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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 that is within a multitude of male characters.

Now, there's a commonly used test for a film being disregarding of women's lives and place in society, 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 so happens that innumerable films fail it quite. 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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    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... Jan 25, 2014 at 23:17
  • 1
    @JohnSmithOptional: Well, you could have female mythic female characters giving some speech to other female mythic character about how their race will fall, or how they must get the Silmaril, or not get it, etc.
    – einpoklum
    Jan 25, 2014 at 23:26
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    @einpoklum 1- I'm not sure the question is on topic for SF&F, as the site seems not be aimed at the philosophical/ideological component of fiction (I may be mistaken). 2- You have my +1 for the thoughtful question anyway. I think LotR does NOT pass this test, and I've made my peace with it and decided to enjoy it anyway. It's a pity because some of the women can be pretty strong, such as Galadriel, which I think is the true leader of Lothlorien (and even gently rebukes her husband in the book). And Eowyn is pretty strong as well, though she is undermined by her pining for Aragorn.
    – Andres F.
    Jan 26, 2014 at 0:30
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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, 2014 at 20:50
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    The lay of Beren & Luthien passes this frivolous test,& as for the statement Tolkien not believing in equal rights i don't think that's true. He was actually criticized a lot for putting women on pedestals
    – turinsbane
    Sep 11, 2014 at 23:00

3 Answers 3

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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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    As soon as I saw the question I remembered this dialog and just couldn't resist...
    – user8719
    Jan 26, 2014 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. Jan 26, 2014 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, 2014 at 15:53
  • Except the subject here was actually Fëanor.
    – Spencer
    Aug 23, 2020 at 17:33
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    What is the woe that's being referred to here? It's not a man, is it?
    – Jetpack
    Aug 24, 2020 at 18:40
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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...
    – user11521
    Jan 26, 2014 at 1:44
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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, 2014 at 10:40
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    @babayaga - no she doesn't.
    – user8719
    Jan 26, 2014 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
    Jan 27, 2014 at 5:43
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    WHAT the Bechdel Test is / does, was never the question, so I really don't know why this answer got so many upvotes.
    – Engineer
    Jan 27, 2014 at 22:17
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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. Jan 26, 2014 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.
    – Rag
    Jan 26, 2014 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, 2014 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". Jan 26, 2014 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, 2014 at 1:49

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