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Motivation

Let's face it, Tolkien wasn't much of a promoter of women's equality (to say the least). Thus there are no female characters in the Hobbit. the Lord of the Rings certainly has several (Eowyn, Galadriel, Arwen, Goldberry...) but they seem to be drowned in a sea of male ones.

Now, there's a commonly used test for a film being disregarding of women's lives and social role, called the Bechdel Test. A film passes the test if:

  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it,
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

Seems like a pretty lenient criterion, right? Well, not really. It seems oh-so-many films fail it quite miserably. It is somewhat less fitting for prose, since an author can write in the voice of a female character, describing her inner world, thoughts and feelings, even if she doesn't meet other women or talk to them. Still,

Question

The Lord of the Rings movies all fail the test. Does the book trilogy also fail it? And what about the Silmarillion?

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I figured the female-characters tag is the closest we've got to this topic. –  Keen Jan 25 at 23:05
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As the Silmarillion is a mythopoeic Historical work, I can see people answering with 'This person is said to have spoken to this person this long ago' so you may need to end up emitting it in favor of the 'tales', in order to yield the answer you're looking for. It's a good question! it might just need slightly narrower parameters, perhaps limiting it to diegesis of his narrative works... –  John Smith Optional Jan 25 at 23:17
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Take the tangential discussions to chat. –  Keen Jan 26 at 2:45
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This was closed with a "scientific explanations" close reason. That is invalid. This test (as dumb as I think it is) is one that evaluates plot elements, which are always on topic. "Did two females talk about something other than a man anywhere in this book" is not an off-topic question, just a boring one. I'm voting to re-open. –  John O Jan 27 at 15:57
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@AndresF.: Galadriel is indeed the true leader of Lothlorien. Furthermore, she is the oldest, wisest and most powerful elf in Middle Earth, as one of the last remaining Noldo (if not the last not sure) to have seen the light of the trees in Aman. Celeborn is no match for her. Far from a sidekick ;-) –  Joel Jan 28 at 20:50
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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

4 Answers

up vote 113 down vote accepted

Silmarillion, Chapter 15:

And on a time Melian said: "There is some woe that lies upon you and your kin. That I can see in you, but all else is hidden from me; for by no vision or thought can I perceive anything that passed or passes in the West: a shadow lies over all the land of Aman, and reaches far out over the sea. Why will you not tell me more?"

"For that woe is past," said Galadriel; "and I would take what joy is here left, untroubled by memory. And maybe there is woe enough yet to come, though still hope may seem bright."

Funny because they talk about Aman, not "a man", but pass nonetheless.

Off the top of my head, LotR (book) fails.

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+1 for the pun :-) –  einpoklum Jan 26 at 0:07
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As soon as I saw the question I remembered this dialog and just couldn't resist... –  Jimmy Shelter Jan 26 at 0:08
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IIRC, the only conversation between women in LotR takes place between Ioreth and her unnamed cousin, but as that's about Aragorn, it fails the test. –  ElendilTheTall Jan 26 at 15:47
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Thank goodness there were no conversations between female characters where they pine for the joys of "Aman", the giant trees of "Aman", etc. :) –  RobertF Jan 27 at 15:53
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All in all, the Lord of the Rings novels have even fewer scenes featuring women than the movies do, and the few that do show up (Arwen, Eowyn, Galadriel, Goldberry and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, and I can't think of any others that actually have any lines) don't actually share any scenes, so the Bechdel test goes right out the window. If there's no scene with more than one woman, the test fails automatically.

I do, however, feel the need to stress that the Bechdel test isn't some foolproof test to detect sexism or feminism in a work of art. It's a very specific test looking for very specific things, and is useful as a tool when evaluating Hollywood's overall approach to the roles of women in film (and can also be applied to literature, as we just did). It wasn't meant to imply any form of moral judgement, that a movie is bad or wrong if it fails the test. It just means it fails the test. I'm not saying you implied otherwise, but I know that discussions around the Bechdel Test often devolve into arguments that misrepresent the test, so it's best to get that out of the way.

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I'm going to write in a scene in my copy of LoTR where Galadriel and Arwen have a telepathic conversation about Eowyn... –  Michael Jan 26 at 1:44
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@Michael -damn shippers... :( –  DVK Jan 26 at 2:21
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The largest problem with the Bechdel Test is that many people ARE intending to use it as part of an ethical judgement system. Whether Bechdel intended it to be used as such being irrelevant, a large vocal minority are intent that it be part of judging the whether or not a director or author was ethical in their treatment of female characters. –  aramis Jan 26 at 10:40
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@babayaga - no she doesn't. –  Jimmy Shelter Jan 26 at 19:04
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@Christian minor correction: the Bechdel "test" is not a statistical tool; it is intended to be applied to single works of fiction ("reasonably" or not, depending on the person.) The original (fictional) context tests individual movies to determine if one would consider going or not. In any case, it can be a fun/enlightening activity for other works, for those not intrinsically offended at the idea. If one starts to see the world with different eyes, it's a bell that can't easily be un-rung. –  michael_n Jan 27 at 5:43
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I don't have a copy of the movie, or the book, so I can't verify it, but according to the comments on this page, it appears that "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" does pass the Bechdel test:

Red disagreed with the rating and said:

Are children considered in this? If so, the character of Freda (little girl who rides with her brother from the Westfold to Edoras to sound the alarm) and Eowyn do technically talk, and it's not about a man either. They talk about where the little girl's mother is.


Truan disagreed with the rating and said:

in addition to the above statement, the same girl talks to her mom about whether or not her brother is big enough to ride the horse.


Erik disagreed with the rating and said:

but they are reunited in Helms Deep, and talking to echother [each other]! Freda "Mama!" Eowyn: "freda!".

So this movie should get 3 of 3...

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It's worth noting that when people get into "technicalities" territory, they tend to consider that "talk to each other" means "have a conversation, an exchange of ideas", and a guideline of 60 seconds of conversation has been suggested. "Mama", "Freda" does not really qualify as "talk to each other", in the spirit of things. –  GreenAsJade Jan 26 at 3:51
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If a little girl counts as a woman then "the same girl talks to her mom about whether or not her brother is big enough to ride the horse" counts as talking about a man. –  Brian Gordon Jan 26 at 4:43
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@GreenAsJade: do you mean to say that action movies can have 60 seconds of continuous conversation between any two characters? –  b_jonas Jan 26 at 11:05
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Heh heh - it wasn't me that came up with that number, it's just a number that you will see if you read around about Bechdel. I agree that 60s is long for an action movie... but some arch-enemies gloat for more than 60s :) Anyhow, I would appeal to the spirit of the test ... I still don't think that "Mama", "Freda" counts as "this movie has a meaningful exchange between women". –  GreenAsJade Jan 26 at 11:10
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@b_jonas Are we still talking about that movie that comes awfully close to the 4-hour mark? ;) –  Christian Jan 27 at 1:49
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In the Silmarillon, Yavhanna for one has a very important role, as one of the most powerful Ainur, the creator of the 2 trees. Also, Yahvanna goes against Aulë's opinion when she obtains from Eru the right to protect the trees from the children of Illuvatar, that being the origin of the Ents. And then, another one, Varda, creates the Sun and the Moon from the remnants of the trees, and because of that is one of the most revered Ainur of Middle Earth.

And what about Luthien Tinuviel ? She is as much a hero las any other male hero in Middle Earth, even being able to withstand Sauron, then first lieutnant of Morgoth and then fool Morgoth himself with her soothing powers. She is certainly one of my favorite characters in all of Middle Earth's story. Aredhel is no whino either. Idril saves a part of her people from Gondolin's destruction.

In the LOTR, Galadriel certainly embodies the figure of the all important mother, without who's love and understanding, everything would go wrong. And she's bears one of the rings.

So maybe the feminine characters of the story aren't as proeminent as the male ones, but are certainly very important, in deeds and in influence. Tolkien was a man of his time and had to deal with his times culture, so men are up front, but it's clear for me that he valued women and I wouldn't say he wasn't a promoter of women equality.

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The question isn't about the roles of female characters in Tolkien's work. It's specifically about the Bechdel test, whose criteria are clearly stated in the question. –  Avner Shahar-Kashtan Jan 26 at 18:13
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In his defense, the question is phrased in a very antagonistic way. This isn't an answer to the literal question asked, but it is an answer to the flamey insinuations that pervade the way the question was framed. –  Michael Shaw Jan 26 at 19:38
    
Ok thanks Avner. I'm new to this. Now I understand my answer should have been more of a comment than an answer. Also thanks Michael, you're right on what I meant. –  Joel Jan 28 at 13:43
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