One of the more tiresome complaints I’ve heard online about Amazon’s Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power show is that it’s pushing a woke agenda—cramming said agenda down our collective throats in an attempt to push some leftist identity politics on the masses.
This is a silly critique for the most part, driven by idle speculation and a fandom that has been utterly overwhelmed by culture wars and endless politics. There used to be a time, not so long ago, when we could enjoy movies and TV shows and video games without a constant barrage of politically charged opinions, angry click-hungry YouTube videos and massive, charged debates on social media and forums.
Or maybe I’m looking at the past with rosy-tinted glasses. All I know is that when I went to school in the 90s’ most of my classmates and I didn’t really care who was president, didn’t really talk about the election and never argued about the political messaging in Beavis and Butthead or Seinfeld.
Now, I understand that this cuts both ways. There has been a concerted effort by those peddling identity politics to get that message—or ‘The Message’ as it’s come to be known in some circles—into games and shows and movies, often at the expense of quality.
Recently, I talked about She-Hulk, which is a charming enough Disney+ MCU show—other than its heavy-handed approach to its protagonist. The show is so concerned with making Jessica Walters (aka She-Hulk) a Strong Female Protagonist that it mangles the script. Instead of making the character strong on her own merits, it does so by making the men around her creepy and sexist. Pro-tip: You should probably not make Hulk look bad when making a spinoff about She-Hulk.
I said at the time that this is like making your hero smart by making everyone around them stupid. It doesn’t work! And it places the agenda above good storytelling.
That is not the case with The Rings Of Power, at least not in its first two episodes. The show has a diverse cast, but it does not wield that cast to make a political point about diversity. Instead, Rings takes a color-blind approach to race, focusing on the racial tensions between Elves and Men or Elves and Dwarves instead.
I understand that Tolkien purists may find this a bit jarring. I don’t believe you’re de facto racist for wanting a story set in a fictional Europe to have a more European hue to it, but bigotry can take subtle shapes that people aren’t even aware of, and I think this is one such instance.
Tolkien wasn’t writing about Europe, after all. He was writing about Middle-earth. In Middle-earth there are orcs and dragons and powerful wizards—all things absent from ancient Britain or Scandinavia. Tolkien was drawing on these histories and this lore but he was creating a fantasy, not a history. In a straight history, this level of diversity really doesn’t make sense. It’s why a black female Viking chieftain in Vikings: Valhalla was so jarring. That’s a historical show, not a fantasy.
But in a realm of dragons and Balrogs, dark lords and magic rings, I find it not such a stretch to include brown-skinned heroes and dwarven women who don’t have beards. I certainly don’t understand why these small changes would illicit such massive backlash.
I’ve written previously about how I do think the most important kind of diversity is more diverse storytelling. I want to see more shows like the Korean zombie historical drama Kingdom or the FX comedy Reservation Dogs, about a group of teenage Native American kids trying to scrape by. I’d love to see an African fantasy RPG or big-budget TV show.
But that doesn’t mean we should only want white people in The Rings Of Power. I don’t want the agenda-driven messaging in that show, but if its creators make the creative choice to have a more diverse cast—and to leave the politics out of it—I’m okay with that. I’m also okay with creative choices that have less diversity. The original Vikings show was mostly white and that made sense given the context and history of Norway and the Viking people. I don’t think that was racist or pushing a political agenda either.
Mostly, I want good stories, good writing and good acting and production design. I want stories I care about and characters I can root for (or against). I don’t care about the color of their skin, and I think it’s high time everyone just took a deep breath and chilled out for once. I think Rings Of Power is off to a good start and that even with such a diverse cast (gasp!) it’s remaining true to the spirit and values of Tolkien’s work.
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