The Absence of Women
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.
Before I actually name the book and start talking about it, though, two caveats:
1) If you are a fan of the novel in question, please don’t fly off the handle at the criticism here. This is not meant as an attack on the author (who is, by everything I know of him, a really good guy), nor an attack on you for liking it. In a certain sense, it isn’t even an attack on the novel. I’m dissecting this one in great detail not because it’s The Worst Book Ever (it isn’t), but because it’s a really clear example of a widespread problem, and one that would have been trivially easy to fix.
2) Please don’t answer my points here by saying “well, in the second book . . . .” This thing is 722 pages long in the edition I read. That is more than enough time to do something interesting with female characters. I would be glad to know if the representation of women improves later on — but even if it does, that doesn’t change my experience of this book. It stood alone for four years, until the sequel was published. It can be judged on its own merits, and what comes later does not negate what happened first.
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.
In order of appearance in the text, we have:
Kvothe’s mother. First appearance: p 59. Last appearance: p 126. Gets a moderate amount of dialogue, but no name — though note that Kvothe’s father Arliden has a name. Narrative role: to be part of a loving family and then die along with Arliden and the rest of the troupe, thus propelling Kvothe into his story. (I do not count references to her after she dies as “appearances,” though I will note that they’re vastly outnumbered by posthumous references to Arliden.)
Hetera. First appearance: p 60. Last appearance: p 60. No dialogue. Narrative role: she’s a whore who teaches boy!Kvothe some valuable (though not sexual) lessons. Note that her name is closely related to the Greek word for “whore.”
Lady Lackless. First appearance: p 85. Last appearance: p 87. No dialogue. Narrative role: she features in a bawdy song Kvothe knows.
Lady Perial. First appearance: p 85. Last appearance: p 176. There’s a two-page segment where she’s a character in a play, and also the focus of a bawdy joke; she has no dialogue there. Later, presuming it’s the same character, her story is told on pp 173-176, and she gets dialogue. Narrative role: she is very pious and then gives birth to ~Jesus.
(In here we also have an unnamed brewer’s wife whose narrative purpose is to lure away Kvothe’s tutor Abenthy. I won’t count her in the totals, because she has neither name nor dialogue, but I want to note her existence.)
Lyra. First appearance: p. 89. Last appearance: p 200. She’s a historical figure mentioned in passing a few times before her story (or rather, the story of her lover Lanre) is told in pp 195-200. No dialogue. Narrative role: she’s a powerful sorceress who brings the hero Lanre back from the dead with her arts and her love. Then she dies, and her death causes Lanre to turn into an immortal villain.
Shandi. First appearance: p 117. Last appearance: p 126. Gets a small amount of dialogue. Narrative role: she’s part of the traveling troupe Kvothe belongs to, and dies with all the rest of them. She also shows Abenthy a “special dance” in her tent.
Unnamed Hillside woman. First appearance: p 162. Last appearance: p 163. No name, three words of dialogue (“You poor dear”). Narrative role: gives beggar!Kvothe money.
Holly. First appearance: p 165. Last appearance: p 167. Gets seven lines of dialogue. Narrative role: urges her male companion to leave beggar!Kvothe in the gutter after he’s been beaten, because they’re busy running away from other people.
Unnamed tavern girl #1. First appearance: p 168. Last appearance: p 169. Has one line of dialogue. Narrative role: offers beggar!Kvothe shelter after his beating.
Unnamed tavern girl #2. First appearance: p 168. Last appearance: p 169. Has one line of dialogue. Narrative role: offers beggar!Kvothe shelter after his beating.
Unnamed girl in audience. First appearance: p 193. Last appearance: p 193. Has one paragraph of dialogue (before somebody hits her and makes her shut up). Narrative role: she wants the storyteller Sharpi to tell a different tale than the one Kvothe asked for.
Deah. First appearance: p 208. Last appearance: p. 208. No dialogue. Narrative role: character mentioned in one of Skarpi’s tales, who turned into an angel. Known for having two dead husbands.
Geisa. First appearance: p 208. Last appearance: p. 208. No dialogue. Narrative role: character mentioned in one of Skarpi’s tales, who turned into an angel. Known for having a hundred suitors, and may have been the first woman ever raped. (Not sure what else to make of “the first woman to know the unasked-for touch of man.”)
Aleph. First appearance: p 208. Last appearance: p. 208. No dialogue. Narrative role: character mentioned in one of Skarpi’s tales, who turned into an angel. Known for having pretty hair.
Reta. First appearance: p 230. Last appearance: p 244. Gets two lines of dialogue. Narrative role: she’s the wife of the guy who gives Kvothe a ride to Imre; she refunds part of the money he paid for the ride.
Denna. First appearance: p 230. Last appearance: p 711. Gets dialogue. Narrative role: we’ll get back to that.
Ria. First appearance: p 273. Last appearance: p 274. Gets dialogue. Narrative role: student who is late to class. One of the University Masters publicly humiliates her by referring to the space between her legs as “the gates of hell.”
Fela. First appearance: p 274. Last appearance: p 708. Gets dialogue. Narrative role: she tells Kvothe how to use the library. Later, a different male character hits on her in an unwelcome fashion, and Kvothe saves her from his attentions while she sits there helplessly. Later still, Kvothe saves her from a fire while she stands around helplessly. Eventually she helps Kvothe learn his way around the Archives.
Mola. First appearance: p 307. Last appearance: p 698. Gets dialogue. Narrative role: she gives Kvothe medical treatment on several occasions. She also meets Auri, in what I think is the novel’s sole Bechdel pass.
Tabetha. First appearance: p 322. Last appearance: p 322. No dialogue. Narrative role: she’s described as having claimed that Kvothe’s nemesis was going to marry her; then she vanished. Implication is that the nemesis got rid of her.
Unnamed serving girl. First appearance: p 329. Last appearance: p 329. Gets dialogue. Narrative role: she serves drinks, and complains that one of Kvothe’s friends groped her.
Emmie. First appearance: p 337. Last appearance: p 337. Gets dialogue. Narrative role: receptionist at the insane asylum.
Devi. First appearance: p 357. Last appearance: p 653. Gets dialogue. Narrative role: she’s the loan shark who provides Kvothe with money on a few occasions.
Auri. First appearance: p 385. Last appearance: p 701. Gets dialogue. Narrative role: mentally unstable semi-wild girl who shows Kvothe around the Underthing, which allows him to sneak into the Archives.
Aloine. First appearance: p 394. Last appearance: p 404 (there are brief references to her after that, but I’m not counting them because they’re actually references to Denna in the role of Aloine). Dialogue insofar as she exists as a speaker in a song. Narrative role: character in a song Kvothe sings; performed by Denna.
Marea. First appearance: p 398. Last appearance: p 413. No dialogue. Narrative role: she fails in the same musical competition Kvothe succeeds in, and unsuccessfully hits on him afterward.
Unnamed woman at Anker’s. First appearance: p 453. Last appearance: p 453. Gets three sentences of dialogue. Narrative role: yells at Anker to get back inside and work.
Nell. First appearance: p 642. Last appearance: p 642. Gets dialogue. Narrative role: abused serving girl in Trebon.
Verainia Greyflock/Nina. First appearance: p 648. Last appearance: p 650. Narrative role: she saw what was dug up at Mauthen’s, and is the catalyst for “the first time [Kvothe] felt like any sort of hero,” because he gave her a fake charm that made her feel safe from demons.
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.
Those are the statistics. Here’s the point.
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, and b) the only visible reason for connecting Trapis to the priesthood is that it gives a not-very-necessary justification for why he tells the story of
the Virgin Mary Perial and her much more important divine son. We’re told that men outnumber women at the University by about ten to one; this is both a choice Rothfuss made (rather than some immutable historical fact he had no choice but to accurately represent), and still not a reason why we see so few women there. With nine Masters and a Chancellor, the odds that none of them would be a woman is thirty-nine percent. Sure, institutional bias would affect that; if women are that small of a minority, it’s not going to be equal-opportunity selection for the top roles. The fact remains: time and time again, whether consciously or unconsciously, Rothfuss made choices that resulted in him writing about very few women, most of them only fleetingly, many of them in sexualized or objectified ways.
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.
Ah, you say — but what about Denna?
What about her, indeed. Let’s quote from p 351:
“Think now. What does our story need? What vital element is it lacking?”
“Women, Reshi,” Bast said immediately. “There’s a real paucity of women.”
Kvothe smiled. “Not women, Bast. A woman. The woman.”
And then just after that, on p 352:
As with all truly wild things, care is necessary in appraching them. Stealth is useless. Wild things recognize stealth for what it is, a lie and a trap. While wild things play games of stealth, and in doing so may even occasionally fall prey to stealth, they are never truly caught by it.
So. With slow care rather than stealth we must approach the subject of a certain woman. Her wildness is of such degree, I fear approaching her too quickly even in a story. Should I move recklessly, I might startle even the idea of her into sudden flight.
Note that at this point we have been given no hint that the woman in question is Denna, from earlier in the book. She’s just some unknown mystery woman being compared to “wild things.” Returning to the topic again, thirty pages later, on p 382:
The Eolian is where our long-sought player is waiting in the wings. I have not forgotten that she is what I am moving toward.
When she finally shows up as more than a voice, on p 416, we get this:
“Looking up, I saw her and all I could think was, beautiful.
And one more, from p 417:
“Of course I talked to her. There would be no story if I hadn’t. Telling that part is easy. But first I must describe her. I’m not sure how to do it. […] My trouble, Bast, is that she is very important. Important to the story. I cannot think of how to describe her without falling short of the mark.”
I suspect all of this build-up is intended to make Denna seem awesome. Unfortunately, what it actually does is make her seem like an object. When we saw her first, she existed for Kvothe to make calf eyes at; here, where we don’t know it’s her again, it’s no better. In fact, it’s worse. She doesn’t get a name. She is the woman, explicitly standing in for all the other women whose absence from this story gets dismissed as soon as Bast brings it up. She gets compared to a wild animal. When she starts to show up, the story halts for Kvothe to reinforce that she is VERY VERY IMPORTANT — and apparently the most important thing about her is her beauty, because the story has to grind to a halt while Kvothe gets stuck on how to describe it. (Bast, trying to help, lights upon “She had perfect ears.”)
For literally sixty-eight pages — almost ten percent of the book, from when we get told she’s coming to when she finally appears — she isn’t a character; she’s a thing. A beautiful thing that shows up in the nick of time to help Kvothe when he needs it. The men go on for literally four pages about her appearance, with Bast saying her nose was a little narrow and crooked but Kvothe countering that this did not diminish her beauty in the slightest. We hear about her hair color, her eye color (a whole paragraph devoted to those), her lips (another paragraph) — we get all of that before we get her name, and then another page about her beauty before the story goes on. Including this gem:
“Finally, say that she was beautiful. That is all that can be well said. That she was beautiful, through to her bones, despite any flaw or fault. She was beautiful, to Kvothe at least. At least? To Kvothe she was most beautiful.”
Through an accident of typesetting, in my edition those four uses of the word “beautiful” line up almost perfectly in that paragraph. Did you know she was beautiful? LET ME TELL YOU THAT SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL. You could not hammer this point home harder if you used a jackhammer to do it. Forget whether she was smart, or brave, or ever did anything more important than the day she helped Kvothe win a music competition. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL.
Oh, and nearly three more pages follow this, in which Kvothe marvels at her some more and angsts about whether she remembers him and so forth before finally, at the bottom of the third page, on the four hundred twenty-third page of this novel, she speaks.
Now, you may suggest that this is meant to represent the fact that Kvothe at the time of meeting her was fifteen. But Kvothe at the time of telling the story is older; we are led to believe he has had many experiences involving Denna, experiences that are vitally important to the tale of his life. Despite that, he believes the most important thing he can possibly focus on in introducing her is her appearance. This tells me that adult!Kvothe is a sexist, objectifying ass: Bast, ever hanging lampshades on things, points out that “All the women in your story are beautiful.” But there are ways to present this sort of thing as a character viewpoint without making it seem like that is the author viewpoint as well, and unfortunately, those ways are not on display here.
An unreliable narrator is not enough to counterbalance all of this. And even if it were: the fact would remain that Rothfuss chose to tell his story through a narrator who is a sexist, objectifying ass — thus reinforcing all the sexist, objectifying narratives we’ve already got.
It didn’t have to be this way.
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 does not 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.
And here’s the most aggravating part: these problems are easy to fix. It doesn’t require a massive rethinking of the story to move it into a zone where I wouldn’t have felt the need to make this post. You don’t have to redesign the world. All you have to do is look at some of the characters and ask, is there a reason for them to be male?
If I were changing things, I would start with Bast. Make him female. He’s the second important person to show up in the story, after Kvothe; having a significant female character appear that early would make a good first impression. He takes less of Kvothe’s shit than most, and calls him out on the way he’s telling his story; putting that in the mouth of a woman would do a lot to highlight the ways in which Kvothe may be an unreliable narrator. And it would pay off really well at the end of this volume, when Bast threatens Chronicler if he goes digging too deep into the bad parts of Kvothe’s life. Bast was scary then, because he showed he had knowledge and power of his own. I would have loved to see a woman in that role.
Next I would make it so that Kvothe’s mother was writing the words of the Important Plot Song, and Kvothe’s father was composing the music. Then it’s a joint project, and it gives her agency in the resulting disaster, rather than just putting her in the refrigerator.
I’d make Fela one of Kvothe’s social circle from the start, and skip all the white-knighting incidents. I’d also make either Kilvin or Elodin a woman, so that there’s a woman in the story who possesses skills and knowledge Kvothe wants. As the tale currently stands, the things he learns from women are minor and mundane, like how to use the library. The things he learns from men are significant and powerful, like sygaldry and sympathy. Re-gendering one of the Masters would redress that imbalance.
And for the love of god, I’d skip all that crap about Denna’s beauty, all the objectifying framing and language that turns her into a thing and brushes off all other women as irrelevant. If there’s something more going on with her, make that clear, even if you don’t say what it is. Give the reader reasons to believe she’s important that don’t boil down to her appearance.
That’s four exceedingly simple changes and one that only requires a little bit of work. Five alterations, and the book would not become one I recommend to friends as having awesome female characters . . . but it would stop being one I feel the need to dissect for several thousand words on the internet. Really, when you get down to it, there are only two changes at the core:
1) Don’t objectify the women. (It isn’t just Denna. Take a look at the original stats and see how many of the female characters are in some fashion sexualized, or else exist purely to give a small bit of aid to Kvothe. By my count, it’s fifteen of twenty-nine.)
2) Ask yourself, from time to time, whether there’s a reason Character X has to be a man — instead of the other way around.
It really isn’t that hard. And that’s why I do not understand how we still have so many books, so many best-selling novels, that can’t even manage that much. Rothfuss said in a Q&A that when a friend of his read his high school novel, he was shocked to hear her say that he had no female characters in it at all. He hadn’t even noticed the absence until she pointed it out. He told that story to illustrate the problem, and he’s done better here . . . but there’s still a vast space for improvement.
I said this before, but I need to repeat it for emphasis: this isn’t even really about The Name of the Wind. It’s an example of a problem, not the cause of it. It’s a case in point, a thing to look at when you want to see what absence and objectification look like and consider how easy they would be to avoid. I’m not asking for Denna to be more awesome than Kvothe. I’m not saying that precisely 50% of the characters need to be women or I won’t read the book. (I enjoyed The Name of the Wind; I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t constantly been noting the lack of women.) I’m just pointing out, for fuck’s sake, we exist. We aren’t even rare. Why aren’t we in the story? Why don’t we matter?
It isn’t rocket science. Authors ought to be able to get this right.