Bet you anything.

Partly this is because they have to kill people this time. I mean, for god’s sake, not killing people in this movie was so ridiculous they lampshaded it with that barrel thing. All these damn characters and one has been hurt at all. Unless you count Legolas’s nosebleed, but seriously, I’ve rarely laughed harder, so don’t.

For a big battle to matter, someone’s gotta die. All three LOTR movies had a battle where someone died a big death, even if they had to take liberties with the books. Tolkien describes overwhelming death among all the races in the big Hobbit battle.

Sure, you don’t want to distract from the big death–which I won’t spoil, even though the book is older than my parents. But for that reason, you don’t want to kill members-of-a-certain-race. So you’ve gotta kill (I”m sorry, but SPOILERS) men or elves, and it’s gotta matter so we can feel it.the_hobbit_the_desolation_of_smaug_photo_tauriel_1

So, since we’ve got 3 elf characters and 2 are off-limits, Tauriel it is.

Also, they have to do something about Legolas. I mean, seriously, he is such an overwhelming ass. Who the hell freaks about a nosebleed? And hilarious as it is for him to mutter about dwarves being ugly, jealously is very unbecoming.

Then there’s the fact that Legolas went with the Fellowship. I mean, at the time it just seemed like a thing. But now, we know he’s from an isolationist kingdom and that he’s been taught to a) avoid big evil battles and b) not invest trust in other races. So what the hell is he doing tramping across the world, protecting a short person? (Next time you need cheering up, try to imagine what happened when the Mirkwood delegation broke the news to Thranduil).the_hobbit_desolation_of_smaug_tauriel_t

Something’s gotta give for this character to make sense, and it’s gonna be Tauriel. We now know why he hated dwarves so much, but there’s more than that. There’s nothing like losing someone you love to make you re-evaluate your life, and I bet anything that’s what’ll happen in the next movie.

And seriously, if someone doesn’t slap Legolas or Thranduil in the next movie, I will be so pissed. Maybe Gandalf can practice his staff thing on one of them.

 

V for Vendetta movie: that’s one way to fix women in comics

V_Vendetta-spray-eV for Vendetta movie: That’s better.

Postapocalyptic movies are rather masculine places. “Feminine” qualities like love, community, beauty, and peace are often suppressed and/or eradicated in dystopian futures. In the great dystopian stories, this is the great tradegdy of the world in which the characters are trapped.

The movie V for Vendetta is one such story. The setting is a fascist future in which England is the last man left standing, in which her government is run by conservative white men and her people live in fear of fingermen, who will happily gang-rape any vulnerable woman they meet. And onto the stage walk our two protagonists: Evey, a young woman whose family perished bringing her world into being, and V, a terrorist without a face or a name.

Evey is saved from a brutal sex crime by the terrorist, who happily unmans the men attacking her, launches into an impressive monologue, and invites her to hang out with him for a while. Evey cautiously accepts, and the next day pays for her interest.

Evey chooses to side with V, attacks a police officer who’s cornered him. This is a radical difference from the comic book, in which V carries Evey off without asking and she ends up crying on his shoulder. Evey is quite freaked out and angry about this whole situation, and not cool with being held a prisoner.

V’s character, a terrorist who could easily be utterly unsympathetic in his merciless actions, is humanized thorugh his interactions with Evey. Clearly feeling guilty and rather lonely, he throws on a pink apron and makes breakfast. He shows nervousness and almost adorable childishness when caught fighting a suit of armor, re-enacting his favoritie movie. And when Evey formulates a plan of escape and asks him to include her, he accepts, and even gives her the opportunity kick a sexual predator’s ass. Evey makes the decision to bail and go to a friend’s house direcly inverting the comic in which V abandons her on the street.

And then we get to the redefinition of the term “tough love,” when V tortures Evey for several scenes. The goal of this torture is for Evey to discover who she really is, for her to feel love for Valerie and to find the inch of herself that no one can ever take away from her. But the methods V uses to bring Evey to herself are unforgivable, and Evey doesn’t forgive him. What was done to V was monstrous, and it created a monster. Evey leaves him, and agrees to return to him only once, per his “last request.”

Evey’s rebirth is directly contrasted with V’s rebirth, but the two experiences are intensely different, and they make two very different people. V was reborn in fire and hate, was fueled by rage and lonlieness towards vengeance. Evey was reborn in rain, from the love of V and Valerie, in the middle of a city filled with people. She gloried in “God,” in the rain, while V raged in the fire. And she walked out into the world, while V walled himself off and wallowed in his pain and his plans.

When V decides that Evey is the one who has to pull the trigger, the one who has to decide to change the world, he recognizes this difference. When he leaves Evey on the train platform after she asks him to choose her over his revenge, it is a reconition that he can never be a human being again, that he can never go backwards. V can never take his mask off, can never escape the world of bloodshed and pain in which he was born. But Evey can.

The future V gave everything he had left to create belonged to people like Evey, to people who could take off their masks. Evey is beauty and she is light, she is the heart of humanity that cannot be destroyed. And she is what survives after all the rest is gone, and in the world that V could never have inhabited, the world in which he would have been lost, she carries the human part of him with her.

The Avengers: We have a Hulk.

The Avengers: We have a Hulk.

No one needs to be told now that The Avengers is unbelievably good, that its in its cinematography, characters, and its sheer awesomeness it has permanently raised the bar for movies, maybe even a la Star Wars. As any geek worth her stake knows, Joss Whedon was the mastermind behind the movie. Whedon is known for all of the aforementioned strengths, but he is also known for his unapologetic feminist stance and his careful attention to gender.

The Avengers has only one serious woman character, that of Black Widow. She is everything that makes a female action star an actual star, without turning into a Lara Croft caricature. She is utterly in control of any situation, both emotionally and physically. She can manipulate gods and look unbelievably hot in a dress, while showing bad guys where they can shove it and clearly maintaining a serious emotional connection with Hawkeye. To all future directors, I beg you to use Black Widow’s character in this movie as a model for every future woman action lead.

But Avengers is really a movie about masculinity. The traditional masculine hero is Brad Pitt or Mel Gibson, a gorgeous, strong man who listens to no one’s authority but his own and travels through the world without letting it touch him or harm him. Yes, James Bond has his ladies, and most other heroes have some sort of emotional connection with a woman to humanize them, but as a whole they do not let their feelings get in the way. A true man is an island.

Whedon uses Avengers to blow this idea apart. The only people who stand alone are Fury and Loki. Loki’s inability to relate to people leads him to choose defeat over surrendering to his brother, and Fury’s manipulative character, his emotionally mercenary character, permanently sunders him from any real attachment. He’s the person who can dip a friend’s prized possessions in blood to use as emotional blackmail.

The heroes of the Avengers were usually protagonists in their own movies, fought the good fight and got the girl. Now they are all thrown together and told to work as a team, and immediately begin to rub each other wrong. They argue constantly, and it’s easy for Loki to begin a crisis which separates them. Having been unable to deal with each other on a personal level, they are literally separated and forced to fight smaller battles. The team comes out as decided losers.

And that’s where Phil comes in. It’s not heroic need or egotism (I’m looking at you Stark) or battle fury that makes the team come together. No female love interest or family member is threatened or killed, triggering an assertion of masculinity and vengeance. It is Phil, who was a good man, who believed in them, who brings them together. They mourn him together, and it is through this emotional bond that they are able to find unity.

And the film makes clear that unity, community, is the only way to victory. Each of the Avengers brings his or her own individual skills to the table; Hawkeye keeps an eye on the big picture and directs the stage, Captain America gives the orders and makes the plans, Black Widow spots the weak spot, Tony empathizes with Loki enough to figure out his plan and makes the sacrifice no one else can make (and also found the gang a good schwarma place—it’s after the last credits end), Thor deals with the long-term plan and throws lightning around—a useful skill—and Hulk smashes. Without all these abilities working in tandem, nothing would have worked. It is a tribute to Whedon’s skill as a writer and director that this dynamic can be felt in every frame of the climactic battle, that amidst all the CGI we never lose track of the characters and they never lose track of each other. It’s a bit hard to see with all the effects, but if you watch a second time around you can see that even though the Avengers are often separated, they are fighting as a seamless team. Without needing to talk, they fall into each other’s rhythms—Tony reflects missiles off Captain America’s shield, The Hulk stabs a scale into the monster and Thor smashes it deeper.

That is the ultimate message of The Avengers—that there is nothing unheroic in working as a team, that there is nothing emasculating about love or community. And to join a whole does not mean to lose your identity—each of the characters maintains their own identities, their own strengths. All Loki has is himself, all he will ever have is himself and his own pain, but scattered as the Avengers are at the end of the film, they will always be able to count on each other.

The Avengers: Gender

So obviously, this is quite possibly the best movie of all freaking time, and like any geek worth her salt I could go on for hours about all the different ways it is amazing. However, this blog is about gender, so I’ll be limiting myself to going on and on about how amazingly gender-conscious Joss Whedon is, and how that translates into the utterly compelling characters millions are even now enjoying.

A lot of Mr. Whedon’s work is about strong women, and Black Widow certainly fits into this larger picture. Black Widow subverts expectations at every turn, uses her ostensible weak positions—her introductory interrogation, her chat with Loki—to manipulate men who think they’re stronger than her. She has powerful reserves of inner power, and is as brave or clever as any other Avenger. Before this movie, I admit I was suspicious of having “normal” people mixed in with superheroes, but she made me eat my words and enjoy doing it.

But the movie is a boys’ club, not in a bad way, but in that most of the chracters are very masculine men. But the movie is as much about showing how weak they are as it is about showing how strong they are, and Whedon uses the combination of larger-than-life masculinized power with utterly human needs to draw characters who feel completely real.

Each of the characters excels at physical, traditionally masculine talents, able to fight as soldiers and kill as strong men. At the beginning of the movie, all of them except for Tony are alone, isolated from everyone. But none of them really fit the “island” image of a hero who needs no one but himself; Banner occupies himself helping Indians in Calcutta slums, Tony and his girlfriend plan how to stop an energy crisis, etc.

The initial tension, which is so layered and fast-paced that I will not even try to analyze it until I’ve seen the movie at least twelve times, is about how they are each drawn out of their comfortable contexts and forced to deal with each other. They have all had to rely on other people from time to time, but to join the Avengers means for all of them to admit that they cannot fit the traditional, isolated ideal of self-sufficient masculinity. It becomes clear on the ship that they must work together, must rely on each other to save or stop them.

More than that, it is not their heroic need to save the world that finally unites them as a team, but rather their shared grief. The pain of Phil’s death, the way it tears their hearts out when they see the bloodstained vintage cards, is what drives them. They aren’t fighting because it’s the right thing to do, or because they need to be the hero (cough*Batman*cough), they are fighting because someone they cared about is dead. And in that need to avenge, come the unity they need.

The final fight, which holy God was the best climax I have ever seen outside of The Lord of the Rings, was a demonstration of the strength and power behind this unity. The heroes have to work together again and again, must stop fighting with one another and just feel how they fit together. They fall into natural roles, Hulk the tank, Black Widow the brains, Captain America the commander. The choreography is such that the heroes never seem to be alone, the camera angles whizzing around New York City keep all of them connected to each other. There is no real final battle between one hero and the movie’s villain, but rather there is a complex and beautiful battle of one team against a horde. And as a team, they are able to do what is necessary and live to tell about it. And hell if I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Irene Adler–A Holmesian Balancing Act

Irene Adler: A Holmesian Balancing Act

“This is your heart, and you should never let it rule your head.”

In the new Sherlock series, Irene Adler is not a one-dimensional femme fatale who is eventually so reduced as to require saving by the male hero, is not a sexist portrayal of a damsel in distress. She is a unique player in the game, the only character who is able to find a balance between her heart and her head, and though this balance costs her one victory, it gives her the ability to influence others and win what the show deems a far more important victory: that of the heart.

Irene is the principal antagonist of “A Scandal in Belgravia,” but due to the mere handful of episodes the show gets every year the center of every episode must be Sherlock. The essential story of the show is not that of a series of mysteries, but of the humanization of Sherlock Holmes. When we were introduced to Sherlock, he declared himself a “high-functioning sociopath,” was baffled as to why someone would be upset over their child’s death years later, and was so obsessed with his games that he was willing to play the taxi driver’s game. Sherlock and his brother both scorned emotions, friendship, sentiment, right up through this episode, but the fact remains that this detachment from their bodies, from their hearts, keeps these two from being whole people. To be a machine, rather than a man, is not something to aspire to. As Lestrade says in the pilot “Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and one day, if we’re very very lucky, he might even be a good one.” To be a complete person, everyone must find a balance between their emotions and their reason, even Sherlock Holmes, which is how he may yet become a “good man.”

Sherlock is on some level aware of this, which is why he has never attempted to sever his connection to John Watson. John is nowhere near as intelligent as Sherlock, but he understands people on an emotional level that Sherlock just doesn’t comprehend. Sherlock’s journey thus far has been towards understanding that no one, not even he, can live without love, and his teacher has been John Watson, whose effect comes through clearly in this episode in which Sherlock makes jokes, laughs, and even offers his first sincere apology. But John has taken him as far along the spectrum of emotions vs. intelligence as he can, has “softened” Sherlock enough for Irene Adler to start slamming her way in.

Sherlock and Mycroft are solidly at the intelligence end of the spectrum, whereas John is solidly at the emotional end. Irene Adler stands balanced in the middle, and has learned to use this balance to her advantage. Her sexuality is a weapon, one she uses without for a moment surrendering her intelligence. She can make a fool out of Sherlock Holmes wearing nothing but a borrowed coat, can hide herself from his deductive skills wearing only makeup and heels. She is present in both her body and her mind, whereas Sherlock exists solely in his mind. It is easy to forget that Sherlock was naked in public just a few scenes before Adler walks in starkers, because Sherlock was so embarrassed by his nudity that he surrendered to Mycroft’s demands rather than be exposed. Irene is so unembarrassed by her sexuality that she leaves Sherlock Holmes speechless.

Irene’s presence highlights where each of the characters falls on the spectrum of emotions/sexuality and intelligence. Her first “death” shows how detached the Holmes brothers are, as they discuss the weakness of caring in a morgue. It also shows how Sherlock has begun to move on the spectrum, as he is clearly deeply affected by both her death and her resurrection. Her hyper-sexualized characterization brings the question of Sherlock’s sexuality, or lack thereof, to the forefront, showing how disconnected from an essential part of being human he is. Her emotional portrayal also shows how emotional Watson is, when during Irene and Watson’s conversation Watson’s concern for Sherlock is constantly at the forefront, and he and Irene exchange not a word about anything except their mutual relationships with Sherlock. It is even through her actions in sending her phone to Sherlock that Sherlock’s love for Mrs. Hudson becomes obvious. And finally, the climactic scene in which she loses one game clearly illustrates both Sherlock’s and Irene’s strengths and weaknesses.

Irene is finally brought down by her balancing act, by the emotions which she embraces as a source of power equal to her intelligence. She was able to manipulate emotions Sherlock didn’t even know he had in order to gain information about the jumbo jet bomb, and her phone was filled with information gained through the use of her own and others’ sexuality. Irene turned that emotional power, with a little help from Moriarty, into a weapon to use in the game of intelligence, but it was that emotional power which proved her downfall on two levels.

The emotions she brought to the surface in Sherlock gave him the key to his deduction. Earlier in the episode, Sherlock’s deductive power was given an essential push by the emotions raised in him when the CIA spooks threatened to shoot John. At the end of the episode, a similar emotional nudge is used to fuel him when Irene mentions Moriarty, raising a different emotion in Sherlock: that of envy and fury. With that, he is finally able to figure out Irene’s password.

Using Sherlock’s name as a password was both a sentimental and clever choice on Irene’s part, as she was clearly counting on Sherlock not having the emotional intelligence to figure out that she would choose something so obvious. If he had not used her pulse and pupils to read her heart, she would have won easily. But her whimsical sentiment for Sherlock led to her downfall, as his realization of her attachment led him to what he called her weak spot: her heart. He found the chink in her armor, and as he scorned all love and connection he used it to beat her.

But that was only one game: the game of wits and cleverness. Irene was playing at both ends of the spectrum, and though she lost at the game of intelligence, in the world of the show that is not the important game. After all, while many people live perfectly happy lives without being geniuses, who would truly want to live without love? In the game of emotions, sentiment, attachment, Irene won hands down. She broke through Sherlock’s emotional armor, making him for perhaps the first time in his life act on sentiment, rather than reason, in saving her life at the end of the episode. She won at the game that really matters, and her victory was far longer lasting than his, as she will eventually be able to regain her position but her effect on the other characters will never be erased.

Irene Adler is what Sherlock, Mycroft, Moriarty, and even Watson can never be: a truly whole person, who lives both in her body and mind, in her heart and her head, in the privacy that Sherlock and Moriarty embrace and in the world that Mycroft usually rules. She is a whole person, and Sherlock recognizes this, perhaps even envies her for reveling in that which he has never been able to understand. That is what makes her the woman, the only one who matters. She shows Sherlock what he has been missing locked inside his head, and brings him closer to real, powerful emotions than he has ever been. Who would truly want to live without caring about anyone? Not even Sherlock Holmes, it seems.

Tyranny of the Petticoat

If you like your fictional women cool, complicated, and interesting, this blog is for you. The dynasty of the dames will be center stage here, as I will be posting reviews of books and television shows at least three times a week from this point on. Any good book, movie, or tv show should be able to stand up to a critical eye examining its gender dynamics, wouldn’t you think?

Why is it such a big deal that a television show is portraying “strong women characters”?  If the show has strong male characters, people just say it has strong characters! Have you been bothered by flippant comments about old books and movies that “it’s just a product of its time”? Have you ever been infuriated when you heard people say that badly written women characters don’t change the quality? Do you completely disagree with everything I’ve just said? Then feel free to argue, counter-analyze, and rage all you like.