Tolkien's Ladies: Is Geek Culture Female-Friendly?

Are geeks and feminists allies or enemies? One feminist geek tackles the question head-on with her praise of a Lord of the Rings heroine — but geekdom has more to offer than its (few) female characters.

Cath Elliott, writing in the Guardian, seeks to rehabilitate Tolkien's saga in the face of accusations of misogyny. She writes, "I don't hold with the theory that LOTR geekdom is an exclusively male preserve. In fact some of the most ardent LOTR fans that I've ever come across have been women." While acknowledging that the books don't have many female characters (Peter Jackson had to beef up the few roles there were to give his actresses some screen time), Elliott holds up Rohan warrior Éowyn as a feminist exemplar. She writes,

Éowyn is up there with all the best kick-ass feminist heroes. She's brave, she's rebellious, and most importantly of all, she's gender non-conformist. In fact, it's her refusal to bow to patriarchal conditioning and accept her designated gender role that ultimately saves the day.

Elliott knows her Tolkien, and musters some relatively "kick-ass" Éowyn quotes ("But no living man am I! You look upon a woman.") So at first I wasn't sure why I felt sort of peeved by her analysis. On further reflection, I think it has to do with her conclusion:

"Obviously Éowyn's not the only reason I love The Lord of the Rings, but when people question how, as a feminist, I can be a LOTR fan, she's definitely my excuse, and I'm sticking with her."

I know Elliott's not trying to snatch anyone's F-card — but I don't believe that "as a feminist" I need an "excuse" for liking anything. More to the point, I don't think a single female character is a great excuse at all.

Girl geeks have long complained about the relative lack of interesting women in their favorite films and shows, and the fact that Star Trek envisioned an interstellar military that clothed its female officers in miniskirts was certainly a bit alienating for young women who aspired to climb both career and actual ladders. While later shows (obviously Battlestar Galactica, less obviously Bablyon 5, which even featured a lesbian character) offered exceptions to the unspoken rule that space is full of dudes, one lady with a sword doesn't really change the fact that Middle Earth, both onscreen and on the page, is apparently 95% male. Reproductive questions aside, this does make it harder for female readers/viewers to see themselves in Tolkien's alternate world, which I'd argue is one of the great pleasures of geek art. But, there's another:

Geek culture is, fundamentally, about outsiderness. It's often literally about aliens (or, in LOTR's case, about monsters and men/hobbits who become monsters), but it's also a marginal subculture that appeals to people who feel marginalized. Geek guys are often those who reject or feel threatened by traditional notions of masculinity, and geek culture's status as a refuge for men fleeing Tucker-Maxpectations can make it both friendly and unfriendly to feminists — a wide-open space for gender non-conformism and a hiding place for Nice Guys (TM). But marginal subcultures have something to offer women, too, especially those who chafe against gender norms much as some geek guys do. And that something may have more to do with an overarching outsider narrative than with individual swordswomen.

I frequently get bored at movies with no female characters, and I understand the desire to identify. At the same time, to define a geek classic's feminist cred in terms of its women misses the reason why some feminists like it. Feminism itself often gets its adherents branded as "weird," and over the last fifty years or so, geek culture has offered a source of weird pride. You could argue that this source is drying up — both because geekness is almost mainstream now, and because those who wish it weren't have in some cases become so self-congratulatory that they're just as bad as cool kids. But at its heyday it ran far broader and deeper than the character of Éowyn, who is unfortunately not very broad or deep. This isn't to say that fantasy, sci-fi, comic books and the like couldn't use more female characters — or, perhaps more importantly, more female artists. It's just that geek culture, at its best, is a place where the margins become the center — and that's as good an "excuse" as any.

The Sorority Of The Ring [Guardian]