"Lord of the Rings" is for boys ...

A New York Times critic falls for lazy gender-typing.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published December 22, 2003 6:19PM (EST)

In the latest entry in the "blue is for boys, pink is for girls" school of criticism, Caryn James, in a New York Times Arts & Leisure piece on Sunday, argues that the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy -- up to and including the final installment, "The Return of the King" -- is a big snooze for those of us not blessed with a Y chromosome. James says she yawned through most of the first two movies, as well as the third: "The final entry in the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy reveals once more that what the chick flick is to men, this trilogy is to women -- or at least to a large secret society of us for whom the series is no more than a geek-fest, a technologically impressive but soulless endurance contest."

What's interesting about James' piece isn't that she dislikes Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" movies, which is any critic's prerogative. She thinks they're too rarely infused with human feeling. (She notes that she prefers the Jackson of "Heavenly Creatures," a nicely observed movie about two teenage girls who commit a murder.)

But then, why play the tired old Hollywood-marketing game of hanging a prescribed gender tag on art? Not trusting her own view of the works at hand, James has to blame the fact that she doesn't like them on her sex. It's an approach that renders serious thought about movies, and the ways we respond to them, meaningless. Why think critically, when you can just consult the imaginary focus group in your mind?

You don't have to be an advertising executive to know that soppy romances like "Under the Tuscan Sun" are marketed mainly to women, while action movies like "Bad Boys II" are sold to appeal to men. That's not to say that members of either sex can't (or don't) enjoy both types of movies. In fact, I suspect there's much more crossover than marketing specialists would like to believe.

But there's a danger to positing that certain types of movies are "for" audiences of either gender. That's how you get a world of "inclusionary" and "exclusionary" art, instead of art that cuts across gender lines (or, for that matter, racial lines) to speak to everyone. I have a male friend whose tastes typically run to horror movies, but he adores the television adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" -- it's one of those things he says he could watch anytime. And there are exactly two women in Peter Weir's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," and one of them is a miniature painting in a locket. What's more, there's lots of battles and gunfire -- two more elements that you might characterize as appealing to men specifically. Yet I don't see "Master and Commander" as a "men's" movie at all. Are women somehow less well-equipped to enjoy a picture that's beautifully shot, and whose story is well told, intuitively acted and marvelously paced, just because it has a masculine aura around it? Do you need to be a man to respond to "typically masculine" notions of nobility and heroism?

The same goes for the "Lord of the Rings" series, although anyone, of course, male or female, has the right to dislike it. Criticism is a personal response informed by the writer's knowledge and experience of an art form, which does mean that in some ways, women might view a work differently from the way men do. Then again, there are plenty of moviegoers, men and women alike, who think of Nancy Meyers' movies as soulless endurance contests. Personally, I'll take giant spiders any day.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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