Reclaiming Arwen: Why I Don’t Appreciate Peter Jackson’s Limited View of Womanhood in His LotR Films

It has been a commonplace to complain that Tolkien does not include enough women in his works and that he is therefore sexist.  Readers of our blog will already know that I do not subscribe to this view.  Tolkien, after all, presented us with many strong women throughout his work.  Plus, I do not believe that every book must have an equal ratio of men to women.  I will elaborate more on my understanding of Tolkien’s women in a future post.

In this post, however, I want to address the idea promulgated by Peter Jackson in the LotR films that a strong woman is one who fights.  Thus he keeps Eowyn’s role in the story intact, he adds Tauriel the Elf-warrior to his Hobbit trilogy, and he enlarges Arwen’s role by giving her a horse and a sword (presumably to fight the Ringwraiths, though it never comes to that).  He even meant Arwen to fight at Helm’s Deep, thought these scenes were later cut.  Meanwhile, women like Ioreth, Goldberry, and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins are erased from the LotR films completely.

Jackson’s decision to “add” more women to his films is understandable.  He wants to increase his potential fan base and appeal to audiences who may not have connected to Tolkien’s books because they wanted more female characters.  However, his additions (again, after he cuts most of Tolkien’s female characters) typically involve handing a woman a sword.  It is almost as if he cannot conceive of a “strong female character” as someone who does anything besides kick bad guy butt.

What Jackson’s vision obscures is that there is more than one way to be a strong woman.  Not every woman has to be a warrior to be valuable, impressive, or admirable.  Little girls do not all need to dream of learning fencing or joining the military when they grow up.  Plenty of amazing women fulfill other roles that are also difficult; that demand fortitude, patience, and strength; and that require them to overcome personal and professional challenges.  Women who are nurses, doctors, teachers, researchers, actors, gardeners, engineers, architects, and homemakers are also strong women.  They also make contributions to society and they also often face great obstacles or stigmas to get there.

It is true that J. R. R. Tolkien’s Arwen is barely present in the book and that few people would argue she counts as a fleshed-out character.  In fact, most of what we know about her comes from Appendix A.  We do know, however, that Arwen falls in love with a mortal man and gives up her own immortality to be with him.  We know that her decision means that she will likely never see her family again.  (Elves believe that Elves and Men go to separate afterlives.)  We know that she initially does not fully understand the choice she has made–not until Aragorn dies and she is left alone to taste the bitterness of mortality.  However, in all these moments, she shows strength.  She makes a difficult decision and she follows through with it, even when she begins to understand why Men flee from death.

We may have no record from Tolkien of anything Arwen does as queen.  We do not know how or if she influenced politics, what talents she possessed, or how she used her influential position.  We do not even have any notable record of her character or character development.  However, I am not sure we need to know any of this to respect Arwen as a a woman.  Even if she never leads an army into battle, even if her life appears to be a footnote in another person’s history, her life is not without meaning or value.  She surely was, if nothing else, important to her friends and family.  In suggesting that Arwen can only be a strong role model by taking up a sword, Peter Jackson actually reduces Arwen–and women.  Because women are valuable no matter their skills, their jobs, or their roles.

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24 thoughts on “Reclaiming Arwen: Why I Don’t Appreciate Peter Jackson’s Limited View of Womanhood in His LotR Films

  1. Vera says:

    What a thought provoking post!
    I have been thinking about gender perception and how we experience shame about gender. Men tend to experience shame if they are perceived as weak. It kind of make sense that a man would give a woman a sword to fight as it could be his idea of strength. And of course going into a battle shows strength and bravery.
    But to your point, bravery doesn’t always roar and scream loud. Bravery has many forms. Vulnerability is bravery. Uncertainty is bravery. Hearing an outcome of heath screening is bravery, saying ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’ is bravery, making an unpopular choice is bravery, choosing to stand your ground and being your authentic self is bravery. And I think it’s important to start recognising that.
    Great post!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Kelly | Another Book in the Wall says:

    I agree with every word you said! It’s a shame how in today’s society the general perception of a “strong woman” is simply one who takes up a sword and fights. There are many battles and tests of strength that women face, and as you stated, they show fortitude in so many other ways aside from engaging in physical combat. Fantastic discussion, as always! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    I agree with you that women do not need to be handed a sword or a horse or wield magic in order to be strong women. But, knowing that Jackson’s intention was to create an epic fantasy action film, is it okay that he gives all the women weapons? I haven’t seen the newest Hobbit-based trilogy of films, but based on Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, I don’t feel like these female portrayals are incongruous with the rest of the story. EVERYONE has a weapon. Everyone is fighting for something– even the elves of Mirkwood. Yes, he could have presented a way to stand up against evil without weapons or any variety, but I don’t know if it matters for this story. After all, we lost Tom Bombadil…

    I don’t think it’s easy to compare books to films. Particularly when this is about a well-loved and long series. Take Harry Potter for instance. SO MANY CHANGES. Why? Because it makes for a better film and fits in with the story established for the intended audience. But do these changes really take away from the experience we expect in the written version? No. Personally, I see these as totally different explorations of the same story. I find it practically impossible to think of them as the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think Tolkien’s original text does an excellent job of showing how different roles are important, even if they aren’t fighting roles. Galadriel and Elrond provide counsel and rest. Bilbo provides armaments. Ioreth is a healer–very important for a military society. And Lobelia Sackville-Baggins represents how ordinary people can do heroic acts even in their battles are not as large or glamorous. I don’t think action films need everyone to be a fighter. For me, the best action films are the ones that take space to focus on the characters, their emotions, and their journey, rather than simply showing a lot of slashing and hacking. I think the LotR films actually do a wonderful job of adding in those quiet moments. And I think the women could have been used in them.

      I also always imagined that not all Elves are fighters and so not everyone has a weapon in Middle-earth (aside from obviously the Hobbits, the men of Bree, and the commoners in Rohan and Gondor). I don’t know that Tolkien ever explicitly says so, but there are plenty of Elves in The Silmarillion, for instance, who don’t really fight and focus on music or whatever it is they do. I think we can assume that many of the Elves of Rivendell don’t fight, especially as they are not currently in a war state like Gondor. I imagine most of them spend time writing poetry and such while others act as scouts/warriors. In this sense, Jackson’s world is full of non-fighters, like the people who attend the Counsel of Elrond. There is space for women without swords.

      I agree that films and books are different experiences and do not need to have one-to-one correspondences. However, I think it is notable that Jackson kept Eowyn and Galadriel as his two main women (they have the largest roles in the book, so it makes sense), but then, in his much advertised move to add a strong female character, created Arwen with a sword. Then he did the same thing again in The Hobbit. He advertised that he was going to fix the gender imbalance with a strong female character–Tauriel, again a fighter. He left Galadriel in mostly intact (the general premise anyway) because she fights at Dol Guldur. Basically, the idea he gives us is that cool, strong women=fighters because those are the ones he chooses to keep, add, and advertise.

      It is notable that there are two girls in Jackson’s Lake Town but he didn’t hype up their presence in media outlets because they largely look scared, hide, and run, so I guess they don’t count?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

        I will admit, I haven’t seen many action films outside of LoTR and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I tend to find violence… off-putting. So I haven’t seen examples of films taking space to focus on the non-hacking and non-slashing aspects of the characters.

        I agree with you that I imagine not all Elves are fighters. In fact, I imagine that the overwhelming minority are fighters, let alone are interested in meddling in the problems of mortal men. I never thought about Elven representation. That said, basically, Arwen and Galadriel are the only female elves we see in this whole film trilogy. That’s awfully strange… it’s like we can’t even have a female elven extra?!

        Ugh. Your points about Jackson’s character development and exposure (or lack thereof) are so much more apparent to me now. Now I’m thinking about how, other than in Hobbiton and the battle at Helm’s Deep, we don’t really see ANY women in Middle Earth. How utterly peculiar!


  4. Jennilyn 🇵🇭 (@RurouniJenni) says:

    Wow, I love this very thought-provoking post.I agree that ability to fight is the only way to show strngth. And I think I will be clicking too in all the LOTR related posts.

    But we cannot say exactly what is Peter Jackson’s intention in putting Arwen on horseback with a sword. I mean he did not do it with Galadriel and Lady G is pretty badass looking both on page and on screen.


    • Krysta says:

      Jackson increased Arwen’s role specifically to address the lack of women in the source text. He left Galadriel and Eowyn pretty much alone since they already had large roles in the story. What he did with Arwen, then, reflects his idea of what a strong female character looks like. He did it again by adding Tauriel the elf-warrior to the Hobbit. Meanwhile, he again largely left Galadriel’s role in The Hobbit intact because, textually, she was already fighting the Necromancer. (Yeah, we can argue about how poorly those scenes were handled, but the basic idea that Galadriel was present at the defeat of the Dol Guldur remained the same.) So I see a pattern in his work of adding fighting women, keeping fighting women, and removing non-fighting women.


  5. Olga Polomoshnova says:

    Thank you for writing this! I agree with your point of view: strength doesn’t mean fighting alone, but many other things, sword or no sword. There are not many women in Tolkien’s books. However, most of them are very strong, charismatic, important personalities who are real warriors even if they don’t pick up weapons.


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I agree! I think Lobelia plays an important role in the book fighting Sharkey’s men and that Ioreth’s role as a healer is also important. They don’t necessarily need to go to battle sword in hand to make a difference!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Amazing post- I couldn’t agree more! I don’t subscribe to the view that Tolkien was sexist and I really appreciate this post- especially because I’m seeing this trope of “strong women = fighter” more and more. I agree that it was a good idea I agree that it was a good idea to expand on the women in the film (although Jackson could have done something with Bard’s daughters whose role appears to be just screaming in terror). But personally I don’t think that women/female characters should have to physically be able to fight in order to get respect. And I know I’m coming at this with my own bias- but I know there’s lots of other women like me who don’t identify with this character and it’s quite frustrating that a lot of women in these films is either a fighter or a screamer (when they’re not huddling in the background). I feel like there are other roles that the female character can play. Plus there are other ways of being strong beyond brute force. Like you said, Arwen as a Tolkien character did not need to be a warrior to be strong.


    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, it’s like Jackson gave us a binary. Women are either awesome and fighting or useless and screaming. Excuse me? I think it would have been great to keep Ioreth in and show how she’s contributing to her community and to the war effort by her healing work. But that’s not interesting or strong enough or something? I understand Jackson wanted to respond to fans who hoped for more women, but he could have given us something more original. We already have Eowyn. Show us the range of women!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Never Not Reading says:

    Ooooooh, I love this post! One of my favorite characters in LOTR has always been Rosie Cotton. She never really *does* anything, but to me she represents the strong women who keep the household running and the kids fed when the men go to war, or spend all their time running the country. She supports Sam quietly as he makes the world a better place, and her optimism in the face of all her men going into a risky battle is endearing.

    I love Arwen too, and I love imagining her caring for her grandchildren. I always wished Appendix A ended with her forever the “fairy godmother” of the House of Strider, rather than disappearing into the forest with her grief.

    All that being said, “I am no man” is maybe the greatest moment in any movie ever.


    • Krysta says:

      Oh, I love that idea! And that’s just the thing! The fact that we don’t always see the women in LotR doesn’t make them unimportant! I think my post is going up tomorrow, but I believe that if people aren’t finding the women significant, it’s because we’re not really thinking about them. You could really examine Rosie Cotton’s symbolic role and significance if you wanted. It just seems that many people don’t want to.

      Ah, yes. Arwen’s death is always heartbreaking for me. There’s no real catharsis there. She’s just bitter.

      Haha, yes! Gotta love Eowyn!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Never Not Reading says:

        Arwen in particular is super easy to not think about, because if you didn’t read the Appendix (which I admit I never did until recently in my life) she’s only mentioned very briefly one time, and the whole thing seems a bit … random. I can understand why people don’t necessarily think about her.

        But one of the things I LOVE about how Tolkien wrote LOTR, is it’s clear the men ARE thinking about the women on their journey. The scene with Aragorn and Frodo in Lothlorien is one of my favorites. And when Sam mentions Rosie I always start weeping.


        • Krysta says:

          I can see why people don’t realize Arwen has a larger history–but Peter Jackson should have read the appendices and known! Anyway, I never could reconcile that he made Elrond an overprotective father AND had Arwen acting as a warrior. Would overprotective Elrond allow that? Somehow I think not…. 😉

          Yes, that’s true! The women are present in subtle ways throughout the story! They are important!

          Liked by 1 person

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