I’m behind on the blogs; somehow I completely missed RJ on gender politics, or more specifically on the lack of strong female characters in Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
I was about twenty-four years old the first time this fiction gap was pointed out to me. I had just watched “Lawrence of Arabia” with a guy, and during the credits he pointed out that there were no women in the entire movie, except for one non-speaking figure seen from a distance.
I hadn’t noticed.
In the case of “Lawrence of Arabia,” there are historical reasons for the omission (about which, as far as I could recall, my friend was right). You could say the same of Tolkien because he’s depicting a medieval culture, but that’s not the source of my not noticing.
Male characters are the neuter pronoun of fiction. Frodo, Legolas and Gimli aren’t male in any way that alienates me as a female reader - they’re generic hobbit, elf and dwarf. Aragorn is an exception if you know about Arwen, but if you don’t (and Tolkien, unlike Peter Jackson, was kind enough to hide her in an appendix), even he’s relatively neuter.
Female characters can also be neuter, like Galadriel, or completely subsumed by their gender role, like Arwen, or struggling in-between the two, like Eowyn. It’s an easier thing to do with men, though - Everyman characters are always men like Tom Paris, despite B’Elanna Torres’ very similar background.
This is where the feminists chime in and say that I’m merely describing the dominance of men in society, not explaining it away in literature. I’m always interested in reading about new societies that differ on such basic points of human nature, but you have to make it believable. Show me the technobabble. Until you do, I’ll assume I’m reading about human society as it has been in all documented cases - patriarchal, with man as the neuter character.
In fanfiction I’m restricted to the genders as given, but in original stories I assign gender according to a specific and, until now, unconscious process. If the destiny of the character is to fall in love, reproduce, leave home for love like Ruth, or otherwise be noticably gendered, I make her female. If their destiny is to commit genocide, immolate themselves in a folding singularity, disappear over the horizon, discover a new world like an old-time Everyman pulp adventurer, or otherwise be gender-neutral, I make him male.
Yes, I could write neuter females, but I’m not a feminist writer. I am not revolted by the neuter pronoun he, even though I prefer they for clarity. I have no stake in balancing gender representation in my writing. Literature is not about literal representation, but about symbolism. Male and female have symbolic meanings, even for those who don’t believe they are biologically based. The male as neuter is only one of those symbols, and I see no point in criticizing or abandoning it.