If today’s class demonstrated anything, it is that the question of whether or not J.R.R. Tolkien’s female characters are sexist produces passionate opinions on both sides of the issue. Indeed, this discussion is so contentious that I feel obligated to go waltzing into the minefield. My take on the matter is this: Tolkien’s narratives do promote the idea that women must choose between motherhood and other ambitions, which I find problematic. I do not, however, think that these narratives are not grounds for rejecting Tolkien’s works, since they reflect Tolkien’s own social attitudes as well as the social attitudes of his time.
First, accusations that Tolkien simply does not have strong female characters are easily refuted. Galadriel serves as a handy counterexample, as does Eowyn (although I do have significant other problems with her character, which I will address later). Luthien, of course, if one of the most objectively awesome characters in the legendarium. I therefore maintain that any claims that Tolkien only writes weak female characters can be summarily dismissed.
There are, however, areas of concern in the plots that surround Tolkien’s characters. In several instances, women in Tolkien’s legendarium are presented with the choice between whatever public ambitions they hold and marrying and having children in the private sphere. Luthien faces the choice of retaining her power and immortality or living a mortal life with Beren. Arwen faces a similar choice of either remaining immortal in the west or living as a mortal with Aragorn. Eowyn must decide whether to pursue her ambitions as a warrior or become the wife of Faramir. In each instance, the women decide to join the men, forsaking their other ambitions. What is more, the emphasis placed on each of these decisions by Tolkien suggests to me that he wants his readers to agree with the characters that the characters made the correct decision in each instance.
I have no problem at all with women choosing to place motherhood and love over their public lives and ambitions. I do have more of a problem with what I perceive to be Tolkien’s implication that it is the correct decision to make, particularly when we never see any male characters struggling with the decision of whether to settle down and become a family man or run off and slay dragons. Surely a woman deciding to pursue her career at the expense of starting a family should not be looked down upon any more than an man should.
The aspect that I have the biggest problem with is Tolkien’s implication that the choice his female characters frequently face requires choosing only one of these options. Surely women can both have families and pursue other, public ambitions. The fact that Eowyn, an incredible warrior who defeats the Witch King of Angmar, must abandon her ambitions in that regard in order to be with Faramir irks me. It might have been difficult, but I believe that the stubborn and determined Eowyn that we encounter in most of The Two Towers and The Return of the King would strive to achieve both goals. I can fully appreciate that the assumption that women must choose the private sphere was deeply ingrained in Tolkien’s society and European society for the millennium proceeding him. Indeed, I give Tolkien some credit for even giving women the choice to pursue public ambitions, however, I believe that no tale could truly achieve gender equality in my mind without permitting strong female characters to maintain both public and familial ambitions. In Tolkien’s scheme, women must choose between family and basically all other concerns. In short, I have known far too many women both in story and real life who defy this dichotomy to believe it is an accurate and fair representation.
One potential defense for Tolkien might be that the male characters are faced with similar choices and are similarly expected to respond and sacrifice. The problem, however, is that in most similar situations the male characters are able to have their cake and eat it too. Aragorn remains king after he takes Arwen as his wife. The male characters do have to make sacrifices, of course, but they are never forced to yield such a significant part of their ambitions and goals in order simply to have a family life. Conversely, they also never need yield the goal of having a family in order to go gallivanting around Middle Earth on adventures.
Is Tolkien sexist, then? I must conclude that he is, however, I wish to attach some significant caveats to that conclusion. First, I think that his sexism was certainly not intentional. He does create stronger female characters than many of his contemporaries, and that must earn him some good will. I believe that his sexism stems largely from his social milieu, and I cannot blame him for entirely for that. In addition, I certainly do not believe that the levels of sexism in the Tolkien legendarium decrease its value more than marginally. As long as we remember that sexism was a part of that time and place, we should, in my opinion, be able to fully appreciate the value of the work.