Stories are waves

My daughter insists that Bilbo Baggins is a girl and I'm her willing conspirator in updating the classics for our times

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Photo by Gallery Stock

Photo by Gallery Stock

Michelle Nijhuis is an American science journalist who writes about conservation and climate change for publications including National Geographic and the Smithsonian magazine.

Almost six years ago, when I became a parent, one of my very few certainties was that I would read to my daughter. I had been an only child, and now I was raising one. I wanted my daughter to learn, as I had, that stories were sources of adventure, inspiration and constant, loyal companionship.

So I read to my daughter the way I had been read to, eclectically but faithfully. As she got older, we talked about the exploits of Frog and Toad, and Junie B Jones, and the Pevensies almost as often as we talked about her friends from school. As soon as she could write the letters of her name, she got her own library card and started to add her selections to the pile. And last year, when we started to read J R R Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit (1937) together, she listened patiently to the first two chapters. Then she told me, matter-of-factly, that Bilbo Baggins was a girl.

Well, I said. That would be nice. But Bilbo is definitely a boy.

No, she said. Bilbo is a girl.

I hesitated. I wanted to share the story I knew, and I had always known Bilbo as a boy. But it seemed that my daughter knew otherwise. I soon agreed to swap ‘she’ with ‘he’ and ‘her’ with ‘his’, and my daughter and I met Girl Bilbo – who turned out to be a delightful heroine. She was humble and resourceful and witty and brave. She was no tacked-on Strong Female Character with little to do, but a true heroine with her very own quest and skills. For my daughter, Girl Bilbo was thrilling. For me, she was damn refreshing.

When I wrote about this experiment in literary gender-swapping for the Last Word On Nothing website last year, the public response to Girl Bilbo was startling. My daughter had ‘brought the internet’s Tolkien fanboys to their Mithril-padded knees’, in the words of one commenter. Girl Bilbo and her implications, I knew through comments and emails, were discussed at length in science-fiction circles, parenting groups, Head Start classes, and among Swedish devotees of role-playing games.

While many of these readers were enthusiastic about my daughter’s idea, a sizable minority thought I was indulging heresy. Leave the classics alone, they said. If you want stories with more female characters, some suggested, write them yourself. But my daughter didn't create Girl Bilbo, and neither did I. She has deep roots, and she isn't going away anytime soon.

I remember the moment I learned that books were imperfect. I was a teenager – 14 or 15, maybe – and I was in my school library, searching for books for a research paper. My English teacher appeared at my elbow with a hardcover in hand. ‘It’s not a very good book,’ he said, pushing it toward me, ‘but it’ll have some useful information.’

I stared at him. A book could be... something other than good? I’d been transported by books since childhood, and it had never occurred to me that they could have flaws. I knew I liked some stories more than others, but that was just personal taste. I had only a vague idea of how books were written and published, and I assumed that whoever or whatever oversaw that process was as wise as Gandalf. The words that lay between the covers of books were, as far as I was concerned, perfect.

Decades later, I’m still full of respect for the hard work that goes into writing any kind of book, fiction or non-fiction. As a writer myself, I recognise the importance of books as neat, marketable packages by which writers can learn a living.

I also know that books are fallible. I know the publishing industry is made up of people who love good books yet profit from bad ones. And, like most writers, I know that even the best books – the books that stay with us for a lifetime, the books that are read and re-read by people of different ages and different generations – are not sovereign objects, no matter how hefty their covers. ‘All novels are sequels; influence is bliss,’ wrote Michael Chabon in his essay collection Maps and Legends (2008). Every writer, no matter how fresh his or her vision, draws inspiration and ideas from the work of those who came before.

Likewise, every story – fiction or non-fiction – leaves room for the next writer, the next era, the next leap of imagination or understanding. ‘When we tell a story, we exercise control, but in such a way to leave a gap, an opening,’ wrote the English novelist Jeanette Winterson in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011). ‘It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold.’

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We have, of course, been telling and retelling stories for at least as long as we’ve had campfires. For millennia, writing had no part in storytelling, and was sometimes even considered a threat to it. Plato worried that writing would remove the need for memorisation and so ‘create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls’.

In the mid-1400s, when the German inventor Johannes Gutenberg arranged metal type on the business end of a wine press, he not only introduced printing to Europe but also democratised the written word. You know the story: thanks to the printing press, literacy flowered, Latin withered, and a middle class rose throughout the continent.

Yet recently the scholars Thomas Pettitt and Lars Ole Sauerberg of the University of Southern Denmark have suggested that the printing press had another, less-recognised effect. Even as it dismantled old hierarchies, it gave new and far-reaching authority to printed books – and to their authors.

To be sure, written texts existed long before Gutenberg, and in many different cultures. But in Europe before the printing press, Pettitt argues, storytellers most often performed their stories. Like folk singers, they drew from existing material and reshaped it as they wished. However, as books became more widely available, texts gained value as standard, stable, and more or less original units of knowledge. Humanity’s long wave of stories now had a particle form, too.

Were the Brontës growing up today, their zine would circulate far beyond the family parsonage

William Shakespeare, who wrote in the midst of this transition, was both revered and criticised for reworking old stories into popular plays. (‘An upstart crow, beautified with our feathers,’ said his contemporary Robert Greene.) In a sense, Greene won the argument and, in the centuries that followed, books and their individual creators became fixed and finished icons.

Yet we didn’t stop messing around with stories. In the 1600s, a writer working under a pseudonym wrote a sequel to Don Quixote, irritating its author Miguel Cervantes so much that he produced a sequel of his own. In his romance Rebecca and Rowena (1850), William Thackeray parodied Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820), which had itself reshaped the traditional tales of Robin Hood into the character we know today. Many people parodied Charles Dickens, and theatre directors continue to set Shakespeare’s plays in every time period imaginable. And those are just the most public reinventions of beloved fictional and true-life stories: before the Brontë children became famous writers themselves, they published a fanzine featuring made-up tales about the Duke of Wellington as well as various fictional kingdoms. We’ve managed to save a copy of that, but countless other clever household creations have been lost to history.

Were the Brontës growing up today, their zine would circulate far beyond the family parsonage. They’d post their stories online, adding them to millions of other fan-written stories, videos, and artworks. In modern fan fiction (or fanfic), familiar characters are set loose in different time periods, different stories, different relationships, different genders, and even different species. Fancy Harry Potter as a werewolf? Sherlock Holmes in the TARDIS? Then there’s a fanfic for you – in fact, likely thousands of them. And while fanfic writers do re-imagine TV shows, movies, comics, and even celebrities’ private lives, books remain among their most popular and enduring inspirations. Perhaps it’s because books leave the visuals to the imaginations of their readers: without canonical images, reinvention is even more tempting, and more satisfying.

Fanfic might sound like an adolescent distraction – and it surely is at times – but for its creators, it’s far more than entertainment. In October 2013, the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), a US advocacy group with a large online archive of fanfiction, submitted a lengthy defence of non-commercial use of copyrighted works to the US Patent Office. Amid its legal arguments are some notably moving testimonies from fanfic writers, for example: ‘Fanfiction is the supportive, creative space for blacks who after seeing a movie in which all the main characters are white, think, “I would do it differently, and here’s how.” Fanfiction is for the girls who read a comic book in which the heroes are all men, and imagines herself as Captain America.’

Fan fiction gained notoriety after the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey (2011), E L James’s soft-porn bestseller loosely based on characters from Stephanie Meyer’s vampire series Twilight (2005-08), and fanfic might still be best known for its frequent and inventive smuttiness. But the creation and consumption of sexy stories can have its own higher purpose, especially for fans who don’t see their own sexualities represented in mass media. ‘Fanworks were and are vitally important to my acceptance of my queer sexuality,’ one fan testifies in the OTW letter to the US Patent Office. ‘If they were to be made unavailable, queer youth would lose a source of support in an often still shockingly hostile world.’

The relationship was an armchair tête-a-tête between one writer and one reader at a time. Now, that relationship is a noisy, chaotic, very public web

Fan fiction is also known for, shall we say, its wildly varied quality. But many a writer has learned to write by imitation, and all of us have gotten better only with practice. Fanfic writers are simply brave – or reckless – enough to publish their first drafts, and learn from other fans’ critiques. And fanfiction isn’t an exclusively amateur pursuit. Think of Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), or novels such as John Gardner’s Grendel (1971), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Geraldine Brooks’s March (2005), or Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991). Each tells a classic story from the point of view of an underdeveloped character or characters, creating a new story that both stands alone and casts fresh light on its source. (A Thousand Acres, which sets King Lear on an Iowa farm, finally supplies the elder sisters with a motivation for their villainy.)

The scholars Sauerberg and Pettitt suggest that the digital age has closed a ‘Gutenberg Parenthesis’ – an idea that is itself a remix of the concepts in Marshall McLuhan’s book The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962). In the digital age, they say, the authoritative power of books is diluted, and our writing has acquired some of the ‘fluidity of orality’ that existed before the printing press.

The Gutenberg Parenthesis is a compelling idea, but I wonder if technology has simply exposed and encouraged a habit we’ve never lost. We’ve always reinvented stories over campfires, and by our children’s beds. In the age of print, we imagined what might happen if our favourite novels continued beyond their final pages. The difference today is that many of these reinventions and re-imaginings appear online, where they proliferate in plain view. The relationship between writers and their audiences has long been a series of armchair tête-a-têtes, between one writer and one reader at a time. Now, that relationship is a noisy, chaotic, very public web.

‘All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend,’ said Joss Whedon, the creator of the US TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and an imaginative force in the revival of Marvel comic characters such as the Avengers, in a 2012 conversation on the Reddit website. ‘Art isn’t your pet – it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.’

So since Gutenberg, at least, our stories have had a dual nature. We’ve known them both as continuous waves of tellings and retellings, and as the far more manageable particles between the covers of books and magazines. The boundaries between those two states are troubled and getting more so, and they’re raising increasingly complex legal questions. But we need both kinds of stories, perhaps now more than ever.

The publishing business, despite its flaws, allows writers to make a living from their hard work and unique talents – as do the concepts of individual authorship and copyright. (And despite the brilliant work being done by a few amateur writers, literature without professional writers and editors would be impoverished indeed.) Meanwhile, the licence to reinvent – both privately and publicly – creates a modest but powerful path to a better world.

reading about girls who have epic adventures has helped my daughter expand her own possible futures

When I first wrote about my daughter’s Hobbit genderswap, many people said that fanfiction writers were way ahead of us, and so they were: Female Bilbo is a familiar fanfic character. My daughter isn’t the first reader who’s wondered what would happen if a girl stepped into Tolkien’s wonderful, timeless story, and I hope she’s far from the last.

My daughter can and does relate to characters – and real people – of different genders, different races, and different cultures. Stories will help her continue to do so. One of the wonderful things about fiction, after all, is that it allows us to use our imaginations to inhabit very different lives, and develop empathy for those who live them. But children at my daughter’s developmental stage identify most strongly with their own gender, and reading about girls who have epic adventures has helped my daughter expand her own possible futures. I know this: I can see it in the games she plays, and the stories she tells. As with the fanfic writers who find personal validation in their creations, Girl Bilbo has helped my daughter imagine the person she will become.

As a parent, literary genderswapping – and other kinds of narrative reinvention – have made it possible to share some of my very favourite stories with my daughter. Sure, I could try my hand at writing new books with female characters, as some of my critics have suggested, but my efforts could never replace those of Lloyd Alexander, or Mark Twain, or any of the other geniuses that wrote so well for children of other generations. Though they wrote in times when it was difficult to imagine central roles for girls, their stories still deserve telling, and genderswapping allows us to do so with all the joy and none of the old-fashioned stereotypes. Since my daughter and I read The Hobbit, we’ve swapped many characters in many classic children’s books. My daughter knows the originals are different – I’m a firm believer in full-disclosure remixing – and some day, I hope, she’ll read and treasure those books herself. But when she does, she’ll know an alternative version is possible, too.

For me, the most fascinating part of literary genderswapping is its illumination of my own assumptions. Not long ago, my daughter and I read an Ursula K Le Guin novel with a young male hero. When we switched the pronouns, I found myself pleasantly but repeatedly surprised by our heroine’s independence. She journeyed alone, building her own boats, casting her own spells, and passing tests of strength and wits as she confronted dragons and shadows.

Of course she can do that, I thought. Of course she should be able to. But I was raised on Boy Bilbo, and on a million other stories where boys – usually white, usually English-speaking, usually straight – assume the lead. If I wrote a girl-centric adventure story for my daughter, I might reflexively throw in a male companion, or put our heroine on an easier path. By switching pronouns, though, my daughter and I met a heroine who pushed the boundaries of both our imaginations and took us on a truly unexpected journey.

Comments

  • rsanchez1

    Bilbo Baggins clearly identifies as male. You are teaching your daughter to not respect gender identity.

    • jon_downfromthetrees

      Bilbo isn't real, you know.

    • JenJen10

      I have not read the story, but I find your comment noticeably wrong. You missed the point of the whole essay.

      • Name

        I have not read the essay, but I find your comment noticeably wrong. You missed the point of the whole comment.

    • http://www.order50.com/ Kane Gruber

      Where, precisely in the book, does he "identify as male"?

    • Martin Cohen

      If Bilbo were female, you would more readily enjoy the omitted chapter where he and Sam get it on before entering Mordor.

  • jj

    This is why the world is F---ed up. He is a male and "identifies" as one whatever that means. This identity confusion crap started with people like you anyway.

    • JenJen10

      You obviously are not a girl.

      • Final_Word

        Obviously not because he is using some common sense.

        • JenJen10

          What purpose do you think novels serve?

          • Final_Word

            Not relevant to jj's comment. Next question.

          • JenJen10

            Nonanswer.

            Very relevant to both his & your mindsets.

            What do you think "gender" means?

  • Stephen

    Politically correct nonsense. Bilbo is written as MALE, regardless of what you choose to believe. But hey, why not go the full nine yards and make " her " black, gay and disabled?

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      Yes, why ever not? I'm suggesting experimentation and expansion, not replacement.

    • Martin Cohen

      Written as male, rewritten as female. See, wasn't that easy?

  • Q

    Speaking of Ursula K Le Guin, she wrote The Left Hand of Darkness. I don't want to get into the details of the book so much but a lot of it had to do with gender. Some of the people who were in her novel literally didn't have a fixed gender. In the afterword she discusses how she thought of using different pronouns other than 'he', and found that it radically changed even some of the subtle elements of the story. The Left Hand of Darkness is a worthy read, maybe not for kids, but it gets at a lot of the gender things you mentioned in your article.

    Fiction, and relatedly fanfiction, has their place as imaginative landscapes that perhaps make you examine more of yourself and your own views. Great essay!

  • Juan Largo

    Could the solution be to write one's OWN story of female adventures in Middle-Earth, rather than mucking about with the original author's work? Reminds me of our contemporary censoring of Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) because he didn't fit contemporary models of political correctitude. Was Tolkien "wrong" in writing his piece of fiction as he did? No; it's fiction, and he wrote it. Write your own!

    • Final_Word

      She is too lazy to do that so she would rather just confuse her child.

      • Michael Schwager

        You have a very limited view of a child's intelligence and imagination.

        • Narrative Arts

          Very limited indeed. Remedial, I should say. She sounds like a fun, intrepid little girl. And let's be clear, because a lot of the ignorant comments here are coming from people who sound like they haven't read the book, or actually considered Tolkien's thought AT ALL: Bilbo is in his fifties, unmarried (he never does marry), has thick curly hair, is overly concerned about his kitchen, and then his pocket handkerchief, and then a gold ring, despises the mud and the muck of the outdoors, and only very slowly learns to love his adventure. Tolkien was always very subtle in his approach to the elements of his story that were masculine and feminine - in some sense all of the elves are feminine, representing, as Jung would have it, the •anima• of middle earth while the dwarves and men present the •animus•. The hobbits were always closer to the elves in their similar connection to nature, which for Tolkien was always a feminine aspect of his creation. (Of course, they're really most like children, and in that sense sexually somewhat •unformed• and ambiguous. See, Merry and Pippin.) So the more the ogres of ignorance pile on here, the more I think the little girl may well be on to something about Tolkien's thought. I love that people who hail themselves 'traditionalists' are the same people who would have found reason to call these authors seditious or scandalous in their time and put them to the stake while they were alive. Tolkien is far more transgressive than they'd like to understand. I think if he heard the story of the writer's daughter insisting his Bilbo was a girl, he'd have been absolutely thrilled by it.

          • Michelle Nijhuis

            Fascinating perspective. Thank you!

          • Michelle Nijhuis

            Another point, which I make at the very end of the essay, is that genderswapping allows me to overcome my *own* assumptions about gender roles. Writing my own bedtime stories is fun and useful, yes, but those stories would still carry by own biases. Genderswapping is uniquely enlightening for both listener and reader.

          • Phil J Malloy

            after reading more, i think i may have come around a little bit. I still think its lazy to steal others work and simply replace he with she and vice versa but if it makes other people happy then whatever right? let everyone do what makes them happy is what I say

            I want to see a story where hitler is a female, Id be interested in reading what he would have done different if he were a she, now that would be entertaining*

            *no this isnt a joke, i am not trolling or trying to insult you here. i am a history buff and i truly do wonder what things would be like if historical figures were different in different ways, this is one I havent thought about before but after going back and forth with you earlier in the week it made me think,

            if hitler, FDR and Mussolini were women what would have happened???

          • Michelle Nijhuis

            If MLK Jr. were a woman, what would have happened? Would she have been more successful, or less so? Would she have lived with the same risks, or different ones? Try imagining it yourself. I think you'll find that reimagining history or literature is not "lazy"—it's a brain exercise that can teach us a lot about the way the world is and someday could be. And as I have said many times now, remix isn't stealing. No one is taking credit away from the original authors, or seeking to replace the original versions. This is about expansion and exploration, and it's a uniquely satisfying workout for minds of any age.

      • Michelle Nijhuis

        As I pointed out in the essay: Yes, I could write my own - and sometimes I do. But I also want to share these beloved classics with my daughter, and I want her to be able to imagine herself in them. I'm not suggesting that Tolkien was "wrong," or suggesting that his stories be replaced. I'm saying that by experimenting with stories, as we have done for thousands upon thousands of years, my daughter has expanded her own future possibilities.

  • http://TopRightNews.com/ John Urban

    This left-wing gender war is SO boring. Should we tell all our boys that Pippi Longstocking is a boy? Why not Anne Frank? Ridiculous.

    • jon_downfromthetrees

      Why is the right so fixated on assuming that accidents of genetics determine our correct roles?

      Afraid of young children using their imagination?

      • http://www.facebook.com/cory.dorsey1 Cory Dorsey

        I thought gender was a physical trait.

    • Final_Word

      Anne Frank was a girl?!?!?!

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      I'm not at war. Are you?

  • Kaushik Kalyanaraman

    A superbly crafted point of view which I interpret more broadly (if Michelle did not intend it but nevertheless seems to encourage it) as exemplifying the need for moving beyond heteronormativity. Unfortunately though, all previous comments but one (at the time of this writing) seem to be (phony ?) derisions of the article perhaps stemming from a misunderstanding or misapprehension of it, or, much worse, bigotry. Michelle makes it abundantly clear that fans should have the freedom to be creative and explorative ("art is not a pet but a child…"). In that sense, I suppose one can draw a parallel as to why painters may "imitate" or make their own versions of the Mona Lisa or musicians/singers make improv cover songs or theater artists add their own touch to characters that they essay — I believe that it's not because they are looking to replace the classic or win an award or get their work displayed at The Louvre; it's simply because they have the license to express it as they see fit or wish. There's no reason to pan people who choose to do such but not necessarily create new content; maybe they are content doing what they do, or not; but to judge them for that is perhaps only an enforcement of a norm.

    Given that this article appears at a time when Thor being made into a woman in the comic books is drawing plenty of buzz (positive or not), I suppose that it does serve as a bit of any eyeopener. Certainly at least for this one-amongst-masses person who hadn't (yet) considered this alternative of switching genders (or making them fluid) of classic literary characters. (And also, I have no problem in stating any of this with my name attached, unlike those not being so favorable.)

    So, in short thanks Michelle for writing this !

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      Thank you for your thorough read — and I share your broader interpretation. Genderswapping is also a good way to introduce some marriage equality into classic tales!

  • Nicole Garcia

    It seems relatively uncontroversial to say that, on some level, what Bilbo does, a girl could do also. But it seems silly to suggest that the character Bilbo is in fact a girl, even if one thinks that books are imperfect creations. The character was written as male, and that is sufficient to settle that Bilbo, as that character, is in fact a male. Whether readers want to imagine what it would be like for Bilbo to be a female, or for a female to do things that Bilbo did, seems, considered in itself, neutral (capable of being good or bad, depending on how it is done, and in what spirit). But that practice does not change the actual nature of the book in itself, nor put us in the position to make statements that undermine the objectivity of the book's nature as it was originally written.

    Perhaps all of this would be better framed as a call to write better fiction with more robust heroines.

    • fireflyeyes

      I don't think anywhere she suggests that Bilbo the character as written is a girl or was intended by the author to be a girl. She's merely saying it's worthwhile to imagine the character as a girl, as many people have done before. She's not saying everyone should do this all the time with every male character. It's just something she's done with some characters, both because her daughter wanted it and because she wanted her daughter to be able to see herself in characters and stories that were told with few or no female characters.

      • Nicole Garcia

        Totally fair! I acknowledge that as a legitimate mode of interaction with literature. I didn't express my main issue as as well as I should have. What I should have said is something like this: sometimes the way the author describes the practice she is encouraging is misleading--in particular, it often gives the impression that she's encouraging a relativistic frame of mind that challenges literary objectivity. For example:

        "And last year, when we started to read J R R Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit (1937) together, she listened patiently to the first two chapters. Then she told me, matter-of-factly, that Bilbo Baggins was a girl.

        Well, I said. That would be nice. But Bilbo is definitely a boy.

        No, she said. Bilbo is a girl.

        I hesitated. I wanted to share the story I knew, and I had always known Bilbo as a boy. But it seemed that my daughter knew otherwise. I soon agreed to swap ‘she’ with ‘he’ and ‘her’ with ‘his’, and my daughter and I met Girl Bilbo – who turned out to be a delightful heroine. She was humble and resourceful and witty and brave. She was no tacked-on Strong Female Character with little to do, but a true heroine with her very own quest and skills. For my daughter, Girl Bilbo was thrilling. For me, she was damn refreshing."

        All that to say, I should have better identified what I took issue with.

  • Michelle Nijhuis

    Thanks to all of you for your comments, and to Q and Kaushik for your kind words. To others: Please see the end of my essay, in which I say that I believe in full-disclosure remixing. The versions of stories my daughter and I create are not meant to replace the wonderful originals, but instead explore what might happen were certain characters more like (or, for that matter less like) my daughter. She knows that the originals are different, and I hope the imaginative play we engage in will increase her appreciation for those originals—while expanding her own sense of what she can do. As for those of you who scoffingly suggest that I might as well make Pippi Longstocking a boy, or Bilbo "black, gay, and disabled"—yes, agreed, I should try that. Fanfic writers, I am sure, already have.
    Finally, for those of you concerned for Bilbo's masculinity, I like to think that the estimable Baggins is more comfortable with himself than you imply. One of the most wonderful things about fiction is that each of us gets to carry his or her versions of these characters through life, and my burglar has a spark of mischief in his eye.

    • Phil J Malloy

      i get the point, but one could make the argument that

      " by not coming up with anything new, and instead changing he to she, it just shows that women are not as good as men"

      im not making that argument, but would it not have made more sense to create your female character on your own? maybe place him in the tolken relm, nothing wrong with that, but why not a new story based on new characters that interact with those already created?? seems like a better approach instead of "see when you grow up you can copy others as well, but FEMALE!!!"

      then again im a traditionalist, and a guy so i doubt anyone cares what my thoughts are

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      • Phil J Malloy

        candy, i was referring to the people on this blog, and based on other responses it seems i was correct.

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  • Xbillion

    Who are you to argue? The adult. But I get it. Whatever it takes. If they can do it with Thor. Girls should be encouraged to be warriors in their real life and feel inspired to make an adventure of their lives! Anything they dream of being from human resource managers, councilors, school teachers to serving in ground-force combat duty for the U.S. military in the next wars, the old gender roles are crumbling down.

    • Stephen

      And this is a good thing?

      "Girls should be encouraged to be warriors in their real life" - Yeah until reality hits them in the face like a brick. Women are physically inferior to men (surprise!) and are incapable of doing the same jobs men can do. Suggesting that they should be able to serve in "ground-force combat duty" roles is not only idiotic but dangerous. Combat does not simply involve pulling a trigger from a quarter of a mile away but also includes face to face physical combat, the average woman in such a situation would be at a severe disadvantage. Not to mention the mental aspect. Men have an inbuilt instinct to protect women, gender-mixed combat units will be therefore be plagued by problems of men torn between following orders or instincts, no doubt diminishing their cohesion and effectiveness.

      And though it be a tender subject it must be touched upon. What happens when women are captured while serving in combat roles? Will the politically correct brigade be so self-righteous when female soldiers are being raped and killed by the enemy?

      • Xbillion

        Ahh, reality. Like a brick in the face.
        Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I feel (our *feelings* are important) that women should be drafted same as men when our government demands it. I mean if we're going to care about equality then I say, let us be done with it and have true equality once and for all. Of course absolute equality is impossible so the good fight is never over, never. But we can start with women earning their right to vote same as men did. Besides, as you know, many find the idea that a woman can't do everything a man can do highly offensive. Give 'em a shot. War is hell, sisters.

      • sillysaurus

        This is a complete generalization. Yes, men are generally taller and physically stronger than women. But there are plenty of short men, and lots of tall women. There are many men who would fair very poorly in a physical altercation, and many women who could hold their own against almost anyone. Men are faster on average, but there are many out-of-shape guys who can barely run around the block, and plenty of women who could run laps around those men.

        Looking at a general trend provides very little information about any given individual's characteristics.

        • Stephen

          The ENTIRE physiological structure of a man is superior (in terms of strength) to that of a woman, men's bodies grow and hold much more muscle, they naturally develop physically stronger.

          Why is this such a hard thing to accept?

          Even a "weak" man still has the natural musculature to inflict damage if he wishes. A woman does not, even if she has trained all of her life and lifted weights for many years she will still struggle to match the "average" man, and no woman, with however much amount of training will ever match a man of comparable skill.

          You see it in bodybuilding, women can train as hard as men do and yet they will still not gain the results that a man will because their bodies are not as naturally suited to physical exertion as their male counterparts.

          Run around in the back garden playing Wonder Woman all you want, but talking of putting women on the front-lines of a battlefield is utter and sheer stupidity. People's lives will be endangered because common sense was disregarded for "diversity."

  • Final_Word

    Oh geez. How PC (and stupid) of you.

  • Sean Holt

    bilbo baggins is a male in the books and no amount of dislike is going to change that

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      Not trying to. He's still a male in the books—just not in the stories my daughter and I tell.

  • LoggerheadShrike

    I don't know ... it strikes me that repurposing male characters from the past just says, that original female characters can't be written as well, so we have to recycle male ones to the purpose.

    That, and I think the past is something to be preserved, not altered to suit conventional tastes. Tolkien's work isn't current, it belongs to a very different time in history, and it seems deceptive to alter at this point, since it clouds our understanding of the past.

    Finally - I think kids *should* learn to identify with characters of the opposite gender. I think that's important for both boys and girls. If they can't do that, we're just depriving future generations of the tools to build good gender relations, and setting up yet another generation to take combative stances towards the opposite gender. With all the Hell in the workplace and the home that entails.

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      To me, repurposing male characters as female just illustrates that the original female characters didn't (and still don't, in some cases) get to do all the things women were and are capable of doing. Showing that a woman is equally believable in a role first imagined as male is, I believe, a powerful example to younger readers, boys and girls alike.

      • LoggerheadShrike

        Repurposing the male characters of the past does not illustrate that the original female characters didn't get to do things. Quite the opposite - it creates an illusion that they did.

        As for contemporary characters, what, specifically, can no female character do? I can't think of anything, and if people can imagine Bilbo as female, there's no reason they can't imagine new female characters who can do whatever.

        I don't think it's "powerful" I think it's just entrenching bad practices. It's almost like there's a need here for a male character to do it first for it to be legitimate or believable, and all women can do is copy them.

        Trailblazing it is not.

        • Michelle Nijhuis

          Just because you cannot perceive the limits of contemporary stories doesn't mean they aren't there. And I really fail to see why this kind of narrative play, which humans have been doing for thousands upon thousands of years, is "bad practice." My daughter is having fun, and obviously feeling inspired about her own possible futures. Her bad practices seem to be working pretty well for her.

          • Michelle Nijhuis

            Also, I never suggested that my daughter and I are trailblazers. As I detail in the essay, people have been fooling around with stories for many, many generations and for many, many reasons—and will surely continue to do so.

  • Name

    I insist Darth Vader is the hero in The Lord of the Rings. Doesn't make it true.

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      Umm ... neither is the Lord of the Rings?

      • Name

        Umm ... Bilbo is not female.

        • Michelle Nijhuis

          Bilbo is not real.

          • http://www.order50.com/ Kane Gruber

            You're not real! None of you are!

          • Michelle Nijhuis

            hahaha

  • http://www.soldoutactivist.com/ Sold Out Activist

    So you admittedly have to steal the strength of a male character by switching their gender in order to realize something in a female character you are unable to render realistically in a character that began as female. As the shrinks say, "Interesting."

    • Narrative Arts

      Maybe she just isn't quite ready yet for the 'strengths' as you put it of modern heroines Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Dr. Zira, Buffy and some of the tougher women of contemporary science fiction - though I would recommend several great female characters for younger readers in Robert C. Obrien's books The Silver Crown and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh; Cynthia Voight's books Homecoming and Dicey's Song; and of course a good many of Baum's Oz books that feature female 'stars', particularly The Marvelous Land of Oz (sometimes just 'The Land of Oz') about which if her daughter insisted the main character "Tip" was a girl - she'd be right! By the end of the story, it turns out that Tip IS a girl, transformed as an infant to keep her identity secret. Even 'he' didn't know it! (And every year someone tries to ban Huckleberry Finn for heaven's sake!) So there's a delightful transgender story that's been sitting on library bookshelves for over a hundred years. I read it when I was about seven and I think it's always helped me to picture the tomboy side of girls and to imagine that they might be more like me than they appeared superficially. Good timing, in my case, given how much gender identities have progressed since the seventies!

      • Michelle Nijhuis

        Yes, many wonderful books await! Great heroines have been written for my daughter's age, too; genderswapping gives us more.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cory.dorsey1 Cory Dorsey

    But why isn't Bilbo a black, gay, paraplegic transsexual? I'M OFFENDED AT THIS LACK OF DIVERSITY

    • Martin Cohen

      And from the planet Krypton. We must never forget Krypton.

    • Narrative Arts

      What a wit.

  • Red

    I bet you're one of those people who censor the word "nigger" out of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, too.

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      Nope, I would never support excising it from any published version of the book. Again, remixing is not meant to replace the original versions.

  • killtrollwithsword

    Bilbo is not even a "boy". By hobbit's standards, he's about in his thirties. The only protagonist character in Tolkien's opus that could qualify as a "boy" is Pippin Took from LOTR. And... Wow. Just wow. A revisionist and proud of it. Murkians: ignorants and proud to be since, like... Forever?

  • Michael Schwager

    This is a great idea! My daughter regularly assigns the female gender to her stuffed animals that I know to be male, and I've changed gender on the male protagonists in a couple of her children's books, where you're unable to otherwise tell (in stories featuring cute furry boy animals). She likes identifying with girls, and I like telling her stories that way.

    Which makes me less interested in assigning a black, gay, or transsexual identity to the protagonist. The risk that any author makes is the risk that you mention in this article: Your work is your progeny, not your pet. J.R.R. Tolkien took that risk when he published The Hobbit, and I imagine I'll be telling it with a girl Bilbo as soon as my daughter wants to hear the story. Before I read it, I'll ask her: "Bilbo was written as a boy. Do you want her to be a girl? It could be fun!" She'll make up her own mind, because she is my progeny- not my pet, and my job is to allow her the room to make her own (informed) decisions.

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      Exactly. That's why I believe in full-disclosure remixing. The listener should know that the original is different, and that any experiments don't replace the original—only expand and enhance its possibilities.

  • Phil J Malloy

    heres an idea... instead of blatenly ripping off other works and replacing male with female, why not write another story with a strong female leader? hell even use the same kingdom if you wish but changing the star from male to female is just dumb when you could make a more interesting book with a new lead.

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      If you must call other people dumb, you may want to improve your spelling.

      • Phil J Malloy

        first off, i didnt call anyone dumb. I called the concept of what was being done dumb. Second, if all you have to contribute is pointing out a clear spelling mistake, well thats also just dumb

        • Michelle Nijhuis

          Now you're having a bit of trouble with punctuation.

  • paul

    I think the fact that the author has come back a year later to justify the change once again is an admission of doubt on her part that this gender-swap idea is proper. My daughter (she will be 5 in October) has asked me many times if it's okay for girls to be astronauts or to play professional sports. For my part I always scoff at the idea that she can't do anything simply because she's a girl, and I think that she understands me well enough. (For now)
    I believe that our kids deserve better than to be pandered to. Our daughters are not delicate flowers who need to be assured that girls can go on adventures. The real shame is the fact that the thought has been entertained in the first place. Swapping a female Bilbo for a male Bilbo also sends an implicit message to the author's daughter that girls are being wronged, and that the best way to address the wrong is to turn a boy into a girl. That's a sick message to be teaching your kid, and counter-productive in the end.
    I also struggle with the problem of finding female role models for my daughter, but I prefer to focus on women who have found success in the real world doing what they love to do. These people aren't the classic heroes of fantasy novels but I think that their imperfections are important too. So I tell my daughter about Mia Hamm and Sallly Ride when she starts asking questions, and we try to remember that these stories are make-believe. I think it's a more respnsible solution than sharing a lie. Bilbo Baggins is a boy no matter how much you'd like it to be otherwise.

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      Actually, I've revisited this subject not because I doubt my daughter's or my choices, but because I find the controversy around it fascinating. I think you make a rather large assumption in saying that "Our daughters are not delicate flowers who need to be assured that girls can go on adventures." Delicate flowers they are not, but from an early age they are surrounded with stories and images that portray girls as helpmates to boys' adventures. They need role models, real and imagined, who show them that they can be protagonists in their own lives.

      • Anonymous

        And so you steal the ideas and characters of others to create these role models? Does this not teach your daughter that she should not try to become her own person and should instead copy the achievements of men before her to establish a sense of self worth? That is not constructive.

        • Michelle Nijhuis

          Sorry, I truly can't understand why you find this so threatening.

      • paul

        Nobody needs a fictional role model.

        At this point you've written two articles defending an argument that has roots in a false premise. (The need for female fictional role models) many people have said to you that it is wrong to change Bilbo's gender but what they were really trying to tell you is that it's wrong to make an issue of the gender of a fictional character.

        • Michelle Nijhuis

          Why is it wrong? And why are you so sure that nobody needs a fictional role model? I had some important ones; my daughter, I hope, will have more.

          • Michelle Nijhuis

            Paul, what happened to your response? I sure had a lot to say about my daughter's alleged need to "learn to be happy in a world in which most literature treats women as a part of the scenery."

          • Michelle Nijhuis

            This is a comment not from me, but from Paul, whose comments are for some reason being filtered out by the Disqus app: I had a message that it was "awaiting moderation". I don't know what happened to it. I don't see how you could possibly disagree with that particular passage. It might make you angry (apparently does) that I pointed it out but it's a reality that remains unchanged by your attempts at re-gendering fictional characters. Retreating into this fantasy of yours does not help her deal with reality.

            This ties into the arguments made by some of the other critics who feel that you should write your own stories. If a lack of relatable female protagonists is what upsets you then the only realistic solution is to do as those people suggest and write some excellent novels of your own.
            If you think that your re-gendering idea is going to catch on then you're going to end up disappointed. Even though you don't see the problems, there's plenty of people who think it's just a way to lie to your kid. Even the people who have voiced their encouragement are (imho) respoding more to your nurturing than to the idea itself. In short - nurturing is generally good. Bravo for trying to nurture. But this partiicular type of nurturing is misguided.

          • Michelle Nijhuis

            Paul, I recognize that you are a thoughtful parent, but I think we have a fundamental disagreement about the potential for societal change. Do I want my daughter to "learn to be happy in a world in which most literature treats women as part of the scenery"? No, I do not. In fact, it is difficult for me to express how deeply I do not. I want her to know that she is capable of changing the scenery; I want her to know that she can change her own story, and the stories of others. Generations of women before her have found happiness and deep satisfaction not in acceptance of injustice, but in pursuit of a better world. I hope she will, too.
            For me, literary genderswapping is not a "retreat" into fantasy but a fun, imaginative way for both my daughter and me to visualize the possible futures that she may one day have a hand in creating. Frankly, I don't care if my "re-gendering idea" catches on: if other parents find it useful, that's wonderful, but my daughter's words and actions tell me that it has been inspiring to her, and that is plenty good enough for me.
            As I have said many times now, I believe in full-disclosure literary remixing. My daughter knows the originals of our genderswapped stories are different, and we often discuss how changing a character's gender does or doesn't change a story and why. It is one of the many and varied ways in which she is learning, with amazing grace, to "deal with reality."

  • El Chapo

    I dont wanna come off the wrong way but I thought the title said "Girl Dildo". Okay I aplogise and I'll be leaving now

  • Anonymous

    Why do people think that all genders and people must be the exact same and experience the same difficulties? As a male I will never have to deal with blood seeping out of my vagina while I'm in public, and no girl will ever have to hide an erection in public. We are fundamentally different in many ways and yet there seems to be this modern movement of ignoring that and forcing 'equality' in situations where it is impossible. Accept that men and women and blacks and whites and so on will not be the exact same person. The solution to racism and misogyny and stuff like that isn't pretending that people are all the exact same, its simply not assuming that a person has to act a certain way because of arbitrary factors they were born with. How is this not self evident?

    • Tekranok

      Erections, menstruation, and bodily fluid leakage of that sort are irrelevant in this sort of fantasy literature.

      Sex-swapping the main character should do absolutely nothing to a fantasy adventure story; unless your hero/heroine is somehow significantly affected by their genitalia, which I find hard to believe.

      That being said, this runs both ways, changing Bilbo Baggins into a girl is about as significant as changing his favorite colour. It mucks with the writers work for no reason.

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  • YuriKropotkin

    Bloody hell. It's been a while since I saw a comments page with quite this many uptight, censorious scolds on it... The last time I looked, The Hobbit was a novel for children, not a sacred tablet handed down from a holy mountain. If a parent is up to the task of changing it on the fly as they read it to their kids, why the hell shouldn't they? There are no rules about this.

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      I couldn't agree more! This is about stories, and imagination, and fun.

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      I couldn't agree more! This is about stories, and imagination, and fun.

  • http://www.order50.com/ Kane Gruber

    I think the great challenge this idea provides to writers is this: when you finish a story, genderswap. Does the story still make sense?

    Not that this will help guarantee anything, but it gives you a quick and easy way to view your own work in a new light, and possibly allow you to touch up anything you think needs work. You may still want the protagonist to be a male, but at least you've seen what that character looks like otherwise.

  • Narrative Arts

    Bravo! How fun. And what an intrepid daughter you must have!

  • Drew Clark

    You know, in some cases a character is written with a very strong gender identity. George in "Of Mice and Men" is obviously very male and masculine in his perspective. Given the circumstances and setting of that book, making George a lady just wouldn't work unless you completely rewrote a large chunk of the book.

    However, Bilbo Baggins as described in "The Hobbit" is not as firmly gendered in depiction. Bilbo is a fussy, persnickety hobbit from old money that likes to cook and has a fondness for gold rings that people find odd because they never married (spinster!). Everyone underestimates Bilbo. Nothing else about the character really places Bilbo definitively as a dude besides gendered pronouns. So, in this case, I think Bilbo works just as effectively as a lady. No deal.

  • fireflyeyes

    I am overwhelmed by the number of people who simply do not understand what you are doing and/or disapprove. This is a wonderful idea. It's playing around with an idea. And obviously there are very few devoted geeks in the comments... gender/race bending is super common in fanfic of all kinds, and in cosplay. No one is trying to change the source material, just view it through a different lens.

    An additional note, I love what you said about fanfic. I grew up in a very fundamentalist, oppressive religious community. Fanfic was really the only way I had to explore my own sexuality, learn about other people's, or really encounter different ideas of any kind. It was a safe space, a supportive community that didn't care if I was 14 and wanted to write really dark stuff or explore same sex relationships or work out my issues with my faith via Star Trek stories. They valued and encouraged my contributions. Without fanfiction I doubt I would be the person I am today, it was my first glimpse that the world I was raised to believe in wasn't the only. I fiercely defend it to this day, from the fun smut, to the incredible world building of people who deserve to be published, to the sometimes poorly written efforts of young writers struggling to express something about themselves they can't elsewhere.

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      Your story brings tears to my eyes. Thanks so much for sharing it, and thanks for your kind words.

  • Phil J Malloy

    they cant, which is why they resort the these retarded acts of "im smarter than you"

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      Your choice of insults is revealing.

      • Phil J Malloy

        i didnt insult anyone I used words to describe your useless addition to the thread

        your choice of ad hom attacks rather than arguing the point that was made

        as i said, a retarded act. if you feel im calling you retarded, well that says more about you than I

        on that note, im done wasting my time with this

        • Michelle Nijhuis

          Bye now! You take care!

  • Michelle Nijhuis

    Nope, sorry, starting out with "dumb" gets either silence or a grammar lesson from me.

  • Michelle Nijhuis

    See my response above.
    As you know, gender is a cultural construct. You appear to believe that the cultural construct of gender is more enduring than I do. My daughter is plenty familiar with how our society constructs gender; she's a member of our society, and she's already absorbing its lessons. My concern is that she learn, in an age-appropriate way, that gender is a construct, and that constructs can and will be changed.
    Also, I'm going to take the liberty of rewriting your unfinished sentence, though in accordance with my own genderswapping ethics I'll make sure your original remains plainly visible here.
    Girls are underrepresented in adventure stories, and I think that has a lot to do with girls being underrepresented in real-life adventures. That's *not* okay with me, and if it's not okay with you, you can change it—either by writing your own stories, or by changing the pronouns in your favorite stories and listening to what happens when you do. I hope that by creating and changing stories, you'll grow up knowing that you can change the world. Changing real life isn't nearly as easy as changing stories, and you may not always succeed, but there is great happiness to be found in pursuing the change you imagine.

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      Also, as your daughter gets older, will you say "Most women earn less than their male counterparts, but that's okay because ..."? "Many women regularly experience sexual harassment, but that's okay because ..."? I'm just wondering where this complacency ends. To my mind, stories reflect life and life reflects stories, and a lesson in one is a lesson in the other.

  • Kizmiaz

    Sp this is what over educated dolts do with their liberal educations? It is no wonder than mankind is in a state of decline and devolution.

    • Michelle Nijhuis

      Humankind.