One aspect of The Wise Man’s Fear that I became increasingly uncomfortable with is its portrayal of women. To a lesser extent, this was also somewhat true of the first book, but became impossible to ignore in the sequel by about halfway through. Here’s my more generalized review, posted yesterday.
There are several strong female characters with whom Kvothe forms friendships, and this is a positive, healthy aspect of the books. Hespe the mercenary and Sheyn the teacher are great examples. These strong female characters seem scattered around, one in each of the many groups Kvothe interacts with. It may be a form of tokenism.The series probably doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, but it’s typically hard for a book with a first person male narrator to do that. Here’s a good video explaining what the Bechdel test is and why it’s a useful way to examine sexism in media. Although the video’s examples are movies, not books, it makes a good point.
It seems clear for many reasons that The Kingkiller Chronicle is a set of books that cater to and are about men. As a woman reader I felt alienated when reading certain parts of the book, and hopefully this post and tomorrow’s will explain why.
Here’s a fun passage where Fela, a female character, justifies the male gaze:
“There’s looking and there’s looking. When some men look at you it’s a greasy thing. It makes you want to have a bath. With other men it’s nice. It helps you know you’re beautiful.”
So some women get a self-esteem boost when non-creepy men show approval of their appearance. It’s just a hop, skip and jump from there to a place where women only get self-esteem from men’s approval. That’s how the male gaze gives men power over women. But women are more than pretty scenery. Their bodies are not there to appeal to men’s sense of aesthetics. Their bodies are there because they have people inside of them who have things to do. That should not have to be said. That’s why justifying the male gaze is offensive, and putting those words inside a female character is insidious.
Kvothe spends a long section of The Wise Man’s Fear traveling through the country of Adem, a foreign land with a different language and culture that he spends a lot of time learning. I found many gender issues in this section because the peculiarities of the Adem culture seemed to create a sort of male paradise.
While living with the Adem, Kvothe takes lessons in a local form of martial arts. When he inadvertently gets arroused while practicing fighting with Vashet, his female instructor who “smells like sex,” she initiates some very “business-like” sex so that he will not be distracted during lessons. This becomes a regular part of their training. Kvothe finds the situation awkward, but it is explained away as an example of cultural differences in attitudes toward sex. The whole idea seemed to me like the set-up for a hot-for-teacher porno, an irrelevant scene inserted into the novel to titillate male readers. My biggest objection is that the idea that men are unable to concentrate or accomplish anything once arroused, and that they need periodic release in order to function, contributes to rape culture. Men who feel entitled to sex and helpless without regular intercourse have the attitudes of a potential rapist.
Though Vashet’s culture’s permissive attitudes toward sex are presented as logical and “civilized,” a “barbarian” culture in which men are embarrassed by innappropriate arrousal, try to function normally when distracted by sexual thoughts, and do not expect regular sex, is safer for women. Sexual freedom is a good thing, but a culture that encourages frequent casual sex is better for men than for women. Even beyond issues of whether or not women are more likely to get raped in a society that encourages casual sex (probably), or whether they prefer long-term relationships more often than men (I think they usually do), there’s such a thing as an orgasm gap. In casual encounters men have more orgasms than women do. Of course, in a culture with no shame attached to sex and no nudity taboo, some of the cultural roots of the orgasm gap might shrivel up, but because of Rothfuss’s polite vagueness and his lack of desire to write erotica (sincere thanks, Pat), we don’t know whether or not these trysts have an equitable distribution of pleasure. If the purpose of Vashet’s sex with Kvothe was relieving his arrousal, and her pleasure is not mentioned, it seems likely that she simply services him, with no reciprocity. How liberated.
Apparently a cultural quirk of the Adem is that they do not believe that men have any part in making babies. They are human and reproduce normally; they just have a faulty understanding of biology because their extreme promiscuity seems to have prevented them from ever seeing a causal relationship between sex and pregnancy. This view is portrayed as disempowering for men, because they are seen as incapable of leaving a legacy in this world. But it also creates an entire nation of single mothers. No social support for mothers is mentioned. What a horrible situation for women. Kvothe, the foreigner, is the only one who brings up any form of birth control, so it makes no sense that the Adem women are not pregnant all the time with babies they will have to raise alone. Men, on the other hand, are blithely free from all responsibility.
Kvothe has a conversation about cultral differences in sex with Penthe, a fresh Adem conquest. She said she was attracted to him because he had a lot of “anger,” She explains that in sex, a woman “takes” a man’s “anger.” This word choice and phrasing are kind of scary, bringing domestic violence to mind. However, it seems to be only a bad translation for “passion” or some similar idea, because she defines it thus: “It is a desire. It is a making. It is a wanting of life….All things that live have anger. It is the fire in them that makes them want to move and grow and do and make.” In Adem thought, both men and women have this anger, but not in equal measures. She explains, “women have many uses for their anger. And men have more anger than they can use, too much for their own good.” Men have more passion and desire for life than women?!? Are you kidding? How offensive. This passage masquerades as if it is explaining real sex differences in a way that is fair and equitable, only to insult women by saying they’re good at keeping busy. Here‘s a thorough argument about why the idea that men’s superior zest for life comes out in an increased sex drive is demeaning to women.
Sadly, the anti-feminist dystopia of the Adem is not the worst part of the book. Tomorrow: a dangerously seductive fairy.