Boobs With Superpowers

by Dan H

Dan Finds His Two Most Recent Obsessions Colliding Horribly
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I've recently been taking a renewed interest in (a) Feminism and (b) World of Warcraft.

Imagine my surprise when I found this article on WoWinsider linking to this article on Feministing.

Long story short, there's an Achievement in WoW called “Shake Your Bunny Maker” that requires you to put bunny ears on a female of every race. This female must be “at least 18” (level eighteen that is! Lol!).

It's a little bit sexist. You'd have to be kind of a moron not to see that it's a little bit sexist.

A lot of people on WoWinsider are kind of morons.

I've already posted a crapload about this on WoWinsider, and at my own WoW blog, but what I'm going to focus on for the Ferretbrain reader is comments like this:
For that matter, do you know what High Fantasy is? It makes women look hot yet powerful.

And this:
FULLY ARMOURED WOMEN WHO SPEND THEIR DAYS BATTLING FOR THE RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS OF THEIR WORLD HAVING RABBIT EARS PUT ON THEM IS A TOTAL STEP BACKWARDS FOR WOMEN AND TOTALLY SEXIST
TOTALLY

And this:
Additionally and just as important to note, females are drawn and created to be sexy but also strong, ass kicking characters.

Oh and let us not forget this, which is slightly different but is one of my favourites:
A politically correct, 21st century medieval fantasy land ain't a real medieval fantasy land.

Yet again, I really don't want to be all Minority Warrior about this, but I call bullshit.

Okay. I call semi-bullshit.

I do not think it is unfair to say that Fantasy, as a genre, is actually more-than-averagely sexist. I also do not think it is unfair to say that fantasy readers and gamers, as a group, are more-than-averagely sensitive about their genre. The notion that because fantasy often includes female “heroes” (and it does, in fact, going all the way back to Red Sonja – a strong, powerful woman who just wanted a man to beat her down) that it is therefore “empowering” to women is an attractive one, to girls who read fantasy but also (perhaps more importantly) to guys who read fantasy and don't want to have to think about whether their chosen genre might have some issues to address.

Again, this comes with all the Minority Warrior provisos and warnings. I'm a white, cisgendered, able-bodied man in my late twenties, I have absolutely no right to tell women what they should and should not like, or what they should and should not be offended by. On the other hand, as a cisgendered, white etc etc, I feel perfectly placed to point out why it would be egregiously hypocritical for me to pretend that I play female characters in games for anything other than deeply chauvinistic reasons.

I love to tell myself that I play female characters in games because I have a deep sympathy for all womankind, because in a very real sense I identify more strongly with female characters than male ones.

This is horseshit. I play female characters in games because I want to look at hot babes with big tits and I'm too cowardly to just download porn.

But of course it's okay for me to want to look at hod babes with big tits (and tiny waists, don't forget the tiny waists, I don't like fat chicks) because I'm a red blooded man and therefore I am programmed by nature to want to look at hot babes with big tits. And because I am programmed by nature to want to look at hot babes with big tits, I have the right to demand that hot babes with big tits appear in everything I might ever come into contact with. If anybody gets offended by the presence of hot babes with big tits, that's their problem. They can go do things I'm not interested in.

The fact that many fantasy heroines wind up being strong, capable women is, in short, an accident. It comes about as the result of my personal demands. I want to play a character who is powerful. I want to look at hot babes. It happens that the best way this can be achieved in the game is by my avatar being a hot babe who is also powerful. This is, in essence, a necessary evil. The only way I can have my sense of vicarious power and those all important hooters is if some arbitrary superpowers are tacked onto the blow up doll I'm running around Northrend.

Now by happy accident, a lot of women are perfectly okay with this situation. Frankly hot kung fu chick is about the best you're going to get in the way of female role models in Fantasy, for the simple reason that the genre is based around my fantasies, not some woman's.

The problem, though, is that because the “hot” part of the female characters and the “strong” part of the female characters come from two separate parts of my personal, male fantasies and desires, there is no real connection between them.

For example, here is a picture of one of my main “toons”. She's a Paladin, in service to the Blood Elves, a fallen people who have been driven to desperate ends to overcome their crippling magical addictions. She's a powerful, driven knight in shining armour who destroys the enemies of her people without mercy.



She's not the most terrifying figure in the world, is she? Leaving aside the fact that her breastplate leaves sections of her midriff uncovered, and that her upper arms are similarly exposed for no reason I can readily understand, there's the fact that she looks like she's never been in a fight in her life. I mean seriously, I could take her.

Of course conversely, male characters all have muscles out the wazoo which looks really weird when half of them are supposed to be priests and wizards. It's plain, simple gender stereotyping, succinctly summed up over at Girls Read Comics as “Men are Strong, Women Are Sexy.” Sure, this little lady can slaughter her enemies like there's no tomorrow, but that doesn't change the fact that the actual character model (which Blizzard designed, and I chose) is a woman who looks like she's going to suck your cock, not kick your ass.

To put it another way, when I am playing a female character in a game, I'm engaging in a peculiar form of doublethink. When my character is kicking arse and taking names, that character is me. When my character is taking her clothes off and dancing on a mailbox she's something I am controlling. I don't want to play a female character who looks like a warrior, I want to play a female character who looks like a stripper. When she fights, she's me. When she dances, she's the girl I never got in high school.

The point I'm trying to get across here is that the presence of “strong, female characters” in fantasy (games or fiction) is a direct response to two distinct male fantasies, one about power, the other about sex. If these characters appeal to women it is pure serendipity. Unfortunately, people keep trying to use the male gamer's fondness for mixing “boobs” with “superpowers” as evidence that they're a more enlightened, more sensitive sort of guy.

Robin Torres, author of the WoWinsider article, on her personal blog comments that:
To be very, very general here, gamer guys don't tend to be mysogonistic, but they do like the very mild sexist tendencies in their games, TV, movies, etc. They want to see skin, but are perfectly happy to see it on a strong female role model. In fact, they prefer it... in general.

The last line, of course, is a sly reference to the delightfully naughty idea that geek men like the idea of hot chicks with superpowers beating them up.

The thing is, that's not a strong female role model. A role model is somebody you want to be. Not somebody you want to have sex with.

There are no (or very few) strong female role models in the World of Warcraft. There are female PCs, but firstly, as I've pointed out, they're designed to give the player (who is assumed to be male) something pretty to look at while questing, not to give the hypothetical female player somebody to identify with, and secondly all the PC does is follow the instructions of other people. As for the rest of Lore...

Well there's Jaina Proudmoore. Whose chief claim to fame is being Arthas' ex girlfriend. There's Sylvanas Windrunner, who's pretty cool but basically defined entirely by what Arthas did to her. There's ... umm ... well there's Lady Vashj, who is kind of cool in that she played a small part in the fall of Kaelthas Sunstrider, but basically she's Illidian Stormrage's minion. I think the leader of the Night Elves is a woman, but frankly the only people who go to Darnassus are first level Nelves and Horde players who want to kill her for the achievement.

And I know it's just a computer game, but there are a whole bunch of totally awesome male characters in the Lore. Thrall is awesome, Arthas is totally awesome, Kaelthas Sunstrider is cool and tragic, and Tirion Fordring is fantastic. Six out of eight faction leaders are men, as are most of the end-game bosses. Positive images of men (and by “positive” here I mean “they are presented as powerful people who make their own decisions and are not defined by their relationships with other people” not “good guys”) are abundant in the game – so abundant that they're scarcely worth mentioning – but women are absent.

Is this a problem? A small one. It would be nice if the next expansion was the Southern Ocean, and they managed to build Queen Azshara into something more than the vain stupid bint she seems to have been in Lore, but I'm not holding my breath. What's more of a problem is that geek culture continues to pat itself on the back because our collective fondness for mixing boobs and superpowers looks, to a causal observer, like a genuine respect for powerful women. It isn't.

A commenter from the original thread said: “For that matter, do you know what High Fantasy is? It makes women look hot yet powerful.”

This is entirely true. High Fantasy makes women look hot yet powerful.

Men, on the other hand, it makes look powerful, intelligent, driven, charismatic, resourceful, ruthless, dangerous, messianic, wonderful and terrible.

Women it makes look hot, yet powerful. And powerful is optional.
~

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 15:30 on 2009-05-05
Oh, come on Dan. What could possibly be sexist about giving someone a reward for preying upon unsuspecting women and inflicting upon them an indignity they did not ask for or desire?
Arthur B at 15:40 on 2009-05-05
PS: For a moment there the combination of your title and tagline made me think your "two most recent obsessions" were Lefty (with the power to read minds!) and Righty (who can shoot fireballs!).
Guy at 17:33 on 2009-05-05
I reckon she'd have to pretty damn strong to be able to hold that hammer with one hand at that angle and not even be making a fist... unless it's one of those polystyrene hammers...
Isabel at 17:53 on 2009-05-05
"Sure, this little lady can slaughter her enemies like there's no tomorrow, but that doesn't change the fact that the actual character model (which Blizzard designed, and I chose) is a woman who looks like she's going to suck your cock, not kick your ass."

Fable II actually impressed me quite a lot in that respect as the girl character beefs up as much as the guy character and if you want her to be strong then she's got pack on all the muscles - she would totally kick my ass (and possibly Lara Croft's) by the end...
Viorica at 20:13 on 2009-05-05
Huh. Coincidence. I actually wrote an article for my Writer's Craft class on just this subject.

I was then informed by my (female) classmates that a.) These characters are OWNING their sexuality, not being exploited for it, and b.) By complaining about it, I was trying to censor things that most women except feminazi bitches like me really like, so clearly I was the one being oppressive.

Yeah, I don't get it either.
Rude Cyrus at 20:16 on 2009-05-05
It would've been better to be able to put bunny ears on anyone, regardless of gender or level. It would've been stupid and silly, but not sexist. And not as stupid as this move by Blizzard.
Dan H at 22:50 on 2009-05-05
To be fair, you could put the bunny ears on anybody, but you only got the "Shake Your Bunny Maker" achievement if they were female and 18 or over (level 18! lol! - sorry, I've done that joke twice now...)

@ Isabel: Yeah the bulking up in F2 was interesting, although I confess that my inner fourteen year old was rather disappointed.

@ Viorica: As a straight, white etc I'm in a bit of an awkward position with things like that, because I ultimately can't say "you're wrong and should feel exploited!" On the other hand I can say "great! I'll carry on assuming that you don't matter unless I fancy you!
Shimmin at 23:07 on 2009-05-05
Okay, a tangential thought. Bear with me.

The linguistics textbook I have here says that a) men usually dominate conversation (including talking time), and b) if you attempt to create, say, a classroom where male and female pupils make equal contributions, everyone perceives this as the females getting 90% of the attention: "The talkativeness of women has been gauged not in comparison with men, but with silence."

Reading this article, I started to think this may be true of fantasy as well. The huge numbers of male characters (not names, actual characters) in most stories seem almost invisible; I don't think I've ever read a story or played a game, and thought "how unrealistic, there were practically no women in that", but I'm damn sure, if I read a story with a lot of female characters, I'd fall in the "it's all feminist and sisters-together-y" trap. In other words, it seems to me that the number of female characters mostly gets compared to zero, not to the number of males. I'd love to know what some female commentators think. Any good counter-examples?

Examples: There were maybe two major female characters in LOTR and the Hobbit combined, and they were so vital that I can't remember their names right now. Although Pratchett does better than many, a quick glance at a Wikipedia list shows that the overwhelming majority of the characters are male.
Sonia Mitchell at 00:24 on 2009-05-06
Shimmin: Apparently the English department at my uni gets regular complaints in their feedback forms that they've got too many female tutors. Female majority = girl germs(and actually, amongst the senior lecturers I think the imbalance is pretty slight).
http://franzeska.dreamwidth.org/ at 04:19 on 2009-05-06
It's been really interesting rewatching Xena recently because most of the women in that are people I'd both want to sleep with and want to be (and the men are few in number and mostly there for comic relief). That's rare. For me, most of the other action boob chicks fall somewhere on the continuum from Xena to Buffy (who I despise precisely because I don't find her hot enough and don't see any use for the character if one doesn't). I realize some straight women find Lara Croft and Sydney from Relic Hunter and Amanda from Highlander and all of the other action boob chicks terribly inspirational, and I do think they're AWESOME but for me it's a very voyeuristic kind of awesome that's mainly about ogling their asses while they kick the shit out of someone. Being queer sometimes makes me more able to enjoy action boob chick entertainment aimed at straight guys, but it doesn't make me the least bit more likely to identify with heavily-armed blow up dolls.

I don't recall anyone complaining about how few men there were in Xena, and I don't think people usually think of it as a touchy-feely girl power thing (though it often is)... This is because everyone thinks of it (correctly) as lesbian porn. Then again, I don't know many men who watched it beyond the first season, so maybe the girl cooties did scare people off.
Wardog at 09:24 on 2009-05-06
It's been really interesting rewatching Xena recently...


Xena! Hurrah. I'm so glad you mentioned Xena. Dan and I have a long-term, on-going project to watch it (I think we're currently somewhere around the end of Season 2 / beginning of Season 3) and I really love it. There are a couple of moderately hot dudes in it, I seem to recall (Ares?) but it is a very female-centric show. I'm not sure if the fact it is sort of *blatant* works in its favour. There's no sense of hypocrisy or pretension to it. So you have Xena wandering around in extremely unconvincing 'armour' and Gabrielle with her exposed midriff and episodes that are clearly based around "let's get one of them into an even more sexy costume!" and the consequence of that, paradoxically, is that they can also be admirable people. I also think it helps that Xena at least *looks* like she can kick your ass. Lucy Lawless is damn tall and, zomg, those thighs are mighty... *drifts off*.
Wardog at 09:25 on 2009-05-06
Apparently the English department at my uni gets regular complaints in their feedback forms that they've got too many female tutors.


Is that true?! Bloody hell, I always liked the marginal female-tilt of the staff because most places it's pretty obviously tilted the other way in favour of men.
Sonia Mitchell at 14:25 on 2009-05-06
Is that true?!

Are you doubting the veracity of my gossip?
Heard it from a female tutor, so probably, yes.
Wardog at 14:26 on 2009-05-06
I would never doubt the veracity of your gossip. It was more a rhetorical question to stand in for me shaking my fist at the sky and going "wtf world."
Sonia Mitchell at 14:32 on 2009-05-06
Too late. I'm crying in my overly emotional feminine way.

Actually I wasn't aware that most institutions had a male bias in English. I guess I should have gone to a few more open days...
http://sistermagpie.livejournal.com/ at 17:52 on 2009-05-06
The huge numbers of male characters (not names, actual characters) in most stories seem almost invisible; I don't think I've ever read a story or played a game, and thought "how unrealistic, there were practically no women in that", but I'm damn sure, if I read a story with a lot of female characters, I'd fall in the "it's all feminist and sisters-together-y" trap.

Absolutely. I remember a discussion recently regarding the "Birds of Prey" comic about how it was just unrealistic. First that the team was all women, and next that they found all these other women to work with. Sure there were some men, but it was mostly women! The fact that there were predominantly male teams running around all over the place and working with mostly men wasn't the same.

Or witness any time a character's created that's part of any minority. It's like there has to be a special case made for why the character has to be non-white/gay/female, as if those traits are special add-ons, steps away from just generic character. Making a white straight man is making a character completely free of any gender, sexual orientation or race!
http://franzeska.dreamwidth.org/ at 06:13 on 2009-05-07
The thing about Xena is that everything about it is shameless. Everything. There are actually quite a few hot guys (I had such a thing for Ares when I was 14), and most of them prance around with their shirts off 24/7. When they're not comic relief, they usually show up to flex, pose, and die tragically so Xena or Gabrielle can have an unconvincing moment of hetero... err... some character development, I mean. Sure, Xena spends the entire series in a push up bra (when she's not undercover as a harem girl), but considering she lives in a world with tackier fashion sense than the Stargate badguys on spring break, I think she's doing pretty well.
Rami at 09:41 on 2009-05-08
Making a white straight man is making a character completely free of any gender, sexual orientation or race!

I find this extra-ridiculous when it crops up in allegedly progressive science-fiction, where they don't even have the straw man of "it's a realistic medieval setting" to explain away the homogeneity of their characters. No, it should just be self-evident that the Galactic Alliance will consist entirely of nice blue-eyed human males named John...
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 20:30 on 2009-05-08
I find it fascinating that the comments on that first post were approximately 150 times more offensive than the actual achievement thing-y. Appreciated your comments, too, Dan.

Dunno how much of this essay is sarcasm, but the thing that caught me was that you seemed like you just might be serious about only playing female characters for the sex appeal.

Now, assuming you were serious about that (if you weren't, I'm about to make a complete idiot of myself; hey-ho, wouldn't be the first time, won't be the last) then obviously I can't speak for you, but I have to say that you do not speak for me.

I mean, that quote from Robin Torres pretty much had me nailed. Sure, I get a certain guilty pleasure out of women in fantasy settings running around in various states of undress. But that's not primarily why I want to see women in fantasy settings.

Let me put it this way: I like playing as straight, while male characters in games, or watching them in movies, or reading about them in books, for a couple of reasons, but primarily, it's this: because they're cool. I'd like to be given more opportunity to play as female characters or watch them in movies or read about them in books (and not as sexist stereotypes, either) primarily because women are cool. Same as I'd like more chance to play as/watch/read about people of color/people from other cultures/differently abled/queer, etc.

I agree with you that fantasy fans have no good cause to pat themselves on the back about how progressive our fandom is in terms of gender roles (or anything else, for that matter). Yet I don't think the blame for that ultimately rests with the fans.

Again, I'll agree with Robin Torres that most straight male fans probably derive some amount of enjoyment from barely dressed female characters in fantasy, even if it is sexist. But I also agree that most male fans aren't particularly misogynistic. That means, to my way of thinking, that most probably wouldn't mind the addition of more, even many more genuinely strong and well-fleshed out (no pun intended) female characters to the fandom. (Well, so long as they don't make too much of a majority, as Shimmin and Sonia point: I don't think the average male fan's sensibilities have progressed that far yet.)

I even suspect that most really wouldn't mind that much if there were fewer scantily-clad female characters in visual media such as games, movies, comics, etc.

Game and comics industries of course argue that they have to throw in the hypersexed women in stuff targeted at teenage males because that's what appeals to the demographic, and if they don't include that stuff, it'll hurt sales (and we all know that the bottom line is, of course, infinitely more important than morality).

I'm not arguing that it doesn't appeal to the young, straight male demographic; just that it isn't necessarily needed to make the product appealing.

A couple years ago, PBS Frontline did a great movie called The Merchants of Cool, which—among other things—asked the question: “how much of modern, hypersexed teenage culture arises 'naturally' and is merely reflected by industry products, and how much is it created by industry products and then reflected by modern teens?” (Hard to find, but it's available on Youtube.) You could ask the same question about scantily-clad women in fantasy.

@Viorica: I think you could argue to those women that you were not trying to censor anybody, merely expressing your opinion, which you have just as much right to as they do theirs.

@Shimmin: Eowyn and Galadriel. The first of whom has one of the truly awesomest moments in the trilogy (killing the Lord of the Nazghul), and then agrees to give up being proactive as well as being a warrior and turn into a good little stay-at-home wife for Faramir. The latter is basically Bruce Campbell's “Goddess” archetype with a bit of the “Temptress” thrown in. There's also Arwen, the love interest who barely appears in the story proper.

Yes, Pratchett is substantially better than Tolkien and even most modern writers and yes, his books are still overwhelmingly male-dominated.

Ahh, Xena. I used to love that show. Dunno what I'd think of it now, though, as I can't stand most of the shows I used to watch as a kid. (Still, whether those shows were targeted more at males or at females does not seem to be the deciding factor.)

Rami: I find this extra-ridiculous when it crops up in allegedly progressive science-fiction, where they don't even have the straw man of "it's a realistic medieval setting" to explain away the homogeneity of their characters. No, it should just be self-evident that the Galactic Alliance will consist entirely of nice blue-eyed human males named John …
Well of course, what particular reason can you give me why they shouldn't be?
Sonia Mitchell at 23:26 on 2009-05-08
I think I disagree with you guys about Pratchett. While totting up all his characters provides a male majority, a significant number of novels are female dominated, and quite a lot of women have a narrative voice. Ankh-Morpork is full of minor male characters which skew the statistics, I think. But there's the witches, Susan and the girls of Monstrous Regiment who between them feature in a fair number of the novels. They're still admittedly a minority, but a pretty big one.

Making a white straight man is making a character completely free of any gender, sexual orientation or race!

Love this point (not the sentiment, but you know what I mean). Really well put.

But I also agree that most male fans aren't particularly misogynistic. That means, to my way of thinking, that most probably wouldn't mind the addition of more, even many more genuinely strong and well-fleshed out (no pun intended) female characters to the fandom. (Well, so long as they don't make too much of a majority, as Shimmin and Sonia point: I don't think the average male fan's sensibilities have progressed that far yet.)

They're not misogynists, but they don't want too many girl characters messing up their fandom? Ummm...
The belief that girls somehow ruin things isn't just going to go away, but while it persists then that is misogyny. It shouldn't be a question of whether boys 'mind' girls being represented in fantasy, because there shouldn't be anything to mind.
Dafydd at 01:57 on 2009-05-09
Kyra - Xena! Hurrah. I'm so glad you mentioned Xena. Dan and I have a long-term, on-going project to watch it (I think we're currently somewhere around the end of Season 2 / beginning of Season 3) and I really love it. There are a couple of moderately hot dudes in it, I seem to recall (Ares?) but it is a very female-centric show. I'm not sure if the fact it is sort of *blatant* works in its favour. There's no sense of hypocrisy or pretension to it. So you have Xena wandering around in extremely unconvincing 'armour' and Gabrielle with her exposed midriff and episodes that are clearly based around "let's get one of them into an even more sexy costume!" and the consequence of that, paradoxically, is that they can also be admirable people. I also think it helps that Xena at least *looks* like she can kick your ass. Lucy Lawless is damn tall and, zomg, those thighs are mighty... *drifts off*.
at 09:24 on 2009-05-06 by Kyra Smith - quote

Xena is the point. Especially early Xena.
The sliding scale of Sci-Fi feminism is Trek, Babalon 5, Xena.
Star Trek, nxt gen preaches Family Valuss = a woman mat be stron or sexy, but never both at the same time.

Babalon 5 ia more democratica. Sexuality is normalised. When Ivanova and Delenn are ON duty. They are strong honorary men. When they are OFF duy, they can relax and be sexy.

Early Xena and early Buffy has women who are sexy and strong
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 03:00 on 2009-05-09
@Sonia: Now that I think about it further, maybe you're right.

They're not misogynists, but they don't want too many girl characters messing up their fandom?
Mm, good point. I meant that in the sense of your and Shimmin's points about thinking anything close to equal female/male participation feels like predominantly female participation to most males, which most males also find discomforting. (tee-hee, *goes to a ~90% female institution, a fact which constantly slips his mind*) Therefore, if there is anything close to equal participation, they're likely to feel that "the girls are getting all the attention" and "the guys are all being excluded," and they'll resent that. It's certainly wrong, and it's definitely sexist, but I don't think it's misogynistic, at least, not on their part. (Of course, we may be operating on different definitions of "misogyny.")

It shouldn't be a question of whether boys 'mind' girls being represented in fantasy, because there shouldn't be anything to mind.
Oh, sorry, of course not. Never meant to imply it. I was responding to the construct I derived of the Male Gamer from Dan's article (though I'm still not sure whether those parts were serious or not) and offering my own counter-analysis. My focus was on trying to distill the attitude of the Typical Straight Male Gamer(tm), not point out what parts of that attitude I think are misguided or flat out fucked-up.
Dan H at 12:40 on 2009-05-09
On Pratchett: Basically I'm neutral on this one. Yes, he has a lot of female viewpoint characters, but they're usually specifically Female Viewpoint Characters, if you see what I mean. They're usually women *for a reason* rather than because Pratchett doesn't have his default set to male.

Also, I really didn't *like* Monstrous Regiment. But I think that might be because it was a bit boring.
Guy at 14:55 on 2009-05-09
It's been a while since I read Pratchett, but aren't the witches books decent examples of stories that not only have plenty of women (just in numerical terms), but also manage to have women who have characters that aren't just variations on the theme of "strong and sexy but like, totally owning their sexuality so it's OK to ogle"?

I'm not a huge fan of Pratchett for other reasons (if you write five books a year, dude, you're going to end up repeating a lot of your jokes, but it's really not an excuse) but in feminist terms then I'd say he's doing pretty well. (Especially relative to the standards of the genre).
Shimmin at 16:31 on 2009-05-09
...thinking anything close to equal female/male participation feels like predominantly female participation to most males...


It's slightly hard to tell from the book, but the impression I got was that it feels like that to everyone. I'm trying to dig up some more now, I find this stuff pretty interesting, and I'd really like to know whether women had the same impression. I'll try to get hold of the original research.

Re: Pratchett, I agree he does above average, but I think that emphasises the point; even as one of the most popular fantasy authors, he's still well off 50/50 (that being said, he does a wide range of characters and usually manges to avoid stereotypes). As Dan pointed out, the default still seems to be Male. It seems to me there's at least two sides to the issue: firstly, having 'strong', appealing, interesting and non-lazy female main characters; and secondly, NOT defaulting to White Anglo-Saxon Male for the bit parts (or for the interesting bit parts, anyway).

I'll pull it back to the work/school case: if there are a couple of women/girls who consistently contribute and get respect and acknowledgement, that doesn't automatically mean there's no gender bias - maybe the top few of each gender get attention, but in the other 80% of the group, the males dominate.
Jamie Johnston at 19:05 on 2009-05-09
Eowyn and Galadriel. The first of whom has one of the truly awesomest moments in the trilogy (killing the Lord of the Nazghul), and then agrees to give up being proactive as well as being a warrior and turn into a good little stay-at-home wife for Faramir.

(quoth Arkan2)

Now that you mention it, it strikes me that Éowyn's an interesting case. She does get to do the funky killing of the Witch-King, but she gets to do that precisely because she cunning circumvents the prophecy that he'll be killed 'not by the hand of man' by the ingenious trick of being a woman. Does she (or Tolkein) score Feminist Points for that, in that it makes a (non-sexy) virtue of her sex rather than having her achieve goals by behaving in a 'male' way? Maybe so, especially since it very sharply points up the chauvinistic failure of the Nazgûl king (and indeed anyone who has ever wanted to kill him) to even realize that there is this group of people known as 'women' who are capable of killing other people and yet are in some mysterious way not men. But on the other hand she only manages to do the cool stuff by dressing up as a man and thus basically accepting the proposition 'cool stuff = man stuff'. And, as you say, in due course she even gives up on that, presumably because Faramir is already quite girly (i.e. he likes music and dislikes suicidally attacking massive evil hordes) and needs The Love Of A Good Woman to straighten him out. Hmm. Don't know.
Dan H at 00:14 on 2009-05-10
This might be a total misconception, but I have heard that in Tolkein canon it's actually Merry who strikes the killing blow against the Witch King (he stabs it in the leg I think) and not Eowyn.
Jamie Johnston at 19:02 on 2009-05-10
Saith Dan:

... I have heard that in Tolkein canon it's actually Merry who strikes the killing blow against the Witch King (he stabs it in the leg I think) and not Eowyn.


Mm, that may well be right...

Jamie Johnston at 19:02 on 2009-05-10
[Dusts off long-unread tome, flicks through to page 142 (Ballantine edition, 1974).]

Not entirely clear. Éowyn chops off the head of the big monstery thing he's riding, then "Merry's sword had stabbed him from behind... and passing up beneath the hauberk had pierced the sinew behind his mighty knee." (His mighty knee? Seriously?) Then Éowyn "drove her sword between crown and mantle... The crown rolled away with a clang... But lo! the mantle and hauberk were empty... a cry went up... a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up and was never heard again in that age of this world."

For normal human physiology one would imagine the blow to the head would more probably be fatal than the one to the (albeit mighty) knee, but who knows? By the time Éowyn stabs him in the head he seems already to be an empty suit, but maybe he always was. Come to that, the last bit suggests that he doesn't really die in the normal sense anyway.

But as far as the prophecy goes it makes more sense for the killer to be Éowyn because she is quite straightforwardly not a man, whereas to regard Merry as not a man requires a bit of special pleading. Of course either solution is better than Macduff's thoroughly feeble 'No, honestly, a Caesarian birth doesn't count as being born of woman', so possibly the threshold for prophecies is quite low.
Sonia Mitchell at 19:20 on 2009-05-10
Well, LOTR is fairly consistent in using 'man' to mean human as differentiated from elves et al, so I can buy it without feeling he's bending the rules.
It's never occurred to me to check, but I wonder if Tolkien ever uses 'men' as shorthand for a mixed gathering of males? I guess it would be tempting in the battle scenes.
Dafydd at 22:26 on 2009-05-10
LotR applies both of the Macbeth prophecies: "No man of woman born" => "No man"; "Macbeth shall never vanquished be unless Birnham wood come to high Dunsinane hill, armed against him." => Ents raid Isengard.

Eowen is Maid of Awesome and Aragorn is a tard for choosing Arwen instead. But LotR is gay romance. Read Chapter 1. "There's queer folks at Bag End", "queer", "queer", "queer". Read Chapter 1. Movie tones down Sam/Frodo and Merry/Pippin to best friends' Love. But there is even some subtext in the Movies. Frodo is a bit of a Puritan, but surly Characters like Lotho, Bill and Grima are presented unsympathetically.
Dan H at 14:30 on 2009-05-11
Well, LOTR is fairly consistent in using 'man' to mean human as differentiated from elves et al, so I can buy it without feeling he's bending the rules


Extremely consistent.

So consistent, in fact, that if Eowyn defeating the witch king because she is "not a man" has less egalitarian, more creepy overtones. When you're that consistent about using the words "man" and "men" to mean "humans" defining a woman as *not* being a "man" is a *little bit dodgy*.
Andy G at 14:42 on 2009-05-11
I remember thinking it was Merry the first 5 times I read it, until I read one of the LotR encyclopedias and it said it was Eowyn who killed the Witch King.

However, in the Houses of Healing isn't it explicitly stated that she HAD struck the Witch King, and that was why the unbroken right arm was far more deadly to her? That would suggest it hadn't just been an empty suit that she struck at. I don't think she'd struck any earlier blows, had she?

I remember in the trading card version, I always found it funny that she was described as a "Man".
Wardog at 14:51 on 2009-05-11
Late to the party: I'm personally still rather concerned the Witch King has knees but no head...

Also from Sister Magpie:
Making a white straight man is making a character completely free of any gender, sexual orientation or race!


Yes. Nailed.
Arthur B at 14:56 on 2009-05-11
The first time I read Lord of the Rings I kept thinking Merry and Pippin were girls and kept getting confused by the pronouns, realising my mistake, and then forgetting and assuming they were girls again.
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 15:30 on 2009-05-11
You may have a point there about Pratchett, Dan, and not just with viewpoint characters. He does have side characters who are female too, but usually for a specific reason. I wouldn't say that all his characters (main or subordinate) default to male unless he has a particular reason not to, but I think most do.

As for Lord of the Rings:
Interestingly enough, I read on TV Tropes that the original Macbeth quote was in fact “none of woman born,” so having a woman wouldn't help.

They also point out that Eowyn is a woman from the race of Men [sic], but that Merry is a man (adult male humanoid) of the race of halflings: so Tolkien's covered either way. (Still dodgy, though.)

That said, I've always had the very clear impression that Merry stabbing the Witch-King with a magical blade pierced his metaphysical armor, allowing Eowyn to kill whatever was alive inside the cloak. I believe the book itself addresses this scenario at some point.

At the very least, the situation is ambiguous, and the scenario I have just outlined is and forever will be my personal canon, and nothing you can say can change that, Dan. And further more, that was a woman holding a pickaxe!
Andy G at 16:00 on 2009-05-11
That said, I've always had the very clear impression that Merry stabbing the Witch-King with a magical blade pierced his metaphysical armor, allowing Eowyn to kill whatever was alive inside the cloak. I believe the book itself addresses this scenario at some point.


I thought it was more that Merry crippled him (doing extra damage because of the Dagger of Westernesse
+10 against Witch Kings) and then Eowyn finished him off. Basically as in the film, except that Eowyn didn't pause to deliver a line first. But I don't think it's completely explicit.
Andy G at 16:01 on 2009-05-11
That was meant to say plus 10. But the plus symbol appears to make things move to the next line.
http://marionros.livejournal.com/ at 22:56 on 2009-05-11
Okay. Eowyn. Eowyn became a 'shieldmaiden' (thus choosing to be a virgin warriormaiden instead of being married) because Wormtongue was after her. He removed her brother, and would have 'requested' her as bride (thus placing himself as next-in-line for the throne if anything should 'happen' to Eowyn's brother and cousin).
Eowyn's biggest challenge was despair. Tolkien had a thing about despair... Eowyn was influenced by Wormtongue's insinuations and despaired of her people, their value, her value as a human being. She had 'turned to ice' (which is a poetic way of saying that she was deeply, suicidedly depressed. So, when the need was highest, and with an impossible battle in front of her, she chose to Ride To Certain Heroic Death, which is yet another poetic way to say that she wanted to kill herself (seeing as they were all to die anyway).
There's another character that despairs and tries to suicide through a Grand Gesture: Denethor. Denethor is a wonderful character. A good and noble man of deep feelings, self-control and not a little pride. When he is decievd into believing that his City is being attacked on two fronts and is without hope, he despairs and tries to burn both his dying son and himself to death.
As I said, Tolkien rejected this kind of despair. He considered suicide deeply sinful (although the Medieval scholar in him would probably have loved this Grand Gesturing) Both Denethor and Eowyn made this fatal mistake, and both, in his view were wrong in doing so. He did not condemn Eowyn for being 'unfeminine', but for losing hope. He is kind to her though. She has suffered much, so he gives her a 'second chance'. She survives, but she stays 'iced up' (deeply depressed) until the Shadow falls. She regains hope and dares to feel again.
Eowyn does not 'choose to become the happy housewife', she regains her full humanity and, as a human being, is able to love others and choose her own way in life. Besides, to be the Princess of Ithilien does not spell 'happy housewife' to me.

I read her story more than thirty years ago, and I can safely say that her character, together with Faramir and Denethor, were the most 'human' to me. I could identify with her, and indeed she is a rolemodel. I admire her, she's a strong character. Not because she could wield a sword but because she could come through difficult times, make tough choices and still be a good, strong, loving and loveable human being.

Is this what feminism has come to? You can't be happily married and be a female rolemodel?

Xena Warrior Princess leaves me cold at best. Xena is a male (or lesbian) fuck fantasy, and as I'm neither male nor lesbian I shrug at the sight of this barely-clad, leather and barbed-wire sporting, hair always coiffed, bondage babe. I certainly would never identify with Xena.
Wardog at 00:05 on 2009-05-12
Fascinating defense. Thanks for this, I really enjoyed read it.

Is this what feminism has come to? You can't be happily married and be a female rolemodel?


I rather thought the point of feminism was that it specifically didn't tell people who they could and couldn't set up a role model, and I certainly hope we haven't done that here.

With regards, more specifically, to Eowyn, I see your arguments, and they're persuasive, but I'm afraid she doesn't work as a role model for me. Specifically I don't like the fact that her main virtue seems to be "enduring courage" not because this is not an absolutely admirable and sterling quality to have, but because it seems to me to be one of those archetypal 'feminine' virtues that male writers bestow on female characters when they don't want to actually let them *do* anything, like, for example, rule Edoras themselves, despite being the last of the line and pretty damn capable.

I'm afraid I'm not mad keen on Denethor either - I know we all have our flaws but *setting your son on fire* strikes me as pretty major. Also I think he's meant to be juxtaposed with Theoden, who, of course, tragically loses his son but fights on anyway to the very last, and to the ruination of his entire line in order to save the world, as a true King should. Whereas Denethor gives up - part of the reason Gondor gets into such trouble is because he is *not* a King, and does not behave like one, putting personal values above public ones, personal ambition over the good of the kingdom. I always saw him as a dark mirror of Theoden.

Possibly I've misinterpreted.

ena Warrior Princess leaves me cold at best.

And, finally, it's true Xena is a leather-clad bondage babe but she is living in what's basically classical-themed pulp fantasy. I think what's important is that, as well as the quite frankly fantastic thighs, and the obvious virtues of courage, strength, honour etc., Xena has a lot of positive female-centric traits as well: she's loyal, compassionate, loving, unabashedly sensual. She's not at all macho. She'd kick your ass but she's very clearly a woman, not just a dude with breasts.
Dafydd at 00:34 on 2009-05-14
With regards, .... to Eowyn, ...she doesn't work as a role model for me. Specifically I don't like the fact that her main virtue seems to be "enduring courage" not because this is not an absolutely admirable and sterling quality to have, but because it seems to me to be one of those archetypal 'feminine' virtues that male writers bestow on female characters when they don't want to actually let them *do* anything, like, for example, rule Edoras themselves, despite being the last of the line and pretty damn capable.


Tolkien is among the Gods: so everyone steals Tolkien's cliches. Tolkien wrote Eowyn as an exciting and compelling Character, so everyone tried to write equally compelling Characters and most of them failed. I guess it's not that you don't like ur!Eowyn; you don't like the avalanche of ersatz!Eowyns that have come ever since.

After all her Glory. Eowyn ended up being a bog standard 1940's housewife ever after, because that was what passed for a happy ending in those unsophisticated times. It was emotionally satisfying: the Story set me up to care about Eowyn, to want her to have a happy ending and ping! she gets one. Hurrah!

LotR, Gone with the Wind, Ivan the Terrible,are all excellent entertainment, but their moral and political messages are somewhat dated and may need Government moral health Warnings. The same may be said for Shakespeare.

Conversely, Harry Potter, Xena and Buffy all started as excellent entertainment with fluffy Liberal morals. But they were so successful, that the money and power went to their Creators' heads. Harry Potter bk7 preached loathesome morals and was NOT entertaining; likewise Buffy season 6 and Xena season 5.
Viorica at 04:08 on 2009-05-14
I don't think Shakespeare really counts as someone whose is dated. There's certainl plays of his with questionable themes (Merchant of Venice and Taming of the Shrew are the two that come most easily to mind) but the different interpretations and ideas are what makes them fascinating after all these years. The same really can't be applied tp Harry Potter or Xena.

one of those archetypal 'feminine' virtues that male writers bestow on female characters when they don't want to actually let them *do* anything

I'm afraid it's not just male writers who fall into this trap. Juliet Marillier's novels all feature heroines whose defining characteristic is being able to wait and abide patiently while the men around them get things done. The one character of hers who does act independently (even if it is just running away to meet with a lover) gets punished horribly whilst the ones who don't do anything get a happy ending (which almost always consists of getting married and having babies). The double standard's always irked me.
Arthur B at 06:41 on 2009-05-14
I don't think Shakespeare really counts as someone whose is dated. There's certainl plays of his with questionable themes (Merchant of Venice and Taming of the Shrew are the two that come most easily to mind) but the different interpretations and ideas are what makes them fascinating after all these years. The same really can't be applied tp Harry Potter or Xena.

I wonder, in fact, whether it hasn't become easier to come up with new interpretations of Shakespeare now that a hefty amount of time has passed - enough to create a wide gap between our cultural context and his. Maybe in the milieu of the time The Merchant of Venice (for example) was pretty blunt and straightforward, but now that 400 years have passed we can view the play with less biases (or at least not the same biases) as the audiences of the time. Artifacts from 40 years ago are dated; artifacts from 400 years ago come from another planet.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Potter or Xena open themselves up to new interpretations over the next 400 years (or even 40 years) or whether they'll just end up looking like a semi-unintelligible mess.
Rami at 09:02 on 2009-05-14
remains to be seen whether Potter or Xena open themselves up to new interpretations over the next 400 years

If Potter and / or Xena last four centuries in the public consciousness I think we'll have bigger problems than just reinterpreting them.
Arthur B at 10:11 on 2009-05-14
I suspect people will still be talking about Potter in 400 years, quite possibly in the same way that we talk about tulipmania...
Dan H at 11:39 on 2009-05-14
I'm afraid it's not just male writers who fall into this trap. Juliet Marillier's novels all feature heroines whose defining characteristic is being able to wait and abide patiently while the men around them get things done.


The problem with "feminine virtues" is that there's a difficult line to walk between between denigrating women by insisting that they are only allowed to possess traditionally feminine virtues (like stoicism and endurance) and denigrating women by insisting that "feminine" virtues don't matter.

To put it another way, a lot of women do in fact find themselves in sucky, no-win situations, and I don't think that it's necessarily wrong to say that there can be a kind of nobility in surviving that sort of thing with your dignity intact.

The problem starts to come in on a higher level - in fantasy in particular, female characters are frequently "helpless" in situations where male characters aren't, and not because of the restrictions of their society, but because the author will be naturally more inclined to cast a woman as helpless.

Or something.

To put it another way, it's really really hard to write about gender inequality without reinforcing it.
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 03:00 on 2009-05-15
That is a persuasive argument marionros, and honestly, it's been too long since I read Lord of the Rings. My memory is vague enough that it could support both interpretations equally. I shall have to re-read in order to see which one rings truer to me now (and because it's obviously been too long since I read it, of course).

Is this what feminism has come to? You can't be happily married and be a female rolemodel?

Sorry, no, that's not what I meant to suggest. Thank you for spotting me on this.

You also made a good point about Eowyn becoming ruler of Ithilien, which is hardly a weak position. I guess the reason I didn't even think of addressing this point is that the book never really explored those ramifications for Eowyn.

And here, I think, is the important point. I know that there is nothing inherently anti-feminist about being a happily married wife and stay-at-home mom: I was raised as a feminist by just such a woman, and I would laugh my ass off at someone who tried to claim she wasn't a feminist.

I certainly consider being a stay-at-home mom more worthy and heroic than being, say, a Pirate King. However, the danger is that the housewife/stay-at-home mom position occupies a special niche in the patriarchal discourse: it is seen as Woman's Place in the Natural Order and what every girl should aspire to. Furthermore, in the patriarchal discourse, it is a position of submission and complete disempowerment.

So, as Dan says, in these situations, it gets a bit tricky. I generally find for a story to convince me that a woman giving up a position of power such as King or freebooter or warrior to become a housewife/stay-at-home mom, it has to show me a couple things, including a) that it's in her personality, rather than her biology, to want to do that; and b) that she can still be empowered (if differently empowered) as a housewife/stay-at-home mom.

I'd have to think about whether Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End supplied the former, but the question is academic because, for me, it completely failed to supply the latter, which is enough to award the movie an anti-feminist rating. (Quite aside from the fact that there were only two important female characters and upwards of a dozen important male characters.)

As for Tolkien, as I said, I shall have to read him again to make up my mind.

And, thank you for pointing that out, Viorica. Its true, male authors are hardly the only ones guilty of perpetuating such appalling gender stereotypes.
Arthur B at 13:58 on 2009-05-15
It's a particularly tough call, especially since the Fourth Age of Middle-Earth was meant to be an era of peace and contentment following the demise of the Shadow. There's no reason for Eowyn to go back to being a warrior maiden because there are no battles left to fight and all the soldiers are hammering their swords into ploughshares; unless she wants to completely reject the spirit of the times and wander the land persecuting orcs it would be massively pointless.

She's not alone, either: everyone ends up settling down and being domestic in the Fourth Age aside from a very few restless souls, most of whom specifically get shipped off West because there's no room for them in Middle Earth any more. Being a King in the Fourth Age seems to involve establishing diplomatic relations with the Shire and repairing the old Numenorean roads, if Aragorn's record is anything to go by, and being a "freebooter or warrior" isn't a laudable and worthy response to the zeitgeist but a violent rejection of it. In short, the Fourth Age is boring, at least partially because the last major remnant of Morgoth's discordant work in the world has been wiped away, so given that context it's hard to say whether Eowyn's married life is a boring or disempowered one; maybe she doesn't get up to much because there genuinely isn't very much for her to do?

Does anyone with a copy of Return of the King handy fancy dipping in to find out precisely what Tolkien said about Eowyn's post-war career? He must have said something about her and Faramir, he yaps about just about everyone.
Andy G at 16:46 on 2009-05-15
Hurrah, a chance to justify lugging the entire Lord of the Rings halfway across Europe ... though actually I can't find anything about her in the appendix. There does though seem to be more than enough fighting to keep Eomer occupied, despite the general peace ("Eomer took again the Oath of Eorl. Often he fulfilled it. For ... the King of the West had many enemies to subdue."), so I think there would have been enough fighting left for Eowyn if she'd wanted.

There's also her line from the Houses of Healing:
"Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else she understood it... 'I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.'"

This could be read either as her being reformed ("changed") by Faramir's unwarriorlike attitudes ("I do not love the bright sword for it's sharpness, nor the arrow for it's swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend") or as her recognising she wasn't being true to herself the whole time she was a warrior - Eomer and Elassar can be nurturing figures while still remaining warriors, while for her it was a sign of her brokenness and despair that she deviated from a more passive role.

That's perhaps putting a bit of a strong spin on it, as I think there are definitely positive things in the portrayal of Eowyn, but I really think it is a bit of a stretch to see her as a feminist icon.
Andy G at 16:47 on 2009-05-15
Apostrophes in the Faramir quotation are the fault of some random website, not me.
Jamie Johnston at 19:19 on 2009-05-15
Interesting stuff. 'Fraid this is going to be a long comment...

It seems to me that the different interpretations of Éowyn's 'settling down' (I distinguish this question from the narrower question of her involvement in the killing of the Witch-King: I stick by my earlier ambivalence on that point) turn largely, as Andy G. suggests, on this question: did she want to fight because she despaired and wanted to die, or did she want to fight because she saw this as a way to do good in the world?

If the former (which seems to be Marionros' interpretation, more or less), then her desire to fight is a negative thing, a self-destructive emotional pathology; therefore her decision to marry Faramir and look after growing things is a sign of new-found emotional stability and needn't in any way detract from her feminist cred.

If the latter, it's still, I suppose, possible to argue that she's simply changed her mind about the best way for her to do good in the world, and it wouldn't be an irrational change of mind when seen in the context of Arthur's point about the Fourth Age (although that is slightly undermined by the fact that she makes the decision while the Allied victory is still very much in doubt, as Éowyn herself points out just a couple of pages earlier). But it would seem a very abrupt and somewhat implausible volte-face, and one would strongly suspect her of in some way selling out to an anti-feminist social order that regards nurturing things as an acceptable way for women to do good and fighting bad guys as an unacceptable way for women to do good.

So which is right? There's no doubt that she does despair, and that because she despairs she wants to die in battle: that much is made very clear both by Gandalf in 'The Houses Of Healing' and by Éowyn herself in 'The Steward And The King'. But does her entire career as a warrior arise out of that despair, which is what I think Marionros is saying? I find it hard to be sure, especially not having read the books for some time; in any case the despair has already set in by the time we encounter Éowyn in the narrative, so the crucial moment is hidden somewhere in the backstory and consequently rather tricky to identify. But just looking at Gandalf's comments in 'The Houses Of Healing' (and assuming that, what with being Gandalf, he's right in what he says there) it looks to me like the despair comes after the desire to fight, rather than causing it. Gandalf says:

... you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff that he leaned on.


And he goes on to describe Gríma's machinations. The implication seems to be that she starts out wanting to do the running, jumping, riding horses, doing "deeds of arms" thing; she's prevented from doing so by having to care for Théoden; so, although her desire to die in battle is a symptom of depression, her desire to be a warrior arises from an authentic non-pathological part of her character. In fact, far from her warrior lifestyle being a consequence of her despair (as implied by Marionros' suggestion that she becomes a warrior in order to avoid being married off to Gríma), it appears that her despair is a consequence of her inability to fulfil her healthy, authentic desire to be a warrior.

And why was she having to look after Théoden while her brother was running, jumping, climbing trees, &c.? Presumably (although I admit this isn't in the text) because she's a woman and he's a man. And why is there a danger that she will end up being forced to marry Gríma against her wishes? Again presumably because she lives in a patriarchal society in which her father has the power to give her in marriage without her free consent. If so, then in a sense her depression is a consequence of the chauvinism of her culture.

If this reading is right, then it becomes very hard to believe in her decision in 'The Steward And The King' as a positive thing. And that's not because in order to be a feminist you have to be a woman with a big sword, or because nurturing things is a less worthy thing than fighting bad guys; it's because that decision looks like either a bit of badly inconsistent characterization by Tolkein or a subordination by Éowyn of her own core desires to the expectations of society (and possibly even a new self-abnegating manifestation of her depression).

If that all sounds rather argumentative, it isn't because I'm particularly confident in my interpretation: I'd need to read and think a lot more before I could be. I may well have missed things in the text and / or looked at things the wrong way. But that's how my thinking is going at the moment.
Arthur B at 03:18 on 2009-05-16
There does though seem to be more than enough fighting to keep Eomer occupied, despite the general peace ("Eomer took again the Oath of Eorl. Often he fulfilled it. For ... the King of the West had many enemies to subdue."), so I think there would have been enough fighting left for Eowyn if she'd wanted.

This is true, but I do have the strong impression that most of the fighting that occurs involves putting down the rowdier remnants of Sauron's forces and allies, like the Easterlings and so forth; it's tidying up the business of the age just gone by, and as the Fourth Age matures the need for it seems to vanish. In any event, it doesn't seem like the sort of conflict Eowyn would want to take part in; it's a police action, not an epic battle for the very survival of her people, and I got the impression that Eowyn wanted to take part in the fight against Sauron specifically because she felt that Rohan couldn't afford to keep an ounce of its strength back.

I think taken as a couple Eowyn and Faramir could be taken as representing the great hope of the Fourth Age: that it will be a time when people such as them, to whom war does not come naturally, will be able to thrive in the mode that suits them best. This doesn't make Eowyn a feminist icon, but it doesn't make Faramir a champion of the patriarchy either; it makes both of them poster children for the new age dawning.
Arthur B at 03:34 on 2009-05-16
...it's still, I suppose, possible to argue that she's simply changed her mind about the best way for her to do good in the world, and it wouldn't be an irrational change of mind when seen in the context of Arthur's point about the Fourth Age (although that is slightly undermined by the fact that she makes the decision while the Allied victory is still very much in doubt, as Éowyn herself points out just a couple of pages earlier).

Actually, I think Eowyn and Faramir making their commitment to each other just before the very final confrontation nicely underlines what's at stake: if the forces of Sauron prevail, then their relationship, like the Fourth Age itself, will be strangled at birth, but if Aragorn and Frodo win the day then Eowyn and Faramir will be able to realise their true destiny, just as the Fourth Age will dawn in Middle Earth.

Basically, once they make their commitment to each other, they're no longer participants in the great war against Sauron - their wounds disqualify them for that. Rather, they and their relationship represent the future which is at stake in the war.

And why is there a danger that she will end up being forced to marry Gríma against her wishes? Again presumably because she lives in a patriarchal society in which her father has the power to give her in marriage without her free consent. If so, then in a sense her depression is a consequence of the chauvinism of her culture.

Well, here's a crucial point: her culture is, yes, a chauvinistic one. But is Faramir a chauvinistic individual? Perhaps part of Eowyn's attraction to Faramir is a feeling on her part that he, a sophisticated scion of Gondor (the last remnant of Numenor, and thus the most cultured and sophisticated civilisation in Middle Earth), will not keep her from the running and jumping and horse-riding that her own culture denies her. I admit that we don't seem much evidence that Gondor is a particularly progressive place, but it has women in crucial roles which require a fair amount of education (the Houses of the Healing itself), so presumably it doesn't regard women as pretty things that give you heirs. At any rate, I can't recall any situation where Tolkien draws our attention to chauvinism in Gondorian culture, whereas (as you point out) there are numerous egregious examples in Rohan.

Basically, I think choosing to marry Faramir can only be seen as surrender to chauvinism if we choose to see Gondor as a society that is chauvinistic to the same extent as Gondor is, and if we choose to see Faramir as a chauvinist who will hold Eowyn back and smother her dreams under a thick blanket and a pile of babies. I never got that impression from the book myself.
Andy G at 08:32 on 2009-05-16
I'll keep my reply brief (because I don't want to give the impression I'm savagely attacking LotR or anything, as it is despite everything one of my favourite books). But two points stand out:

1) In any event, it doesn't seem like the sort of conflict Eowyn would want to take part in

This does seem to be a bit of a post facto rationalisation. I do still think the same reasoning is not being applied to characters like Eomer, who continue to be respected warriors. Though of course, this is outside the text proper anyway.

2) Gondor may be less chauvinistic than Rohan, but that's not the same as saying it's not chauvinistic. And Faramir doesn't have to be a chauvinistic individual in the sense of being a nasty, obvious domineering sexist for it to be the case that his relationship to Eowyn isn't anti-feminist. It's a bit like Dan's point about racism in his article about race and the placebo effect (link added by editor). Gondor, like other "civilised" countries, is still very much patriarchal. The ONLY female character we encounter is Ioreth, a slightly dotty old dear in a traditional caring profession who knows less about medicine than Aragorn does.
Arthur B at 13:31 on 2009-05-16
On 2: I think everyone knows less about healing than the Rangers do, with the possible exception of the elves and wizards. It's part of the lore of the royal house of Numenor that they've handed down from one generation to the next.

Also, I still think you are being unfair to Faramir. I admit that I have the disadvantage of not having my copy of the text with me, but I don't remember their exchange going along the lines of Faramir saying "You know what would make you happy? Me taking care of you!" and Eowyn saying "Yeah, actually that sounds pretty cool to me." My recollection is that at the time they're both vulnerable people opening up to each other at a time when it's very possible that the world will end and they won't even be on the battlefield to do anything about it. As marionros points out, falling in love with someone is not an anti-feminist act. Nor is marrying someone from a chauvinistic culture.

...

OK, I've gone looking around for quotes, and the really concerning thing about the whole exchange for me isn't the fact that Eowyn falls for Faramir, it's the fact that she up and changes her profession from warrior to healer. You could, certainly, interpret that as an anti-feminist act, ditching an inappropriate profession for one which women can pursue in Gondor and which is respected as being an appropriate thing for ladies to do. On the other hand, you can choose to interpret that as Eowyn graduating from the Third Age profession of war to the Fourth Age profession of healing (contrast with Eomer, who never moves beyond war but at least manages to rein it in my fighting in the service of the rightful King), and to hell with what Tolkien intended.

Basically, I like Lord of the Rings, and if I can find a way to interpret it so that Tolkien isn't a big old bigot I'll do that and I'll promote that interpretation, if only because good stories deserve to be reclaimed from bad ideologies. :)
Arthur B at 14:46 on 2009-05-16
(I want to add that I'm not arguing above for forgiving or giving a free pass to authors who spout chauvinistic bullcrap in their stories; I'm just arguing that LotR is nuanced enough that you can legitimately come up with non-chauvinistic interpretations of it, whilst acknowledging that Tolkien himself might have seen things in a different way from you.)
Dafydd at 20:56 on 2009-05-16
I am a shield-maiden of Rohan. I am not a serving woman!

Rohan chavinism is not male v female; it is Noble v Peasant.

Eowyn usually bears arms. No-one complains. Theoden oders Eowyn to defend the Home Front just as equally as he issues orders to his other colonels.

Eowyn is Maid of Awesome, but as a role model? She defied her duty for the sake of selfish Glory. "Great Heart cannot be denied."

This is the difference between Warriors and Soldiers. Warriors are driven by passion; Soldiers are driven by obedience. 300 Spartans knew that they would die, but they held the Pass long enough for their Comrades to organize the Defence.

Despair: Death, death! Ride to ruin and the World's ending!
Movie: Theoden spake this Klingon pep-talk (kpt) at the beginning of the Battle.
Book: Eomer quoth the kpt in the middle of the battle when he (correctly) believed that Theoden was dead and (incorrectly) believed that Eowenn was dead.


13, 300, 600, 6M.
Rami at 20:59 on 2009-05-16
LotR is nuanced enough that you can legitimately come up with non-chauvinistic interpretations of it

I think so; definitely there's a lot of stuff in there that you can read as sexist or racist or classist, but I think there's, as you say, ways to rescue the story from the ideology. And I definitely think LotR is worth that!
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 22:30 on 2009-05-18
In short, the Fourth Age is boring
There is that stereotype that peace = dull; personally, I don't buy it. Life can be pretty darn interesting, even when matters of life-and-death (which go beyond wars and battles) aren't involved.

I don't think that--as Jamie and marionros suggest--the question of whether Eowyn's decision is or is not feminist-friendly rests solely on our interpretation of her motives for picking up the sword in the first place. I think (because of the strong identification in Western culture of militarism with power and empowerment) it's possible to view Eowyn laying down the sword as her giving up agency and being proactive, even if her reasons for picking it up in the first place were extremely unhealthy. In order to qualify for feminist-friendly, the book would have to be written in such a way as to convince me that Eowyn is not surrendering her agency and empowerment along with her warriors' ways.

... And I'll really have to get around to rereading that book soon so that I can assess how well the book succeeds at that for myself.

In any case, Tolkien still fails feminism because Eowyn and Galadriel are practically the only female characters (let alone female character who do anything) in a series rife with male characters.

Like Arthur and Rami, I'm a huge Tolkien fan. I consider Lord of the Rings to be one of the greatest works of fiction in existence.

Yet I stop short of latching onto the most positive interpretations of a book just because that's the interpretation I'd like to believe.

I'm a big fan of the Star Wars movies (yes, all six) too, but I'm not going to try to find an interpretation that says they're actually feminist because, well, it's patently obvious to me that they're not, and I'd be dishonest if I tried to say they were. Trying to foist good ideology on a work of fiction which clearly doesn't support such an interpretation seems to me to do a disservice to everyone involved.

I think the correct course of action is probably—as with Howard, Lovecraft, and the other early fantasy/horror authors—to accept and deplore those aspects of their works which are bigoted, while acknowledging that this does not invalidate everything the ever did, or the accomplishments they unquestionably made.
Arthur B at 22:49 on 2009-05-18
There is that stereotype that peace = dull; personally, I don't buy it. Life can be pretty darn interesting, even when matters of life-and-death (which go beyond wars and battles) aren't involved.

I think this is true in general, but I don't think it's true of the Fourth Age, because pretty much nothing of significance happens beyond "Aragorn is a good King" and "The elves and wizards all go away".
http://katsullivan.insanejournal.com/ at 09:54 on 2009-05-19
Yet I stop short of latching onto the most positive interpretations of a book just because that's the interpretation I'd like to believe.I'm a big fan of the Star Wars movies (yes, all six) too, but I'm not going to try to find an interpretation that says they're actually feminist because, well, it's patently obvious to me that they're not, and I'd be dishonest if I tried to say they were. Trying to foist good ideology on a work of fiction which clearly doesn't support such an interpretation seems to me to do a disservice to everyone involved.I think the correct course of action is probably—as with Howard, Lovecraft, and the other early fantasy/horror authors—to accept and deplore those aspects of their works which are bigoted, while acknowledging that this does not invalidate everything the ever did, or the accomplishments they unquestionably made.


Well said! ::applause: One of my favourite TV fandom, Avatar, is guilty of this, too. While there is some fantastic portrayals of female characters, there are also some horrible ones. But most of the fandom will rather do what you say, find a false pro-feminist interpretation for these characters, than just accept that the show does most things brilliantly but a few things badly, which is still saying more than a lot of other shows. But most fans don't seem able to deal with a beloved book or movie or TV show being less than perfect in all things. This doesn't make any sense to me. It's a rare book that was written in the 17th century by an upperclass British man that will be void of sexism and racism. But the correct attitude isn't to latch a convoluted interpretation that deletes this racism or sexism, but to accept the praise-worthy aspects of the book, but condemn those aspects that are prejudiced.
Arthur B at 10:21 on 2009-05-19
It's a rare book that was written in the 17th century by an upperclass British man that will be void of sexism and racism. But the correct attitude isn't to latch a convoluted interpretation that deletes this racism or sexism, but to accept the praise-worthy aspects of the book, but condemn those aspects that are prejudiced.

This is true enough in cases where the interpretation of what's written is cut and dry. Robert E. Howard's stories contain examples of unavoidable, explicit racism; there's nothing you can do about it except condemn those parts, and perhaps give up on reading the stories that are based entirely on "buff white man beats up black dudes".

On the other hand - as the differing interpretations of Eowyn in this discussion attests to - Lord of the Rings is genuinely nuanced and capable of numerous different interpretations. In such cases, I don't think there's anything wrong with seeking out legitimate, textually-supported interpretations of the text that aren't flawed with bigotry, so long as you don't deny the fact that the matter is one which is up for interpretation, and that the author themselves could have fully intended the misogynistic/racist/whatever take on things.

In other words, I'm not advocating ignoring the fact that Eowyn's story could well be an antifeminist one, and I'm not advocating letting Tolkien off the hook for it. All I'm saying is that it is possible to say "People interpret Eowyn in this way, and this might be what Tolkien intended, and I condemn the implications of that; but the text also supports this interpretation of Eowyn, which doesn't have the same issues, so that's the one I like to follow in my personal reading of the book, and if Tolkien doesn't like it then fuck him, he's dead."
Helen at 14:16 on 2009-05-19
I am reminded irresistably of our Blonde Swedish Lesbian Twins running around that monastery forest in their underwear. :D
Rami at 15:58 on 2009-05-19
Blonde Swedish Lesbian Twins running around that monastery forest

Who?!?!?
Wardog at 16:22 on 2009-05-19
WoW dude. Smile, blink, move on...
Jamie Johnston at 23:16 on 2009-05-19
I think (because of the strong identification in Western culture of militarism with power and empowerment) it's possible to view Eowyn laying down the sword as her giving up agency and being proactive, even if her reasons for picking it up in the first place were extremely unhealthy.
- Arkan

Hmm, interesting. I'm not sure I've quite managed to wrap my head around this suggestion yet. [Thinks hard.]
Helen at 09:36 on 2009-05-20
Who?!?!?


Um, the short version is that I hadn't realised until that point that you could actually take all the clothes off your character and make them run around in their underwear, and I was so thrilled by the silliness of this that I made Dan('s character) strip as well and we ran around the human starting area fighting stuff in our knickers. Some seventieth-leveller came over and told us to put some clothes on. It was awesome. :D
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 15:30 on 2009-05-21
pretty much nothing of significance happens beyond "Aragorn is a good King" and "The elves and wizards all go away".
Not that Tolkien wrote about, anyway.

Well, I'm not sure how much better I can explain it, Jamie, but I'll give it a try. In Western culture, women are assumed to be non-aggressive, not proactive, and generally lacking agency and empowerment.

In general in Western culture, aggression and militarism are associated with agency/empowerment. Both of these attitudes are systemic and not specific to any one book or series.

Now Dan makes a good point that just being a warrior is not sufficient to make a female character genuinely empowered in any specific circumstance, but the overarching theme of warrior = empowered still plays out to some extent because of the larger cultural ideas.

So even while at the specific level of the story Eowyn going from warrior to nurturer can be seen as giving up despair for hope and joy, at the larger meta-level, it could still also be read as Eowyn giving up empowerment in favor of passivity. Therefore, the book has to show specifically that she's going to remain empowered as a nurturer or else it can still all fall apart.

In other words, I'm not advocating ignoring the fact that Eowyn's story could well be an antifeminist one, and I'm not advocating letting Tolkien off the hook for it. All I'm saying is that it is possible to say "People interpret Eowyn in this way, and this might be what Tolkien intended, and I condemn the implications of that; but the text also supports this interpretation of Eowyn, which doesn't have the same issues, so that's the one I like to follow in my personal reading of the book, and if Tolkien doesn't like it then fuck him, he's dead."

I kinda thought that's what you might mean, Arthur, I just got a little disturbed by the way you and Rami phrased your arguments. I wanted to clarify the difference between a legitimate interpretation of a text, even if it isn't necessarily what the author intended (I'm not particularly hung up on what Rowling or Whedon thought they were saying) and fabricating an interpretation based on little or no textual evidence just because that's how you'd like it to read.

(*Playing with the “Most Discussed” feature* at 68 comments, this is the most discussed ferretbrain article ever, with 20 more comments than the next most discussed—Kyra's “Hot Gay Puritans and Pretty Blacksmiths”)
Jamie Johnston at 18:27 on 2009-05-21
Arkan -

Sorry, I didn't mean to suggest that you hadn't explained clearly, I was just having to think hard to unpack the implications of what you'd said and to work out whether I agree. But actually your expansion here has helped, so thanks for that.

Let me just put what I think you're saying into different words so that I can check I have properly understood it. First, within the Western cultural tradition warfare tends to be associated with (or, speaking loosely, to equal) empowerment. Secondly, the book is a Western work displaying many features of (and in fact drawing heavily on) that cultural tradition, therefore prímá facie it is appropriate to interpret it from that point of view and thus read Éowyn's decision to give up warfare as a decision to give up empowerment. Thirdly, this prímá facie interpretation has to be disproved by evidence from within the text before we can comfortably see Éowyn's decision as empowering and feminist-friendly.

In yet other words, the 'nurturing = disempowerment' interpretation isn't just one among various possible interpretations but rather the obvious interpretation that places the burden of proof on those arguing against it, and it gets that primal status not so much from the text itself but from the cultural context.

Yes, having turned that around a few times I'm quite persuaded by that (although I suspect if I'd ever studied literature above A-Level I'd be saying, "Ah yes, this is the old controversy between the SuchAndSuchists and the Thingumybobites", because I've a feeling there must be some kind of fundamental question in there about whether texts should be seen in their cultural context or not).

So in order to dislodge that primal interpretation one would, I suspect, have to argue either that the text rejects (or at least does not adopt) the Western cultural tradition as a whole and therefore shouldn't be read in that way, or that the tradition in general applies in the text but the 'warfare = empowerment' element of it does not, or that it does apply in general but not in Éowyn's specific case. Hmm. Yes, I have to say that at the moment none of those three propositions looks easily arguable, but who knows...

at 68 comments, this is the most discussed ferretbrain article ever


Yes, I was just wondering, in fact, whether it might become necessary to add the article to the 'books' and / or 'fantasy rape-watch' themes even though the article itself belongs in neither!
Arthur B at 19:50 on 2009-05-21
So in order to dislodge that primal interpretation one would, I suspect, have to argue either that the text rejects (or at least does not adopt) the Western cultural tradition as a whole and therefore shouldn't be read in that way, or that the tradition in general applies in the text but the 'warfare = empowerment' element of it does not, or that it does apply in general but not in Éowyn's specific case.


I would say that Lord of the Rings - and the Middle-Earth mythos as a whole - does two things with regards to warfare that you're missing here:

- It treats warfare differently depending on who is wielding the sword, and why they are waving it about in the first place.
- More importantly, it treats warfare not as a necessary and vital part of existence, but a blemish forced upon the world by the deeds of evil people.

Let me be more specific: the first war in the entire chronology is the conflict between Melkor/Morgoth and his brethren, which leads first to the exile of Morgoth to Middle-Earth, and then to the theft of the Silmarils - which prompts the elven exodus to Middle-Earth in order to get them back. The very last war in the chronology is the War of the Ring, in which the last remnant of Sauron's power (Sauron being successor to Morgoth) is destroyed, after which the elves go home. Yes, Eomer and Aragorn do have some engagements off in the East, but that's very much about tying up the loose ends of the war against Sauron rather than kicking off a whole new conflict. The destruction of the ring prompts the return of the elves to Valinor, along with those touched by the Ring and the Maiar who were dispatched to Middle-Earth in order to combat Sauron.

Now, the constant theme throughout this great saga is discord, and specifically the discord brought about by Melkor when he did not sing along with the song of Iluvatar at the beginning of things. Throughout the whole thing Melkor/Morgoth corrupts and perverts the natural order of things, and Sauron does the same: one of the more obvious symbols of this is their use of orcs and goblins, which are elves corrupted and reshaped to the point where they represent an inversion of the intended place of the elves in the pattern of Iluvatar's song.

And it is not insignificant that the orcs and goblins are the only peoples we are told about who enjoy warfare; back as far as the Hobbit, we're told that goblins delight in inventing the various engines of war with which we harm ourselves to this day. War, in general, is a corrupt thing, which is more or less invariably forced upon the world by an aggressor who despises the natural order of things, whether that aggressor is Melkor or Sauron: in other words, it's not meant to exist. Pretty much the only time the forces of "good" go to war voluntarily, rather than being forced to fight for their continued existence, is when the elves set sail to attack Morgoth in Middle-Earth and reclaim the Silmarils, and it's stressed in the Silmarillion that this is an extremely bad and unworthy thing for them to do: it's in complete defiance of the gods, it lands them in a conflict which takes multiple generations to resolve - Elven generations, at that - it causes massive suffering and throughout the entire thing the Elves are without the aid and comfort of the gods.

So, in the Third Age it is not a good and wonderful and empowering thing to be a warrior, but a necessary thing. It is not the case that those in power in the good realms are in power by dint of being warriors; they are warriors because they are the leaders of their people, and as such are obliged to defend their people against the aggression of the forces of discord.

When the Ring is destroyed, discord itself is destroyed; the border conflicts with the Easterlings that Aragorn takes part in are merely the last echoes of the final battle, and (if I remember right) fade away fairly swiftly. In the Fourth Age, discord finally goes away, and with it war; thus, there is no need for warriors at all.

Oh, and one last point: if you want proof that being a warrior isn't necessary to be empowered in Middle-Earth, look at Galadriel. She's co-ruler of Lothlorien (and is by far the more important person in the partnership; Celeborn is not only barely present in Lord of the Rings, but he's also one of the characters Tolkien gave the least attention to), she's a guardian of one of the three Rings given to the elven peoples (making her, in some respects, a peer of Gandalf himself), and she's emphatically not a warrior-queen - in fact, she and her people never really took part in the wars against Morgoth. And more to the point, Lothlorien is a little slice of paradise in Middle-Earth - note how all the characters who visit there are bowled over both by the place and by Galadriel herself.
Jamie Johnston at 15:58 on 2009-05-25
That's pretty persuasive, Arthur. At this point I seem to be agreeing with whomever is the last person to say anything, which must be because I haven't sufficient grasp of the relevant texts to form an independent view. So I'll be interested to see whether you've persuaded Arkan. :)
Wardog at 17:28 on 2009-05-25
Welcome to my world =P
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 18:06 on 2009-05-25
First, thanks to Kyra or Rami or whoever fixed the link in my previous comment.

Glad I could help, Jamie.

So in order to dislodge that primal interpretation one would, I suspect, have to argue either that the text rejects (or at least does not adopt) the Western cultural tradition as a whole and therefore shouldn't be read in that way, or that the tradition in general applies in the text but the 'warfare = empowerment' element of it does not, or that it does apply in general but not in Éowyn's specific case.
I don't think it's quite that bad, Jamie. Yes, my argument is that as a warrior, Éowyn has a certain amount of power and agency (getting to your point, Arthur) and this is at least as much cultural (Tolkien's and our own) as it is textual.

However, it is also true in real life that people in nurturing positions also have a significant amount of power and agency—it just goes unacknowledged (denied in fact) by the dominant culture. In order for Éowyn's choice to be pro-feminist, it isn't necessary to show that she did not in fact, have power and agency as a warrior, only to point out—contrary to the accepted cultural idea—that she will still have power and agency after making the switchover to a more nurturing role.

Arthur, you make some very good points (although I would argue that discord and warfare are not totally destroyed, just defeated for a time; if that does ever happen, it won't be until at least Dagor Dagoroth).

It's true that Tolkien's narrative can support interpretations which are highly critical towards warfare (it's one of the things I like about him) but I don't think he goes nearly far enough to invalidate my point.

My choice to switch from talking about “empowerment” to “power” and “agency was made with some thought—those second two words come with fewer moral connotations. For the purposes of this discussion, I will consider them to be morally neutral. From a feminist perspective, you can have a liberated, empowered female character who's clearly a villain.

It's true that Galadriel is great and wise and at least somewhat helpful to the Fellowship—but all-in-all, she doesn't really accomplish all that much of relevance to the plot.

The reason being that Galadriel is not a violent character, and most of the biggest achievements in Lord of the Rings are made through violence. Violence may be bad in Tolkien's world, but it's also a vital problem-solving tool when confronting true evil.

People who utilize violence in Lord of the Rings have a significant amount of power and agency because violence is so crucial to accomplishing the characters' goals.

I think, therefore, that my assertion that Éowyn has a certain amount of power and agency as a warrior (even if she's a warrior for unhealthy reasons, and even if being a warrior is Not Really a Good Thing) is still valid.
Arthur B at 18:23 on 2009-05-25
It's true that Galadriel is great and wise and at least somewhat helpful to the Fellowship—but all-in-all, she doesn't really accomplish all that much of relevance to the plot.

Really? I would say the opposite - Galadriel has an enormous influence on the plot, she just isn't onstage for most of it.

The most obvious example here is the various gifts she gives to the Fellowship when they leave Lothlorien: there's a vast number instances where the cause (and especially Frodo and Sam's quest, which is of course crucial to the entire effort against Sauron) would have been utterly lost without them. The less obvious, but I would say just as important aspect, is how the attitudes of the characters are changed by their stint in Lothlorien and their visions in Galadriel's Pool. Think of how often Sam thinks of Galadriel before he does something heroic, think of how Gimli's attitude to the elves is completely changed, setting the stage for him and Legolas to become both fast friends and exceptionally good allies in battle.

I agree that Eowyn is empowered as a warrior; I do not agree that (especially in the Fourth Age, which is primarily an age of peace) that she loses all agency once she stops being a warrior, any more than Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin lose all agency once they lay down their swords.

Yes, a lot of the time in the Middle-Earth saga warfare is the main way people exert power. But I don't think Tolkien thought this was a good thing, and throughout the entire story is an aspiration to a world where warfare is banished - and even in the main story, warfare is not the only means of agency, and might even be the least worthy. (Tom Bombadil is another example of this sort of thing.)
Isabel at 18:51 on 2009-05-25
Genuinely fascinating debate…

I think Arthur’s point about her and Faramir offering a new non warrior model for the Fourth Age is a really good one but, for me anyway, the fact that when we first meet her she wants to fight and is broken and then gets healed and no longer wants to, along with her being the only female character in the books who wants to get involved with any of the action, it always seemed to imply that for a woman to want to fight it would only be because there was something wrong with her and so I never responded that well to her.
Arthur B at 19:20 on 2009-05-25
I think the point that Tolkien tries to make is that for anyone to want to fight - emphasis on want - there has to be something wrong with them. Fighting isn't something that healthy people look forward to, it's either something broken people perpetrate (in the case of the aggressors) or an unpleasant task that the defenders are forced to tackle. When we first meet Faramir he's taking part in guerilla warfare on the fringes of Mordor and he's desperate to win glory in battle to prove himself to Denethor, and he equally walks away from fighting once he's healed.
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 20:02 on 2009-05-25
All right, Arthur, I will concede the point about Galadriel: you're entirely right.

And I'm not arguing that characters don't have power and agency in Lord of the Rings other than through violence. Since marionros made her comment, I'm not even arguing that Eowyn necessarily isn't empowered after putting down the sword.

My argument at this point is:
1: That Eowyn as a warrior has some amount of power and agency
2: That point 1 is affirmed both in the text and by wider cultural assumptions
3: That, because of point 2, point 1 holds even if (as marionros argues) she's only a warrior for unhealthy, self-destructive reasons and even if (as I believe you argued and I would agree) being a warrior isn't morally good either in Tolkien or in real life
4: That nurturing positions, such as the one Eowyn opts for are considered the "natural" vocation of women (while warfare is not), and further that such positions are passive, lacking in power and agency
and 5: Because of points 1-4, in order for Eowyn's choice to be an empowering one, Tolkien has to show in her specific case
a: That the choice makes sense for her as a character, not just because she's a woman
and b: That (contrary to "popular wisdom") Eowyn will retain her power and agency even after she has given up being a warrior.

I would say that Tolkien definitely fulfills 5a, and as I've said several times now, I will have to reread the book before making a final decision for myself about whether he fulfills 5b. Everyone else is, of course, free to make their own judgments about whether Tolkien addresses 5b satisfactorily, independent of my own decision.
Arthur B at 20:29 on 2009-05-25
Your argument here is mostly sound, but I'd dispute point 4:

4: That nurturing positions, such as the one Eowyn opts for are considered the "natural" vocation of women (while warfare is not), and further that such positions are passive, lacking in power and agency.


Aragorn is a healer. Not only this, but Aragorn's skill at healing is a proof of his right to be King, just as the fact that he bears the reforged sword of Isildur is. If the healing profession is passive and lacks agency, why is the King a healer?
Isabel at 21:00 on 2009-05-25
I think the point that Tolkien tries to make is that for anyone to want to fight - emphasis on want - there has to be something wrong with them. Fighting isn't something that healthy people look forward to, it's either something broken people perpetrate (in the case of the aggressors) or an unpleasant task that the defenders are forced to tackle.


Perhaps I shouldn't have used the word fight as in relishing battle and warfare - i meant more get involved in a physical, in the thick of the action, sense. However I seem to remember (and its been a while since I read it so i might be entirely wrong) that it was her lust for glory (or glorious death or somesuch) on the battlefield that he was condemning rather than her desire to defend Rohan so you're probably right.

Aragorn is a healer. Not only this, but Aragorn's skill at healing is a proof of his right to be King, just as the fact that he bears the reforged sword of Isildur is. If the healing profession is passive and lacks agency, why is the King a healer?


Its more the fact that he seems to be saying that a woman who would want to do anything but would have to be damaged in some way which is not something he says about the male characters. Legolas and Gimli are not criticised for their desire to get involved in the action, and while they take up tree and cave sightseeing after the ring is destroyed, I don’t think we were meant to take their desire not to be left out of the action while the war is happening as a psychological flaw or as unnatural and brought about by horrible personal circumstances.

Theoden is explicitly commended for wanting to ride to Gondor’s aid while Eowyn is condemned because she doesn’t so much want to ride to Gondor’s aid as commit suicide, the fact that she is the only female to express any desire to ride anywhere would imply that there has the be something wrong with the ones who do.

I think I am probably am not allowing for a lot of subtlety with what Tolkien is saying with Eowyn, but as she is one of two female character who have any impact on the course of events whatsoever its hard to!
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 22:36 on 2009-05-25
Have some good points there, Isabel. Once again, not sure whether I go along with that interpretation or not, but you could very well be right.

You make a good point, too, Arthur, but I don't think that in itself is subversive enough to overturn the transition from empowered to nonempowered narrative in Eowyn's case. We really need to take her depiction into consideration (and I really need to get around to re-reading it so I can settle that question in my own mind, at least).
Dan H at 00:23 on 2009-05-26
If the healing profession is passive and lacks agency, why is the King a healer?


I think the thing here is that not all healers are created equal. To use a real life analogy, Doctors and Nurses are both part of the medical profession, but Doctors have respect, money and power and are stereotypically male while nurses have none of these things and are stereotypically female.

To put it another way: the ability to heal is one of many, many things Aragorn gets as part of being king. As well as being a kickass warrior, a wise ruler, and a leader of men, he can heal people and he can do it better than a woman who has dedicated her entire life to the practice.

It's not "being a healer" that's the problem. It's the fact that female healers devote their entire lives to it and wind up second rate, while men do it in between ruling kingdoms and killing orcs and wind up first rate.

It's like those movies where a white guy hangs out with the Chinese / Japanese / Native Americans and winds up being a better Shaolin Monk / Samurai / Whatever than the people they learned from.
Arthur B at 01:01 on 2009-05-26
As well as being a kickass warrior, a wise ruler, and a leader of men, he can heal people and he can do it better than a woman who has dedicated her entire life to the practice.


Well, there's two reasons why this is the case: Aragorn possesses secret healing knowledge that the rangers keep to themselves (because it's evidence that they are the last Numenoreans, and they don't really want to reveal themselves until the right moment), and because Aragorn upstages everyone, especially in Gondor.

Though in this regard I do agree that Tolkien's treatment of Eowyn is unfair. I don't think it's antifeminist for Eowyn to choose to marry Faramir - they both end up subordinate to the King, after all - and I don't even think it's antifeminist for her to become a healer. I do agree that it's problematic for Aragorn to be a better healer than any woman is allowed to be; but that said, Aragorn flies in the face of liberal values any way you analyse him.

I don't think Tolkien was writing from a specifically antifeminist perspective, in the sense that his primary agenda was knocking over feminism. (There's nothing in Lord of the Rings which even approaches the offensiveness of That Hideous Strength, for example.) I'm with Gene Wolfe in the sense that I think that JRR was writing from a Monarchist point of view (although I don't share Wolfe's happy embrace of this opinion): Tolkien, a lot like other English Catholic thinkers of the time (I'm thinking here of Lewis and Chesterton) was of the opinion that both men and women are happiest when they submit themselves to the will of those divinely appointed to guide and lead them. Jesus Christ is obviously the most relevant of such figures, but in the context of Lord of the Rings Tolkien is of the opinion that human kings are also a good bet, so long as they are acting in accordance with divine will. In every case in LotR, human monarchs are awesome and should be listened to: Aragorn is the Messiah, Denethor went bad because he was trying to hold onto the Stewardship in defiance of his rightful King, and Theoden only went wrong when he started listening to Wormtongue rather than following the guidance of his own heart.

This sort of monarchism does, ultimately, have antifeminist side-effects, but it's not because of a conscious antifeminist agenda so much as the fact that monarchism flies in the face of most liberal values developed since the Enlightenment (at least).
Rami at 10:18 on 2009-05-26
This sort of monarchism does, ultimately, have antifeminist side-effects, but it's not because of a conscious antifeminist agenda

I know a few people who would actually disagree with that, and in any case I don't think a conscious antifeminist agenda is necessary at all to end up saying antifeminist things.

But I think the main point is, as you say, that Aragorn is not the best example because he's an exception to all the rules.
Arthur B at 10:36 on 2009-05-26
I know a few people who would actually disagree with that, and in any case I don't think a conscious antifeminist agenda is necessary at all to end up saying antifeminist things.

No, of course not, although I do think the treatment of Eowyn makes much more sense as a toxic side-effect of a different agenda than a direct result of an antifeminist agenda. If Tolkien were directly arguing against feminism, after all, then Eowyn's intervention in the war - and in particular the death of the Witch-King - wouldn't really make sense: if you really want to be antifeminist, it only hurts your argument to show women kicking ass at activities you're trying to reserve for men. On the other hand, if you assume a monarchist agenda the entire arc makes sense: Eowyn is conflicted between her loyalty to Theoden, the King of Rohan, and her ardent desire to serve Aragorn, the rightful King of Gondor, to whom Rohan owes service in honour of their alliance. Eowyn's love for Aragorn proves to be the sort of hero-worship that the True King naturally attracts (and once she recognises this fact she is much more content in her place in life) - and thus even though she's defying Theoden when she rides out to battle, she's doing so out of loyalty to a higher King, so her actions are meritorious.
Jamie Johnston at 13:53 on 2009-05-26
although I do think the treatment of Eowyn makes much more sense as a toxic side-effect of a different agenda than a direct result of an antifeminist agenda
- Arthur

Certainly, and I'm not sure that anyone has actually been suggesting that Éowyn's treatment is evidence of deliberate anti-feminism on Tolkein's part.

The discussion really arose out of Shimmin (comment of 5th May) using the paucity of female characters in Tolkien as an example of general female under-representation in fantasy, to which Arkan responded (comment of 8th May) by observing that Éowyn does have "one of the truly awesomest moments in the trilogy" (feminist plus-points) but then "turn[s] into a good little stay-at-home wife" (feminist minus-points). Then we had a little tangent about Who Really Killed The Witch-King? before Marionros (comment of 11th May) staked out a claim for Éowyn as a female role-model. Since then I think the general line of argument among those of us questioning Éowyn's feminist cred has been not so much 'Tolkein is a misogynist' as 'calling Éowyn a female role-model is a bit of a stretch'.

Wow, this comments thread has now become so long as to call not only for discussion of its length (comments of 21st May) but also a short bibliographical survey of the debate so far (this comment, see above).
Arthur B at 15:35 on 2009-05-26
Someone should write an article about it! :D
Arthur B at 15:41 on 2009-05-26
Incidentally, I think we should also consider the long discussion we've had about modes of empowerment in Middle-Earth, and whether Eowyn loses whatever power/agency she possessed. Which I'd argue is a separate thing from whether she's a decent female role-model: it's completely possible for a female character to be (supposedly) empowered in the text but to still be completely terrible role models. (The classic example here is the Gor series, wherein being an abused sex slave is supposedly fulfilling and empowering for most of the female characters...)
Dafydd at 00:51 on 2009-05-28
Eowyn is NOT Mary Sue. Eowyn has flaws.
Eowyn's virtues are bigger than her flaws. Therefore she IS a positive role model for Humans.

Elves are super-dooper perfect. Humans can never aspire to be as cool as Elves.


ave fun!
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 04:30 on 2009-05-29
Hi, everyone! I'm coming late to a fascinating discussion - Marionros, I loved what you had to say, and I found Arthur interesting, as well. But I've noticed a pattern in Tolkien, and also read Stratford Caldecott and a couple of others, so I do have something to add.

It's quite true that Tolkien was a man of his time and culture, and, by modern standards, he might well come across as sexist. BUT-

Have you noticed that, though there are few women in the text, every single woman who has a speaking part "speaks truth to power"? Thus, all of them move the action forward. Not just Galadriel and Eowyn - all of them. I think it may have been Randall Helms who pointed out that, if she was despairing (and she certainly was), Eowyn was right to follow her heart in a good cause. She says to Aragorn, when he tells her she has no need to travel with him, "Neither have these others. Yet they go with thee because they love thee." And events prove her right to go.

An even clearer example is Arwen. Before this conversation, Aragorn meets a group of his kinsmen. They bring a message from Arwen to Aragorn: "If you have need of haste, remember the paths of the dead." Aragorn listens, conquers his fears and obeys his love's word. Thus he comes through to the ships in time and is able to raise the siege of Gondor. Arwen advises him, and he obeys her!

In the same way, it is the nurse, Ioreth, who says as she looks at the dying Faramir, "Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say. For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known." Gandalf then goes to get Aragorn, saying, "Men may long remember your words, Ioreth! For there is hope in them." She instigates the actions that lead to the saving of Faramir, Merry and Eowyn.

Galdriel's wisdom, her advice, and her gifts to the travellers have already been mentioned. Her earthly counterpart, Goldberry, fills a similar role. Even among the hobbits themselves, it's Rosie who recalls Sam to his duty when they are trying to fight the ruffians. In every case, obedience to a woman brings about a good result. It's subtle, but the female characters in this text have more power and more honor than we might at first guess.

I had a bit more to say about this, but it's slipped my mind. Fascinating discussion, anyway.

Oh - I remembered it. I do hate to bring up the dreaded "Potter" books, especially in contrast to Tolkien, who's a genius. But -
In Tolkien, every one of the male characters who grows to be a hero is shown to have a fairly strongly expressed feminine side. Thus, Faramir is patient and gentle, Aragorn is a healer, Sam a gardener, Frodo a thoughful pacifist (in the end), and Bilbo loves flowers. What a contrast to Rowling! In those (greatly inferior) books, the only males with strongly expressed feminine sides are Slytherins, and they get treated with contempt and punished for it.

Again, in Tolkien, even the most "traditional" women (Ioreth and Rosie), are sensible, observant, and outspoken - masculine qualities, if you like. Rowling's girls are certainly "masculine", in a way, but the result is an imbalance in the depiction of the sexes. No one in the Potterverse - male or female - is allowed to have a strongly expressed feminine side except for Molly Weasley - who is extremely aggressive and hot-tempered - and Luna, the only non-problematic "feminine" female.

Finally, I'd like to return to Eowyn and Merry. Tolkien does something quite fascinating here, and it was Stratford Caldecott, in "the Power of the Ring", who pointed it out. The two face down the witch king together. Merry, who is well named (a steady and cheerful young fellow) does strike the first blow, but it is Eowyn who kills the witch king of Angmar. And what is the Nazgul's chief weapon? Despair. So, she strikes down despair with the help of the young hobbit, even though she herself is grieving and desperate. This is a necessary first step in her healing.

Later, she gives Merry a horn. Caldecott points out that Merry's special gift is the lifting of despair. When he blows that horn to rouse the shire folk from their torpor, Eowyn is with him in spirit, bringing hope to the downtrodden people. They work together throughout.

Just one more thing about Eowyn. Tolkien was the father of a daughter, and I believe Priscilla ended up working with horses. For a father to write a brave young woman who rides well to please his horse-loving daughter is no bad thing!

Anyway, I love Eowyn, and think Galadriel is a major heroine, too. And I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Ioreth!
Arthur B at 06:21 on 2009-05-29
Wow, Mary-J, awesome post. I hadn't picked up on a lot of that.
Isabel at 10:18 on 2009-05-29
awesome post indeed!!! Well if this discussion has done anything its completely changed my perspective on Eowyn (and the rest of the female characters) in lord of the rings - thanks so much - its my favourite book and its great to see so much of it in a new light!
Andy G at 11:13 on 2009-05-29
"Have you noticed that, though there are few women in the text, every single woman who has a speaking part "speaks truth to power"? Thus, all of them move the action forward."

That's still different from them being particularly active agents in the story, however. Women have been on hand to provide guidance to the male protagonists with their mysterious powers of prophecy or feminine intuition for millenia. But imagine if you had a book where the only black character was a shaman in a wood who imparted enigmatic mystic knowledge and magic gifts to the white heroes - would that be a positive portrayal?

That having been said, I don't disagree with you about the nuances in the text, especially about the more pronounedly feminine qualities in the male heroes. I think like a lot of people here, Lord of the Rings is one of my favourite books and I don't regard it as hateful by any means - I just think, like you say, that it is a product of its times and needs to be judged in those terms. I think this is a slightly different approach from looking for a positive interpretation that shows it to be acceptably feminist by modern standards in order to feel able to appreciate its quality. I wonder if this difference in approach is at the root of lots of the disagreement here?
Arthur B at 11:54 on 2009-05-29
I think this is a slightly different approach from looking for a positive interpretation that shows it to be acceptably feminist by modern standards in order to feel able to appreciate its quality. I wonder if this difference in approach is at the root of lots of the disagreement here?

I don't think it's necessary to whack modern interpretations on books and try to find textual support for them, but I think this discussion proves that it's a hell of a lot of fun.
Dan H at 14:22 on 2009-05-29
But imagine if you had a book where the only black character was a shaman in a wood who imparted enigmatic mystic knowledge and magic gifts to the white heroes - would that be a positive portrayal?


Like the TV adaptation of Earthsea!

But yeah, I'm with Andy on this one. I don't think Tolkein's portrayal of women is that bad for something written in the 1950s by an Oxford academic, but ultimately his portrayal of women is extremely mythological.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 15:55 on 2009-05-29
Well, yes, the women in Tolkien are mythic, but then so are the men, for the most part. Have you ever met, or do you ever hope to meet, someone like Aragorn?! Tolkien quite deliberately set out to write a mythology, not realistic fiction, so maybe it's not fair to judge these books by modern, realistic-fiction standards. OTOH, I do agree he was somewhat sexist; as I said, he was a man of his time and culture, and, by modern standards, those were sexist.

Then again, I can remember Tolkien defending Eowyn's heroism against contemporary critics who thought it unbelievable. He thought his own mother incredibly brave - a heroine and martyr - and pretty much stated that he knew for a fact women could be as courageous as men. Because he'd known women who were.

Which pretty much brings me back to what I said before. Yes, LOTR has its flaws. Yes, Tolkien's worldview has its limits. But there is a real depth and generosity of spirit in these books, nonetheless. I'm a woman, and I do not find them offensive.

Just my two cents!
Andy G at 17:32 on 2009-05-29
Well, yes, the women in Tolkien are mythic, but then so are the men, for the most part. Have you ever met, or do you ever hope to meet, someone like Aragorn?! Tolkien quite deliberately set out to write a mythology, not realistic fiction, so maybe it's not fair to judge these books by modern, realistic-fiction standards.


I read a really interesting thing once about how the interaction between modern and mythological characters and styles was really central to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Aragorn straddles the two worlds (as Elessar/Strider) - one of my favourite scenes is where Merry asks Aragorn for his backpack and, tongue firmly in cheek, he delivers the very grand, grim speech about having no time to care about the backpack which he knows full well is right next to Merry.
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 22:30 on 2009-05-29
Thanks for sharing all that, Mary-J. It's an interesting perspective.

O'course, my sister told me yesterday that this discussion was kinda missing the bigger point, but since I can't reconstruct her argument well enough to repeat it, I'll just leave it for her to post herself. ()
Andy G at 21:40 on 2009-05-30
O'course, my sister told me yesterday that this discussion was kinda missing the bigger point, but since I can't reconstruct her argument well enough to repeat it, I'll just leave it for her to post herself. ()


Well now that just makes me really curious to find out what she has to say! You should do teaser trailers for films ...
Jamie Johnston at 23:10 on 2010-06-19
Hey people, remember this comments thread? Neither did I until just now, when I saw that Cuppy van der Cake (no, come back, she writes stuff that's worth reading, even if that stuff perhaps doesn't include her pseudonym) has been thinking about what happens to Éowyn and makes the interesting suggestion that her ending doesn't ring true because she doesn't seem to be traumatized by the war in the way that the other characters who don't come from warrior backgrounds are.

She implicitly reads Éowyn's desire to be a warrior as her healthy self-expression, contrá Marionros' reading, above, that it's the result of depression and suicidal impulse. But equally I think some of us assumed in the discussion that if Éowyn was authentically and healthily warrior-like before the war she should be expected to carry on being like that afterwards, and hence the fact that she doesn't do that feels like inauthentic behaviour; Cake's argument implies a challenge to that too: why should we imagine that Éowyn, after what she's been through, will go back to being like she was before with the horse-riding and sword-waving? Maybe there's scope to read her settling down and nurturing stuff as neither a return to full humanity nor an implausible departure from her established character but a reaction, conscious or unconscious, to trauma. Not that I can be bothered to check to see whether the text in any way supports that, mind you... :)
Dan H at 23:28 on 2010-06-19
Isn't Cake's argument that the ending is actually unsatisfying? That it's not psychologically plausible in either context?
Andy G at 02:31 on 2010-06-20
@ Jamie: Here's some textual stuff ;)

Prior to meeting with Faramir, Eowyn is still pretty determined to ride out to battle:

'I shall sicken anew, if there is naught that I can do [...] It is not always good to be healed in body. Nor is it always evil to die in battle, even in bitter pain. Were I permitted, in this dark hour I would choose the latter.'

Later on, after talking to Faramir:

'Suddenly the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her. [...] "I will be a shieldmaiden no longer [...] I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.'

So I mean, it is a reaction to trauma and harrowing ordeals, but unlike Frodo she isn't shown to be crushed by her experiences. I guess it's a separate question whether that's psychologically realistic(which I think it is within the logic of the book) or feministically satisfactory (for which see above!).

Jamie Johnston at 13:29 on 2010-06-20
Dan, yes, you're right: my second paragraph above was bouncing off Cake's point about trauma to imagine a reading different from hers but also different from the ones we batted around in the original discussion.

Andy, indeed, those are the questions. And my brain is full of Roman criminal law at the moment so I'm entirely incompetent to try to answer them. :)
Andy G at 17:51 on 2010-09-17
Oh look somebody from a very unexpected quarter is also weighing into the Eowyn and feminism debate.
Dan H at 21:54 on 2010-09-17
I note she makes the schoolboy error of assumung it was Eowyn who kills the Witch King...
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 03:52 on 2010-09-18
Dan, I make that same schoolboy error, having grown up with the books and read them at least twenty times. Eowyn does kill the witch king. This is not in doubt. She does not do it *alone*; Merry stabs him in the back of the knee and then she cuts his head off. But she definitely kills him. What makes you think she doesn't?
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 04:05 on 2010-09-18
That said, I wish she'd shut up about my beloved Tolkien! The poor man would be rolling in his grave; he didn't like politics or politicians, did he?
Frank at 06:34 on 2010-09-18
Merry is Hobbit, not Man and thus has no hand of man (or whatever the prophecy says) just like Eowyn, so it could be read that they both killed the Witch King as they both stabbed/pierced it.
Dan H at 15:42 on 2010-09-18


Dan, I make that same schoolboy error, having grown up with the books and read them at least twenty times. Eowyn does kill the witch king. This is not in doubt. She does not do it *alone*; Merry stabs him in the back of the knee and then she cuts his head off. But she definitely kills him. What makes you think she doesn't?


Much as I dislike argument-from-interview, I'm *pretty sure* Tolkein is on record as insisting it was actually Merry's leg-stabbing that sealed the deal.

I'd also point out that Tolkein is so consistent in using "man" to mean "human" that if Eowyn doesn't count as a "man" in this context it's actually kind of skeevy.
Sister Magpie at 15:58 on 2010-09-18
I think Merry's agreeing that they killed him together--that Merry's stab "sealed the deal." But the whole scene leads up to Eowyn dealing the death blow, doesn't it?

Right after saying "I am no man," so it seems a bit cheap to have her be wrong there. Tolkien does say "man" to refer to the human race (which was pretty common) but it still seems like he's making the point that Eowyn herself is "no man." No man can kill him but a woman and a hobbit with a special blade can.
Sister Magpie at 16:01 on 2010-09-18
Heh--by "Merry" I meant "Mary." Mary is agreeing they did it together.

And just to clarify about the man/man thing, it seems like the joke is just on the two separate definitions of man. "Man" can be a race and a gender within that race. The prophecy makes it seem like it's referring to the race since nobody would have expected a woman to kill him anyway. Eowyn takes it as the gender.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 16:42 on 2010-09-18
I just lost my comment, after working on it for twenty minutes! Starting again:

Yes, they do it together, but yes, it's Eowyn who deals the killing blow. There is no other way to read the scene AND its aftermath. Look at the chronology:
Theoden leads the charge and cuts down the flag bearer. Then his horse is shot (an arrow) and rolls over on him. The nazgul stoops on him, and his knights flee in panic; Merry and Eowyn are thrown from their horse.
As the Witch King threatens Theoden, Eowyn defies him. Merry at this point is crawling blindly, sick with horror and his eyes shut. He hears Eowyn defy the Witch King. The two famous lines of dialogue follow-
"No living man may hinder me", and
But no living man am I! You look upon a woman." (Page 823 in our library paperback.)
At that point, Merry opens his eyes.
The beast leaps towards Eowyn, who beheads it and springs backwards. The Witch King climbs from the dead beast and looms over Eowyn; he shatters her shield and breaks her shield arm with a blow from his mace. Eowyn falls to her knees and he prepares to strike the killing blow. But then,
"Suddenly he too stumbled forward with a cry of bitter pain, and his stroke went wide . . .Merry's sword had stabbed him from behind, shearing through the black mantle, and passing up beneath the hauberk had pierced the sinew behind his mighty knee."
"'Eowyn! Eowyn!' cried Merry. Then tottering, struggling up, with her last strength she drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her. The sword broke sparkling into many shards. The crown rolled away with a clang." (page 824 of our library paperback, the new Houghton Mifflin post-movie one with Viggo Mortenson on the cover.)

Some things to note here:
Both Merry and Eowyn have injuries to their arms, which are cold, because both of them struck the Witch King. Also, Eowyn's sword shatters, so it must have hit something solid. Merry strikes first, and hits a tendon. Eowyn aims for the Witch King's neck. He is still alive, though in pain, when she strikes him. He's dead when she falls forward onto his empty cloak. The only logical reading is that she kills him. It's perfectly possible that Merry first renders him mortal by striking him, and it's really obvious that she couldn't have killed him without Merry's help, because Merry saves her life by wounding the Nazgul. As I said above, they work together throughout. (And Merry wouldn't have been there, to save her life and render the Witch King mortal, had she not smuggled him onto her horse!) But it's clearly Eowyn who strikes the killing blow. If not - if the Witch King was already dead when she struck - why did her sword shatter? And why was her sword arm injured? Again, when the Witch King finally dies, his cloak and armor are EMPTY. They are not when she strikes him, and she strikes after Merry.

She kills him. Sorry Dan, but she does. If you can find a quote from Tolkien as to what he intended with Merry's role here, I'd be quite interested to read it. But, if he didn't intend to make it clear that Eowyn kills the Witch King, he wrote this scene extremely badly.
Jamie Johnston at 17:31 on 2010-09-19
We've been here before...

I'm sticking with my last stated view (which is that on balance it makes a bit more sense if Éowyn did it but it's impossible to say for sure).

The sword shattering is another piece of evidence on that side, but I don't think it's sound to say that 'it must have hit something solid'. It could have been shattered by magic. We don't know how Nazgûl bodies work. We don't even know for sure that there was ever anything solid inside the armour. Equally, if it shatters because there's something solid in there, that contradicts the argument that it wouldn't have shattered if he'd already been dead when she struck: a dead but solid body is no less likely to break a sword than a live solid body.

Because we know nothing about Nazgûl physiology we can't draw firm conclusions from his disappearance. It may be that the instance of vanishment is identical to the moment of death, or it may not. He may be dead before he vanishes, or he may vanish before he dies and indeed he may not be dead at all. Nor can we draw firm conclusions from the magical injuries to Éowyn's and Merry's arms because we have no idea whether stabbing a dead but still solid Nazgûl would cause a different magical effect from stabbing a live Nazgûl.

In response to Dan's skeeviness point, I still think the whole set-up of the prophecy points to Éowyn. The fact that it would be skeevy for Tolkein to be (probably) unconsciously implying that women aren't full-blown humans doesn't persuade me, personally, that that can't be what he was doing. That is, after all, what sexism tends to make people unconsciously do. In the article Andy linked to we see Christine O'Donnell doing it herself by talking about 'the mysterious creature called the woman'. If a woman in 2003 can say something like that explicitly it's pretty plausible that a man in 1955 could have done it unconsciously. On the other hand, the point that Éowyn defies the prophecy is explicitly made in the text and emphasized as a moment of 'AHA!', whereas the idea that Merry also defies the prophecy is certainly tenable but, as Sister Magpie says, is surely very much not where the text is directing our attention.

To be clear, Mary, I agree with you that the evidence over all points more to Éowyn than to Merry. But I think you're in danger of undermining the argument by stating it more categorically than it can bear.
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