Highway to the Tolkien Zone: The Problem with High Fantasy

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Lately, there has been a lot of talk about gender diversity in film. The Golden Globes was full of wonderful, women-led films (but severely lacking in directorial nominations as Natalie Portman mentioned)[1]. I love how prevalent this conversation has become– the demand for representation is on the rise. With new films like Ocean’s Eight [2]  and Annihilation [3] on the horizon, I am stoked for what this year has to offer. But there is one film genre that seems kind of silent through all this, hiding in the background while other genres at least try to be more inclusive. This genre is High Fantasy.

High Fantasy is fantasy that is set in an alternative, fictional “secondary” world, instead of the “real world.”[4] High Fantasy is stuck in what I like to the call “The Tolkien Zone.” Tolkien was an incredible writer that laid the groundwork for High Fantasy as a genre. He gave us hobbits and pretty elves, he gave us great memes like “One does not simply walk into Mordor” and “They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard!” So I love him, I really do, but I think it is time people move beyond the trope of nine white guys going on a magical adventure.

When you stick to this trope, bad things happen. All of the Lord of The Rings (LoTR) films end up failing the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test[5], named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel, creator of the comic series Dykes to Watch Out For[6], is a simple test used to gauge the quality of female representation in film. It contains three requirements: 1) there are 2 women in the film, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man. Seems simple, but it is astounding how many films fail this simple test.

It is important to note that while this test is an important marker of female representation, it is not some Holy Grail of feminism. Films that pass it are not necessarily “feminist.” So, I am not saying that the Bechdel Test is the end-all-be-all of women’s representation. It is a good indication of which films desperately need some gender diversity. In a brief snapshot, it can shock people into realizing just how skewed gender representation in film really is.

Which brings me back to LoTR— I love these films and have binged watched them in one day (which is quite the feat and if you have roughly 10+ hours to kill, I highly recommend you  try it sometime), but the lack of gender diversity has always bothered me. There are three named women in the LoTR Trilogy: Eowyn, Arwen, and Galadriel. They never talk to each other, not once. While Redditor Zaldrizes notes that[7] there is a scene in the second film where a little girl looks at Eowyn and asks, “Where’s Momma?” this is obviously not enough to pass the Bechdel Test, and I agree when Zaldrizes says that this not an example of major female characters interacting.

To do this day, I am still baffled by this revelation. How can a trilogy that is 10+ hours not pass the Bechdel Test? Who authorized this? And where is my 10-hour, High Fantasy story about a group of women, in a woman’s world, fighting a villain who is also a woman?

I guess the answer to this question is, why don’t you write that story, MC? Why not become the creator? This is a nice sentiment, one often expressed by sexist men that don’t like it when women complain about such things, but I see their point. Which is why I aim to publish such a story someday, most likely in novel form.

Because High Fantasy really does need a change. Not only is it lacking in female representation, it is also extremely racist. There are no people of color in LoTR besides the “evil, dark-skinned men from the East” who fight with the villain, Sauron. In Game of Thrones, which is basically a sexy version of LoTR, there are few characters of color, most of them portrayed as servants or slaves. In a world where dragons roam free and ice zombies march down from The North, why is it so unbelievable to have multiple people of color? Why is it impossible to imagine a world without the rampant rape of women? This is fantasy, after all, where anything can happen. High Fantasy needs to move on from its patriarchal, Euro-centric past. This can only be done by creators and their fans.

So if you want to read some High Fantasy, or just some regular old fantasy, that isn’t about nine white dudes going on a magical adventure, check out the links below. And always keep Frodo in your heart, but know that it is time to walk forward into a world where anyone can see themselves as an elf archer or an ancient wizard.

And if you want a recommendation from me personally, I recently read The Girl Who Drank the Moon [12], a beautiful fairytale about magic, memory, and paper birds.


Works Cited

1. Park, Andrea. “Natalie Portman calls out female directors snub at Golden Globes.” CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/natalie-portman-calls-out-female-directors-snub-golden-globes-2018/ (retrieved January 22, 2018).

2. “OCEAN’S 8 – Official 1st Trailer.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFWF9dU5Zc0 (retrieved January 22, 2018).

3. “Annihilation (2018) – Official Trailer – Paramount Pictures.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89OP78l9oF0 (retrieved January 22, 2018).

4.  Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Scarecrow Press, Plymouth. 2005.

5. “Useful Notes / The Bechdel Test.” tvtropes. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/UsefulNotes/TheBechdelTest?from=Main.TheBechdeltest (retrieved January 22, 2018).

6. Bechdel, Alison. “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Dykes to Watch Out For. http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/ (retrieved January 22, 2018).

7. devonnegut. “TIL In the entire Lord of the Rings film trilogy, no two female characters ever speak to each other.” Reddit.

8. Waites, Sarah. “10 Mind-blowing Fantasy Books by People of Color.” Her Campus. https://www.hercampus.com/school/agnes-scott/10-mind-blowing-fantasy-books-people-color (retrieved January 22, 2018).

9. Oyeniyi, Doyin. “10 Fantasy And Science Fiction Books With Protagonists Of Color.” Bustle. https://www.bustle.com/articles/63211-10-fantasy-and-science-fiction-books-with-protagonists-of-color (retrieved January 22, 2018).

10. “Popular Fantasy With Poc Protagonist Books.” goodreads. https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/fantasy-with-poc-protagonist (retrieved January 22, 2018).

11. Govinnage, Sunili. “I read only non-white authors for 12 months. What I learned surprised me.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/20/i-only-read-non-white-authors-for-12-months-what-i-learned-surprised-me (retrieved January 22, 2018).

12. Barnhill, Kelly. The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Young Readers, 2016.


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