Movie: When social engineering has a spot at the drawing board [spoiler]

(With this post, my side-trip into BotFA/The Hobbit Movie feels, processing, and even quickie fix-it ficcing ends. The next post on Friday will pick up from where I left off with my notations for the Silmarillion chapters. Yes, the ANGST of Middle-earth cometh! Watch out for Reader: The Silmarillion. Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 21 “Of Túrin Turambar”.)
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Thranduil_BotFAWith two viewings of BotFA, it’s enough to make me question if I want to go back for a third time. Very unusual for this fan of the Middle-earth movies. The thing is, I’ve been thinking, and I’m not happy it’s The Tauriel Conundrum having a field day(s) in my noggin, and not Thranduil’s visage. But the compound question of representation, political correction, affirmative action, and the emblematic social engineering in a movie series like The Hobbit is an interesting one.

(Fair warning. This is a LONG spiel, and there may be some controversial or uneasy to process thoughts about society after the cut, so look away now if it’s not your cuppa.)

Question

I’m stealing this from a fellow forum user as it perfectly sums up my issues with Tauriel.

I understand that Tauriel was (among other things) introduced to open Legolas’ eyes as to the plight of other peoples with a emotional arc that links his Hobbit-era self to the version we see in when he arrives in Rivendell who is disdainful of dwarves. But doing it that way diminishes Legolas I think. Could Legolas not have opened his own eyes after seeing first hand the death and destruction in Laketown after Smaug attacks? Or what about having more of a father and son disagreement/conflict over whether or not elves should become more involved? Think of the character development! We could have had such a wonderful series of interactions between them leading up to Legolas seeing Thranduil overcome his own disregard for others and honoring the fallen Thorin by placing Orcrist on Thorin’s tomb.

To me, Tauriel is the film makers’ Frankenstein’s Monster, created at the expense of not only diminishing Legolas, but Thranduil, the only bona-fide book character of the so-called triumvirate of Elves in The Hobbit (TH) series. The existence of Legolas during the events of TH is highly plausible. Yes, there would be other Elves, and in fact we see other Elves of Thranduil’s kingdom in the movies. Was it necessary to force a wholly film-maker created character onto the narrative? Why not use Thranduil’s wife or mother? Yes, they made Thranduil’s wife a dead non-entity until her sudden mention in BotFA. If that is acceptable, why not use her from the beginning?

Speaking of wives and mothers, anyone noticed the distinct absence of wives and mothers of canon characters in the movies?

Dead in movie-verse

* Thranduil’s wife/Legolas’ mother
* Bard’s wife/Bain’s mother

No mention in movie-verse

* Thranduil’s mother/Legolas’ grandmother
* Thrain’s wife/Thorin’ mother
* Thror’s wife/Thrain’ mother
* Kili and Fili’s mother, Dis; incidentally, the only canon Dwarf-woman character with a name

And yet, there is this brand new female character created because “there were no female characters in the book at all really”, according to Philippa Boyens (PB) in this interview. One who is apparently young, because Peter Jackson (PJ) was thinking of “all those eight-year-old, nine-year-old, 10-year-old girls who come to see these films” (source). And it seems, in keeping with the trend to create perfection in books and other social media that young girls access (or should access), she’s a character who would fit idealisms of being female these days. The fact that Tauriel is an Elf is the first giveaway. Add youth, a special circumstance (orphaned, raised with the prince of the realm, favoured by her King who took her in and raised her, and at 600 years young already for a Captain of the Guard), and a unique outlook to justify her moral compass of Elvendom status. Yes, a girl who’s special and just not quite like the rest. What’s not to like about this textbook Mary Sue? (source 1 and 2).

I have tried to keep an open mind about Tauriel, despite the premonitions from DoS. And I am sorely disappointed to have the movie-makers’ vaulted creation laid bare as the trope of tropes despite all claims to the contrary.

As a female, I am rather insulted by the writers and movie-makers presumption of what is needed to persuade me to buy that movie ticket, or even that they could shape something, and not very well done at that, that appeals to my self-identity and get my money that way.

I read the book, both TH and LotR, without needing the presence of female characters in them, to convince me to like them. I went to watch the whole LotR trilogy, multiple times and bought the EEs, without the benefit of female representation. I never needed characters that I could identify with to like a book, movie or whatever, and I certainly do not need them now. Granted, I am far beyond the age demographic the writers have tailored Tauriel for, but I feel sad for the writers that they feel the need to create a character like this just to try capturing the intended demographic instead of letting the movie stand on its own merit. I feel doubly sad that their target audience is thought of as needing such incentivising to go see it. Worse is if they can be so easily swayed to see something, just because of this thing done in the name of enablement.

In fact, the scene of the female Laketown refugee with Asian features threw me out of the moment and left me cold, not invoke a sense of “Yay! Someone, and look a WOMAN, who looks like me in a Tolkien movie, never mind that it’s set in the very Caucasian region of Europe in a time where it’s more likely for people in London to see the Aurora in winter than an Asian face.”

To me, the prevailing climate of political correctness and affirmative action is really sending us backward in terms of openess and acceptance.  I do not understand how we can reconcile with discriminating in order to show we are not discriminatory. To me, it is closed-minded and all sorts of -isms when one says ‘I’m this and that, so the lack of this and that in this book/movie/art makes me uncomfortable/unhappy/disconnected/whatever’. Worse is when the mainstream go, “Oh yeah, so sorry you feel uncomfortable/unhappy/disconnected/whatever. Let us enable your ‘isms and call it affirmative action and mollycoddle you. Tell us how much is enough, or better yet, just keep whining. Anything for you. The sky’s not even the limit.” It is ridiculous. We should not be picking and choosing what we want to see and believe based on how close to what we are these things get. That will only place a border around ourselves and shrink it as we go along, and one day we’ll be strangulated and still convincing ourselves we’re happy and all is right in the world. We should be open to anything good and great, and looking for the positives regardless. That’s true diversity. Yeah, global village, but not if the results is the same bland clones everywhere.

Before proceeding further I feel some context is in order.

Disclaimer on personal feelings and experience on Affirmative Action and Political Correctness

I have a real problem when people want to reinvent/whitewash what has been to fit their own -isms. Just using LotR as an example, I have seen comments that amounts to “Yes, it was a classic, I love it, but you know, as a this and that, I’m not comfortable with not seeing enough this and that in the story.” Why the fixation with coulda/shoulda in LotR, after the fact? Unless the agenda was to specifically to repurpose it for modernity ?

Take inspiration from the beauty of it, and if one is so affected or inspired, go forth and make a new epic that represents this and that then.

I question the concept of respect when the viewer’s caveat is to have themselves, or aspects of themselves, be represented before they put their stamp of approval on the piece, whether it makes logical sense or not. How is it helpful if the Elves looked oriental for example? The world of ME is built upon a man’s worldview, of his time. Why can’t we embrace it, and respect the idiosyncracies of it instead of bending it into a mould to fit what WE VIEW TO BE RIGHT IN THIS AGE? I would equally flip out if Thor put feathers in his hair and shaved his beard because we all know Vikings have great busy beards, as having the Chinese classic A Journey To The West feature an orang-utan as the Monkey God, because that’s not how monkeys looked like to the ancient Chinese who create the myth.

I do not want to make this about myself, but here is where maybe I should let my personal experience come in: I am a non-Caucasian English speaker who while not born to it, thinks in English and lives nowhere near Europe or the US. Almost every book I’ve read is in English. All the English entertainment and culture we get here is American, with a bit of UK thrown in, recently expanding the antipodean way, and incorporating stuff like the Aussie Master Chef series. But still, not everyone here is even comfortable speaking in English. If this wish/need to see people who look and act like me, live in my particular circumstances in media had pervaded my childhood, I would either end up in an institution or be terribly bitter that all my favourite characters look and sound nothing like me, and all my favourite places and events are locations and things are not what I experience because that’s not how life is here. Instead, I grew up enjoying classic English sf/fantasy by the usual suspects, who through their life experiences, purvey worlds and mindscapes informed by their lives and experiences without wondering what-if or why me no in there. And as a girl who did not read romance, unlike my peers, and thus an oddball to boys who do read it, I have my times of “Oh, why don’t I have friend LIKE me?” Boo-hoo. Where is the sense of adventure and wonderment in essentially wanting to be surrounded by what is familiar and known to me anyway? How are we to learn new things and create new stuff?

I see comments like “since this character is x and y, why not get someone who is x & y to be this character?” How is that acting then? For example, I understand there was a petition not to have Richard Armitage be Thorin because he was too young. That really is a prime example of what I’m getting at here.

The key is context. I have no wish to see orientals in the Brees or Laketowns of the world(s), nor to have Rivendell break out in Italian arias. Similarly, I would be disgusted to see the Company turned into lady Dwarves. But why would Richard Armitage be a bad choice for Thorin just cos of his age? Might as well say he’s not a good Thorin because he doesn’t understand the issues of being both short and possessing grand visions for a people. Similarly, is there anyone who can claim bona-fide comprehension of what it is to be an orc?

Finally, if this need for representation is taken to its ultimate conclusion, we’ll just be stasis forever because let’s face it, unless we’ve been sold the wrong message, everyone of us is unique and therefore, there’s no one who can represent anyone better than our individual selves. Might as well just look at the mirror, and take selfies.

Disclaimer on Tauriel

I do not hate Tauriel the character. I want to like her, I really do. Perhaps there is baggage for some book-readers, like myself that work against her acceptance. But the truth is, I don’t dislike the idea or concept of Tauriel as a character. Rather, it is the decisions that put her in the movie and the situations she gets to work through that perplexes and alienates, at least this fan girl/book nerd.

I read and dabble in fan-fic too, so I am no purist; I’m hardly a well-educated Tolkienate, especially since I am also lapsed in my ME reading and movie watching. I think it boils down to being emotional vested in my interest in ME due to my interest/reading/research/ficcing. Some of the research was in fact due to the complaints I had read about LotR. I don’t know why I felt the need, but back then, I had this need to understand why Xenarwen was a problem, and who was the popular Elf that didn’t make the movie. For sure, I am no authority on ME, movie-making, or story-telling, but with what I learnt I have formed my opinions about the possibilities and potential of a TH adaptation that doesn’t need an invented character like Tauriel doing the things Tauriel does (especially the rather trite or over-contrived stuff that hoists her up as the shiny moral compass and paragorn of female Elven perfection after Arwen, and probably even Galadriel to a certain extent).

Of course, armchair criticising has the advantage of comfort and self-justifiable logic, never mind blindspots and objectivity (though I try very hard not to slide all the way into subjectivity though some things are just so amusing I admit to sniggering on the sly). So! Though I am not the happiest with the way things went, I don’t wish death on Tauriel. I do wish PJ and team didn’t feel the need to make the decisions they did to put her front and centre in the Elven arc, at the expense of not only Thranduil, but Legolas as well.

Ultimately, I do enjoy the movie and every book-canon nod, and Thranduil bit we get. I do think I can live with it (unless the powers that be pull another DOS on the BotFA extended edition and relegate all Thranduil’s new scenes to green screen extras again), as in I do plan to do my LotR and TH EE marathon once all six are out, and it’d be terribly helpful that I won’t be like some of the diehards I see tearing down everything PJ’s done, determined to be unhappy until the end of days or a remake happens… which no doubt will send them into another cycle. To me, the world won’t end… at worst, I’ll just do fix-it fics (won’t be the first anyway) to address the problems if they gnaw that badly at my brain, when I can find the time (or inspiration).

Did the movies really need to have Tauriel?

Short answer: If the movie-makers say so, “Yes”. End of story.

Not quite for me, because I don’t buy it. But to answer this question requires a review of the situation back in the day.

Looking back at LotR to look forward

As a non book-purist, I could accept the decision for the LotR movies, the one that transplanted Glorfindel’s awesome and hero moment at the Bruinen onto Arwen, given that he basically does not do anything else in the rest of the story.

There was also an inbuilt list of women who could grace and flesh out the narrative of the movies and they were indeed invoked, though not all with the same gravitas (as should be)

  • Galadriel
  • Eowyn
  • Rosie Cotton
  • Lobelia Sackville-Baggins

In addition, there was Original Characters (OCs) the filmmakers made

  • Morwen, Freda – her daughter (refugees of marauding Easterlings in Rohan)

For balance, on the male side, there are also a number of OC in LotR. Haleth and Figwit for example. But they served a purpose that served the narrative that was linear/aligned to the book. Of course, for balance, there are things like the (to my mind) utterly unnecessary over-the-top concept of levelling up Haldir, a two-bit border guard, and having him, a Lothlorien Wood-Elf lead a contingent of archer Elves at Elrond’s behest to support Aragorn at Helm’s Deep. But that deserves its own rumination and I’ll leave it there for now.

Within TH

Tauriel is not the only OC character of TH by any stretch.

The male representation was outrageously carried by the male OC of OCs: Alfrid Lickspittle. From the get-go, he was the throwaway comic effect (starting with his name)… who became the movie’s version of the perennial photo-bomber of BotFA. Did he serve a purpose? Yes, in fact he served a number: comic relief, foil to the Master of Laketown, comic relief, screentime hog, comic relief. And did he serve his purposes? Marvellously.

Sigrid and Tilda. To me, they were not quite necessary. There was Bain, and he sufficed. But I get it, more children adds more emotional gravitas to Bard. But even their existence smacked of pandering to the demographic that apparently need kid-gloving.

There were also Elves – Elros, the key-keeper, and Feren the guard/officer in Thranduil’s army. But they served their purposes as well, and they were minor characters, who did not take up screentime, only to waste it with bizarre out-of-Elven-character actions.

So now we’re ready to go back to the Question and answer it: As Tauriel has been written? No she was not necessary to the movies, imo. And frankly, she took up too much time, and cannibalised Legolas’ character arc and story. I can see Legolas doing the personal journey and discovery stuff on his own, or at most, with a minor character as foil, if not against Thranduil.

Could Tauriel have mattered in the movies? Yes, the potential was there, but instead she turned into a trope, and one that was tired and should not have been woken in the first place. I could see her serving the story, instead of the story serving her, if her role was about the size of Elros or Feren’s.

Wait, how was the story serving her? The proof is in the father-and-son dialogues and interactions. Every single scene between Thranduil and Legolas is because of Tauriel or for her sake. Goodness, even that fantastic deleted scene in the DoS EE between Thranduil and Legolas was about her. This carried through and was amplified in BotFA: Legolas’ defiance of Thranduil’s direct orders, and standing up to him is on behalf of Tauriel.

Going on a slight tangent: I honestly can’t say for sure of course, but many of the decisions that seemed to have been made about female characters in the ME series (yes including LotR) seem to be an attempt at covering bases, to tell guys there are pretty girls, and to tell girls there are role models, and yes, to serve as love interest of some sort or to thread a line of love through a story, which again seems to be base-covering. I get some, but not all the decisions to carve out characteristics and story of existing male characters just to breathe strength into these female characters.

Look, I would like to have characters in a movie serve the story and vice versa, not force an external-influence-agenda. As a woman, I don’t need to see women characters just cos, but I don’t want them cut out just cos either. For example, I enjoyed very much Helen Mirren’s character in R.E.D. and she IS from that world. But I certainly did not miss having no notable girl character in The Expendables – I would have been disappointed if they foisted a female character on us in that franchise… well unless it’s Linda Hamilton in her Sarah Conner guise, but that’s a different conversation.

Looking at the movie-descriptions of most ME female characters, especially the Elves, the idea of strength is just in-your-face. I contend this is reverse sexism. Women aren’t background props or plotline afterthoughts. But the message, with all these paragons of feminine perfection and strength, sends rather another impossible message comparable to the one the modelling world emanates. Polar opposites yes, but still as stereotypical. Why are women characters occupying the extremes of the scales, even ones crafted by women like PB (who is an accomplished woman in the movie industry in her own right)? Surely, women in movies can be representative of norms without earning the frown of disapproval from the bill-footing troops? Because in real life, just as not every woman got model looks or body, neither is every woman a paragon of strength and perfection. While it’s great and cool to aspire to be good and great, surely it is ok for women to just want to be women, without all the superlative sense of being or ambition to. Just like, with all due to respect, Bilbo. He’s the unlikiest creature imaginable, to be the core of a story of this ilk. And yet, here we are. If we’d gotten a female equivalent of him, then I’d say the ME movies are truly misogyny and sexism free. Not that I’m not happy with everything female character-related, but yeah, we could, imo, do with a bit more confidence to apply normal-lenses than whatever tinted glasses we’ve been made to view the lot with.

In the end, I feel the writers fell far short of their claims for creating a female character in Tauriel to balance the ratio. Not with the way the character was designed, and fleshed out (barely).

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3 thoughts on “Movie: When social engineering has a spot at the drawing board [spoiler]

  1. Eric

    This is so so much to digest! Being a white American male, I can’t really speak too much about things like feminism or even affirmative action. I realize that both need to exist because other white American males have mucked it up for anyone who isn’t also a white American male.

    As far as Hobbit 3 is concerned, I suppose political correctness might have been at play, but even with that reason (or any reason), as you say, Tauriel could have worked. She did work in Hobbit 2, where she was more Tolkien-esque than most of Jackson’s/Tolkien’s characters. Sadly, it devolved into a trope that was so politically incorrect that it makes me wonder if Jackson even bothered to watch his second Hobbit movie.

    As for the Asians in Laketown, Jackson (or someone) described Laketown as a center of trade, which would explain why there were so many people of different races there. That explanation makes sense, though we really don’t see a lot of trade going on. We don’t see a Chinatown, for example. We see fish. And more fish. And that’s it. We don’t see merchant boats or caravans of traders.

    I honestly didn’t think about it much one way or the other. Maybe a surprise Asian or two wasn’t the biggest of my gripes with the movie. It’s the most flawed movie in a fairly flawed trilogy. It’s watchable, but ultimately a let down – for the reasons you stated and many more.

    The cutting out of wives was odd, you’re right. In both cases (Thran and Bard) it’s a tragic thing. Maybe they should get together and form a family, in that way they will be come the Thrandy Bunch.

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    1. lurkerinthemirk Post author

      Thanks for making it through the spiel. To be honest, I get what you mean about your being a white American male, as I am a mite in the great “Yellow Peril” disapora.

      But call me provincial regarding Asian faces bobbing up in films like these. It’s about as congruous as having Caucasians waft through the court of the Qing Shi emperor; in the courts of the Qing dynasty and maybe late Ming yes, but not the first Emperor – timing and context and all that fussy stuff. I can understand if pan-European/West Asia, or even African faces pop up in centres of trade like Laketown (but like you I’m questioning the status of it… fish just doesn’t seem a strong enough exclusive trade for an economic centre 😛 ), but Orientals… nope. I just cringe at PC-ness in western period settings. Unless it’s a superhero flick.

      LoL re the Thrandy bunch. The more excitable part of fandom’s already in a Barduil shipping frenzy. This will just be right up that alley.

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  2. fantasywind

    Tauriel’s role being expanded at the cost of that of Thranduil is obvious from the start, she is to serve as contrast to him. But this is the example of the worst character misinterpretation ever, book version of Elvenking is totally different, more balanced and nuanced (in fact it seems as if they villified Thranduil to make him a secondary antagonist so they put all effort to make him unlikeable, so they put self-righteous she-elf instead in more prominent ‘better than you’ attitude :)). I didn’t really like the character of Tauriel (and I especially disliked the whole dwarf-elf ‘love story’). I think that Tauriel would have worked much better as a minor character with less screen time, for example she could have been one of the spies that Elvenking sends in book, to show that Thranduil is interested in the world outside and involved in local policies and to show he is a wise leader who is reasonable and cautious, and it would give Tauriel some reason to actually be in the story, she would have a job to do working for her king, not some rebellious rebel escape:

    “He at any rate did not believe in dwarves fighting and killing dragons like Smaug, and he strongly suspected attempted burglary or something like it—which shows he was a wise elf and wiser than the men of the town, though not quite right, as we shall see in the end. He sent out his spies about the shores of the lake and as far northward towards the Mountain as they would go, and waited.”

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