Name of the Wind – The Trouble with Breasts
Edit – I apologize for the lateness of this post. The site has been undergoing some minor revisions as we attempt to comply to Google’s new SEO formatting and I’m really slow in learning new things.
I have returned from my eastern travels a little more worldly if not a little extra sore. However, during the long hours on the road, my sister had graciously provided me a copy of a very special book. This delightful read, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss to be precise, was a rather interesting experience if only for the reactions it produced from my family as I read it aloud.
Now, I have no intention to write a proper review of the novel mostly in part because I never finished it. Between my constant breaks as I tried to slog through its curious writing and the sudden expiration of the digital download’s loan period left me only about a quarter into the book. Suffice to say, I’m not the most knowledgeable to comment on its overall story and narrative since I don’t know how it finishes. And, as small as it might be, there is a possibility that halfway through the writing actually starts to be good.
No, instead I wish to discuss something that grates on the average person’s nerves even more. I wish to discuss feminism.
This may not surprise anyone, but I am not a woman. This startling revelation has often left me a little wary of feminist issues. I didn’t think I was truly prepared to really discuss its arguments either for or against having never had the experience that usually fueled the standard discourse. However, I have been reading quite a bit of its discussion in my online interactions and have slowly begun to educate myself on its core issues. Primarily, feminism is less about women’s rights as it is about equal rights.
Not really the most astounding revelation, especially for anyone familiar with the movement. But, after reading numerous opinions and perspectives, I began to worry if my writing was somehow anti-feminist. I am certainly a supporter of equality and as popular opinion grows more and more in its favour, the discussion of discrimination has shifted to the examination of more subtler channels. Often times, the things that are discussed as being discriminatory appear to be unintentional. They are more insidious methods of perpetuating classical views of female subordination and repression. Things like the ‘Male Gaze’ only complicate matters further for someone that has never felt discrimination based on gender. So ingrained, goes the argument, of patriarchal standards, that many people are not even aware of contributing to it either through neglecting deeper characterization of female characters or constantly reverting them to positions of powerlessness. I worried that I, like many others, had fallen into this trap. I mean, I don’t even have a D&D story from the only girl’s perspective!
However, after reading The Name of the Wind, I no longer have this worry.
Now, let me first state that I don’t believe Patrick Rothfuss is some disgusting bigot or anti-feminist. I think the arguments I’m about to level are better explained through a much more likely avenue – Rothfuss just isn’t a good writer. And there’s far more evidence tho suggest the latter over the former that I feel comfortable in this belief. Also, as I’ve confessed, I haven’t finished the novel so there does exist that miniscule possibility that squirreled somewhere in the later sections of the book is a damn good representation of a woman. I’m just never going to bother trying to find out.
And, as this is a semi-critical examination of a work, do expect there to be some spoilers.
The first moment when I began to sense this subtle sexism, however, came rather shortly into the story. For those who are lucky enough to have not cracked the spine, The Name of the Wind is the first in a three part series that follows some discredited hero called Kvothe who is so amazing and clever that when going into exile, his idea of the perfect disguise was to drop two letters from his name. Which might not be too bad, but given the constant description of his flame red hair being more red than red and undeniably unique, you’d think there might have been more consideration put into the guise.
However, I digress.
Elusive Kvothe has started – by his own description – an unsuccessful inn smack in the middle of nowhere Medieval England. This inn, in small town Mudville, still manages to pull a constant crowd of six young bachelors who constantly fill the shack’s gloomy hall. This setting is where the majority of the action occurs, as news and gossip is shared amongst the men while Kvothe listens attentively (but not too much to appear interest) while compulsively polishing his massive collection of bottles in the corner.
Now, I knew beginning the novel that it had a rather curious format. The story was meant to be a narration of the protagonist detailing the story of his life over three years to a scribe. What I didn’t realize, was that it has a substantial beginning that covers rather trite events leading up to the actual crux of the narrative. However, curiously, during this lead up I made a rather strange observation.
There were no women.
There wasn’t a female bar wench which is so prominent in fantasy fiction. While I would normally consider a breath of fresh air, the lack of a female presence (let alone voice) drew more and more prominent. Kvothe has some annoying assistant/student who often makes talk of distracting young maidens disrupting his studies as if they were some wild beast trampling past for attention. Yet, none of these virtuous unicorns ever graces the inn. When one of Kvothe’s seemingly single patrons arrives with a gruesome present from the countryside, only a male priest is informed of the discovery. When Kvothe ventures into the town village for errands, he only ever acts with men. The only time I recall there being a female mentioned in the first hundred pages is when two unnamed and undescribed women come bustling into Kvothe’s inn in a most uncharacteristic moment of business. They enter with a group of travelers and merchants of various detail and trades and I suspect the poor ladies were only ever known because the only thing that made them remarkable in that crowd was probably their breasts.
And, of course, none of them have lines.
This struck me as incredibly peculiar. There was no discernible reason for there to be such a lack of female representation, even incredibly cursory, in this world. It wasn’t like this inn had been established as one of many in the small village that only held particular appeal to young, confirmed bachelor men who displayed an uncommon lack of interest in the opposite sex. Their absence on the streets during the day or in shops is even stranger and I am left assuming that in Rothfuss’ world women are meant to be kept like horses: safe and warm in their private quarters with a pile of hay to bed with a salt lick stashed in the corner.
In fact, it takes until Kvothe is sitting down with the Chronicler before we even get a speaking female character. And, unfortunately, what we’re presented with is a shallowly sad one-dimensional individual whose sole role appears to be double duty of providing Kvothe with a sickly sweet doting mother and sexual object for his father.
Seriously, the number of times his parents are mentioned as wandering off for sex is astounding for a story that has been surprisingly chaste up to that point. So important is Kvothe’s mother as a tool for sexual gratification that the last moments of her life are supposedly spent in bed with her father.
Now, sexual liberation isn’t a bad thing. But given that the only other female in child Kvothe’s band of merry travelers is mostly discussed right before she takes Kvothe’s mentor aside for some farewell coitus, it starts seeming like the sole role for females in Rothfuss’ narrative are for gratification. In fact, one of the few times we see Kvothe’s mother interacting individually with her child is after she catches him singing a lewdly suggestive nursery rhyme to himself which I will be very surprised if it didn’t turn out to be a song about her. The only other moment I recall that we get some interaction between the parent and child that is devoid of any semblance of sexuality is when she tries to teach Kvothe courtly manners, thus fulfilling the kindly teacher trope of maternal parenting.
If we were to examine The Name of the Wind with the Bechdel Test, Rothfuss would fail with flying colours.
The Bechdel Test is a rather interesting metric for analyzing gender bias in fiction. The test is simple: does a work have two female characters, does it have them talk to each other and do they discuss something other than a man? It’s not particularly robust. Meeting its requirements does not by any means suggest that a work is free of bias. In fact, it’s establishing a really, really low base-line which so many pieces fail that highlights the inherent bias in modern fiction. In the nearly two hundred pages that I read, certainly there would be a moment that could qualify. However, Rothfuss didn’t even manage to reach two women with moments of dialogue. He barely scrapes by having two women in the first place!
Course, this isn’t suggesting that every work must feature two women chatting or even include women altogether. Setting and story can certainly impact female representation in a work. Which brings me to the second point I want to discuss.
Just because a work is based on medieval fantasy does not mean it has to be inherently sexist. There appears to be a common perception that prior to the the turn of the 20th century, women were a quiet and demur species that constantly bowed their heads to their kindly male keepers and kept themselves and their genders from prominence. Which is, to say, that there exists an argument that you can’t have strong women in fantasy because it’ll break the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
First, the very nature of fantasy makes such assertions ludicrous. Here we have a genre which often features flying, talking and fire-breathing lizards of monstrous proportions with men able to bend the very fabric of space and reality with a simple flick of a wrist and some poorly researched Latin. I have a hard time thinking that swords which glow when some species of monster that is birthed from mud pits is nearby is going to disconnect its audience because a women dares to speak her mind, pick up a weapon or, heavens, just appear with a name and some rudimentary dialogue.
Second, this idea that all women were quietly sitting on the sidelines while letting men do everything is a gross fallacy. Throughout history, there are stories of women performing remarkable services and duties. Some examples are incredibly mainstream that they’re so easy to remember when mentioned. Queen Elizabeth I and Joan of Arc are two women that fall in fantasy’s generic timeline and completely crush this false ideology. And that’s ignoring many, many other examples.
The one mention I would like to give is Geoffrey Chaucer’s depiction of the Wife of Bath in his Canterbury Tales. Now, I know the literary discourse over the work and the debate centred on whether this was a negative satire of certain women and their beliefs or not. However, the Wife of Bath’s Tale is an interesting examination of antifeminism thought. In the Wife’s Prologue, the Wife discusses her many divorces and remarriages and the power women can wield in marriage as well as pointing out inherent contradictions and discrimination put on women by the Bible. So, while she exemplifies antifeminism thought by portraying women as manipulative and coercive, she also attacks these beliefs by pointing out that these traditions and restrictions were set by men in the first place. So even if Chaucer’s goals were to ultimately criticize these thoughts and behaviours, by discussing them he’s demonstrating that they existed at that time.
It is further telling that a man, writing nearly six hundred years ago and in a half developed language is capable of creating a far more compelling and developed character than Rothfuss is with all this medium’s development and with Chaucer’s own work readily available for study. Now, I want to draw specific attention to my use of character in that previous statement. As I mentioned at the start, I don’t think this is inherently an indication that Rothfuss hates women or that he believes they have no value. For that, I would need indication that Rothfuss was capable of actually writing compelling and developed characters. After 200 pages I had yet to see one. His main character is as insufferable as he is a grossly exaggerated ubermensch. The rest of the supporting characters seem to only existto further develop just how awesome Kvothe is at everything compared to everyone else.
This unintentional sexism can really be fixed by one thing and that is simply improving the quality of the writing. For, I think, by improving and developing their skill, good writers begin to realize that their perspective and thoughts can’t dominate that of the people they pen. By exploring other individuals and their experiences, authors begin to delve into deeper and greater stories that will naturally drift away from discriminatory presentation.
Course, this isn’t to say there aren’t bigots out there writing stories. But for most of us who aren’t assholes, the natural development of our skills should steer use clear of these pitfalls. It took reading The Name of the Wind to realize that I’m not unintentionally hurting woman and for that, those insufferable pages of unending bottle polishing and monochromatic interior decorating were well worth the pain and misery they provided.
The book is still Twilight for boys, however.