Over a month ago, a reader linked to my posts on sexism in The Wise Man’s Fear in a forum discussing the book. I joined in the discussion the readers on that thread were having, and learned a lot from the debate, which got kind of contentious for a while. Elaborating and defending my ideas for a skeptical audience really sharpened my thinking in some ways and showed me some errors in others. I wanted to post here some of what I learned, to clarify my current positions on the book and share some new insights. (I should have done this earlier, but got distracted by some other good books and a debate about motherhood.) I’ll only post summaries and excerpts here because the debate was quite long, but the whole thing can be found here.
Most of the discussion centered around my interpretation of the Adem society. I got criticism for not being sex-positive enough, and even for stigmatizing single mothers, which was certainly not intended. Responders pointed out that the Adem seem to have plenty of social support for mothers and families, so my concern that their women are stuck raising children without help was unfounded. I refined my views on sex in Ademrae to say that I now think the most important reason that the level of casual sex there is not in women’s best interests because they do not seem to have birth control. Since the stakes in sex are higher for women because they’re the ones bearing children, it’s in their best interests to take sex seriously, carefully considering their choices in partner and timing, unless they have birth control to help them manage this risk. Since the Adem don’t seem to worry about birth control, the sexual practices of the society are problematic for me. There was also a discussion about communication as it relates to casual sex. This is my stance:
The problem with many instances of casual sex is that there is not enough communication between partners. Increasing communication would ensure mutual consent and increase pleasure, but people are often too lazy to talk to someone they aren’t emotionally invested in, so they’re selfish in bed and don’t care as much as they should about the other person’s pleasure, and sometimes not even their consent. This lack of communication sets up the sexual encounter to favor the man, and so women are wise to try to avoid these kinds of encounters when they can’t be sure they’ll be treated fairly and respectfully. (This is the main problem I have with casual sex as it works in reality, as opposed to theory. I don’t think bringing this up and talking this way is slut-shaming. This isn’t the same as blaming a woman for what happens to her.)
There is no evidence in WMF that the Adem have especially bad communication about sex, but their language is such that an emphasis on more explicit communication might be warranted:
good Adem speakers try to pack as many meanings into a single sentence as possible. I tried to imagine what it would be like to flirt in a language like that and realized how easy it might be to be misunderstood. A speaker could say something that means yes and no at the same time (isn’t that the essence of flirting?), and a listener could choose to hear whichever meaning he or she wants to hear (isn’t that how date rapists justify to themselves that what they’re doing isn’t rape?). … With a language like Adem, the need for explicit communication might even be increased.
If there is clear communication around consent and mutual pleasure, and women can choose to when to get pregnant, then a society that encourages casual sex could be a positive place for women to live. The Adem are not as far from reaching these ideals as I thought they were at my first reading, but on the evidence in the book I’m still not convinced that they (and by extension, Rothfuss) have created a society that is good for women.
The Adem concept of “anger” was discussed in detail on the thread.In addition to the passage I quoted in the original post, participants in the discussion pointed out other relevant passages which both complicated and clarified the concept. Pushed in my thinking, I thought of another possible translation for “anger”:
Maybe “ambition” would be closer? It’s definitely possible to have too much ambition, and for it to become poisonous in excess, so it fits the quote… Taking “ambition” as a new working hypothesis for the translation of “anger,” I still find it sexist. If one sex has more ambition than the other, it’s because they’re socialized to, and the other sex is told they’re not capable, so they become less ambitious. Even if this situation works against the men because they have more ambition than they can handle, that situation could still be sexist. Just as our present construction of masculinity is limiting and destructive to men at the same time as it grants men power over women, so an Adem society that appears to favor women may create corresponding limitations for its men. That’s still sexism. And if the women have more that they can do with their ambition, then maybe that’s because they have too much to do and they’re overworked. That’s not necessarily a good situation for the women either.
In a later post on TOR, Jo Walton interviewed Rothfuss with fan questions, and my question about this concept was included. He basically refused to explain what “anger” means, comparing it to complex and ephemeral ideas like justice, and saying he’d already explained it in the book. Absent a clearer answer from him, readers are free to try their best to make sense of it, in the same way we try to make sense of “courage” and “The Force.” He affirmed that “anger” is the English translation, so I can’t really call for an alternative translation. However, my thoughts about how “ambition” could be related to the concept, and my explanation for why the gender disparity in “anger” is evidence of a sexist society, are still valid as a way to come closer to understanding this difficult idea.
One reader, defending Kvothe the character from charges of sexism and misogyny related to his relationship with Felurian the sex fairy, believed that it was important for Kvothe to lose his virginity in order to come into his full power and become a man. Seeing this reader’s response made me realize that WMF contained a whole new type of sexism that I hadn’t noticed in my first read, related to male virgins:
I still don’t see why it was necessary in the story for Kvothe to go from “virgin to irresistible/virile/Austin Powers, envy of men and desired by women etc.” Can’t he be just as great a hero without having women fall all over him? I don’t see why his development and growth as a character and a powerful arcanist had to include his sexual initiation. A guy losing his virginity doesn’t gain any mystical power; seeing male virgins as necessarily immature is sexist. Presenting losing his virginity as a vital step in Kvothe’s becoming a man is problematic. It makes the sex all about him, with the woman a mere vehicle for his growth. This is the male version of the virgin/whore dichotomy that’s so sexist when we apply it to women. It says that a male virgin is naive, clueless, inept, and once he’s had sex he instantly becomes worldly, sophisticated, a stud. If Kvothe’s going to have sex, that’s fine, but it doesn’t have to be part of this big narrative of him growing up and taking control of his world. He can have sex without playing into this sexist trope of the clueless male virgin making discoveries about the world and himself through sex and becoming all worldly.
Tomorrow, my underlying theory of reading