There was plenty to be annoyed with in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. That makes sense because, at 169 minutes, there's plenty of The Hobbit, which plays more like a filmed bestiary of Middle-earth creatures than a movie with any kind of narrative thrust. We get to see trolls, wizards dolloped with bird shit, dragons, dwarves, not-so-cuddly wolves, regular goblins, special goblins, mutant eagles, hobbits, and sled hares (which I want so, so, so much). It should be a full world, stuffed to the seams with residents going about their fantasy world business of hoarding treasure and going on adventures, but, with the conspicuous exception of a Cate Blanchett sighting (and some screaming townsfolk in the prologue), there are no women in Middle-earth and that is decidedly weird.
The first installment of Peter Jackson's second sojourn into Tolkienville has just celebrated its third consecutive week as the number one domestic box office draw. It has made, like, a whole Smaug pile of money. It's worth noting, then, writes TIME's Ruth Davis Konigsberg, that the most popular holiday movie in all the land, the cinematic spectacle that families shut in with each other for holiday festivities most often flee to in order to escape the cabin fever-induced visions of murdering their chatty relatives, is just a big, PG-13 circle jerk (in so many words).
Konigsberg is an admitted Tolkien neophyte — she didn't read the books when she was a kid and is well aware that there are Tolkienites "who know the Tolkien oeuvre much better than I who will protest my complaint." Tolkien didn't write any women into the books, duh! That's why the movies don't have any women, jeez, because Tolkien wrote a nerd gospel and far be it from Peter Jackson to tamper with it. And why is it that "Tolkien seems to have wiped women off the face of Middle-earth"? Because he was writing for his dude friends — C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, and Christopher Isherwood. What need do a Christian apologist from Belfast and two barely closeted gay dudes have for lady hobbits in their stories?
For her part, Konigsberg reasons that female characters would just interfere with the grisly business of dismembering orcs, and though she can offer the beginnings of an exegesis about Tolkien's mostly missing women, it's hardly satisfying, especially in a world teeming with so many strange lifeforms:
I suppose it's understandable that a story in which the primary activity seems to be chopping off each other's body parts for no particular reason might be a little heavy on male characters - although it's not as though Tolkien had to hew to historical accuracy when he created his fantastical world. The problem is one of biological accuracy. Tolkien's characters defy the basics of reproduction: dwarf fathers beget dwarf sons, hobbit uncles pass rings down to hobbit nephews. If there are any mothers or daughters, aunts or nieces, they make no appearances. Trolls and orcs especially seem to rely on asexual reproduction, breeding whole male populations, which of course come in handy when amassing an army to attack the dwarves and elves.
So that was Tolkien, but what's Jackson's excuse? He's already tampered with the book's structure by stretching it like a fraying glob of Silly Putty across three movies. Why not just make Radagast, an ancillary character only by the most charitable of interpretations, a lady wizard? Why not show some dwarf women fleeing the Lonely Mountain? Why not fill in the huge, sprawling picture of Middle-earth a little bit with the female creatures that must surely populate it? Konigsberg makes quick work of the argument that none of this should matter in a fantasy flick because, hey, it's all made up anyway by quoting the director himself, who told her that a fantasy world needs to think of itself as filled-out, with all the nooks and blemishes of the real world:
To me, fantasy should be as real as possible. I don't subscribe to the notion that because it's fantastical it should be unrealistic. I think you have to have a sense of belief in the world that you're going into, and the levels of detail are very important.
Jackson has made movies with female protagonists (The Lovely Bones and Heavenly Creatures are the biggies), and it's only through a servile devotion to the mythology that Tolkien created for his children and his writing workshop that he can manage to keep women out of The Hobbit. There's no reason audiences should be searching vainly for Middle-earth's women (dwarf, elf, orc, hobbit or otherwise), because they have to be there, somewhere, hiding in their hobbit holes, digging for diamonds, or crawling through talking to trees, waiting patiently for Jackson's camera to swing off to another setting and leave them entirely undisturbed.