Racialicious has a discussion going about the casting fiasco that went down for the upcoming Hobbit movie. I won’t get into it here because it’s kinda obvious how fucked up it is.
As a fantasy aficionado, this is one of the reasons why the uncritical consumption of Tolkien’s works and replication of Tolkienesque concepts in other fantasy works really grates my nerves.
As you can see here and here, I love fantasy. I love mythology. I love fairy tales (the real ones, not the watered-down Disney versions). These types of stories have a way of expressing primordial truths that reach us in deep places we cannot access through everyday left-hemisphere thinking.
Yet, I’ve often dismayed by how, on the one hand, other fantasy enthusiasts want the genre to be taken seriously but start kicking and screaming as soon as the serious analysis and critique start coming out. As a result, rather than growing up, fantasy has remained in a state of perpetual adolescent nostalgia – best represented by The Hobbit and LOTR.
Unfortunately, that nostalgia only works for the people reflected in that narrative – straight, White, able-bodied, cisgender men. Everyone else is either evil or non-existent. So, while the target demographic can see idealized versions of themselves in Tolkien’s Middle-earth (and, by extension, the vast majority of fantasy fiction – including games and films and other media), everyone else has to erase part of themselves to fit into that narrative.
In other words, regardless of my fantasies, if I crashed through a portal right now and landed in Middle-earth (say Rivendell, Minas Tirith, or Edoras), chances are I would be assumed to be a spy (or at least hostile to the West) and killed on the spot. Ditto if this happened at any time during the War of the Ring because Brown People are a threat right off the jump – and this is presented as objective fact, not as a reflection of the prejudices held by the peoples of the West. As Tolkien delineates the various peoples, the best of the best have uniformly been pale-skinned, light-eyed people (preferably blond!).
And despite the protestations of Tolkien apologists, the fact that neo-Nazis love these works because of how they promote White superiority is particularly telling. And disturbing.
Don’t get me started on the role of women in Tolkien’s works. Fine. Let’s just say that Tolkien was, during the Good Ol’ Days, considered pretty fucking conservative when it comes to gender roles. There are a few shining examples, but with few exceptions, they do what they do because of some dude, not because it’s worth doing in and of itself. Eowyn, you say? Bad ass. Then she took one look at Faramir and decided that the whole Shieldmaiden thing wasn’t for her. Arwen? Please. All she does is love Aragorn and die. You don’t really get examples of strong female characters unless you read The Silmarillion and beyond. Even so, that whole life-revolves-around-her-man shit is still there. Luthien? Definitely a genuine BAMF. And Tolkien’s personal Mary Sue, which means that, instead of using her bad-assery for the greater good, she does it (once again) for her man. Galadriel is the singular example of a woman who does not need a man in order have a reason to do her thing.
For real, she’s like, “Celeborn, sitcho ass down and let me handle this with my Jedi mind tricks.”
Queer in Middle-earth? Only in fanfic, and only for male Elves (plus Aragorn)*. Because, naturally, refined means effeminate, and effeminate means female, which means they take it up the ass. Case in point: Sam and Frodo. Ditto Legolas and Gimli. Lesbians don’t exist, and there is no Elvish word for genderqueer, intersexed, or transgender. Therefore they also don’t exist. Duh.
* Let me rephrase that. Only male Elves, plus Aragorn – for the most part. I think I once saw Treebeard m/m slash somewhere. Whether he was paired with Quickbeam or Tom Bombadil, I don’t recall.
Now, a genre that had matured would allow for more complex engagements definitive works such as The Hobbit and LotR that acknowledges the problematic elements and points us toward a way of rectifying them in future works inspired by these sources. But that’s not what we get. Instead, it’s knee-jerk reactions and invocations of “PC police” and “just a book/movie/game” and “it was his time” and so on. Then again, when straight, White cis dudes are dominating how Tolkien is interpreted, it’s not exactly surprising that this happens.
Since Tolkien is the most influential fantasy artist of the past century (next to George Lucas and Walt Disney), I don’t believe it’s an accident that I’ve yet to come across an R-rated fantasy movie. They top off at PG-13. There is an economic reason for this, naturally, and part of it is the fact that adult fans of fantasy tend to resist incorporating adult sensibilities and experiences in their consumption of fantasy works. But at the same time, they want the genre to be taken seriously by the “literati” (read: people who apply critical analysis that incorporates politics into that analysis). While I am skeptical of any attempt at a universal canon, it does seem that fantasy fans want to have their cake and eat it too. They want critics and scholars to see fantasy as more than a fluff genre, but when it’s examined in a critical way, they want to backtrack and make it simple again when this examination uncovers some particularly glaring omissions or ugly undercurrents.
Note: The Silmarillion and the last 3 volumes of The History of Middle-earth presents a more complex and nuanced idea of Tolkien’s mythos; it appeals to me for the same reason that the Tanakh does. I’m one of those rare people who enjoys biblical-style narrative.
Of course, the question is: What do you think “grown up fantasy” would look like? What sorts of themes, issues, and other ideas would adult-oriented fantasy works and analysis cover?