There’s something cutting edge about the 9 warriors that make up the fellowship in Lord of the Rings. They’re not one-dimensional macho fighters who employ only brute strength in the war against evil. They’re a dream team of qualities, abilities, ages, and even sizes!
Yes, the Hobbits — also known as “halflings” — are the diminutive, distinctly non-macho heroes who like their creature comforts, but who also provide the moral center to the story.
For those who haven’t seen it yet (or read the books), “Lord of the Rings” is the fanatastical story of a how the forces of evil are rallying across earth to recapture the powerful ring that harbors the great powers they need to finally crush the forces of good.
The ring’s guardian is Frodo — a young hobbit with little physical prowess, but with the rare ability to resist the temptation to wear the ring and gain access to its powers. In a nice twist, it is Frodo’s very lack of ambition that gives him the power to resist the power of the ring, making him perhaps most powerful of all.
Frodo volunteers to destroy the ring by returning it to the fires from whence it was forged. “I’ll take the ring to Mordor,” says Frodo, in essence, agreeing to go up against the entire mass mobilizaton of the world’s evil. “But I don’t know the way.”
I love that line. Imagine sitting in a commercial theater watching a multi-million dollar Hollywood production, and the main male character in the show admits in front of everyone that he needs directions. This is a major moment in male liberation, akin to the female bonding between Thelma and Louise in the 1991 movie of the same name.
Not only is Frodo a refreshingly modest presence in the movie, he also shows a wonderful mix of vulnerability, self-doubt, and hard-driving focus. And he is not alone. The eight others who join him in his quest to return the ring, make a wonderfully eclectic group
— an effeminate elf with his quiver of arrows; an aging wizard who is battered and grimy but always wise; three more hobbits who don’t have a clue how to fight and who can’t stop thinking about their next meal, but who show undying loyalty in their friendship to Frodo; a Viking-esque dwarf with a braided red beard; and two human men, who, interestingly, are the most stereotypically macho of the whole troupe, but who nonetheless get to play in a huge range of emotions, including love, heroism, grief, and joy.
It’s pure pleasure to watch these nine as their adventure unfolds, and they fight for each other, support each other, keep each other on the correct moral course, hug, cry, laugh, and stare deeply into each others’ eyes. They are at the very center of the drama. Their attributes drive the story forward.
They have the agency and authority to determine what happens next, to wrestle with their weaknesses, blend their abilities in the best possible mix, and step forward uncertainly at times, not necessarily gracefully, but with *will.*
It’s so much fun to watch this androgynous mix of adventurers that you can almost be excused for not noticing the gender and race politics in the movie. But the two secondary female characters annoyingly remind us that it’s white men who have all the fun, engage in the real struggles, enjoy complex characters and relationships, and occasionally get their clothes dirty.
One elf woman, Arwen, does participate in a heroic rescue, but with never a hair out of place, and her presence in the movie culminates in the only love scene — one which has her pledging her heart and giving away her immortality.
The other female character — the ethereal elf witch, with impossibly smooth white skin and an unfocused gaze, who floats into view in a perfect white gown and perfect white hair — makes you want to say, “Hey, chick, would you relax a little? Can’t you see the guys are doing a lot of bonding and having fun even as they’re embroiled in a struggle over good and evil?!”
But the witch’s back is ramrod straight, her chin never straying from a perfect right angle to her neck, and they must have used some sort of wheeled device under her gown so that she appears to be chronically floating rather than ever doing something so straightforward as walking. Only when she is tempted by the evil powers of Frodo’s ring, does she stray from the upright and white, and, then, you guessed it, she turns all unhinged and dark, revealing her proximity to evil.
Predictably, the evil characters are mostly draped in black, ride black horses, and have dark skin. The fellowship, on the other hand, is all anglo — different species, true, but all white. So it’s white guys who have all the cool adventures and carry the fate of the universe in their hands, resisting the dark evil force, which, again, predictably, is symbolized by a great fiery vagina in the sky.
All right. All right. I know it’s supposed to be the evil eye of Sauron. But how else would any self-respecting post-Freudian describe the pulsing red slit that threatens to swallow our male heroes every time the ring’s powers start to overwhelm their moral ability to resist?
Even forgetting such a feverish reading of the symbols for now, the movie is typical in that it has you cheering for the guys, even with their shortcomings or perhaps, I should say, because of their endearing foibles. Which is what makes the whole thing so unfair from a gender point of view. Guys get to be real and still be heroes. Thelma and Louise, don’t forget, had foibles, too, which lead them to have to commit suicide by driving their car off a cliff. Who would want to identify with them?
Perhaps it’s too trivial to be concerned about how movies portray girls and women. As I sit down to write this, the day’s front page includes pictures of dead Afghans and news about how homeless people in Minnesota draw straws to see who gets a bed each night during below freezing temperatures.
“Lord of the Rings” resonates exactly because of all the evil that seems to be all around us. What kind of society bombs a whole nation in pursuit of a criminal terrorist? What kind of society lets its people sleep on sidewalks when it’s 7 degrees outside? What kind of society produces movies that relegate women and brown people — to the margins of humanity — leaving them to symbolize evil or, at best, to hover around the edges of the story looking glamorous and unreal?
Can it all be attributed to some single evil force? No. All the bad stuff we read about in the headlines and experience in our day-to-day lives is rooted in human-made institutions, which can change only through human effort.
“Lord of the Rings” is three hours of escapist fun, onto which anyone can project their ideas of what constitutes good and evil. It’s noteworthy that it takes some steps towards freeing men from the macho box and gives them a wide range of attributes and abilities, but it nonetheless leaves feminist commentators like me with the same old axe to grind.
I’m waiting for a major motion picture of mythic proportions that identifies and understands evil for what it is — not just the non-representational “eye”-shaped thing in the sky — and gives women some subjectivity in the battle against it. Not to mention some of the adventures and the fun.
Cynthia Peters ([email protected]) is a political activist, writer and editor.