To Peter Jackson, who needs to learn about women

by Caitlin Sussman | Layout & Design

Dear PJ,

Can I call you PJ?

PJ, you’ve been a part of my life for many years. Since I was eleven, in fact, when I sat in Iowa’s smallest movie theatre in a down vest twice my size to watch The Fellowship of the Ring. You made my Tolkien obsession cool and my Angerthas fluency enviable. You shepherded me through broken homes and high school traumas. I’m not going to admit in writing the collective hours of my life I spent watching The Lord of the Rings, and that was before I took Tolkien Studies. That’s where the “PJ” comes from. I thought we could be friends. You had a dedicated female fan.

And then The Desolation of Smaug happened.

I went to the six-hour idiocy that was the back-to-back screening, and stomped the two miles home at three in the morning more than upset. You hurt me, PJ. You and Fran Walsh and whoever else was in the meeting where the idea of adding a lady-character was floated. Because now we have Tauriel, The Hobbit’s interpretation of the “Strong Female Character” trope. She runs, she fights, and all of her actions are catalyzed by a need to impress or save or snog men.

Seriously, PJ, I want to get where you’re coming from. Zoe Chevat, film critic for feminist nerd blog The Mary Sue, wrote soon after the film’s release that “Tauriel’s inclusion is a concession to modern taste, and is the correct response for a filmmaker/screenwriter to have when confronted with a female-scarce source.” She quotes Tauriel-actor Evangeline Lilly, who says that it is “unacceptable these days to send young girls into a theater for nine hours of entertainment without a single female on the screen.” (When was it ever?) These things make a degree of sense to me, especially when the source material of your film might not be familiar to your audience: a ten-year-old might not, in this benighted age, have read The Hobbit, and he or she shouldn’t be taught that the world is driven only by the actions of men. However, Chevat is way off when she defends Tauriel specifically as a “correct response.” Tauriel is a terrible response, the absolute worst option: you shoehorned a clumsy and underdeveloped character into a plot initially devoid of gender relations. There might not be any women in The Hobbit, and that’s certainly not ideal. However, the woman you invented for The Hobbit is making it far more sexist than it would have been without women at all.

Tauriel is a military commander whose king takes her aside for a lecture about who she’s allowed to date. Tauriel is, I repeat, a military commander, who abandons her post because of her emotions. She makes an impulsive decision that is at odds with her entire race and never once stops to process it. (Great opportunity to explore some issues of nonconforming sexuality! But no: it’s man-bits only for our smitten heroine.) You might say she’s “independent” and follows her heart; I say she’s following a man she’s just met without remotely considering the impact or implications of her decision, leaving a fedora-adorned Legolas to whine for years because his female friend wouldn’t bang him. Screenwriter Philippa Boyens says that Tauriel’s romance with a dwarf is required to drive the elf-dwarf animosity in Lord of the Rings. What about subtle, old-fashioned racism? That those characters then meaningfully overcome? Like they did in all the books?

Tauriel is an insidious force, playing into of years of programming that tells little girls that it’s great to go out there and kick literal butt as long as they remember that their quest for a heterosexual mate is still the most important thing there is.

Evangeline Lilly herself has gone on record multiple times stating that the love-triangle aspect of her character was added in reshoots, and an initial caveat of her taking the role was that there wouldn’t be romantic conflict associated with it. It’s not like Tauriel isn’t given plenty of other justification to be involved in the storyline: there’s no reason she couldn’t have been solely motivated by a desire to see Smaug destroyed. Or compassion, or justice. Or sheer boredom. (And it isn’t as if a romance couldn’t have developed naturally over the course of said involvement.) Any of those would have been acceptable, even laudable, for a male character in her position. His reckless abandonment of home and family would be seen as “striking out into the world,” whereas hers has to be justified by the addition of a love interest that makes no sense within the context of the source material.

You got lazy, PJ. You wanted a woman, and in an almost all-male cast the easiest place you could find to attach one was at the lips. She is not interesting or new or remotely feminist. And now you’ve got me second-guessing Arwen! Is her armed approach of Aragorn a clumsy attempt to out-penis him? Would she even be in the movie if people had been willing to pronounce “Glorfindel”? And, oh fuck, what about Éowyn? Is the inclusion of her terrible cooking because you cannot allow her to succeed both in traditionally masculine and feminine roles?

See? This is what happens when you lose the viewer’s trust. A perfect character is impossible, but once I’m afraid you don’t respect me, your every move becomes subject to scrutiny. The pressure mounts. It does not get easier.

Complexity isn’t having an unconventional relationship, unless you’re going to be, you know, complex about it. Strength isn’t weapons, PJ, or violence. Gandalf would know that. You should know it too. For that matter, what about the take-away that only in masculinity, or at best, androgyny, can there be a semblance of “strength?”

I know the third film is already shot. I know I’ll go see it in theatres. But I also know that when my little sister wants to be Tauriel for Halloween, she and I are going to have to have a long talk. And I know that someone, anyone, desperately needs to have that talk with you. Read Sophia McDougall’s fantastic essay “I hate Strong Female Characters.” And drop me a line if you film The Silmarillion. I’ve got some ideas for Lúthien I think you should hear.

Conflictedly yours,
– C.S.


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