Elves, Feminine-Androgyny, and the Consumption of Media

The other day, I wrote about how dwarfs are traditionally viewed as entirely masculine creatures.  What I didn’t really get into is how dwarfs are also typically seen as being “good guys”.  They’re usually shown as being allies or close partners with humans, unambiguously on the side of the heroes, and just generally of an understandable, approachable build.  I think a lot of authors who write this style of dwarf, or DMs who play them, see dwarfs as just one of the guys, a bro.

On the other hand, elves are usually seen as opposite counterparts to dwarfs in some unfortunate ways.  Elves are mysterious and cunning, they are incomprehensible in their ways, they can be good or evil and you might not know which one until it’s too late.  This, in and of itself would not be bad if elves were not also almost always portrayed as feminine-androgynous.  If dwarfs look “basically male”, then elves look “basically female”; they have long hair, fair skin, and are generally thought of as “pretty” regardless of actual gender.  I’m going to guess you’re all familiar with the jokes of men saying “oh, look at that beautiful elven maiden over there” and someone pointing out that it is not, in fact, a maiden at all.  God knows they’re common enough; I know there was at least one in the most recent Hobbit movie.

In terms of stereotypes, dwarfs are men and elves are women.  Where dwarfs are stocky and strong, elves are lithe and nimble.  Where dwarfs are hairy and hot-tempered, elves are smooth-faced and calm.  Dwarfs are straightforward, elves are diplomatic and confusing; dwarfs live in underground caves and fortresses, elves live in beautiful shining cities or elegant forest halls.  Dwarfs use technology, elves use magic.  Whenever there is a more stereotypically feminine option, it will be the elves who utilize it.  Again, this would not necessarily be a bad thing, if elves were not also of more dubious morality than dwarfs.

When seen in fiction, dwarfs are almost always good, or easily persuaded to be good.  Elves, on the other hand, certainly can be good, but are just as often malicious, or at best simply uncaring about the lives of humans or other species.  Think of the stereotype of the Fair Folk from English folklore, the beautiful fairies and elves who enchant humans to use them as toys or pets.  If you’re familiar with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you’re familiar with the machinations of Titania, Oberon, and Puck, who use humans as little more than pieces in their games against each other.  Over time (again, thanks to Tolkien) this has blended with more Nordic elves who, uh… didn’t do much of anything.  Elves are often seen as passive non-combatants (who nonetheless are fierce in battle), and who must be persuaded to fight for the forces of good.  Even just looking at the weapons of preference reveals a gender divide – dwarfs use weapons of brute strength (eg, hammers, axes, broadswords), whereas elves use weapons of distance or guile (eg, bows, rapiers, or simply magic).  Elves are almost always seen as mysterious, as well.  They’re often secretive, and gifted at doublespeak, saying one thing and meaning another.

I can say with certainty that these are all things that men have said about women in broad generalizations.  It’s rather telling that if dwarfs are men and elves are women, dwarfs are seen as closer to being human, and closer to humans in general.  It’s often shown that elves don’t understand human morality, and vice versa.  It’s a stereotype so overused it’s been cliche for a millennium that “hur hur hur men don’t understand women and women don’t understand men”.  I’ve always felt that it’s ridiculous that this impossible divide between the genders has been so strongly enforced (and that’s even without the inclusion of non-binary individuals, who are rarely even seen as meriting an inclusion in these debates).  It shouldn’t be a surprise to you that my favorite subplot in Lord of the Rings is the growing friendship between Gimli and Legolas, who overcome culturally significant prejudices to become friends and allies, and acknowledge each other as equals.

Add all of this to the fact that female gamers and readers and viewers tend to like elven characters more than male gamers/readers/viewers do.  It’s like the “bishonen” thing from anime fandom applied to Western fantasy.  Elves are pretty and smart and cultured and yeah, a lot of them are interesting characters, so why shouldn’t women love them?  Just look at all the love for Legolas, which I know is not just because he’s played by Orlando Bloom.  The problem here arises when nerd culture tends to revile anything that is more beloved by women than men.  It will be derided as girly and shallow and foolish, etc, and not taken as seriously as things preferred by men.  That’s a marketing problem I don’t know how to solve yet.  If these companies still haven’t realized the potential of female buying power, I don’t know that they ever will.

Thranduil is just SO PRETTY you guys

And it’s an interesting sort of sexism when, in many settings (which, keep in mind, are more likely to be created by men), elves are still shown as being straight-up better than humans or dwarfs.  They know more than you, they’re older and wiser, they’re more beautiful, they’re more in-tune with nature, and you cannot argue with them.  You might be familiar with the term “positive discrimination”, especially when applied to race and the “model minority” (think of how white communities have reacted to the inclusion of Asian people as opposed to black or Latin@ people).  It might seem benevolent, but it’s still a harmful sort of separation and othering, where you put people (in this case, women) up on a pedestal and hold them to perfection without allowing room for them to be human.  How many times have you heard men complain about “how much make-up women wear” (often with little to no understanding of how make-up works), but then when a woman actually has none on, they proclaim her ugliness and, hence, unworthiness?

These allegedly perfect elves on their pedestals, even when not intentionally portrayed as arrogant or proud, still usually end up being hated by fan communities.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people complain about elves being a “munchkin” race (meaning a player who plays only to win, not for the enjoyment of the story and the game), and that serious players don’t play elves.  Add in the fact that the RPG, fantasy, and general nerd communities are more openly male than female, and we’ve got us some good old-fashioned misogyny.  Yes, I know that female nerds exist in equal numbers, and in some groups, higher numbers than male nerds, but when you look at the public image of “people who play D&D” or “people who love Lord of the Rings”, it’s almost exclusively male.  That perception has plenty of issues, but it’s only changing slowly and not in enough of a way to make up for the history attached to these images.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some nerd boys, I really truly do.  I’m friends with many of them, related to a few, and if it seems like I date them exclusively, that’s because… I do.  But nerd culture has been such a boys-club for so long that it’s almost impossible for a guy to immerse himself in it without absorbing some really toxic, nasty things about femaledom (and that’s not to say that women don’t absorb it either – I’m beyond sick of hearing my friends say “I’m not like other girls” – ugh, please).  And as long as the authors are mostly men, the gamemakers are mostly men, and the marketers think only men consume this media, the problem isn’t going to go away.  We’re seeing a shift towards more female creators, and I’m thankful for that, but I’m waiting for the day when hate for a fantasy species is not based so closely upon gender lines.

3 comments for “Elves, Feminine-Androgyny, and the Consumption of Media

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