Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Worldcon panels with Tolkien in them

The two best panels I attended at Worldcon 76 were both relatively sparsely attended, perhaps because they lacked famous names at the table. Instead, the panelists were young writers unfamiliar to me, representing a variety of ethnicities and gender/sexual identities. They were as articulate and interesting as any more famous names would have been, probably more so. The topics were intriguing, which is why I was there.

And both panels discussed Tolkien, in rather different contexts.

The panel on "Fantasy Canon from the Margins" had originally been titled "Tolkien from the Margins" (actually "Tolkein from the Margins," so it's a good thing it was changed). But this attempt to broaden the remit wasn't broad enough, as the works discussed represented pop culture in general, not specifically an established fantasy canon. And the margins considered were just ethnic/racial ones; sexual or gender issues were barely mentioned.

The theme of the panel was dealing with works you personally love, or which you respect as superbly crafted, but which perpetuate negative stereotypes. Suzanne Walker (Lebanese-American) told of how as a child she loved Disney's Aladdin because it had a princess who "looked like me," but she came to realize that it's full of unfortunate stereotypes. It's two things at once. SL Huang (Chinese-American) agreed that it was the same for her with Mulan. And that summed up the panelists' dilemma: They weren't going to drop these works that they loved, but they couldn't avoid acknowledging the glaring problems.

Tolkien came in with Walker discussing the Jackson Lord of the Rings movies. She liked the first one, but the second dismayed her. Nor was she familiar with just the movies, but compared them with the book. Jackson could have made different choices, she said, but instead elevated the stereotypes that were already there.

Note the assumption that the source material, Tolkien's novel, is fundamentally racist. Libia Brenda (Mexican) was explicit on this point, describing herself as "heartbroken" by the racism in Tolkien, Harry Potter, Star Wars. Though she also emphasized that these were good works with admirable qualities that should not be avoided. Just acknowledge the flaws and be critical: don't stop reading the canon, but expand upon it.

Fine, but I wondered just what Walker and Brenda found so racist in Tolkien. They didn't elaborate on the point. Is it just that the bad guys are described as swarthy? Is it the hierarchy of ethnic groups? The entire book is a demonstration that this hierarchy in no way dictates virtue or nobility of character. Does Tolkien's depiction of the good guys as ethnically diverse bear no weight here? Do the fact that he's not lecturing you on ethnic virtue, and his personal opposition to racist policies, at least place him in a different category than authors who use fantasy as a tool to advocate racism? There was no way this question could be asked on the panel, so I let it go, at least for now.

A panel asking "What Does a Nontoxic Masculinity Look Like?" intrigued because it's a question often avoided in discussions of the toxic kind. But there was no evasion on this panel, which featured four persons of a wide variety, not fully expounded in the introductions, of gender identities. The best I can say is that three seemed to fall somewhere in the female realm and the fourth in the male.

What I was not expecting was for Tolkien to make an appearance in the discussion.

To the panel's topic question, Reuben Baron immediately responded, "Mr. Rogers," and was rewarded with a burst of audience applause. "He's the bingo free space in discussion of non-toxic masculinity," said Baron.

But Leigh Ann Hildebrand had an objection. The problem with all these Sensitive New Age Guys, she said (not that Mr. Rogers was in any way New Age, but it was clear what she meant), is that - at least to her taste - they're not sexually attractive. She wants a tough guy with sensuality who yet avoids misogyny. Her examples were men from her personal life, but she found a well-known example later.

All of these were real-life. The question was posed: what about in fiction? and Reuben Baron immediately slapped the buzzer down again with Sam Gamgee. He's emotionally expressive, but a fighter. As for his relationship with Frodo, Baron said, "If you think it's gay, write your fan fiction. But it's still a positive role model for platonic male friendship."

Others added more examples from Tolkien or elsewhere. Foz Meadows mentioned characters in The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) and the Books of the Raksura by Martha Wells, among others, in this context, and then brought in Tolkien's Faramir, "a man who is trying to do the right thing," in contrast with his father Denethor. Baron mentioned Legolas and Gimli as characters who overcome their mutually hostile racism and become friends. And Hildebrand added the winning entry by describing Gandalf in his fight with the Balrog as a great moment of "dynamic masculinity" (her term), the quality that she's looking for. To which moderator Vanessa Rose Phin added, from Tolkien's posthumously-published material, that Gandalf also has the estimable ability to listen, as shown by his having learned patience and pity from the female Vala Nienna.

Good panels.

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