Beowulf: Better Than I Believed it’d Be

I went and saw Beowulf today (in 3D, zomg! More movies should jump out of the screen at you and try to poke you in the face, for serious). Now, here’s the thing – I am a big fan of the poem. I am of Scandinavian descent myself (though the poem itself is not, the story is, and I’ve always been interested in it), I love me some alliteration and kennings, and Beowulf is on the same manuscript as the Old English Judith, which I spent about a year obsessively comparing to other versions of Judith when I was in college, and thus feel a profound connection to.

The point I’m circuitously driving at is this: I am quite familiar with the original source text, and let me tell you – it is a not-at-all-surprisingly sexist product of a profoundly sexist culture.

I knew that the new Beowulf film was going to have some major deviations from the Old English poem, but what I’d seen in the previews did not make me think it would be less sexist. Sexy, sexy danger in the form of a nekkid-and-high-heeled Angelina Jolie (if she’s able to change form and all that good stuff, why heels?) crooning huskily at the hero was not encouraging.

I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised. Don’t get me wrong – the bulk of the characters in the film are pretty damn sexist. There’s much cheerful talk of despoiling virgins, etc., and the female character with the most face time (Wealthow, capably voiced by Robin Wright Penn) is explicitly equated with an object by her husband(s).

But even as Hrothgar is likening his wife to his treasured golden drinking-horn, the film itself is making it clear that Wealthow is not an object. The camera follows her, focusing alternately on her face and the action around her, making her the audience’s guide into the film. We see (and share) her emotions. She’s extremely sympathetic, and as fully fleshed-out as any of the other supporting players in Beowulf’s story.

Later in the film, we see that Wealthow is compassionate and wise as she deals gracefully with her second husband’s young lover, and we see that both women, while not trained as warriors, are brave and reasonably quick-thinking in a crisis.

The culture portrayed in Beowulf is sexist, but I think the film manages, for the most part, not to be. It pretty much fails the Bechdel Test, and the character of Grendel’s Mother is problematic, particularly in her visual representation, but the human women in the movie are portrayed in a respectful way, even though the story stays true to the culture and time in which it is set.

Hey, it turns out that it’s possible to portray female characters with some depth and humanity and treat them respectfully as a creator even in historically-based settings of profound sexism and misogyny!

I’d like to see a lot more of that. Also, more 3D.


  1. says

    Don’t get me wrong – the bulk of the characters in the film are pretty damn sexist.

    I’m glad you found a movie that helps make this distinction. I’m getting mighty frustrated with the argument that if a given environment/culture is sexist/racist/homophobic, then any media representation of that environment just can’t avoid those tropes (meaning you can’t complain about, say, Rescue Me or something).

    And maybe I’ll have to find time to actually see this movie, which I wasn’t planning to do.

  2. S. A. Bonasi says

    I felt the same way about the movie. Really, my biggest complaints were that I wished Grendel’s mother hadn’t had high heels (srsly wtf?) and that Ursula had been the one to save Wealthow at the end. Even Grendel’s mother being teh sexxors wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be, given that it was depicted as the demons being able to change their forms.

  3. says

    I don’t remember reading the epic poem – although I’m sure I did since we also read Grendel by John Gardner.

    I was pretty disappointed in this movie – specifically in its portrayal of women. I’m not sure what I was expecting. It seemed like the classic stereotypical madonna/mother figure vs. the wh_ore character. While it is true that Wealthow showed some depth (near the end) – I still felt there was some considerable “come save me” terror going on.

    Shrek, although not a classic tale, definitely showed a female character defending herself – not playing into those stereotypes. Or Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon? Parts of the epic poem were adapted and changed to fit the screen play – I don’t understand why stronger, non stereotypical females couldn’t be a part of that adaptation.

    I’m not suggesting that a woman warrior needed to be a part of Beowulf’s entourage, but why couldn’t Wealthow have a knife to stab the dragon on her own? And would that really be historically inaccurate?

  4. says

    Purtek – It definitely satisfied my “oh man, that looks awesome” requirements, at the very least. I feel like I should mention that it’s extremely gory, though, in case anyone reading this has a weak stomach for that stuff like I do (I did some strategic eye-covering).

    S. A. Bonasi – Yeah, it would’ve been great if Ursula had done the ultimate saving, but I did think it was nice that she was trying so hard, and also reasonable that a petite woman would have so much trouble supporting the weight of a much taller woman.

    Aerin – I can definitely see your point, there, and I totally agree that there are movies that do a much better job with female characters than Beowulf did (Shrek is on my list of favorite animated films for good reason!). I think I went into Beowulf with much lower expectations, maybe, and that’s part of why I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. It certainly could’ve been better, but it was better than I’d expected.

    As far as Wealthow having a knife – well, yes, that would’ve been a bit anachronistic. But then again, this is a movie with dragons and such, so I think the filmmakers could’ve gotten away with it. 😉 That would’ve been a nice addition.

  5. Hayclearing says

    I’m kind of torn on this movie. I do think it’s overall pretty good, but Grendel’s mother . . .

    It kind of bothers me that the superpowerful female demon is pretty much only capable of seducing and birthing more monsters.

    On the other hand, taking a stereotypical and restrictive definition of womanhood like this, and exaggerating it, and showing just how monstrous and two-dimensional it is – well, that’s kind of appropriate for what a demon is, right?

    Except, of course, that the seductress trope is all about what it is to be a woman from the point of view of men, most of the time.

    But I still found the weird curse-children storyline that was added into the movie rather compelling.

    So I guess what I really want is to see more female monsters in stories that aren’t sexkittens, mothers, or old hags. I love a good monster, and there’s a lot of untapped potential there . . .

  6. says

    Hayclearing – I hear ya. One of the things that bugged me about the Grendel’s Mother characterization is that she’s depicted as sort’ve aggressively sexual – but only because she wants sons, rather than because she wants, y’know, sex.

    I found the cyclical curse-children trope very compelling, too, particularly from my position as both an analyst and a writer of stories. There was some very clever storytelling and foreshadowing going on there that definitely appealed to me.

    More variety in female monsters would rock my movie-viewing socks, too.

  7. says

    I loved Grendel’s mother, actually… but I wish they kept the subtlety of her being a warrior and Grendel being a bit of a pissant that I felt was present in the original. Like, Grendel, his vendetta against the humans was their noise, and HER vendetta was a blood debt for the death of her son(s).

  8. SunlessNick says

    Later in the film, we see that Wealthow is compassionate and wise as she deals gracefully with her second husband’s young lover

    This I liked, as most films would create enmity between the two women, but in this one – despite some pain and tension – both do what they can to make things easier for one another.

  9. DNi says

    Finally caught the movie. Anyway:

    It kind of bothers me that the superpowerful female demon is pretty much only capable of seducing and birthing more monsters.

    She murdered an entire stable’s worth of men in the middle of the night. While Beowulf was sleeping in the stable. Plus, when she ever-so-suggestively melted Beowulf’s sword in her hands, that was when it became pretty obvious, to me at least, that either Beowulf succumb to her allure or else he didn’t stand a chance of getting out her cave alive.

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