The sexism in The Wise Man’s Fear was so pervasive and wide-reaching that I had to split my discussion of it into two posts. Here‘s my full review, and here‘s the first part of this feminist critique.
The most problematic part of the book for me was the fairy Felurian. Felurian is a stereotypical siren. She’s seductive and dangerous, using her sex appeal to lead men into the fairy realm, where they waste away or go insane. Kvothe, the hero, follows her singing and falls into her fairy trap. Here’s a really good video explaining why this trope is sexist:
My favorite quote from the video: “female characters written as The Evil Demon Seductress are portraying women as manipulative, conniving and controlling. These demon women always have ulterior motives, their sexuality is dangerous, and they’ll probably bite your head off. The harmful, misogynist myth that this trope reinforces is that women primarily use their so-called sexual power as a way to manipulate, trick and control men.”
So the mere inclusion of this trope is in itself an issue. What’s even worse is the way the character deals with it. Kvothe tricks Felurian into letting him leave the Fae by singing her a song with understated compliments, and saying he can’t truthfully give her greater praise because she’s the only woman he’s been with, so he needs to go sample some mortal women, and then he’ll return. She agrees, and an inherently sexist situation has just become even more disempowering. Because of the trope, the only power Felurian has is erotic power. Kvothe takes even that away through outsmarting her, proving that his intellectual power is greater than her legendary sexual power. She becomes yet another example of a hot and sexy female who’s vain and not too bright. Worse still: before he leaves the Fae, she teaches him lots of sexual techniques, so now we all know how amazing in bed our hero Kvothe is. (Since technique, not emotion and connection, is what makes sex good, of course.) All this just felt like so much penis-waving. “Look how big and potent I am, guys!”
Kvothe returns to the real world and no one believes his tale, until a lusty barmaid compares pre-Felurian virgin Kvothe to the self-assured, worldly bachelor before her, and speaks in his defense. He beds her later, of course. (Did I mention he’s just 16 at this point? Not to mention that he’s supposed to be in love with Denna. This feels dirty.) Here’s his reaction to his first human woman:
How could any mortal woman compare with Felurian?
It is easier to understand if you think of it in terms of music. Sometimes a man enjoys a symphony. Elsetimes he finds a jig more suited to his taste. [blah, blah, blah, more objectifying tripe] Each woman is like an instrument, waiting to be learned, loved, and finely played, to have at last her own true music made.
Some might take offense at this way of seeing things, not understanding how a trouper views his music. They might think I degrade women. They might consider me callous, or boorish, or crude.
But those people do not understand love, or music, or me.
The problem with that metaphor is that it gives all the power to the man, the musician or listener. The man is active and the woman is passive. The woman is just a song to be selected and then played. It doesn’t give room for a woman to have similar variety of appetites. Each woman has only one tune. The man is encouraged to collect women like a bard collects songs, or like any collector collects objects, one for every mood or season, regardless of whether women prefer to be part of a collection, or a single showcase piece.
Maybe my offense means I don’t understand Kvothe, love, or music. I’ll give him two of the three. I do, however, understand sexism, and I know it when I see it. I just hope that Rothfuss has some distance from his narrator here, that these are Kvothe’s ideas and not his, that he’s saying this to show that Kvothe and the society he comes from are sexist. Because I wouldn’t want to say Rothfuss doesn’t understand women, sex or writing. That would be insulting.
PS. I’ve responded to many comments on this post, and many of the comments say the same things. I’ve started to resort to linking to my previously written comments. Please read the comments and my responses before leaving your own note, in case your issue has been addressed already. 9/28/2014