Monday, December 15, 2003

Why Women Like J.R. Tolkien Though He Didn't Care for Them

During long rainy childhood afternoons a friend of mine curled up in her grandmother's attic with her uncles' old comic books. She devoured stories about brave British and American pilots during WWII, Tarzan and anything else her uncles had saved. But she was most excited about the Robin Hood comics with their stories about outsider justice. When the rain stopped she'd go out and play Robin Hood and his merry men.

She herself was Robin, of course. It was he who had the juiciest parts in the stories.

I asked her if she ever worried about her not being of the 'right' sex to play Robin. She answered:

"I was a little girl those days. But it never occurred to me to play Maid Marian. She never DID anything. I can't remember if I was even aware of the fact that Robin Hood was male and I wasn't. If so, it didn't bother me."

Many girls probably shared this experience of identifying with the hero of a story even when the hero was a boy or a man. Boys and men don't seem to be as able to do this; they will not read stories about heroic girls or women. Perhaps this is why Harry Potter was created as a boy rather than as a girl: girls like the Harry Potter books as well as boys, so potential markets are maximized by this choice of sex. But I bet that when girls play Harry Potter stories, they are Harry.

Even adult women have this ability to identify with heroes of the opposite sex. J.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are popular among female readers. The world these books depict is one curiously devoid of women in most important aspects, probably reflecting Tolkien's own sex-segregated lifestyle and the limited, stereotypical views about women he held in accordance with his times. This doesn't appear to stop women from identifying with Tolkien's heroes.

What is it that allows female readers to identify with Robin Hood, Harry Potter or the hobbits? I doubt that it has anything to do with 'inappropriate' gender identification or admiration of all things male. It is much more likely to be caused by the fact that all these heroes are underdogs: Robin Hood is an outlaw, forced to hide in the forests and hunted by the powerful in the society. Harry Potter is an orphan, unvalued by his aunt and uncle with whom he lives, and always found less lovable than his obnoxious cousin who stands in a brother relationship to Harry. Frodo, Bilbo and the other hobbits in Tolkien's books are males but not human males. They are small, nonaggressive, peace-loving and scared of the larger and more powerful races who look down on them. In fact, they are a lot like women.

Yet all these underdogs rise in their respective worlds, and are shown to be as worthy as others, if not more so. This is a story that resonates with many women, at least on a subconscious level, and lets them see the hero as a person akin to themselves.

The underdog appeals to men, too, and women as well as men may value the tales of Robin Hood, Harry Potter and the hobbits for their other messages. But I think that if the underdog motif was removed, we'd find few female readers of such male-centered stories, and a lot more criticism about the absence of women in them. For in a very real sense these tales of the underdog who succeeds against all odds are women's tales, or at least the dreams of what women's tales could be.