Let’s talk about Shadow of War. No, not about the delay. Not about the microtransactions either. We’re also not here to address the egregious sidelining of a black character to a side-story in a series that’s aggressively white, but that’s closer. We’re going to address Shelob.
Shelob — who most casual fans of Lord of the Rings might remember as a giant spider who captures and almost eats Frodo Baggins before Sam Gamgee stabs her and drives her away with Earendil’s Star — will appear in the sequel to Shadow of Mordor... as a sexy lady.
The developers have tried to justify this change, but does it really hold any water? Not really, and here’s why.
Shadow of War Shelob: None of Monolith’s comments justify a sexy lady Shelob, and they’re already on shaky ground
In a Eurogamer article titled “Why Shelob is a Woman in Shadow of War,” Monolith’s creative vice president Michael de Plater explains how they came to the conclusion that a character who’s best known for being a giant spider needed to anything other than that in Shadow of War. The gist of the argument comes at the end of the article, and it feels a little light:
“Shelob takes on human form both because it’s in her power to do so, and also because she has a need to involve herself in Talion’s quest,” he said. “Presumably communicating with him is simpler in human form.”
It seems like it would be a lot easier to communicate with someone who doesn’t trust you by being able to hold the threat of eating them over their head, but okay. Additionally, de Plater’s explanation for the game’s interpretation of Shelob is largely based of an assumption of Gollum and Shelob being unsung heroes of the trilogy, since Gollum (not Frodo) is the one who ends up casting the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom.
I have two issues with this. First, Gollum is never depicted in the either the books or films as a hero. He’s a tragic figure who struggles with, and is ultimately consumed by, his desires, and his demise is entirely facilitated by his greed to get back what’s his. Gollum is an example of the self-defeating nature of evil, not an unsung hero.
Additionally, having Shelob take on a more comely form is at odds with a lot of Lord of the Rings’s subtext. Namely, the concept that the beautiful and the powerful cannot always be trusted.
Sauron initially comes to the elves in a fair form called Annatar, or “the Lord of Gifts,” in order to convince them to help him forge the rings of power. And Galadriel, whose power should be more than enough to resist the ring, almost claims it for herself. By de Pater’s interpretation, Shelob’s outer form shouldn’t be an indication that she’s any more trustworthy than Gandalf or Galadriel, who he accuses in the article as lying to the Fellowship to save Middle Earth.
Shadow of War Shelob: Shelob’s sexy human form is also incredibly generic
Sexy Shelob really is just a dull idea that doesn’t make sense for the juice-sucking monster we’re all familiar with. And if the game studio had allowed themselves to think outside the sexist box, they could’ve come up with something far more engaging.
A pale, dark-haired woman wearing a black slip doesn’t really communicate anything intriguing or engaging as to why Shelob’s is taking this form in the first place. Just spitballing here, but if Shelob was actually trying to coerce Talion into helping her, it seems like the bare minimum she could do as a powerful spirit is take a few visual cues from Ioreth. You remember Ioreth, right? Talion’s wife, whose death is the reason Talion starts waging his one-man war against Sauron?
Also working against Shelob are a number of well-worn tropes conflating spiders and “tempting women,” from the concept of the black widow in pop culture — which even has its own Fallout 3 perk — to Lolth, the spider-goddess from Dungeons & Dragons who corrupts the dark elves in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting.
Despite Monolith’s protestations that a humanoid Shelob is more interesting, the evidence points to the contrary.
Shelob was far more intriguing as a giant spider who was just going to eat Frodo before Sam showed up to save the day. By making Shelob a generic hot white woman, Monolith has, in my opinion, shown their hand. The argument that she’s “choosing” to take this form only holds water in as far as it’s supported by the text, given that Shelob, as a make-believe character, doesn’t have agency on her own.
Without narrative or design support for this depiction of Shelob, we need to call this what it is: pandering, and shameless pandering at that. This was an opportunity to make an interesting (if somewhat specious) interpretation of a female Tolkien character interesting and engaging. Instead, Monolith opted to go with another broad, vague depiction of a hot woman.
If this isn’t grounds to have Monolith thrown in Horny Jail, I don’t know what is.
Lord of the Rings suffers from a drought of diverse female characters, but stories set in this universe need to do a little better than “sexy Shelob” before they pat themselves on the back.
More gaming news and updates
Check out the latest from Mic, like this deep dive into the cultural origins of Gamergate. Also, be sure to read this essay about what it’s like to cosplay while black, a roundup of family-friendly games to play with your kids and our interview with Adi Shankar, producer of the animated Castlevania Netflix series.