The other day on Twitter, I commented about the absence of women from a book I was reading. Because Twitter is no place for long explanations or nuanced discussions, and also because I was about to go to karate and didn’t want to start a slapfight with fans of the book that might pick up steam while I was busy, I declined to name it there — but I promised I would make a follow-up post, so here it is.
. . . .
Okay, with all of that out of the way (and maybe the caveats were unnecessary, but) . . . the book in question is The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.
I want to be precise in my points, so I’m going to go through The Name of the Wind and list all of the female characters. I’m being generous in my definition of that term: I will count as a female character any woman who is distinguished from the backdrop by either a name or dialogue. (The bar, it is low.) Generalities like references to “wives” or “a girl” doing something in the background do not count. If I’ve missed anybody, do let me know — but anybody I’ve missed will be quite minor indeed, given that I was keeping notes as I read.
All page numbers are from the mass market paperback edition. There will (inevitably) be some spoilers.
. . . .
Total: 29 female characters in 722 pages. 22 get names; 21 get dialogue. 17 appear in the text for fewer than five pages. Only 7 of the remaining 12 are actual characters in Kvothe’s story, in the sense of having any kind of ongoing role in his life: Denna, Devi, Fela, Mola, Auri, Shandi, and Kvothe’s mother.
Against these, we may lay . . . two hundred? three hundred? more? male characters with equal or greater presence in the story: Taborlin, Old Cob, Graham, Jake, Shep, the smith’s apprentice Aaron, Carter, Bast, Chronicler, the commander of the soldiers who rob Chronicler, Jannis, Witkins, the tinker, Crazy Martin, the guy who recognizes Kvothe, Caleb, Skarpi, the Earl of Baedn-Bryt, Oren Velciter — and those are just the ones that show up before Kvothe’s mother does. Nineteen men, before we get a single woman. 19 men in 58 pages; 29 women in 722.
. . . .
When the topic of including women comes up, or people of color, or gay people, or whoever, there are a great many authors who say they are happy to include such characters when there’s a reason for them to be there. I look at this book and wonder: what’s the reason for all these characters to be men?
Chronicler could have been a woman. Bast could have been a woman. Abenthy could have been a woman. Kvothe’s mother is said to have “a way with words;” why is the Important Plot Song a composition Kvothe’s father is working on, with his wife reduced to the role of behind the scenes muse and assistant? (Why doesn’t she get a name?) Why are none of Kvothe’s friends among the University students female? (Fela gets there eventually, sort of. She could have been a friend from the start.) Why isn’t Trapis a woman? There’s a passing suggestion that he used to be a priest, and so far as I can tell the priesthood is exclusively male — but a) there’s no reason the priesthood had to be exclusively male.
. . . .
I do not understand this. This is not the kind of story that involves a limited number of characters, or a historical context where the demographics are out of the author’s control. It doesn’t even confine itself to the kind of social environment that has historically been exclusively male, which you might therefore expect the author to represent in that fashion. Kvothe travels all over the place and meets all kinds of people: most of them are men. There are women at the University: none of them really matter. When I ask myself what valuable things Kvothe learned from a woman, the best I can do is to say that Auri showed him around the Underthing. They don’t teach him sympathy or sygaldry or artificing or the name of the wind. They are not his enemies, earning the reader’s respect by the threat they pose. They’re just . . . insignificant. Mola stitches Kvothe up when he needs it, Kvothe’s mother is loving and then dies, Shandi is an irrelevant background detail. Auri is a helpful manic pixie dream girl. Fela is an object for Kvothe to rescue. Devi is the best of the lot, pretty much the only one with anything resembling power and agency in the narrative.
. . . .
I’ve been known to bang on about the problems with women in the Wheel of Time, but let’s give it credit where credit is due: in the first book alone, important female characters include Moiraine (the story’s Gandalf equivalent), Egwene (Rand’s childhood sweetheart, whom he doesnot end up in a relationship with, and who is one of the strongest channelers the White Tower has seen in a century), Nynaeve (even stronger than Egwene, and survived learning how to do it on her own, which is rare), Elayne (yet another strong channeler and heir to the throne of Andor), Min (possessed of a strange clairvoyant gift nobody can explain, and also good with knives), and Elaida (advisor to the Queen and also gifted with a rare prophetic ability). That’s six women off the top of my head, all of them less objectified and more proactive than just about anybody here, and it doesn’t include all the minor female characters who pass through the story along the way. Kvothe’s tale starts in a town where none of the women have names; Rand al’Thor’s does not.
Denna does not fix the problem. She just brings it into the spotlight. I didn’t start to have any interest in her at all until page 550, when Kvothe finds her in Trebon, because that’s the first point at which she seems to have a life of her own. Before then, she’s just this beautiful woman (did I mention she’s beautiful?) who always has men hanging off her and floats in and out of Kvothe’s life in a pointlessly cryptic fashion. It’s possible that aspect is significant; for a while I wondered if she was actually supernatural in some way, and that’s why (we are explicitly told) men always go for her and women always hate her. But if there is indeed more to her than meets the eye, it doesn’t get made clear enough in this book. I’m just left with an objectified cipher I’ve got no real reason to care about, and no other women of real significance.