There are a lot of ugly characters in the latest and last of Peter Jackson’s over-blown adaptation of The Hobbit, but one of the most repellent isn’t an orc or a goblin, he’s a man.
At the heart of the film’s opening sequence, in which the dragon Smaug lays fiery waste to a lake-side town, is the comical greed and cowardice of the town’s despotic chief and henchmen as they try to escape with coffers of the town’s gold.
The chief soon meets a satisfyingly grizzly end, but one of his henchmen, Alfrid, is washed up alive and goes on to become a source of derision throughout the film. The reason? He’s a man who is an unrelenting coward.
Now let me be clear, I loved the first three Lord of The Rings films, in which evil is defeated by loyal friendships, high ideals and shining deeds – there are heroes and cowards in all of them. But unlike slippery villains such Wormtongue, the sole purpose of Alfrid’s character is for us to jeer at his cowardice.
With hunched back and revolting yellow teeth, Alfrid is essentially a gendered hate figure – it’s because he is a man and a coward that we’re invited to hate him. Even the goblins and orcs, revolting as they are, command more respect as fierce warriors.
Or to put it another way, Alfrid’s character could not have been played by a woman. Firstly, our culture does not shame women who are afraid and run away – in this sense cowardice is a uniquely male shame. Secondly, two hours of ridiculing and vilifying a female character simply wouldn’t be funny, it would be offensive.
But it’s when you see Alfrid in light of the female characters, that it’s clear this isn’t just an expression of outdated gender roles, but something altogether more complicated and unpleasant.
To be sure, most of the primary characters are male, but of the female characters, there are those who are heroic – such as the elves Tauriel and Galadriel – and those who are afraid and deserving of protection, such as the townswomen; but none are shamed or ridiculed. The women can be either strong or weak, while the men have only the age-old choice between bravery or humiliation.
‘You’re not a man, you’re a weasel’
All of this was dawning on me in a peripheral kind of way, until one completely contrived scene threw the whole tangled knot right in my face.
We are suddenly shown a group of townswomen huddled in a corner, before another woman charges in and declares they are as brave as the men and should go and fight alongside them. One woman however stays bent over and whimpering, refusing to go. The other woman pulls her round, only to reveal it’s the villain Alfrid dressed in women’s clothing. She spits in his face: “You’re a coward. You’re not a man, you’re a weasel.”
In one short scene, the film simultaneously celebrates a woman for emancipating herself from the traditional female role of being weak and in need of protection, while at the same time she shames a man who doesn’t conform to the traditional role of brave protector.
But The Hobbit isn’t the only recent piece of light entertainment set in a mythical past that argues both ends at once. In the first episode of the second series of the BBC series The Musketeers, a show based almost entirely on the male characters maintaining their honour by wise-cracking in the face of fear, we’re suddenly offered a soliloquy by one of the female characters on the unique shame faced by unwed women.
“If I left my husband, my family would cut me off and my friends would cross the street to avoid me. I would be nothing more than your whore… I’m a woman, d’Artagnan, a woman in a world built for men.”
OK, fine, but what about the two dozen-odd men that just got slaughtered rather than face the shame of cowardice? Why didn’t the writers invite us to have a look at that through the lens of gender too?
But the most astonishing example of all is Sky’s comedy series, Chickens, about how a village of women treat the only three men from their town who have not gone to fight during WW1.
The show is essentially a series of set pieces in which the three men – a conscientious objector, a man who is medically unfit to fight and man who is simply afraid – are shamed, laughed at and humiliated by scores of empowered and emancipated women.
Clunking double standards
In one scene, after a woman demands that Cecil – who incidentally is the one discharged as medically unfit – justifies why he hasn’t enlisted, he says: “I really believe in this war and I’m really keen to help.” She replies: “Rubbish, if you were really keen to help you would have killed yourself to raise morale.”
The writers describe Chickens as “a quasi-feminist sit-com” and according to one of the lead actresses: “What’s great is to see a village full of women who are just really getting on with it, just couldn’t give a toss that the men have gone, really, except for basic plumbing issues and the occasional need for someone to shag them.”
The thing that’s frankly bizarre, is that the people who wrote each of these clumsy dramatic expositions on gender, seem to think they’re actually making a stand for equality. It seems they don’t even realise the clunking double standards and ethical inconsistencies of what they’re saying.
There’s an old saw that says science fiction tells you a lot more about the values and prejudices of the present, than it does about the future. It seems the same can be said for stories set in the past.