One Weird Old Trick to Undermine the Patriarchy


tumblr_mkni969ehZ1qkb7dio1_500My five-year-old insists that Bilbo Baggins is a girl.

The first time she made this claim, I protested. Part of the fun of reading to your kids, after all, is in sharing the stories you loved as a child. And in the story I knew, Bilbo was a boy. A boy hobbit. (Whatever that entails.)

But my daughter was determined. She liked the story pretty well so far, but Bilbo was definitely a girl. So would I please start reading the book the right way?

I hesitated. I imagined Tolkien spinning in his grave. I imagined mean letters from his testy estate. I imagined the story getting as lost in gender distinctions as dwarves in the Mirkwood.

Then I thought: What the hell, it’s just a pronoun. My daughter wants Bilbo to be a girl, so a girl she will be.

And you know what? The switch was easy. Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.

Despite what can seem like a profusion of heroines in kids’ books, girls are still underrepresented in children’s literature. A 2011 study of 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 showed that only 31 percent had female central characters. While the disparity has declined in recent years, it persists—particularly, and interestingly, among animal characters. And many books with girl protagonists take place in male-dominated worlds, peopled with male doctors and male farmers and mothers who have to ask fathers for grocery money (Richard Scarry, I’m looking at you). The imbalance is even worse in kids’ movies: Geena Davis’ Institute on Gender and Media found that for every female character in recent family films, there are three male characters. Crowd scenes, on average, are only 17 percent female.

More insidiously, children’s books with girl protagonists sometimes celebrate their heroines to a fault. Isn’t it amazing that a girl did these things, they seem to say—implying that these heroines are a freakish exception to their gender, not an inspiration for readers to follow. Children’s lit could benefit from a Finkbeiner Test. (Well-intentioned kids’ media can, ironically, introduce their youngest listeners and viewers to gender barriers: The first time my daughter heard the fabulous album Free to Be … You and Me, she asked “Why isn’t it all right for boys to cry?”)

So Bilbo, with her matter-of-fact derring-do, was refreshing. With a wave of my staff I turned Gandalf into a girl, too, with similarly happy results. I started to fool around with other books and their major and minor characters, sometimes by request and sometimes not. In The Secret Garden, Dickon, the animal-loving adventurer who rescues Mistress Mary, became Mary’s best friend Diana. In the Finn Family Moomintroll books, the Snork Maiden and her brother the Snork traded genders. In the Narnia series, Peter Pevensie and his sister Susan made the pronoun switch. (That was a nice fix for the infamous line about Susan’s abandoning Narnia for “nylons and lipstick and invitations.”)

Friends tell me they pull similar tricks while reading to their sons and daughters: Women who farm become not “farmer’s wives” but “farmers.” Boy animal characters become girls, and vice versa. Sleeping Beauty goes to MIT. Their kids, boys and girls alike, get to hear about a world as full of women as the real one—and as free of stereotypes as we’d like ours to be. Kidlit may be catching up to our kids, but we don’t have to wait for it.

My daughter might forget all about the heroines and heroes she helped create. But she might not. I hope that years from now, when she has a chance to take her own unexpected journey, she’ll remember the story of Bilbo—and be a little more inclined to say yes.

Girl Bilbo art by the excellent Lanimalu, who takes commissions. Used with permission.

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137 thoughts on “One Weird Old Trick to Undermine the Patriarchy

  1. my granddaughter is very firm that pooh is a girl. she thought long and hard about piglet, but decided he was a boy. pooh is the only girl. i asked what made pooh a girl and piglet a boy, and i should have known the answer. “they just are, silly!”

  2. You’re right about the feet. I’m blaming it on Took/Fallohide heritage and sex divergence in hairiness 😉

  3. So happy to have found your post, quite by accident and thank goodness for serendipity!

    As a very young girl in the early 1950’s, my own ‘logic’ told me there was something ‘off’ about use of male pronouns to mean “all people” while simultaneously using the same pronouns to mean “males only”. When I raised questions, my prairie farm parents and Sunday School teachers smiled patiently. They told me about ‘language conventions’ and recommended that I relax and “go with the flow” (although the phrase wasn’t in currency at the time.)

    They assumed that closed the matter; it did not. I resolved the contradiction for myself by deciding I could accept stories featuring male protagonists as “referencing universal human traits”. I even reviewed my ‘wisdom’ against Kipling’s “IF”. I thought his list of “if you can” qualities ‘obviously’ applied to me too!

    To great extent, my ‘this means me too’ attitude became habitual, only ‘quasi’ conscious. I knew Tom Sawyer was a boy, and his aunt a woman – but I intuitively felt underlying ‘truths’ about the human condition were in all the story’s characters. Each represented a facet of ‘the whole experience’ and as a collection, helped inform my understanding and “who each of us is”.

    Years later, an English BA in hand, I’d not changed. To me, tales of characters who came up against life’s challenges were representative of the universal human quest experience. (In a stand against the pronoun convention, I came up with ‘hris’, ‘hrim’, and ‘hre’ for his/hers, him/her, and she/he … but it never caught on!)

    I once went through the 1st chapter of an adult book, published perhaps 1950’s, with a title something like “History of the Ice Ages” which referenced human challenges using masculine references. I carefully revised each sentence as needed, to say – for instance, ‘humankind’,’people’, or ‘humanity’ instead of ‘mankind’ or ‘man’. Even skeptical friends agreed the changes greatly shifted what the reader/listener experienced and mentally ‘formulated’.

    On deeply embedded hold-out I’d like to see challenged is “seminal”. When a woman scientist or author brings ideas/information to our attention, it strikes me as ‘mindlessly’ supportive of deep gender bias in our language if we say the work is ‘seminal’. I’d suggest ‘ovarian’ as replacement – or perhaps better yet, a non-gender referencing word that can be used universally. (Friends agree with me ‘in principle’ but don’t believe the impact of language is as powerful as I believe it to be in shaping who we ‘think we are’. They are more inclined to ‘go with the flow’! 🙂

    I’m so delighted at your experiment, and at learning there’s a quiet shift afoot in countless homes, (and schools I would think?)

    As we enter a new year, this sentence is most encouraging: “Friends tell me they pull similar tricks while reading to their sons and daughters:…”

    Thank you and your commenters!

  4. My book, Rift Healer, which was published by Crescent Moon Press in 2012, has been celebrated as a lesson in “Girl Power.” My protagonist & her twin sister get into all kinds of trouble in the Enchanted Forest, but usually they get themselves out of it & sometimes even rescue their boyfriends. It seemed like a no brainer to me, but my readers delight in pointing this angle out while sharing it with their daughters. Thanks for the affirmation.

  5. If you really want to escape the prevailing brainwashing, ask your children to explain the difference between men and women to you. You’re likely to get the same answer someone from a more primitive culture will give you, especially one that has no birth control yet. Be sure to ask before the boys get old enough to have a reason to tell girls what they want to hear.

  6. Thanks for your story of your daughter’s request. Oddly and ironically I read you as male. Then when I returned to the top to check the date of the post, I saw you have a female name. Sexism and racism run deep in our society. Try as I might, I constantly find myself taking off-hand sexist and racist attitudes. I hope that I mostly catch and correct myself. But I can only imagine the number that sneak by me.

    Anyway, my daughter, now 26, directed me to your page here with this note:

    “Made me think of all those great stories you told with heroines rather than heroes.”

  7. Jeff, thanks for your story – this piece was also published on Slate, and I was amazed by the number of people who assumed I was a man. (Most of them were critical of the idea of genderswapping, and at first I thought the pronoun switch was a clever way of saying “see how you like it” – but no, it seemed they genuinely thought I was a man). Of course a lot of assumptions sneak by me as well – as you say, we can only try to catch and correct ourselves – and I think genderswapping can be a playful way of making them more obvious.
    Thanks also for sharing the sweet note from your daughter. I aspire to a similar one someday!

  8. The idea is a great one. You can’t get the authors own prejudices in the way when they’ve written most characters in the same gender by default.

    That being said, I don’t find the picture of female Bilbo convincing. She’s not stocky, her feet are normal sized, and I barely see any hair on them, despite it should be like the hair from her head.

    Are the patriarchy’s standards of beauty still getting in the way with the artist?

  9. Just out of curiousity…

    Rather than try to co-opt the past, why not just set about to write an timeless work that portrays a female as a heroine?

    Let the past be the past. Pave the way to the future you want to see, if you dare.

  10. Darryl, you said: Rather than try to co-opt the past, why not just set about to write an timeless work that portrays a female as a heroine?

    It’s a good question, and one several have asked. But why is it necessary to make a choice? There are many wonderful, time-tested works that I love to read to my daughter, and genderswapping just makes them more relatable for her. (Yes, she can and does relate to male characters too, but she’s at a developmental stage where she relates better to same-gender characters.) I’m all for the creation of new works that reflect the world as it is and as we would like it to be – and there are already many good ones out there – but I don’t want to let go of the classics. Genderswapping is my way of bringing them to life for my daughter – and keeping them alive for me.

  11. @MaggieP, thanks so much for your stories – glad to know my daughter and I are part of a long tradition of pronoun subversion! I fully agree with you on “seminal” – one of my least favorite words for the reasons you cite.

  12. Dear Friends,

    Since the beginning of time, male inclusives have been used because God named our race “adam” (transliterated from the Hebrew of Genesis). In God’s Word, the Bible, “Adam” is both the proper name of the first man and the name of the race. God did not name the race “eve” or “adameve” because Adam was delegated the responsibility and authority of God the Father Almighty. Thus when Adam was tested and fell into sin by listening to the voice of his wife, Eve, and eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:17), the entire race of adam also fell and God condemned us to death and Hell. God decreed that Adam would be our federal head and that, just as colonial Americans used to teach their children in their primer, “In Adam’s Fall, we sinned all.”

    Jesus is the second Adam, sent from the love of the Father Almighty to redeem adam (man) from the Fall of the first Adam. Therefore, Jesus also is not a woman, but a man. He had to be a man to be our second federal head, representing us before God just as the first Adam did. So today, we celebrate Christmas because it is the day we remember God clothing His Son with man’s flesh.

    Of course, this is the reason the leads of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s and Bunyan’s and most of Christendom’s stories are male. Lewis and Tolkien were orthodox Christians and wrote in such a way as to reflect and teach the male responsibility and leadership of their Christian faith. Their stories are confessions of faith, not the chauvinism or misogyny most undeducated postmoderns assume them to be. What we have here is not prejudice, but principle. Biblical principle. Christian principle.

    And to head off another slander thrown against Christians by postmoderns, the above doctrine does not mean women are worth less than man, nor that woman is unequal to man. Both man and woman equally bear the Image of God and yet there is order in their relationship. Eve is made to be Adam’s helpmate and Adam is made to bear responsibility for and authority over Eve.

    Why we reject this obvious truth in the relation of the sexes when we accept it so easily in so many other places is one of the mysteries of our time. My congressmen and senators (both male and female) have responsibility for my well being as one of their constituents and a citizen of their state. They are my representatives in Washington D.C. and act in my place and behalf. They have authority and rule over me.

    Yet this in no way makes me inferior to them, nor does it relegate me to second or third-class citizenship.

    There’s much more explaining these Christians truths on our Baylyblog dot com. Feel free to come on over and learn the history of the Western world’s habits of language. You may choose to continue to diss them and use machines to change any story you don’t like, but in the matter of male responsibility, leadership, and the resultant male inclusive God decreed, you should at least know and understand the reason those you attack wrote and spoke as they did.

    Especially when those you are attacking are Lewis and Tolkien who were merely seeking to be faithful Christians.

    Merry Christmas!

  13. As I recently commented to a friend, what I love about fantasy is that it’s a chance –albeit oft-missed–to leave the sexist status quo behind. While in contemporary fiction without any element of future/fantasy/scifi, discussions of sexism can be helpful, I feel like disrupting sexism by not reproducing it in fantasy settings is one of the greatest things the genre offers.

    Also, I love the idea of Bilbo as female and all the fanart and cosplays of her. Thank you for the article!

  14. I don’t understand how making someone undertaking the stereotypical female heroes journey a female is fighting the good fight against patriarchy.It makes a whole lot more sense in your other examples but not so much your main one the hobbit. This is because Bilbo is running off of the females cycle and not the males. I know a lot of people haven’t Studied Joseph Campbell before but he sets this out pretty clearly in “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”.
    So basically, making Bilbo a girl is really just showing how well a girl works in their archetype. Which I generally feel should be the complete opposite of what we should do to fight patriarchy. It would be better for gender studies to show them that a boy can follow a non traditionalrole than to force any woman to walk the cycle they’ve been depicted in stories since the dawn of man.
    I do say that its a wonderful way to get a daughter or female reader into the feet of the characters. And having some of these darn princesses stick up for themselves is wonderful. In This case of course the story actually makes it easier to Identify with Bilbo as a female than as a male. I’m just not going to [edited for civility] say that we’re doing anything actually helpful by switching Bilbo as a particular character.

  15. Excellent article and a valid point Michelle Nijhuis…however, I suppose if we insist on gender equality with our literary heroes and heroines, we must also insist on gender equality with our literary villains, scoundrels and dirty scum-bags too.

  16. OMG… Maggie P…. many, many years ago – perhaps 1980 or 81, I came up with the new non-gender specific pronouns as well… and they were almost precisely the same as yours… just, took me, somewhat by surprise! 🙂

  17. You may butcher the stories in that fashion if you wish, but I prefer to read or tell them exactly as written. I believe that authors know better than anyone else how their own creations should be read, and what lessons (if any) they are intended to teach. If Tolkien wanted Bilbo to be a girl, he’d have written the story that way, and it’s not our place to change it.

  18. @Naomi – Yes, viva Pippi!!

    @Wayne – We have differing views of literature. To me, writing is a bit like the scientific process – like scientists, writers exchange ideas, try different things, and once in a while publish the results of their experiments. In my opinion, other writers (and readers) are free to run those experiments under different conditions and report their findings. I’m not condoning plagiarism, of course – just a sense of literature as a living, growing body of work with many contributors and collaborators.

  19. I can see your viewpoint without necessarily sharing it. For me, literature is more art than science. Certaianly there are influences from one writer to another, but changing another writer’s work seems to me a completely different thing. It would be like one painter taking another’s landscape and painting over parts of it to change the details. If both artists wished to paint the same landscape then of course each could express their own interpretations, but only on their own canvases.

  20. @Wayne – thanks for your thoughtful reply. The trouble I have with your analogy is that I don’t think I’m “painting over” or “butchering” the original work. The original work is still there, intact and available to all – including my daughter, who will be able to read the Hobbit herself in a few years and decide if she prefers her own or Tolkien’s version. In my opinion, creating different versions of stories is additive, not destructive. (Again, just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that readers steal or profit from someone else’s labor – I’m just encouraging them to experiment and explore in a playful way.)

  21. @Daniel – Heartily agree. My daughter’s too young to read books with real baddies in them, but when she gets to literary villains, I’ll suggest we try genderswapping those as well. (Smaug from the Hobbit is probably the nastiest character she’s encountered so far, and for some reason she decided that she really liked him – she was crushed when he died!)

  22. I suppose I’m a little oversensitive on this topic today, since I just saw the new Hobbit film yesterday. It saddens me to think that a great many people who have not read the book will know the story only through the movie version. Even more than the previous Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, this one throws in a lot of gratuitous stuff that, in my opinion, completely destroys the “feel” of the original story. Rather than being a whimsical tale of a quiet little person learning to deal with adversity and gaining the respect of his more worldly companions through a series of adventures, it comes across like a street fight between warring groups of ninja assassins. As I told my son afterwards (who shared my opinion), they could have put a powdered wig on Bilbo and called it “The George Washington Story” and been just about as faithful to the source material.

  23. @Wayne – interesting. There’s lots of room for disagreement here, obviously, but I’d say that when a filmmaker/writer is a) using the same title as the original work and b) making piles of money (or just any money) from an adaptation, he or she has a moral obligation to stay as true to the original story as possible – especially because, as you say, using the same title makes it likely that people will confuse the movie and the original story. I don’t think a movie has to be an exact replica of the book it’s based on – I get that telling a story in a different medium requires some changes – but I thought Peter Jackson’s changes went way, way over that line. IMO he should have called the movies “A Really Expensive, Overblown Trilogy Inspired by Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Featuring a Couple of Good Performances and One Superfantastic Dragon.”

    In contrast, some literary and film adaptations have not only entertained me but made the original stories more interesting and relevant to me. I think of all the cool ways in which people have adapted Shakespeare plays and the Sherlock Holmes stories – some work better than others, of course, but their variety is fascinating to me, and none pretends to replace the original works. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which is inspired by King Lear (which was itself inspired by an existing legend), is not just a gripping read but also a way for me, as a modern woman, to connect with the play – Shakespeare didn’t give the sisters a motivation, but Smiley did. West Side Story showed how enduring the Romeo and Juliet story really is. And so on. (I’m leaving aside legal considerations of rights and public domain.)

    Anyway, thank you for making me think.

  24. Love it! I’m totally doing this when I read The Hobbit to my daughters. (And for the record, I’m a dude. The only thing remotely controversial about this post is the headline).

  25. I think it’s horribly stereotypical to think a lady hobbit would be fond of a beautiful golden ring that kept her young while all her friends got old and wrinkly – albeit having obtained it by taking advantage of a wretched male gangrel creature, thus beginning her transformation from a carefree young lass fond of pipeweed, food, drink and life’s simple pleasures into, ultimately, a power-mad wraith.

    Or so it would be, for thus is the nature of the Ring, if not for Bilbo’s niece Frodo, her resourceful gaffer Samantha, and the wizard…see, this is where the genderswap starts falling apart. A proper wizard needs a nice long ZZ Top beard.

    And then there’s the men. What to do with the likes of Boromir?

    “One does not simply walk into Mordor in those shoes.”

  26. People complaining about the girl-Bilbo looking tall and slender, have a look at this – I just reduced the height of the whole picture by circa 1/3 and then made her legs a little shorter.

    Doesn’t she look MUCH more like a hobbit now?

  27. Here’s an idea. Rather than hijacking established male characters in the name of some anti-patriarchy movement, how about people just expand on female characters (or even invent some, as has been done with Tauriel,) within that universe. No, Gandalf and Bilbo are not women, they are men. Don’t take what they are and twist it to your ends; rather utilize figures such as Galadriel, or Arwen, or Tauriel or Elbereth or Emeldir or Lúthien or other female figures.

  28. I think it would be lovely if we left art from the past well alone and stopped trying to recraft it in the spirit of our own age. Just create new stuff instead of altering the old classics to fit your own agenda. Political correctness will mean the death of creativity, believe me. Remember Stalin? He made artists tick boxes – and they weren’t very happy about it. Just leave creatives to get on with making new stuff about whatever they like please. And stop shoehorning tired old discussions of the patriarchy – which may or may not even exist any more, if it ever did – into poor old Tolkien’s work. Heroes tended to be men, because men used to fight wars. It goes back to Homer. Are we to suddenly recast Achilles as a woman? Preposterous.

  29. Excellent idea! But we need not stop at gender switching. I’ve taken to trading out the nationalities, races, and even the species of the characters in the books I read to little Pat. Oh the hilarity that ensues when the wise, brave but reluctant warrior Frodo becomes the fun-loving, crotch-sniffing Fido.

    But why stop at the characters at all? Perhaps we could also start importing our own adjectives, adverbs and prepositions, too. We’ll call it Mad Lib the Classics, and before long we’ll all have little personalized fictional realities recreated in our own image and likeness. Isn’t that what were really after?

  30. @Jasper John, @Allen, @Seth – again, I’m not proposing that I or anyone else *replace* the original versions of classic works. I’m suggesting that we as readers can deepen our understanding and appreciation of them with a little experimentation.
    My daughter already knows that the person who originally imagined Bilbo imagined him as a boy; in a few years she’ll understand that Tolkien lived and wrote during a different time, a time when few people could conceive of a girl character taking such a dangerous adventure. My daughter, however, can easily imagine a girl Baggins, and she wanted to hear the story told that way. Why not encourage this kind of active participation by young readers? To my mind, it teaches them that they can be creators as well as listeners, and that knowledge will serve them in life as well as literature. I’m confident that my daughter and other readers can and will hold both versions (or many versions) of a beloved story in their heads, and will find that their experience is only the richer for it.
    I quite like the idea of a girl Achilles. Patroclus, too. Maybe I’ll try that next.

  31. As the proud father of a newborn daughter, I’ve been sorting through bales – literal bales – of frilly pink handmedowns, hoping that I have the fortitude and wisdom to prepare my child for the avalanche of awfulness which is coming her way. Today I have a new arrow in my quiver, and it promises to be a powerful one indeed. Thanks, old friend.

  32. My daughter, however, can easily imagine a girl Baggins, and she wanted to hear the story told that way. Why not encourage this kind of active participation by young readers? To my mind, it teaches them that they can be creators as well as listeners, and that knowledge will serve them in life as well as literature.

    What if my daughter has a wilder imagination and can easily see Baggins as a transgendered, cross-dressing schizophrenic with severe cases of dyslexia and color blindness? If she simply “wanted to hear the story that way,” is there anything untoward with my obliging?

    Fundamentally, I would say no, but it would obviously be an entirely different tale (and one I’d pay handsomely to read). I suppose my biggest gripe with what you’re suggesting is that it subjectively alters that which was created purposefully and exists objectively. I’m all for encouraging active participation and “a little experimentation,” but also believe that there’s a time for everything under the sun – including roles of consuming and creating.

    Perhaps it’s totally harmless and only a matter of personal preference, but I believe it wiser and more helpful (and more enjoyable too) to stay faithful to the text and deal with it on its own (de)merits before we begin the act of undermining its apparent biases. Can’t we at least let the author speak as he as spoken and then wrestle with his ideas as he intended them (individually and with our children) prior to accepting, rejecting or recreating the work to align with biases of our own?

  33. @Michelle, One more thing, would you find the same principle acceptable with visual arts and music? That is, is it possible and permissible to both simultaneously explore/evaluate an artist’s work while remaking it to fit my own preferences?

    Thanks for entertaining the questions.

  34. I would kindly suggest that the men here complaining that people reading stories with the characters’ genders swapped to their children somehow robs them of their experience, and that we should just “leave the past to the past” take a minute and think about this. If we “leave the past to the past,” boys and men can still read about their experiences, themselves as the human default– and girls are still left out in the cold. You’re the dominant sex, still, and men’s narratives still dominate the world. A little girl imagining Bilbo Baggins as a woman doesn’t take anything away from you. I’m asking you to think about why it is so important to you to take that away from her?

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