The Hobbit: A Gender-Bending Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is, in no way, shape, or form a film that passes the Bechdel test. Not only does it lack two female characters interacting with each other about something other than a male love interest, it pretty much lacks female characters, full stop. Of all 15 main characters, not one is female. Granted, this is true to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original book, an adventure story written for his children that primarily charts the story of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, on his journey across Middle Earth–a place filled with dwarves, goblins, dragons, magic, evil and, yes, very few women.

As noted at Feminist Fiction, “Women don’t play a named, significant (or even insignificant) role in the story. They don’t matter. They basically don’t exist.” While screenwriters Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens do make some changes to include more females in the film, J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit hardly references women. However, the paucity of female characters doesn’t mean a text need be written off or ignored by feminists–quite to the contrary.

While I disagree with the main claim of this post, which argues that one of the main points women can take away from The Hobbit is that women are better than men, I do agree with the sentiment that the story can be read as suggesting “Men should not be given a free leash with leadership.” However, I would add that the story actually works to trouble the category of “men,” as well as that of masculinity/feminity, and instead of merely suggesting “males make bad leaders” it suggests that greedy, power-hungry, domineering, discriminatory creatures–of any gender or type–make bad leaders.

Thus far, the story (of which An Unexpected Journey is the first of three films) not only reworks the definition of heroism and leadership, it also de-essentializes gender, giving us two male leads who blend femininity and masculinity. Sure, The Hobbit, much like The Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson’s previous Tolkien trilogy, consists almost entirely of male characters. This bugs me. I am inclined to agree with this post, which pointedly asks,

Here’s a man brilliant enough to invent entire languages for his elves and dwarves, but he can’t dream up a chick to join the unexpected journey? Not one of those 13 dwarves has a wife, a sister or a mother? Does the stork deliver Middle-Earth babies?

At least in the film adaptation, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett)a royal elf who is part of the White Council (a group of wizards and others trying to defend Middle Earth from evilmakes an appearance. Screenwriter Philippa Boyens argues that, “As Professor Tolkien wrote her at this time, this part of the history, she is the most powerful being in Middle Earth.” Well, that may arguably be the case in other Tolkien texts, but she is absent in The Hobbit. At least the second installment will up the female quotient a bit with the inclusion of Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, a female elf.

Though Jackson has noted his plans to remain faithful to the source material, and only added one scene with Galadriel to An Unexpected Journey, the adaptation does display a distinct bent towards feminizing its two male heroes–Bilbo Baggins and Gandolf–and, even more key, feminizing them in a way that is championed rather than mocked.

Perhaps this is at the heart of what various critics take issue with in the opening segments of the film–notably the long scenes at Bilbo Baggins hobbit-hole, where the dwarves plunder his pantry before the journey begins. These scenes construct Bilbo as a character who is light-footed, quiet, well-mannered and  loves the home and all it portends– warmth, good food, creature comforts, love of family–while loathing the thought of adventures, which he describes as “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things” which “make you late for dinner.” He falls decidedly on the “private” side of the public/private split–the side which has been coded as feminine. This is made all the more apparent when the dwarves come thundering in, with huge appetites, little manners and raucous ways. As noted here, they’re “purely masculine characters” who “resemble nothing more than adolescent boys on an adventure; setting off without any thought as to how the journey will go and what they will do once they arrive at their destination.”

Betwixt the feminized Bilbo and the masculinized dwarves is Gandalf, a gender-fluid wizard who sometimes acts like your stereopytical stern father or uber-warrior and other times takes on a traditional maternal role, nurturing Bilbo and the dwarves. While this piece claims Gandalf’s staff is phallic and the dangerous ring is feminine, as is the evil dragon, I think the film muddies such binary reads of gender.

Gandalf rarely takes on the role of warrior in the film and often is positioned in the background, sitting or leaning, looking thoughtful–in contrast, for example, to the hyper-masculine Thorin, whose patriarchal ancestry is repeatedly emphasized.

Bilbo, the indisputable hero of The Hobbit, has both lines of his ancestry focused on. In the novel, Belladonna Took is the only female mentioned and is framed as the person from whom Bilbo has inherited his adventurous side. (I wish the film would have emphasized this more. Not doing so seems a missed opportunity, as this is one of the only ways a female actually in the text could have been featured.)

Bilbo’s father’s side is the more “traditionally Hobbit” side, with love of home and loathing of adventure emphasized (another instance of gender-bending expectations that the film does not highlight). Bilbo, at one point in the film, insists ““I am not a Took, I am a Baggins,” arguing he’s more like his “feminine” home-loving father than his “masculinized” adventurous mother. The fact that he identifies more with his homebody dad leads him to understand why Thorin, who leads the journey, doubts him, prompting him to admit, “I would have doubted me too … I am not a hero … or a warrior.” He also admits “I miss my books and my armchair and my garden … that is home … and that is why I came back as you don’t have a home … it was taken from you …but I will help you take it back if I can.”

Here, Bilbo emphasizes why he is willing to fight when necessary–for the sake of “home” – and not a homeland mind you, but a hobbit hole, a place with a well-stocked pantry and nice dishes. This, as well as his small stature and pacifist mentality, makes him an unlikely hero, one who not only worries more about doilies and teacups than adventure, but also willingly admits, “I have never used a sword in my life,” and is quick to apologize and/or own his weaknesses.

But, like the undervalued more-than-half of humanity (yes, women), Bilbo is capable of far more than Middle Earthlings give him credit for. Indeed, he can be read as the “better man” who does not cheat, who is opposed to violence, who protects and nourishes rather than destroys and kills.

Yet The Hobbit  has excessive amounts of violence and battle, so much so that I am inclined to agree  with the Los Angeles Times review  that “all this violence gets increasingly wearying as all those minutes unfold.” However, though some scenes go on a bit too long, the battles undertaken are not ones of conquest or empty valor, nor driven by greed for power or wealth. It is a quest that asks more for “loyalty, honor, a willing heart” than for  victory or plunder. “True courage is about knowing not when to take a life … but when to spare one,” advises Gandalf. Boyens, one of the screenwriters, even suggests we read the dwarves as “part of a Diaspora, the loss of the homeland, the way that they wandered in the wild, the great longing and yearning…”

Indeed, there are many political allegories one can glean in Tolkien’s work, but the texts don’t exactly shout out feminism. However, this first Hobbit film, drawing on something that does not go against the reading of the book, does tease out a critique of masculinity–particularly of traditional masculinity and its links to bravado, heroism, and war-waging. In perhaps the most feminist exchange of the film, Gandalf shares with Galadriel the feminist tenet most famously espoused by Margaret Mead–that small, everyday acts can change the world:

I have found that it is the small things, every day deeds from ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.

So, while it may be mega-light on the female character quotient and heavy on battle scenes, the film adaptation nevertheless pleases this feminist viewer. Not only does it critique gender norms and celebrate gender bending, and not only does it beautifully depict halfling heroism, wit and intellect, but it also earns bonus points for condemning racist language such as “Dwarf-scum” and for not, (thank you screenwriters!) adding any unecessary heteronormative romance elements.

As Gandalf proclaims in the film, “all good stories deserve embellishment,” and the filmmakers do embellish the adaptation with a female hobbit here and there in the shire, as well as with the addition of Galadriel. Though I would personally love an all-female rendition of the film someday, I appreciate this version has stayed true to the text while still slyly suggesting Bilbo may be more of a Bilbette–and that while macho warrior types have it all wrong, Joss Whedon types recognize a true hero when they see one, and that hero can be female or male, heterosexual or otherwise, human or hobbit.

Enjoy your holidays, my fellow halflings, and may your pantry be as full as Bilbo’s was before the dwarf raid and your meals as full of life and merriment as the one he and Gandalf shared with them at the outset of An Unexpected Journey.














Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.