In a previous blog I talked about how I tried something different and didn’t abandon The Name of the Wind after a couple of hundred pages. This is what I usually do when I discover that a novel is filled to the brim with unconscious acceptance of ideas that I don’t much want roaming about in my head. In my idiolect -thought-weasels. When I end up in the presence of thought-weasels I don’t ignore them, because that’s how they get in. Either I walk away – ie: abandon the book, or I mentally challenge and seek to understand their twisty weasel ways so I’m forearmed for future encounters. Since I didn’t abandon this one… yeah you guessed it.
So. One of the biggest toothiest thought-weasels in Name of the Wind is the default male. This is well described a in good post about the weasel on the blog Crates and Ribbons:
"The default male makes its presence felt very heavily in the media, from films, to TV shows, to games, to books. This means that, unless the plot makes it absolutely necessary for the character to be female, or the writer is making a specific point about gender, the go-to option is usually male. … And what this means is that the characters that are female are not only fewer in number, they also tend to fall into very narrow, gendered roles—mother, hero’s love interest, damsel in distress, or highly-sexualised heroine."
Name of the Wind has a raging case of default male. From the beginning of the novel and for chapter after chapter we wander about a landscape filled with villagers, blacksmiths, soldiers, tavern keepers, farmers, servants, officials, actors, musicians, monsters, spirits, animal handlers, servants, craftspeople, none of them female. It takes seven chapters for even one minor secondary female character to turn up. Based on the frequency of male to female characters appearing in this book the gender balance of this world looks to be about 95/5.
After awhile I started amusing myself imagining possible reasons for this. Perchance some sort of sex specific plague was raging throughout the land. Or maybe this is a segregated society and all the womenz are in the womenz villages doing womenz type farming and tavern keeping and servanting. Or… most of the women are disguised as men because they belong to a secret society and are up to something sneaky? Maybe it’s a world of shape shifters, and people just generally wear their genitals as outies unless they need innies for a project?
All of these would in fact be interesting choices – I might really enjoy reading some of the novels that would arise out of those choices! Of course that isn’t what’s happening. Women exist in this world, you know that they exist because the society hasn’t developed rules and structures to deal with there being only 5 women for every 90 men. Which would have to happen. So the women are there, its just that nobody notices or talks about or to the great majority of them. Sigh. Giant toothy thought weasel rampaging about the landscape - women incidental to the narrative, women not important enough to have stories, women the invisible majority. Oh shut up you ding dang thought weasel, I am not incidental to the narrative, bugger off.
When the few female characters who exist in this tale do start to show up they most of them fit exactly into the narrow gendered roles of the default male narrative. Well we gotta have moms, somebody’s got to make sure the male characters get born and raised and fed, right? Can’t be male if some male character is going to fall in love or lust with them, because then we’ve got us a society with homosexuals in it! Just as almost everyone is default male almost everyone is also default straight. Can’t be male if in need of rescuing because only women and children can’t rescue themselves right? So that’s what we get. Moms, wives, girlfriends, femmes fatales, damsels to be rescued. Sigh again.
My best guess is that this isn’t actually intentional on Rothfuss’ part. Its just a side effect of the unconscious adoption of the default male narrative. If you never add a female character unless you’ve got some specific reason she needs to be female, and if you aren’t terribly thoughtful about gender in the first place, pretty soon you’ve got a women only exist in relation to men story taking shape.
One of the first female characters to show up is the mother of the protagonist. Kvothe’s Mom really really likes Kvothe’s dad. This appears to be her defining characteristic. She is described as clinging to him, draped on him, holding his arm, or wrapped around him so many times I started to wonder if she had some wasting disease that required her to twine herself about a support in order to move from place to place. I suspect the reason for this is that the author wanted to show that the protagonist’s parents had a happy marriage. Thing is, Kvothe’s Dad talks to other characters, he leads and manages a troup of performers, he negotiates with townspeople about where the troop will set up, he hires new members, he purchases supplies, he makes decisions. Kvothe’s Mom mostly hugs Kvothe’s dad and reminds Kvothe to eat and dress warm. She is apparently an accomplished lyricist, but the songs she writes with her husband are always referred to as “his songs,” and he takes all the credit for them. And so it goes.
So hmm, reading my nice little adventure story and identifying with the female characters as one does and wait, what, my job in life is to support the men of my family and help them to be successful and happy? And let them take the credit for anything we did together, and… hmmmm where have I heard this before, it seems vaguely familiar… Oh RIGHT, avaunt ye, ye damn thought weasel! Excuse me a moment I have to go smash some things in my subconscious before they get out of hand and I find myself sitting home making sandwiches for the boys while they have adventures.
I have a little proposal for people severely infected with the default male narrative. Just stop gendering your characters at all. Make them all of indeterminate gender for the duration of your story. Then when you get done, put the names into a random number generator and let chance decide who is male and who is female. Then edit your book accordingly. I think it would be extraordinarily illuminating, especially for people who mean well but just have Prince Valiant stuck in their heads. I sympathize, I really do. I’ve got Prince Valiant and all his ilk stuck in my head too. They’re extraordinarily persistent barnacles. Barnacles that must go!
But wait, I hear some illusory straw man I want to argue with now say; this is a standard medievalish European fantasy world, aren’t you just imposing your modern sensibilities about gender politics blah blah historical accuracy snarf. Hi straw man dude or dudette! Let me introduce you to a brand new and shiny thought-weasel. So. In the first section of the book the protagonist’s tutor and mentor (male, natch) decides to marry and leave the troupe, because he has met a widow who needs help because the brewery her husband left to her is failing without a man to run it. Got that? Brewery. That sound you now hear is the sound of my head ‘sploding. Because here’s the thing. If you are going to set your fantasy in generic faux European medieval world it might be good to show some awareness that breweries were generally run by women in the middle ages.
Got that? Breweries largely female run businesses. So you can’t just toss in a throwaway line about how the woman inherited a brewery from her hubs and can’t run it. Because that makes not sense without further explanation of why this specific woman can’t do what women generally were doing in a very similar culture. Some reason is required. Other than, oh girls can’t do stuff.
I shall name this new thought-weasel the Fred Flintstone-George Jetson weasel. This is the weasel that says the gender politics of the upper middle class Victorian are eternal and omnipresent. From caveman to spaceman, from the tundra to the rainforest, from the factory worker to the ruler all societies have always had very much the same gender rules. Because they are of course natural, given, imposed by genes or evolution or the god of things being simple and familiar. Uh huh.
Hellow thought-weasel, I’d like you to meet my friends history and sociology and anthropology and personal experience of the ding dang world. Also this utterly awesome blog post by Kameron Hurley on the basis of which I read God’s War which I recommend.
My friends and the Flinstone/Jetson weasel are all going out back and have a leeetle chat. I’m going to go do something gainful, but I vill be back, because there are more thought-weasels, and yep, we have always fought them.