When sexism is bad storytelling: the case of Tauriel

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Evageline Lily as Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

One of the best things that happened in 2014 was that The Hobbit “trilogy” finally juddered to a halt, meaning those of us who feel obliged to see the films out of residual Lord of the Rings loyalty can get on with our lives in peace, at least until Peter Jackson finds his copy of The Silmarillion.

We meet lady elf warrior Tauriel in the second installment of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug. If it feels like she was shoehorned in, it’s because she was shoehorned in. The book of The Hobbit is an unrepentant Victorian boys’ club. So, this is positive right? Actively altering the source material to be more inclusive! One whole new female character in nine hours of rambling and unnecessarily drawn-out plot? You’re welcome, feminists!

As a rabid Tolkien nerd and a card-carrying feminist, I desperately wanted to be positive about this new female character, created for my presumed benefit. Sadly, Tauriel is a case study in how not to write and insert a new female character into a pre-existing world or story. The first and most obviously problem is that she’s suffering from a lethal case of Strong Female Character syndrome.

A Strong Female Character for the ages

Tauriel is an archetypal Strong Female Character, a faux-progressive trope that is distinct from a strong character who happens to be a woman. The Strong Female Character is conventionally gorgeous (obviously), she’s in a position of vague authority (captain of the Mirkwood border guards!), but not too much authority (for she is but a lowly Silvan elf!) She’s just as good as the boys when it comes to fighting with swords and jumping around the place, but she can still break out her nurturing healing power when she’s required to show her soft feminine side.

The Strong Female Character is a trope, but like all tropes, it can work perfectly well in the right context and actor Evageline Lily deserves an award for her semi-successful attempt to breathe some life and likeability into the role of Tauriel. But the problem with the Strong Female Character is that she, more often than not, exists in a world completely devoid of other women and, as a result, shoulders the burden of representing the full gamut of Womanhood; she must be beautiful, of course, but also strong (but not in a threatening way) and smart (but not the smartest person in the room) and sensitive and wise and selfless and nurturing, and once you’ve finished ticking all those boxes, there’s very little room left for an actual character with her own internal existence and motivations. It also means that putting her at the apex of a love triangle becomes a banal (and while we’re at it, heteronormative) inevitability: her most attractive quality is that she’s there. Speaking of…

Hark, a love triangle!

Apparently, if you’re going to go to the trouble of creating an entirely new female character from scratch, she’s got to earn her keep by being the object of a romance plot. In Tauriel’s case, this means being reduced to a love interest within about three minutes of appearing on screen. But not just a love interest – a dual love interest, winning the affections of both Legolas and Kili (a.k.a. The Hot Dwarf).

In their very first interaction, Kili sexually harasses Tauriel. I honestly wish this was me being an over-sensitive feminist, but I really don’t think there’s any other way to read that exchange. Saying any variation of “hey, why don’t you put your hand down my pants?” to a complete stranger is sexual harassment. It’s even more bizarre because she is technically in a position of dominance over him. It reminded me of the way teenage boys will sometimes try to undermine a female teacher with sexual remarks that hover just shy of inappropriate. Anyway, Tauriel hits Kili with a not-so-witty comeback and this is the beginning of a beautiful romance. I am heartily tired of sexual harassment being used to establish chemistry or flirtation between a man and a woman onscreen.

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“Aren’t you going to search me? I could have anything down my trousers.”

It’s worth noting that Lily herself was completely against the love triangle subplot. In her own words:

For the record, when I took this job, in 2011, I made one stipulation. That’s it. I just said… I swear to God, I said, ‘I will not do this film if you will not guarantee me one thing. You have to guarantee me there will be no love triangle.’ And there wasn’t. For the whole time I shot. For a year of shooting there was no love triangle…

…And then, I came back for reshoots in 2012 and they were like, ‘Well, we made a couple of alterations to some scenes and we added a couple more scenes. And all of a sudden manifested a love triangle before my very eyes and the film was shot and I’m in and there’s no getting out and there was no escaping it.

The book version of The Hobbit certainly has flaws, but lack of a romance plot is not one of them. It’s gratifying to have confirmation that the Legolas-Tauriel-Kili love triangle wasn’t there to serve the story, it was there because someone – or several someones – at some point in the post-production process was like “yo, what’s the point of having a chick if there’s no romance?” It’s irritating enough when the only female character in the room is immediately cast as a love interest for the adjacent men, but it’s even more irritating when that choice is clearly an afterthought that achieves nothing besides bogging down an already cumbersome narrative.

Wherefore aren’t thou, Legolas?

There was no real reason for Legolas to be in The Hobbit trilogy, but we are supposed to care about him because we know him from the Lord of the Rings movies. As a result, Legolas ends up grabbing a lot of the screen time that would have, in a well-crafted and non-fan-servicey story, gone to Tauriel. We never get a chance to know Tauriel because Legolas and his CGI-enhanced blue eyes are always hovering over her shoulder.

One of the most egregious examples of this is in the third movie, The Battle of the Five Armies, when in the middle of some fairly crucial shit, Tauriel and Legolas take an inexplicable field trip to have a look at the ancient fortress Gundabad which, SURPRISE, is full of orcs who are ready to fuck things up. This is ostensibly a spy mission, but in reality it’s a FEELINGS INTERLUDE, because all they do is sit on a rock while Legolas reveals that he is V SAD because he never knew his mother. I cannot adequately describe how little I cared about this scene. I do not care about Legolas, or his relationship with his parents or his feelings for Tauriel and I am furious that she was pulled away from the action so she could give a male character a fucking counselling session.

I say there was no point to Legolas being in the movie, but that’s not entirely true. If you really wanted Legolas in the movie because fan-service etc., fine. But then you don’t get to have Tauriel. Don’t give us a Strong Female Character and shove her in beside an established male character with the exact same skill set and background. Two characters serving the same narrative function weakens both of them and starkly highlights the fact that Tauriel’s only real role in these movies to fulfil The Smurfette Principle. That, and to be a proxy audience for the male character’s emotional development.

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“I know there’s a giant army of orcs massing below us, but I think now is really a good time to get into my abandonment issues.”

No boss battles for ladies

When she eventually gets back to the titular Battles of the Five Armies, Tauriel is suddenly rubbish at fighting and gets knocked out when she tries to take on second-in-command orc bad guy, Bolg. She comes back to consciousness just in time to see Bolg shoving a sword through Kili’s chest.

Imagine the genders reversed in this situation for a second. Let’s say Kili has just been beaten almost unconscious by Bolg, but stirs just in time to see the big evil orc baddy shove a sword through the woman he loves? Anyone who has consumed literally any form of media ever knows that this is his cue to summon a hidden reserve of strength and avenge his love by defeating Bolg, against all odds, in a nail-biting one-on-one final battle.

Alas, Tauriel is a lady person, which means she does not get to avenge her murdered crush in an epic showdown. She does summon a hidden reserve of strength, but she gets knocked out again almost immediately and then it’s LEGOLAS TO THE RESCUE. Legolas, who has no emotional stakes in the situation, gets a good ten minutes of sprinting up collapsing staircases and riding giant trolls into towers before eventually finishing off Bolg. Tauriel gets to wake up after the fighting is done and sniffle over Kili’s body while the male characters are wrapping up loose ends. Tauriel’s major contribution to the Battle of the Five Armies is teaching Ice Queen Elf King Thranduil a lesson about love.

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Tauriel weeps over Kili’s body after the fighting is done

Strength in isolation isn’t strength at all

On paper and taken in isolation from the only story she has ever appeared in, Tauriel is a decent female character; brave, kind, smart, selfless, someone I could picture myself looking up to as a young child. But if you’re going to insert an original female character into an existing story, you have to carve out a place for her. She has to have a purpose beyond crying over a hot dwarf.  The presence of Legolas – boring, stiff, mildly ridiculous Legolas – compounds the superfluity of her character. He’s the physical manifestation to the plot’s stubborn refusal to make room for her. The story would not have suffered without her, and after that it doesn’t matter how good she is at fighting or healing or quipping: if her presence has no meaningful impact on the plot, she has failed as a character. Ultimately, that’s why Tauriel epitomizes the intersection between sexism and bad storytelling; she’s the Strong Female Character adrift in a story that has no use for her strength.

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