We need to talk about Jasmine

I grew up quite the Disney kid, as I’ve mentioned before. And so the news that Emma Watson, everyone’s favourite book loving leading lady, is signing on to play Belle in Disney’s revamped Beauty and the Beast was quite exciting. I mentioned this development to my mother, whose response was a world weary sigh and the following question:

‘Why do they want to ruin all the animated movies?’

Being the sassy twenty something I am, I retorted with, ‘Because they have to make the movies more obviously feminist.’

Then I sobered down and added, ‘Also, to make money.’

The conversation made me think, though, about the need for ‘feminist-ifying’ Disney heroines. When I was a kid, watching all those classics like ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Pocahontas’ for the first time, I never really thought about what kind of social codes or behaviours they were prescribing. Now, with all the revamping, they’re coming under some heavy fire and re-examination, so of course I jumped on the bandwagon and went back and rewatched an old favourite: ‘Aladdin’.

I’ve always had a soft spot for this movie. There are two reasons for this, both of which are pretty superficial:

Aladdin was my first crush, and continues to be my favourite Disney prince of all time. 

Someone once told me that I looked like Jasmine.

I warned you—superficial reasons.

Anyway, the rewatch (which took place in September 2014, to be precise, in chilly Chicago, in the company of one of my best friends) made me realize something: Disney already had a fiery, feminist princess, way before Mulan entered the scene. And that princess was Jasmine.


aladdin-disneyscreencaps-com-1391What’s in a name:
‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Little Mermaid’—what do all these classic Disney princess movies have in common? They all include/refer to the female protagonist (the ‘princess’) in their title. Aladdin’s Jasmine is the only one of the original line up to not enjoy that privilege. She is also, notably, the only female character in her movie. Apart from the denizens of a brothel who show up once (during the song ‘One Jump’), and a little girl at the fruit market, Jasmine seems to be the only woman in Agrabah. Or the only woman who’s important enough to be part of the titular hero’s story anyway. She has no female support system, and her only friend is a tiger trained to dismiss troublesome suitors.

Sticking it to the marriage market: When we meet Jasmine, she has just cast off the unwanted advances of yet another conceited princeling. It’s not the first time this has happened—her father has been foisting suitors onto her for a while because the law says she ‘must be married’ to ascend the throne. ‘The law is wrong,’ she says, and all her jasmine pissedactions seem to suit her words. Even when ‘Prince Ali’ shows up, impressing the Sultan with his grand entrance, Jasmine remains unmoved. ‘I am not some prize to be won!’ is her melodramatic exiting line. You go girl.

The existential angst: There’s no question that Jasmine feels ‘trapped’. The movie is full of symbols of her seeking the freedom she lacks—freeing the birds in her garden, jumping over the walls to see what awaits her on the other side, even, at one point, declaring that maybe she doesn’t ‘want to be a princess anymore!’. I suppose you could pin this down to poor-little-rich-girl angst, especially when you contrast it to Aladdin’s desire to find a place/security in his street rat world. Also, when she breaks out of the palace, Jasmine very obviously has no idea how to function in the ‘real world’, nearly losing her hand for her naivety. But she’s a fast learner, and picks up quickly enough.

Smooth playa: Jasmine remains unimpressed by ‘Ali’s’ grandiose display. Jasmine is also a keen observer and can tell quickly that ‘Ali’ is not who he says he is, and is bold enough to confront him about it—‘Why did you lie to me?’, she demands after their romantic ride. Also, look at this bit from ‘A Whole New World’, where Aladdin rolls an apple off his shoulder and Jasmine catches it: it’s obvious she’s figured out who he is.

aladdin and jasmine marketapple

OMG: Remember how Megara is such a big deal in the Disney pantheon because she uses her sexuality unashamedly? Well Jasmine did that LONG before her. Jasmine
jasmineseduces Jafar, distracting him in order to let Aladdin get about his mission of ‘making things right’. Jasmine knows what she’s got and she ain’t ashamed to flaunt it. If you don’t think this is a big deal in a kids’ movie…well. I really don’t know what to say. Of course, it could also be said that, as the only ‘exotic’, Eastern princess in her time, Jasmine was unfairly sexualized in a manner that her fellow ‘white’ princesses like Aurora and Snow White were not. But at least she owns her sexuality, and uses it to achieve her ends on her terms.

aladdin-1992-07-g

At the end of the movie, Aladdin is promoted to ‘suitable’ status because of his exploits, and Jasmine agrees to abide by age-old conventions and get married, so maybe this is a bit of a cop out. I’m looking forward to the rework that Disney will no doubt get down to making, where Jasmine is the real heroine (let’s face it, she’s a lot more fun than Aladdin) who makes her way in a man’s world, maybe picking up a street rat or two on the way.

But only if she wants it, of course.

Aladdin-disneyscreencaps.com-2570

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Ravenclaw, the Thinking House


hogwarts_crest_by_geijvontaen-d665icxLately, I’ve caught myself wondering a lot about which Hogwarts house I would actually be in. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really impossible to know, and all the computer generated results I get from quizzes designed to answer this question are bogus. Also, if the element of choice is a factor, as Harry’s ending up in Gryffindor seems to indicate, how does it matter which house’s traits suit my eleven year old self’s personality? I would just choose to go where my friends were.

But there was a time in the not so distant past when I seriously thought that, of all the Houses, I would be in Ravenclaw. This House has always sort of fascinated me, for a number of reasons. I’m going to discuss those reasons here.

The Sorting System: As we know, the Sorting Hat divides students into four groups, based on a dominant personality trait. Gryffindor gets the ‘brave’ kids, or those who value courage and daring above everything else; Slytherins are the ‘ambitious’ (or more likely, unscrupulous) ones; Hufflepuffs are hardworking and loyal and the Ravenclaws are ‘intelligent’.

None of these traits is mutually exclusive. There’s nothing that keeps a person from being intelligent, unscrupulous, hardworking and daring—in fact, Harry himself displays all four during his quest to bring down Voldemort. What the Sorting really does is assign children places to sleep for seven years and binds them into cliques and teams; it puts kids with like-minded individuals and then lets feuds and friendships foster.

Slytherin versus Gryffindor: The main players in Hogwarts during Harry’s years all seem to come from these two houses, which are posited as the big two, with Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff functioning as bystanders who support one or the other, usually Gryffindor. The reasons for this are fairly simple: a) Harry and company, the main characters of the series, are all in Gryffindor and their antagonists are in Slytherin, so of course we see more of cos_duel
these houses than any other and b) the personality traits of openness and courage and daring seem naturally opposed to the twisted ambition and cunning and deviousness that Slytherin students typically exemplify. Rowling also lays out an interesting rich vs. poor, entitled vs. hard-working conflict through their encounters, so you have Slytherin Malfoy, who can literally buy his way onto a Quidditch team, and the Weasleys, all of whom get onto the team through sheer talent and have medium-grade brooms.

Gryffindor and Hufflepuff: Since ‘hard working’ is one of the traits that Gryffindor students claim over Slytherins in this dynamic, perhaps it’s only expected that Hufflepuff be the first house to naturally ally with them (in Chamber of Secrets, Justin Finch-Fletchley and his fellow Hufflepuffs are the first students we meet who are neither Slytherin nor Gryffindor). In Deathly Hallows, the Hufflepuffs field the second largest number of students who choose to stay behind and fight against Voldemort. In fact, it’s a Hufflepuff, Ernie Macmillan, who suggests staying behind to fight at all:

..as Harry skirted the walls, scanning the Gryffindor table for Ron and Hermione, Ernie Macmillan stood up at the Hufflepuff table and shouted, ‘And what if we want to stay and fight?’

These two houses are natural allies, both housing the more ‘earthy’, friendly sorts of people, those who focus on getting the ‘right’ thing done.

So that means…: Technically, if the world were fair and split along equal lines, the Ravenclaws would ally with the Slytherins. Both houses privilege something which is, to be completely honest, much more easily verifiable than ‘courage’ and ‘loyalty’. You can check a person’s genealogy to ascertain their wizarding ancestry; you can set an exam and see who scores the highest to verify a certain brand of academic intelligence. Both are equally narrow in their choice of students, and cater to elites of different kinds: the preppy kids and the nerds, or, the blue bloods and the Gifted and Talented.

But that definition of ‘Gifted and Talented’ is broad and obscure enough to include both Terry Boot, who recognizes and appreciates a Protean Charm and Luna Lovegood, who is quite brilliant in a slightly less-than-conventionally-academic way.


Quibbler-LunaSuitably airy:
The only Ravenclaw student with any substantial role in the books is Luna Lovegood, who is a bit of an oddity in her own house. She doesn’t seem to have any other close Ravenclaw friends, and her housemates bully her by hiding her things every year. Because she’s such a loner in her own house, we don’t get a good glimpse of how dynamics play out within groups of Ravenclaws, something we are privileged enough to witness with all the other houses.

A better phrase: The Sorting Hat says that Ravenclaw is the place where ‘those of wit and learning/Will always find their kind’. These are the kids who ‘have a ready mind’, who at the tender age of 11 are scouted out as smarter, more academically inclined than their peers. What that really means, I think, is that these kids are more likely to view a problem in a rational, logical manner and find a creative solution, rather than go at it with swords raised (Gryffindors), sneak around it (Slytherins) or bulldoze their way through no matter how long it may take (Hufflepuffs).  The Ravenclaws value the ability to think calmly through a crisis—evidenced by the fact that their password is a riddle. No matter what your emergency, you have to answer the question, not just memorise a random word, to get through.

Curiouser and curiouser: For some reason, when I think of Ravenclaw I think of Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Maybe it’s because Luna vaguely resembles her, but I think it’s also that curious sense of detachment that the house as a whole seems to
give off. The Ravenclaws are supposed to honour logic and reason above all else, to make cold calculations that will lead them to the best means, or most ‘intelligent’ means to achieve an objective. For this, you have to have an open mind, and no sort of personal bias against the different means available. For the ideal Ravenclaw, there should be no question of ‘evil’ and ‘good’—things must look either rational or irrational, and then be worked towards accordingly. Nothing can be accepted or refuted without an effort to prove it.

This makes them, to me, a very safe, neutral sort of house. It seems as though the kids here are the only ones who can really choose who they want to be, or who they want to side with. I wouldn’t be surprised if this with the one house whose alum were split down the middle when it came to Voldemort’s policies, indeed, it seems to me the one house where these policies could have been debated at all.

ravenclaw crestThe traditional Ravenclaw colours of blue and bronze only bolster this idea. Blue, traditionally the colour associated with calm, peace, reason. Bronze, the metal used to forge the scales used by all the students in Hogwarts. Scales for measuring, weighing, balancing.

I think Ravenclaw’s curiously fleeting role in the Harry Potter series is fitting. This is a House whose students are not determined by where they’re from, where they are right now, or what they do in Hogwarts. This is a house whose students think outside of it and beyond it, where they are not slapped with obvious loyalties and allegiances the moment they walk away from the Hat. They’re not all ‘bad’,they’re not all ‘heroes’ and they’re certainly not all expected to be utterly loyal to one another above everything else.

It would be nice to be a Ravenclaw, I think. Unfortunately, given my tendency to let emotions cloud my judgment and to privilege reckless daring and ambition over logic, the probability of my ending up in that beautiful, circular common room is pretty darn low. It’s under the lake or up in the other tower for me.

Why Mindy Kaling doesn’t have to be my pioneer

Written in response to the piece ‘Mindy Kaling is not your pioneer’ by Alex E. Jung in Al Jazeera America. Original article here: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/1/mindy-project-racetv.html

mindy1‘To be born a woman is to know/That you must labour to be beautiful’

I’m sorry for the pretentious quote (it’s from W.B. Yeats’ ‘Adam’s Curse’ by the bye, for those who are interested). One of my professors gave me a great piece of writing advice in my third year of college: ‘Never open with a quote,’ he said, ‘let the reader hear your voice straightaway.’ Then he paused and added, ‘Also it sounds incredibly annoying.’

I try to stick by those guidelines, but something about the topic today just called out desperately for a quote, and that one has been bouncing around in my head all day, ever since I read this article on how Mindy Kaling, and her on-screen alter ego, Mindy Lahiri, are not/is not a pioneer. The Yeats quote, for some reason, sums up my feelings perfectly, but I would add an extra dash to it:

‘To be a coloured woman in entertainment is to know/ That you must labour to be everything’.

The author of this article has one major problem with Mindy Kaling, and that’s this: she is not a pioneer for Asian-American women. At least, not enough of one. She uses the age-old rom-com formula of ‘ upwardly mobile white Americans whose aspirations are to find love; its women tend to find belonging by marrying the right man.’  And worse, she does this by dating only white men.

Alex Jung (the author) makes a number of good points, I will admit that. He says that Kaling, through this character, is ‘the [perpetuating] the great lie of romance, which suggests that love and marriage are not somehow informed by class, race and gender conventions.’ By dating and settling down with a white man, Lahiri, the character,seeks the ‘ultimate assimilation’ into the American context, a specially white American context.

Mindy and her boyfriend, Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina)

Mindy and her boyfriend, Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina)

He points out that we know nothing of Lahiri’s parents, that none of her partners or she herself comment on her Indian heritage (even her very Christian boyfriend, Casey, says the reason he cannot be with her is because she is ‘selfish’, not because she is a Hindu) and that she seems to be a ‘character simply born of the imagined community of lovelorn career women whose identities are defined purely by what they buy’. Instead of revolutionizing and reworking the conventions of the 90s rom com, Kaling has adopted it unapologetically, and simply inserted herself into the lead role.

Harsh.

Kaling’s own response to her success has been double pronged: on the one hand, she has gone on record stating that she ‘embraces’ her position as a role model for younger women, specifically younger Indian-American women. On the other hand, she’s also said that refuses to be ‘treated as an outsider’ and made a token representative of her race. In other words, she seeks to beat the majorly white entertainment establishment by ignoring her ‘otherness’ altogether, and thereby urging others to ignore what many might see as a handicap in their own quest for success.

This deliberate negating of her ‘race’ as a potential issue, and thereby as a constituent of her character’s identity in The Mindy Project, is what Jung seems to take offence at. There is a difference between denying something and ignoring it—Jung accuses Mindy of denying the importance of race in something like romantic relationships or professional dynamics; I think Kaling simply ignores that her character’s race and non-white upbringing might be an issue and thereby, in some ways, presents an even more revolutionary perspective. What would it be like to live in a world where it really didn’t matter if you were Indian-American and are unburdened by societal expectations and cultural baggage? That’s Mindy Lahiri’s world.

Second—on the character’s decision to date only ‘white’ men. Mindy Lahiri is NOT Mindy Kaling. Mindy Lahiri is an overblown, ridiculous, gossipy and extremely selfish character—even her creator thinks so. Lahiri’s life and decisions are not something anyone should seek to emulate, except perhaps for her professional credentials (which, in Season 3, she seems to be really working on). It’s the same way no one can possibly look to Michael Scott, Steve Carrell’s character on The Office, for guidance. Is it not possible that Lahiri is an object of spoof here—that her decision to only date a certain kind of man shows more about her character than it does about Kaling’s racial politics?

Can you take this character seriously?

Can you take this character seriously?

And finally—why does Kaling have to face these questions at all? What sort of responsibility does she have to her audience that someone like, say, Charlie Sheen or Lisa Kudrow doesn’t? Charlie Sheen could play a drunken, debauched man on Two and a Half Men and no one called him out on the terrible representation of Malibu residents. The two were not conflated as the same person (which is funny considering that, based on all reports, Charlie is much more similar to his onscreen character than Mindy is). Kudrow’s character on FRIENDS, Phoebe Buffay, dates a series of men over the course of show, but not one of them is non-white. In fact, the only character on that show who dated anyone ‘not of his race’ was Ross, possibly the least popular of the six.

By expecting Kaling to answer questions that other, non-minority actors don’t have to is a form of discrimination. By asking her work to showcase her ‘difference’ from the run of the mill show runner is also ascribing her a ‘token representative’ status, it is implying that she is not like the others. It’s pretty much the equivalent of someone asking you why you made angel cake when you are Indian—can’t you make halwa instead? Maybe you don’t want to make the halwa. Maybe angel cake is what you love and want and damned if you haven’t worked hard on learning the recipe. If you can make that angel cake better than anyone else in your class can, why not go ahead and do it?

Kaling is an entertainer, a performer, and forcing her to handle the unresolved tensions of an entire society is unfair. She is not in her line of work to speak for the Indian-American community, she is there to make a successful career out of it. Kaling’s fun, smart and she’s certainly broken a number of barriers for women in television, but don’t expect her to be a culture-mascot or a politically-correct watchdog; don’t expect her to be ‘everything’.

Four Awesome Ideas for an Indian Fantasy Novel

I admit it. I caved. I want clicks more than I want appreciation of my long-winded, well-crafted, writing. I need traffic so that Google Ads will pay me (apparently they will. They’re not saying no anyway). I nurse ambitions of going viral. I want people to think I’m smart and share my thoughts with the world so I can make my own path to world domination smoother.

Just kidding. I hope it’ll be a while before I write a listicle that is not Tom Hiddleston-inspired.

Aw.

Aw.

I think there are a couple of reasons why I find writing fantasy, as a ‘coloured’, female, non-‘Western’ writer, so hard. I think a couple of those reasons could also be traced to the fact that I am, for all intents and purposes, a Hindu. It’s the one genre that I really, really love and that I can spend hours and weeks and days reading and discussing (as you all know too well), and I really want to write it, but there are a couple of things that trip me up and that, being a good millenial, I blame on my upbringing, parents, and socioeconomic background.

lotr‘Fantasy’, or ‘epic fantasy’ as we know it today has a distinctly Tolkienien feel. Whether it’s the medieval European setting, the formal register of the language, or the prevalence of Elves and uncrowned kings, Tolkien’s left us a legacy we can’t entirely ignore, or escape. I spoke about this in an earlier post (No, It’s not Okay), but left out one important thing:

Tolkien supposedly wrote his epics as a way to build a mythological past for England. He wanted to give to his country what Greece and Italy already had in the form of the Iliad and the Aeneid. He took elements of local folk tales and sweeping Pan-European legends (and Arthurian chronicles) and put together a world where the little Englishman in his pastoral home ventured forth and saved the world (or as much of it as mattered anyway, which was Western and Southern Europe).

Just your average jolly old Englishman!

Just your average jolly old Englishman!

Building this sort of mythologized past requires one thing: a distance from it. By and large, most of the Western world, the kind that writes mainstream, Tolkien-derived fantasy now, does not believe that Elves, Dwarves and other fantastic creatures are real. More importantly, the stories that they use and fall back on, including both Greek/Roman myth and denizens of other pantheons, do not influence modern life to the extent that mythology in India tends to do.

Let me elaborate on this. When you write a story that follows, vaguely, the trajectory of Arthurian tales (uncrowned king, bearded mentor, staunch companions in arms, ‘black’ foe), you are using something that has already been sanctified as distant, part of the past, something that is up for interpretation without running the risk of really offending anyone. This distance is what allows Rick Riordan to write the Percy Jackson chronicles, where a goddess like Athena can be accused of having had a child. Imagine if someone were to write a story where Durga has a one night stand with a man and produces a girl child who displays amazing martial skills—do you see people putting up with:

a) The idea that Durga would have a one night stand.

b) The idea that that baby was not worthy of being worshipped herself and could possibly grow up in a state of complete normalcy and not have some grand, wisdomous words to impart to her fellows.

Awesome Idea 1—A daughter of Durga grows up in Calcutta and discovers she has godly abilities. She then rains hellfire upon the mutinous hordes. 

But see, here’s problem #2: how do you distinguish between mythological and fantasy fiction in a country like ours? It depends really on the audience you’re writing it for. For instance, last night I watched a dance performance by Mallika Sarabhai. She performed a piece on Karthikeya, Shiva’s second son. While she danced and described him, I realised hey, Karthikeya is an amazing fantasy hero. He is young, he is martially inclined (being the god of war and beauty), he has a romantic and rather crazy love life, he broke conventions to get his second wife and he puts brawn over brain and gets upstaged by his own brother. Plus, he rides a peacock and was created simply to kill off a demon—the latter being a trait common to most epic fantasy heroes.

If I were to write a book detailing his exploits, I could probably sell it to a non-Indian audience as ‘fantasy’. But here, someone or the other would see through my pretence and call me out on my shit. This is not fantasy, they would say. this is the retelling of a myth, and it’s great because we don’t have anything on this particular god, but could you possibly write Kunti’s version of the Mahabharata next? Personally, I don’t know if I could bring myself to do it: to me, it would be mostly like transcribing the stories I’ve heard from my grandmothers or my dance teacher, and not something I myself have ‘created’.

Awesome idea 2: Write a series of ‘fantasy’ novels on Murugan, and have him be an angsty, tortured hero who’s always wondering if his parents love him as much as they love his brother, Ganesha.

I’m surprised someone hasn’t done this already.

Now this is a problem.

Now this is a problem.

The third problem, again tied to the second is this: how do I make a fantasy novel set in India different from others without resorting to exoticising everything? In other words, how do I please both the big name publishers in New York as well as my poco-pomo-postfem colleagues here in India?

(For those of you not familiar with my casual academese, poco pomo postfem refers to postcolonial, postmodern, post feminist writers and thinkers. No, I don’t know what that really means either.)

I just read this long, insightful piece on the problem with South Asian literature by Jabeen Akhtar, where she speaks about the Western need to see this region in a particular light, as a world of ‘mangoes, spices and monsoons…saris, bangles, oppressive husbands/fathers, arranged marriages, grains of rice, jasmine, virgins, and a tacky, overproduced Bollywood dance of rejection and oppression with Western culture.’ Epic fantasy relies to a great extent on regional stereotypes: Tolkien’s ‘English’ hobbits are bookish, stodgy and love their afternoon tea; Martin’s northmen are hardy men of few words who speak (in the HBO series) in vaguely Scots accents; even Rothfuss’s Adem seem vaguely Japanese (or at least subscribe to ‘Western’ notions of Japanese behaviour espoused in martial arts movies). It’s easy to fall into the trap of exoticising this culture, because people (read: the Western canon) has been doing it for years and we know it works to pull in the publishing bigwigs sitting in their corner offices on 6th Avenue.

So how do I do it? How do I write an epic fantasy that doesn’t rely on ‘Oriental’ stereotypes that might offend the poco-watchers but also stands out as ‘Indian’ or exotic enough to interest the agents in HarperCollins NY? I think Samit Basu managed this with the Gameworld Trilogy , where he actually turned cultural and literary stereotypes of flying carpets and exotic Indian princesses back on the reader, as well as used those tropes to further the story—but even he was relegated to having an elephant headed Ganesha on simoqinthe cover of the German edition of The Simoqin Prophecies. Please note that this is in a book which has no elephants, let alone elephant headed gods, on-screen.

It’s a curse: write what you, as an English-educated, city-bred millennial know and the West won’t take you seriously; write what you’re ‘supposed’ to and don’t get taken seriously by your fellow Indians, who will dismiss it as pandering, and perhaps, rightly so. Who do you please?

And don’t tell me writers write for themselves and no one else because that is just not true in an age where everyone is living on the Imax screen of social media.

Awesome idea 3: Write a fantasy novel where the hero is must save the world, but has to choose which of two worlds to save. Choosing one ensures the complete destruction of the other. Chances are, if he is a real hero, he will choose neither and end up destroying himself so that everyone else can just deal with their own shit.

rivendell

And finally, perhaps the biggest problem facing an Indian fantasy writer: who is going to make the movie version of it? I know it’s really superficial, but hey, all of us want to see our books/stories get the Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings treatment. We want big budget Hollywood studios to take an interest and WETA to spend months building props and sets. But since none of my main characters are white, chances of them spending millions of dollars on bringing the book to life are pretty minimal.

Sad, but true.

Awesome idea 4: Write a fantasy novel set in an India-like space where all the main characters are white thanks to some genetic accident. These white characters are the ones who will end up saving the world because that’s just how things play out in Hollywood.

Okay, enough complaining. I shall get cracking on writing one if not all of these proposed fantasy novels.

The Awesome Women of Middle Earth

In Middle Earth, people set a lot of store by convention and tradition—for instance, hobbits take a long time to accept the idea of change or straying from a beaten path (that’s why Frodo and Bilbo are considered weirdos in the Shire), and the people of Gondor would rather spend years and years waiting for the return of a king rather than setting up a new line/system of government. The Elves as a people can’t handle change at all, and prefer to forsake a world that’s outpacing them and retreat to a timeless zone where everything stays just the same forever and ever.

aragornIf you’re a ‘good’ man, the chances are that, during any of Ages of Middle Earth, you are engaged in fighting to preserve this order. Your duty dictates that you give your all in the effort to end Morgoth/Sauron/whatever evil comes afterwards, that you learn the art of war and horseback riding and other such manly pursuits and stay far from morally compromising technology. The only men who really go ‘against’ the dictates laid down on them (and by ‘men’ here I’m referring to males both Elven and human) are some of the High Elves, and of course, Feanor and his sons.

But if you’re a woman in Tolkien’s world, your duty is to rebel.

Yes, this might be a strange thing to say. After all, enough and more people have pointed out how the Tolkienverse is a ‘boys’ club’, how no women were made part of the Fellowship, how there are all of three important women in a book as fat as The Lord of the Rings, all of whom are royalty, beautiful and set impossible standards for female readers. The Hobbit has no important female characters at all, but The Silmarillion makes up for both with a bevy of well drawn, smart female Elves and humans who push the story in decisive directions while, more often than not, their men sit around, ‘doing their duty’.

One glance at Tolkien’s women should be enough to convince anyone of the importance of quality over quantity. All his named female characters are fighters, going against convention in ways that the men never dare to do. Let’s just illustrate this with a few examples:

Galadriel—Galadriel turned her back on a comfortable life in Valinor and ventured forth into Middle Earth, and was exiled from the West for her actions. She braved the Crossing of the Ice, lived through Ages of war against Morgaladriel-the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-97371goth, and even when the Elves were granted pardon after the War of Wrath, chose to stay on and rule her own kingdom in Middle Earth. Galadriel is a woman of ambition, who left the West primarily because of the pull of adventure and the lure of her own dominion. And there’s no denying the fact that Lothlorien is really run and sustained by her, not Celeborn.

Arwen and Luthien—I know a lot of people think Arwen is nothing more than a beautiful love interest for Aragorn, but you have to stop for a moment and appreciate the magnitude of her choice. She chose to give up her immortality, to sunder herself from her family forever—no one else pushed her into ‘cleaving’ to Aragorn. Tolkien stresses that again and again, even permitting her a very ‘human’ reaction to Aragorn’s death wherein she finally laments and understands what she’s signed up for.

Luthien, well. She’s a superElf. I don’t think any Elf, male of female, accomplishes what she does in the course of her quest. Standing up for her right to love a human, breaking out of house arrest, convincing a hound to aid her quest rather than drag her back to her father, breaking her lover out of Sauron’s prison, coming face to face with Morgoth and luthienbesting him, convincing Mandos, the Keeper of the dead himself to let her lover out—can anyone claim these feats? And she accomplished all this because she refused to stay at home and sing and wait like a good little Elf maiden.

Aredhel—Before warrior woman Eowyn, there was Aredhel, who wandered on her own through forests and lands unmapped by her kindred. Tolkien presents her as an Artemis-like figure, one for whom domesticity is a confinement. Even after she gets married and has a child, Aredhel feels the need to explore and thinks nothing of walking out on her husband.

Eowyn—The only human to actually kill a Nazgul in single combat. Eowyn refuses to stay behind, awaiting news from the battlefield, to do the caregiving and shepherding duties expected of her as a woman. She breaks away from that line of duty with truly astounding consequences.

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Morwen and Nienor—Turin’s mother and sister spent years moving from sanctuary to sanctuary, searching for him. Morwen never allowed despair to overcome her, trudging on until she had found the stone that marked the grave of both her children. Sure, neither of them had the greatest of lives, but they also took charge, plunging out into the field to find their loved ones rather than sitting meekly by and allowing Elf lords to dictate their lives.

Given the context, Tauriel is a perfect fit in the Tolkienverse. She’s spirited, brave and has tauriela healthy disrespect for convention, defines her own duty and role as she sees fit. If it’s the male way to prescribe and maintain settled codes and systems in Middle Earth, it’s the female who questions and pushes back. And through these rebellions, Tolkien’s women advance the storyline, throw back the Enemy and, quite literally at times*, function as lights ‘in dark places, when all other lights go out’.

*Seriously. Luthien, Aredhel, Galadriel, Elwing—these women are literal lamps in dark settings at various points of Middle Earth’s history.