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Women's stories in Amazon's 'Rings of Power' take center stage

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It is a big moment for fans of high fantasy with several high-profile TV series out now. And many fans have grown accustomed to seeing women as secondary characters - debased, assaulted or effectively treated like wallpaper. So some of us who have been waiting for the new "Lord Of The Rings" prequel have been excited but also a little nervous. The first few episodes of "Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power" are out now on Prime Video. The series kicks off from a different perspective.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RINGS OF POWER")

MORFYDD CLARK: (As Galadriel) And so we hunted. To the ends of the Earth, we hunted Sauron. But the trail grew thin.

SUMMERS: We're joined now by Rebecca Jennings, who has been writing about the "Rings Of Power" for Vox. Welcome.

REBECCA JENNINGS: Thank you so much for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. And I just want to note for our listeners that this conversation may include a few light spoilers for the first few episodes. Rebecca, there is so much to talk about here, but I just want to ask you first, what have you thought of the show so far?

JENNINGS: So yeah. I, like you, was sort of nervous when it was coming out. We've been waiting for this for years. We've known that this has been in production for at least five years. And I was always a little bit concerned that - like, OK, well, in the past two decades since the original "Lord Of The Rings" came out, there's been "Game Of Thrones," which has kind of taken up the mantle as, like, the high fantasy mainstream example that we have. And I - my main concern was, like, how much is this new version of "The Lord Of The Rings" going to incorporate a lot of what makes "Game Of Thrones" "Game Of Thrones," namely its gratuitous gore and sex scenes? And I'm happy to say that it does not. So I was pleasantly surprised.

SUMMERS: I will just put this out there. I was a huge "Lord Of The Rings" fan growing up. I've read the books. I watched the movies more times than I should probably admit to. I was fascinated with the construction of language, and I think that's probably something you and I have in common.

JENNINGS: Yeah. I read the books. I watched the movies a bajillion times. I love talking about it with my friends, and they're almost all women that I talk about "Lord Of The Rings" with, which I think is very interesting.

SUMMERS: What do you think is interesting about that?

JENNINGS: Well, so yeah. There was a really good New York Times piece a year ago written by, actually, my friend Nikita Richardson about how, for so many millennial women, "Lord Of The Rings" was like our "Star Wars," you know?

SUMMERS: Yeah.

JENNINGS: Like, this was our fantasy series that we grew up with that we really related to that just, like, played such a pivotal role in our development. And just watching it back brings so much joy and nostalgia and comfort. And I think a lot of women share that.

SUMMERS: So given all of that, I guess I'm just curious what it was like for you to see the opening sequence of "The Rings Of Power" and to see Middle Earth through the eyes of a woman. I mean, the first person that viewers meet is a young Galadriel.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RINGS OF POWER")

AMELIE CHILD VILLIERS: (As Young Galadriel) Sometimes the lights shine just as brightly reflected in the water as they do in the sky. It's hard to say which way is up and which way is down. How am I to know which light to follow?

SUMMERS: So I'm just curious. For you, what was it like revisiting this world for the first time through Galadriel's eyes?

JENNINGS: I mean, it was exciting. Whenever I see, you know, a female character in a fantasy, it's like, OK, is she going to be a stereotype? Is she going to be oversexualized? Is she going to be murdered? Is she just going to be degraded at any possible opportunity? Yeah. So I think part of the reason why, you know, I've been a little skeptical of the series is because, you know, there are two male co-showrunners who really don't have much professional screenwriting experience. They are, you know, super Tolkien nerds, which is cool. But, you know, they're men. They're Tolkien guys. So we don't really know yet if this is going to adhere to Tolkien's kind of, like, you know, shunting of women, you know, to major side characters or, you know, making women the center of the story. But so far, it looks like women are, you know, at least part of the center of the story, which is cool.

SUMMERS: As you pointed out in your piece, there is a sizable body of feminist critique of the world that Tolkien created and the way that he constructed the women of Middle Earth. And you cited the scholar Catharine Stimpson. Back in 1969, she described the women of Tolkien's world as either beautiful and distant, simply distant or simply simple. From the women that we've seen so far in "The Rings Of Power," is that the case?

JENNINGS: I don't think so necessarily. I think - I mean, having only seen the first two episodes, it's more of - you know, we see these people, and we kind of know their characters. And I think there is a kind of - it's a refreshing simplicity, I would say, about Tolkien's Middle Earth where, you know, good is good and evil is evil. And I think that's also reflected in the women on screen. So we have the younger Galadriel. And we know Galadriel from the films, but she played a relatively small part in the trilogy, whereas in the series, she plays, like, a warrior princess who's kind of intent on avenging her brother's death by Sauron. And so clearly she is the one with the main driver of the plot, and she's the one that's, like, leading the battle, leading the action and leading the tension. And so there's already more depth to her. We also have Disa, who is the wife of the dwarf Prince Durin, and she's sort of portrayed as this warm, loving wife to a very important dwarf. And she seems to also wield, you know, a significant kind of power in the kingdom of Khazad-dum.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RINGS OF POWER")

SOPHIA NOMVETE: (As Disa) You're staying for dinner.

OWAIN ARTHUR: (As Durin) He's leaving.

NOMVETE: (As Disa) He's staying.

ARTHUR: (As Durin) He's leaving.

NOMVETE: (As Disa) He's staying. Make yourself comfortable, please.

ARTHUR: (As Durin) But not too comfortable.

JENNINGS: And we see, you know, these proto-Hobbit-like creatures. And the main character within that is a young, you know, teenage, spunky young girl, Nori Brandyfoot.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RINGS OF POWER")

MEGAN RICHARDS: (As Poppy Proudfellow) You know the rules. We're not supposed to be out this far.

MARKELLA KAVENAGH: (As Nori Brandyfoot) If we didn't do everything we weren't supposed to do, we'd hardly do anything at all.

JENNINGS: And then there's Bronwyn, who's this healer and single mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RINGS OF POWER")

NAZANIN BONIADI: (As Bronwyn) I saw a tunnel dug deep and with care. By what I cannot say. But they were digging towards us. I tell you we remain here at our peril.

JENNINGS: We haven't seen any of these characters aside from Galadriel in previous Tolkien works, which - yeah, it could be a really exciting thing, or it could be a disappointing thing. This could be, you know, a system where it's like, OK, they're all going to get killed or raped or, you know, degraded in some other way. So the question is still kind of out there.

SUMMERS: So as you mentioned so far, you have just seen the two episodes of "The Rings Of Power." But in what you've seen to this point, is this a more feminist rendering of Middle Earth?

JENNINGS: (Laughter) I think there's certainly a lot more representation in this version of Middle Earth, which I think is really cool. There are POC, which do not exist in "The Lord Of The Rings" outside of, you know, some arguably pretty racist stereotypes. And so that's been really interesting to see. Like, we never saw a single dwarf woman in "The Lord Of The Rings." And we see a ton of dwarf women in this one. So yeah. I mean, I think in terms of representation, yes, I would say that it is absolutely more inclusive and diverse. But I'm not sure if we can say, you know, this show is feminist or this show is not because, you know - well, I mean, it does the pass the Bechdel test, which I'm pretty sure "Lord Of The Rings" doesn't. So that's - like, you know, that's point one for "Rings Of Power."

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWARD SHORE SONG, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RINGS OF POWER MAIN TITLE")

SUMMERS: Rebecca Jennings is a correspondent for Vox. Thank you so much.

JENNINGS: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RINGS OF POWER MAIN TITLE")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.