Your Favorite Pop Culture Has Just Gone “Woke.” Now What?
We watched the first two episodes of The Rings of Power over this past Labor Day weekend, as well as Prey, the latest movie in the Predator franchise. While both titles have received considerable acclaim to date, they also have a whiff of controversy swirling around them. Specifically, both have been criticized for being “woke,” that is, their plots, casting, etc., have been made to accommodate modern leftist/progressive/feminist politics. Specifically, they feature and even highlight non-white and/or female characters — and in the minds of anti-woke critics, this is a bad thing.
In the case of The Rings of Power, that means populating Middle-earth with dark-skinned Elves, Hobbits (or Harfoots, as the case may be), and Dwarves as well as turning Galadriel into an Amazon-like warrior. In Prey’s case, that means having, as the protagonist, a young, headstrong Native American woman named Naru.
Accusations of “wokeness,” as evidenced in the comments on this Facebook post and Reddit threads like this one, are fascinating, not because I agree with them, but because of the semblance of legitimacy that can surround them. Such accusations may be couched in reasonable-sounding language about authorial intent, textual respect, and fan expectations — all things that adaptations should take into consideration, especially adaptations of properties as well-known and beloved as J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium.
But they’re also frustrating, and not just because of the toxic racism and sexism that always seems to be lurking just beneath their surface. They pollute legitimate discussions concerning the nature and process of adaptations. They cast, as suspect, regular nerds and fans who are passionate about their favorite properties and want them to be treated with care and respect. And finally, they seek to control the property in question, determining the “proper” ways of understanding and interpreting it while gatekeeping and excluding those they deem “unworthy” or “ignorant.”
So where does that leave us? Here are some things to keep in mind the next time you hear that a beloved fictional property is going “woke.”
1) Defending beloved pop culture properties with “terminal intensity” may also stifle them.
I know I’m going to open up a whole ‘nother can of worms here, but let’s talk about The Last Jedi. Yes, many fans hated it, which has led to numerous disagreements with my friends. But I appreciated Rian Johnson’s attempt, flawed as it was at times, to try something new and different with the decades-old franchise rather than stick to the status quo.
Beloved properties will inevitably evolve over time as new generations of fans, with different backgrounds and perspectives, discover them and begin to interpret, appreciate, and love them in their own ways. This is not something to be feared outright. Will it cause tension amongst fans, particularly those who style themselves as some sort of “old guard”? You better believe it, and sadly, that tension can turn toxic and ugly. Will some of these new interpretations fall flat or take the property in less-than-successful directions? Again, yes. But immediately shooting down new interpretations, often sight unseen, because they may not jibe with some long-held idealized vision means potentially missing out on something really awesome that you never would have expected or considered on your own.
In my case, one such example would be Star Trek: Lower Decks. I was initially resistant to the idea of an animated Star Trek series, especially one created by someone responsible for Rick and Morty. I thought it would be too snarky and irreverent, that it would undermine what I love about Star Trek. Not surprisingly, Lower Decks is, indeed, very snarky and irreverent — which is precisely what I love about it.
While it pokes fun at all manner of Star Trek tropes, characters, and storylines, it does so from a place of love à la 1999’s Galaxy Quest. In other words, it makes fun of Star Trek like my friends and I would make fun of Star Trek. And of course, even if I ended up hating Lower Decks, it would’ve done nothing to diminish Star Trek as a whole, and The Next Generation would remain one of my favorite series of all time.
2) Fans might not know their favorite properties as well as they think they do, resulting in misguided criticisms.
Dark-skinned individuals wandering about Middle-earth might seem unusual, but it’s not without precedent in Tolkien’s own writings. The Harfoots, in particular, were described as “browner of skin” than other Hobbit types, which is open to various interpretations.
As for the criticisms that no Hobbits, Harfoots included, were around in the Second Age of Middle-earth (which is when The Rings of Power is set, approximately 5,000 years before The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings), Tolkien wrote the following in the “Concerning Hobbits” prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring:
The beginning of Hobbits lies far back in the Elder Days that are now lost and forgotten. Only the Elves still preserve any records of that vanished time, and their traditions are concerned almost entirely with their own history, in which Men appear seldom and Hobbits are not mentioned at all. Yet it is clear that Hobbits had, in fact, lived quietly in Middle-earth for many long years before other folk became even aware of them. And the world being after all full of strange creatures beyond count, these little people seemed of very little importance.
In other words, Hobbits had been living on Middle-earth since the First Age, but nobody apparently knew they existed, and if they did, nobody really cared. Which is precisely what we see in The Rings of Power, as the Harfoots go to great lengths to keep their existence a secret.
Oh, and if you don’t like young warrior Galadriel, then keep in mind that before she was called Galadriel, one of her names was Nerwen, or “man-maiden,” due to her height and strength. Furthermore, Tolkien’s writings include several examples of her engaged in some form of combat. Now, some might contend that such examples are from the First Age of Middle-earth, not the Second Age. Still, these provide ample textual evidence for a Galadriel who can hold her own on the battlefield. (Also, Amazon’s depiction opens up some cool dramatic opportunities as Galadriel transitions into the ethereal demigoddess who reigns in Lothlórien.)
In the case of Prey, many of the criticisms I’ve seen take issue with Naru’s headstrong-ness, her bucking of gender norms, her treatment of her older, more skilled brother, her fighting abilities, and so on. I wonder, though: how many of these criticisms still hold up with a better understanding of Comanche culture. I will readily admit that I know next to nothing of Comanche culture, but Native American critics have praised the film for its depiction of indigenous culture — which is noteworthy considering Hollywood’s long history of depicting Native Americans in racist and problematic ways.
Another criticism that’s been leveled at Prey concerns the ending, specifically Naru’s triumphant state compared to Dutch’s traumatized condition at the end of the original Predator. It makes no sense, goes the criticism, that a modern, highly trained, elite soldier like Dutch would be traumatized by the Predator, but not a “primitive” young woman like Naru. But perhaps Dutch was left traumatized because his modern, military-trained mind simply had no category for even comprehending the Predator, whereas Naru and her people, steeped in “primitive” lore, did, albeit as a mythical monster — and that was enough to keep Naru sane. (That said, Naru, though triumphant, is hardly celebrating at the end of Prey.)
As for Naru’s headstrong-ness, conflicted relationship with her family, etc., those are all classic storytelling tropes that can be found in countless movies, TV shows, etc., so it seems a bit weird to suddenly gripe about them in this particular movie. (For what it’s worth, I thought Naru’s relationship with her brother Taabe was much more nuanced than some have argued, filled with affection and respect as well as competition and conflict. And her skill with the hatchet? That’s just really cool.)
3) Faithfulness to the letter of the original text may not be better than faithfulness to its spirit.
One character in The Rings of Power that’s been singled out is Arondir, an Elven warrior played by Puerto Rican actor Ismael Cruz Córdova. Critics of Arondir might avoid criticizing Córdova himself (though plenty haven’t). Instead, they focus on the “problems” represented by a dark-skinned elf in the first place, such as:
- The word “elf” originally meant “white being” in Germanic languages.
- Tolkien described Elves as being “fair of skin.”
- Elves originally lived in the light of Valinor’s trees rather than the sun; therefore, they would have no need for any skin pigmentation at all.
Such nitpicking has long been the province of nerds everywhere. There’s nothing quite so enjoyable as getting into a spirited debate with fellow nerds that requires delving into all manner of arcana. Indeed, the fact that Tolkien’s mythos contains so much arcana is one of its great appeals. Therefore, it’s only fair to acknowledge that some fan criticisms are driven by concerns over faithfulness to the original text — which are not illegitimate. Given the time and effort that Tolkien poured into his mythical world, it’s only right and fair that anyone adapting it to adopt a similar level of care.
But what does that actually look like? Do you adhere to the letter of the text and ensure that everything we see lines up perfectly with Tolkien’s descriptions? Or do you tease out the spirit of the text, the underlying themes and ideas that Tolkien was trying to express? Obviously, there’s no one perfect answer: both approaches have their pros and cons. (And of course, this issue applies to all interpretations and translations, not just TV and movie adaptations.)
Letter-adherence may satisfy purists, but it might also be literally impossible; what works on the written page may simply not work, or even be feasible, on the screen. Theme-adherence, on the other hand, may give adapters a lot of flexibility in the presentation, but themes can’t be entirely divorced from textual details, since the details grant the themes form and substance to begin with. Also, there are numerous works that espouse the same themes of fellowship, bravery, sacrifice, and faith as do Tolkien’s, so if all you care about are the themes, why adapt Tolkien rather than something else that’s potentially less controversial?
A good adaptation does a little bit of both, and it’s not a science. Personally, I lean a bit more towards theme-adherence, due primarily to the inherent problems of making a text match perfectly across different media. So in Arondir’s case, his appearance may not line up perfectly with Tolkien’s elvish descriptions. But does he still express the qualities of a Tolkien Elf (e.g., nobility, steadfastness, a sense of mystery and melancholy, preternatural abilities)? If he does, then maybe that’s all that matters.
4) “Anti-woke” critics should honestly consider what’s really offending them.
This one’s the hardest and requires the most soul-searching, and thus, is potentially the most offensive. But it’s worth considering given that many vehement fan reactions are unfortunately characterized by racism and sexism. We saw that with the backlash against Kelly Marie Tran, John Boyega, and Moses Ingram concerning their Star Wars roles, as well as the reactions to She-Hulk, and we see it in the reactions to The Rings of Power and Prey. (For an older example, Trekkies were divided on whether or not Vulcans could be Black when Tuvok was announced as the Vulcan security officer on Star Trek: Voyager.)
The sad reality is that many fans do, indeed, prefer their fictional worlds whitewashed and male-dominated, and anything that challenges that status quo is immediately suspect and slammed on social media, YouTube, etc. Such critiques may be couched in legitimate-sounding comments like “it doesn’t feel authentic,” “it violates the author’s wishes,” or “leave the classics alone and go make your own stuff.” Scratch the surface even just a little bit, however, and you’ll get to the sad truth, which S. A. Cosby summed up nicely: “When you say diversity takes you out of the story what you are saying is you fantasize about a world without black ppl.”
Remember: A truly diverse crowd probably loves and enjoys that property you love and enjoy, be it Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Predator movies, Dungeons & Dragons, or any of the other pop culture properties that have grown more inclusive and — dare I say it — “woke” in recent years to reflect that diversity. And on the whole, that’s a good thing.
It’s a blessing when somebody who has experienced any level of marginalization in their life finds something that makes them feel like they belong — something that most, if not all, nerds can identify with. We were drawn to these worlds, be it Middle-earth, the Federation, or whatever, because we felt at peace there in a way we didn’t elsewhere. As a result, these properties allow us to find common ground. Their themes and storylines can draw us together in wonder, imagination, and excitement that transcend the divisions that too often plague real life.
At this point in the cultural zeitgeist, with Hollywood, Netflix, et al. on the constant prowl for new intellectual properties that can be turned into the next big media franchise, nobody should be surprised by fans expressing concerns when a new adaptation is announced. Unfortunately, with so many “woke” accusations floating around, it’s tempting to dismiss any fan concerns.
But fan concerns can be a good bellwether of the adaptation’s quality: look no further than CBS’ long-gestating Halo TV series, which received very mixed reactions despite making it clear that it would be set in an alternate, non-canonical continuity. I’d even go so far as to say that fan passion isn’t something to be suppressed. Passionate fans have saved numerous franchises, including Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Expanse, Veronica Mars, and perhaps most famously of all, Star Trek.
Furthermore, can something go too “woke”? Does stunt-casting happen? Can a beloved theme, character, or storyline get truly compromised in the name of inclusion and diversity? Does Hollywood virtue signaling get in the way of a good story? That’s all certainly possible. One potential example is the “girl power” scene in Avengers: Endgame, when Captain Marvel, Wasp, Okoye, Scarlet Witch, and all of the other heroines assemble together. Though many found it empowering, it was also criticized as pandering.
The controversies surrounding The Rings of Power and Prey won’t be the last ones we see. (In other words, start bracing yourselves for the toxic reactions that will inevitably hound Netflix’s adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia.) Which makes it all the more incumbent on the rest of us to respond to such accusations, not with snark and belligerence, but by pointing out that those making them are acting in bad faith, and ironically, may be a greater danger to the properties they love than they realize.