Flailing Feminist Part 2: Patriarchy Problem

Credit: Gillian Whitcombe, https://www.flickr.com/photos/22576189@N00/11694448523/

This is the second post in my Flailing Feminist series. Read the first post here.

Right around the time my coworker Tim posted How to Read Radically, I was undergoing my own mini crisis regarding one of my favourite books.

See, I have a confession: this Geezer is a nerd. And a big one at that.

I live and breathe The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and the rest of Tolkien’s works; I’ve been reading and studying them for at least half my life. I’ve read The Silmarillion so many times I can rattle off the history of the Elves of the First Age of Middle-earth quite easily. I collect maps. I’ve even taught myself Elvish. I can honestly say that Tolkien has shaped my life and my identity far more than any other book has or ever will.

It might sound like an exaggeration when I say that I experienced a crisis, but that’s what it felt like. I’d realized that this world I love so much is made up of something I just can’t get behind; Middle-earth is made up of patriarchal societies.

New awareness

What do you do when you realize that something so influential in your life has a serious flaw? For me the question became: how do I read LOTR as a feminist, as someone who is becoming more aware of representations of women in literature, pop-culture, and, especially, geek culture? I’d spent so much time reading these books one way that I had to relearn how to read them.

I talked to friends about this and they all brought up Éowyn, who is a great example of a woman subverting gender roles in her society. For those who don’t know this character, Éowyn is a shieldmaiden, a woman who wants to fight in battle, who wants to gain valour and renown by the sword; she does not want to be stuck at home. In The Return of the King, she goes to war (disguised as a man, mind you) and kills the Witch-king, one of the nine Ringwraiths, of whom it was said “no man can kill.”

But she is an exception. Middle-earth is still a world in which men have jobs and go into battle and women stay home and mind the children. Éowyn isn’t one of many shieldmaidens, she is the only one. While she does go off to war, she afterwards gives up her sword to become a healer and get married: “I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the Riders, nor take joy only in songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren,” (ROTK, 292). This is still a world in which women are ultimately expected to marry and have children, and Éowyn eventually does so.

In terms of character development, I actually think Éowyn’s choice shows growth and strength; she experiences battle, realizes it’s not what she wants, and decides to follow a different path. But I do wonder if Tolkien chose to write her that way because he felt some discomfort at the thought of there being an unwed woman at the end of the story.

The bigger problem

However, I think there’s a bigger problem that appears in geek culture itself. Tolkien’s influence on fantasy has seen other writers taking the command to “go and do likewise” literally, and fantasy worlds are often still made up of patriarchal societies, especially those that are modelled after the Medieval era. Women are still portrayed as second-class citizens with very few rights, and only a select few are allowed to overcome that. Shieldmaiden narratives are especially prevalent in fantasy novels (see Tamora Pierce for example), and while I’m all for overcoming obstacles in the name of character development and good storytelling, why does simply being a woman have to be one? I fully realize that “woman” in this instance could easily be replaced by “person of colour” or “differently abled,” but that’s a conversation for another time.

The patriarchal mindset in fantasy novels translates into blatant misogyny in geek culture. On the internet, men often say phrases like “get back in the kitchen” or “make me a sandwich” to women who voice their opinions on geeky things. These are passed off as jokes and are, though still harmful, relatively tame compared to what else is out there.

For example, in September and October 2014 Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, both of whom are game developers and have been critical of the way women are objectified in video games, were viciously attacked via Twitter under the hashtag #GamerGate and sites like Reddit and 4Chan. Each received rape and death threats, and Quinn’s address and phone number were published online, causing her to leave her home.

Jenn Frank of The Guardian, who wrote about the situation, said, “For some, it isn’t only about targeting one woman, two women, or a handful of women. The endgame is to frighten all women out of the video games industry – no matter what they write, film, create or produce – and to additionally frighten anyone who would support them.”

I’m not saying that Tolkien is directly responsible for the abhorrent way women are treated in geek culture, and there are several other factors that contributed to #GamerGate. But, I think his influence does play a role; for decades people reading have been reading fantasy that takes place in patriarchal societies partly because Tolkien is the writer to emulate. And so, geek culture has taken on the idea that women don’t belong.

Ultimately, I can’t change the way LOTR was written and I don’t think anything can take away my love for it. But I can join the conversation. I can use my new experience of reading LOTR to add my voice and stand up for women in geek culture.

Do you have questions/comments/advice/book recommendations for this flailing feminist? Do you want to continue the conversation? Let me know in the comments or email me at kyla[at]geezmagazine.org.

Kyla Neufeld is a poet and the Managing Editor at Geez. She will be writing about feminism and other topics in geek culture for Area of Effect, a new online magazine about all things geek (first issue coming out in February).

See Part 1 of this series here: Flailing Feminist: What the Heck am I doing?
See Par 3 of this series here: Flailing Feminist Every Day

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  1. Personally, I still think of Eowyn as a powerful character of feminism. I mean she took on a role that was against her gender, succeeded immensely and chose to give that up to pursue healing/motherhood. I loved that aspect of her story.

    In the end though you’re right. The patriarchal and stereotypical roles of men/women prevail in this world and have definitely been the basis from which all others appear to be drawn from. I would be curious to compare and contrast the role of women with C.S. Lewis’s works. How do you think that would compare to Lewis and Narnia? Could the same be held true for the world he created?

    Kyle Rudge January 15th, 2015 6:09am

  2. I actually really like Eowyn’s final choice as well; I think it shows a lot of growth on her part. I just wonder if there was a bit of discomfort on Tolkien’s part at the thought of her remaining unwed.

    I’d have to study Narnia more to be able to really speak to it. My first thought though is that maybe, because the main characters are (for the majority) children, they do not have to be bound by traditional gender roles as much. Definitely something to look into further.

    Kyla Neufeld January 15th, 2015 8:47am

  3. Feminism and the patriarchy have one major thing in common… neither of them care about male gender roles. I’d rather be a homemaker than be sent to war or forced to work in a mine any day. But nobody respects men who are not breadwinner-able. While women are making great strides in STEM, there’s practically a moral panic when a man tries to get into education or childcare. The end result is women get the majority of scholarships in both female and male dominated majors. Men need help too, but that will never happen if you stereotype men as privileged rather than their socioeconomic status.

    As for GamerGate, read KotakuInAction. You’ll find that GG is 90% reactionary to the bigoted things that Feminist Frequency (Sarkeesian’s organization) and such put out. Disagreeing is not harassment. Calling out a feminist on something bigoted they say is not harassment either. Likewise, Quinn herself has a reputation for doxxing and slandering people. It also takes a huge leap in logic to say that a game is sexist because a female character can be killed in it… but nobody has a problem with male characters being killed multitudes more often. Same for the body image discussion; nobody cares that boys and men are dealt unrealistic standards too. I’ll never be six foot with a build like male characters. I call this type of thing the empathy gap. I know it’s annoying for people to come to a feminist article and say “what about da menz?!”, but where else are we going to go? For every feminist saying “feminism is for men too”, there’s two more suggesting that men are unwelcome. Quinn and Sarkeesian are the type that make men feel unwelcome unless they’re silent about their own issues and agree with everything said… then they’re welcome.

    In line with the LOTR part of your aticle, one video game trope that I agreed with Sarkeesian on is the “damsel in distress” trope. That’s the trope where the female is helpless and just eye candy, and the heoric male must save her. I’d love to see more female characters rescuing males. That would require males to be seen as valuable as females though. With men making up 97% of workplace deaths and 80% of homelessness and around 50% of DV (good luck finding a shelter for men), it’s pretty clear where things stand. I mean, it’s still legal to mutilate a baby’s genital’s in this country, as long as that baby is a male. We don’t even own our bodies and sexuality. Sheesh.

    If you want a feminist to aspire to, I suggest looking at someone like Christina Hoff Sommers. Unlike Quinn and Sarkeesian’s version of feminism, her version of feminism is actually compatible with egalitarianism. The next time you see someone from GG or MRM criticizing the things feminists do and say, stand back and check… it might just be justified.

    Mike Jones January 18th, 2015 1:29pm

  4. FWIW the LOTR trilogy was written from within a culture which was unthinkingly patriarchal. When I read it in the mid-1960s it was already old.
    I don’t thing Tolkien made it worse. I think he didn’t notice. The problem you encounter is that LOTR is still current in the culture after all these decades.

    Ron McCreary January 20th, 2015 10:11am

  5. I find it hard to deal with Tolkien’s obsession with races and genealogies of Men and Elves. But loving a literary work also means accepting its limitations, and the gendered aspects are not the most attractive or important aspects of his imaginative fiction.

    Tolkien’s fantasy is largely a reflection of history, both of his own time and long centuries before him. Patriarchal societies have been pretty much universal throughout history. Excluding patriarchy from historical fantasy would mean refusing to engage with the lives of almost all women down the ages.

    We can enjoy Middle Earth despite the fact its cultural perspective is gendered. The society which Tolkien depicts is consciously a flawed one, and not idealized. Tolkien’s characters are overwhelmingly male and his settings are masculine, but we can still celebrate his female characters as individuals, especially as it’s obvious that Tolkien created Galadriel and Éowyn as a reproach to patriarchal assumptions.

    W J Woods Australia February 21st, 2015 10:24pm

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