On Tauriel, Love Triangles, and Girls in Fantasy

movies-the-hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-tauriel It's kind of late for a post on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The movie came out almost a year ago now, but after being disappointed by There and Back Again, I never went to see it in the theater. But I finally watched it a few days ago, and I'm now full of Thoughts on Tauriel, the original character created to address the slight problem that there isn't a single female character in the entire novel.

How could I resist writing about that? I have such strong and contradictory feelings about her character. She made me want to jump up and cheer. I want a Tauriel action figure, I want her own spinoff series, I wanted her in every scene... and I left the movie knowing that I was cheering for one of the most cut-and-paste "strong female characters" I'd ever seen.

And this contradiction, I think, comes from Tauriel being the only significant female character in the movie.

Tauriel is undeniably a good character. As the captain of the guard in Mirkwood, she's a warrior elf full of badass fighting skills who longs to see more of the world outside the forest. She is unquestionably capable and brave, and I think the thirteen-year-old me who first saw Fellowship of the Ring would have died of fangirlish happiness if she'd had a Tauriel to idolize.

But of course there is a "but." And this one is all about romance.

I'm firmly of the opinion that romantic subplots don't weaken female characters, and that it's absurd to even suggest that a character is somehow lesser because they make eyes at someone else. But Tauriel was invented to make up for the fact that the book has no female characters, and then she's immediately stuck into a love subplot. And not, so far, a well-developed one that takes into consideration elf-dwarf hatred and her desire to see more of the world outside the forest and generally adds to the plot. It feels shoe-horned in. The conversation between Tauriel and Kili in the prison was pretty perfect, in my opinion, a great balance between humor and confidence and vulnerability, revealing things about both characters and suggesting that yes, there could be a connection there. But once the two characters had interacted, the writers seemed happy to slip into old cliches. Kili is in love with Tauriel. Tauriel will run from the forest and risk herself to save his life.

Add the fact that this strange romantic subplot was turned into a love triangle, apparently against Evangeline Lily's wishes during pick-up filming, and it becomes rather uncomfortable. It feels a little too cut and paste. Tauriel is badass with a bow because audiences like female characters who are badass with a bow. She is in a love triangle because audiences like female characters in love triangles. She's the modern movie female character default. And although she's fun to watch, and although Evangeline Lily's acting does elevate her above that status in many scenes, she doesn't quite escape it.

Worse, the love triangle's flimsy existence allows people to claim that she was only added in for unnecessary romance, probably to "appeal to girls," rather than because the series needs more awesome female characters.

Honestly, these cliches wouldn't matter as much if Tauriel wasn't the only significant female character. But when a movie only has one woman, there's a lot of pressure on her to be all things for all people. Every character choice becomes a statement on Women in Fantasy. A non-fighter seems weak. A badass fighter feels very "strong female character." Whoever she is, she can never feel quite enough, because she's expected to represent Who All Women Are, rather than just herself. You need multiple female characters for them to become people who stand and fail on their own merits.

So I'm really glad that Tauriel was added to the movie, and she's one of the things I'm most excited about seeing in the final instalment. But I think she was sloppily handled, in part because the writers thought that adding her in would be enough. The movies are already playing fast and loose with the book. So why invent just one new character, when they could easily have switched up some genders? Some of the thirteen dwarves could have been female. Bard could have been a female smuggling hero. The townmaster could have been the townmistress. Smaug could have been a female dragon. Heck, even the sketchy minion of the townmaster could have been a woman. A few of bard's daughters and one named hero don't quite cut it. And it means that, despite Tauriel's many moments of awesome, she's constantly being analyzed as The Female Character. She isn't Tauriel; she's The Girl. The Girl With The Bow And The Love Triangle. And so every squee-inspiring moment is marred by one question -- do I like her because she's awesome, or because she's the only significant female character in sight? And is she actually an awesome character who is female, or is she the cookie cutter Awesome Female Character, with all lazy writing that implies?