Is This Analogy by Patrick Rothfuss Actually Sexist?

Today I was listening to the Writing Excuses podcast when something unexpected happened. One of the hosts, Mary Robinette, said that she found something author Patrick Rothfuss said to be sexist, and they proceeded to discuss it. I applaud Mary for saying something, and I also appreciate Patrick and the others for discussing it in such a productive manner.

Yet I must admit that even after listening to the full discussion, I was confused as to exactly why the comment was sexist. So I thought I’d share the dictionary discussion of sexism and then post the context and exact quote below, as well as an explanation for my confusion. You can also listen to the comment and the ensuing discussion in the podcast starting at 17:40.

A basic definition of sexism is: attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of gender roles; discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex or gender. Just to be perfectly clear, I’m not distilling sexism down to this definition. There are many forms of sexism. I’m just providing this definition as a starting point as I try to learn from what happened in the podcast.

In the podcast, the context is that Patrick is discussing the value of having both appealing primary characters and secondary characters in fiction. He uses the following analogy: “It’s the difference between your high school crush and the person you marry for 10 years. You marry that person and stay with them for 10 years because you have a rich, important relationship with them. That doesn’t mean that the week you went to Morocco you didn’t have something really amazing and tempestuous with a dark-eyed woman there. Both of those are good…both of those things lead to a rich and satisfying life.”

Mary then requests an analogy that’s “a little less sexist,” and she explains that she finds it sexist because “comparing moments of writing with women,” given that Patrick is presenting the analogy as a universal (rather than personal) statement.

I completely respect that Mary found the analogy to be sexist. But I’m still trying to understand what about Patrick’s analogy was stereotypical or devaluing.

I think it helps to look at these types of statements when they’re flipped around (I’m in Patrick’s shoes as a straight male), so let’s say that the statement is instead. So let’s say that Mary was presenting the analogy, and she said, “That doesn’t mean that the week you went to Morocco you didn’t have something really amazing and tempestuous with a dark-eyed man there.”

The only element of that statement I find the slightest bit stereotypical is the “dark-eyed” descriptor, but that’s more racist than sexist (and really, it’s just a description. Rothfuss isn’t saying that everyone in Morocco is dark-eyed, that being dark eyed is good/bad, or that he treats dark-eyed people differently than others).

Beyond that…I just don’t get it. What is discriminatory or devaluing about Patrick’s statement? What is sexist about it? I ask because I genuinely want to better understand. I’ve even used dating as an analogy in the past, and when I’ve presented those analogies, I’ve gendered them, as I am a man who has dated (and is dating) women. So if I can’t do that, I’d like to know (and know why).

I’m very curious to hear your thoughts on this!

[Update: The overall answer as discussed in the comments–including a comment by Mary herself–is that the sexist element of the analogy is that Patrick used a woman for his metaphor, effectively objectifying her.]


23 Responses to “Is This Analogy by Patrick Rothfuss Actually Sexist?”

  1. Peter C. Hayward says:

    I don’t particularly regard the comment as sexist, but let me explain why one (reasonably) could:

    Women have a long, long history of being compared to inanimate objects. When we say you’re “objectifying” someone, that’s typically what we’re referring to – treating women as objects. Sure, you can objectify men, but it historically doesn’t have the same context. As writers, the hosts are particularly aware of how important context is.

    Here’s an example that I think makes the issue much, much clearer: let’s say you make an analogy comparing buying something to buying a person. “Buying a roomba is like buying a person who will constantly keep your house tidy.”

    It’s a weird thing to say, but it’s not the end of the world. Now, let’s add a modifier to the description (just like “woman” is the same as “female person”):

    “Buying a roomba is like buying a black person who will constantly keep your house tidy.”

    Yikes! Right?

    That’s the context that Mary was applying, that wouldn’t be as obvious to you, me, or Patrick (or most straight white men).

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Thanks Peter! I think I have a pretty good understanding of objectification, but I appreciate your examples too.

      Does that apply to this situation, though? As Mary says, she didn’t like that Rothfuss was “comparing moments of writing to women.” Is the object in this case the “moments of writing”?

      • You’re right; it’s not an “object”, per se. I should have read the original comparison more carefully before responding.

        I’ve replied to Mike’s comment below with some examples of woman-as-object-of-comparison. Object in the grammatical sense, not the literal sense 😉

    • Mike says:

      Respectfully, your counter analogy does something that is more obviously sexist or racist that Rothfuss’ analogy doesn’t directly do. Comparing a woman or black person to Roomba dredges up centuries of stereotypes about the roles of women and dredges up the subservient roles of black people during slavery and the Jim Crow south. Rothfuss’ sexism might be in going from the general “person” to the specific “dark-eyed woman” in his analogy where maybe Mary thought it was unnecessary to the analogy. I’m not of her opinion that the comment itself was sexist and am only guessing what her motivations might have been. I suspect if Rothfuss had used another word for lover (Iike lover) instead of specifying woman, Mary might not have objected because she can now see herself in the analogy.

      • “your counter analogy does something that is more obviously sexist or racist that Rothfuss’ analogy doesn’t directly do”

        Yes, this was the purpose of it. To exaggerate, so that the central idea was more clear.

        Again, I’m not saying that I agree that the example is obviously sexist, but that this is why Mary was attuned to it – because of the long history of comparing women to non-human things.

        “Suspense is like a woman. The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement. … The conventional big-bosomed blonde is not mysterious. And what could be more obvious than the old black velvet and pearls type? The perfect ‘woman of mystery’ is one who is blonde, subtle and Nordic. … Although I do not profess to be an authority on women, I fear that the perfect title [for a movie], like the perfect woman is difficult to find.” -Alfred Hitchcock

        “Depression is like a woman in black. If she turns up, don’t shoo her away. Invite her in, offer her a seat, treat her like a guest and listen to what she wants to say.”
        -Carl Jung

        “Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.”
        -Yevgeny Yevtushenko

        “Nature is like a woman who enjoys disguising herself, and whose different disguises, revealing now one part of her ad now another, permit those who study her and assiduously to hope that one day they may know the whole of her person”
        -Denis Diderot

        • Mike says:

          My wife had a good comment on this topic: she pointed out that the object of Rothfuss’ analogy was relationships (crushes vs. long term marriage material in the context of primary and secondary characters to flesh out stories), which was why I thought maybe Mary’s objection was that he went from the general to the specific (crush/spouse to dark-eyed woman).

  2. Seth H says:

    I have a lot of respect for Mary and I love Writing Excuses, but I think the reason why she is interpreting it as sexist is because of the difference between eisegesis and exegesis. Instead of interpreting the text of Patrick’s statement exegetically, trying to draw the meaning out of what he said, she is first looking at it eisegetically, reading her own interpretation into the text of his analogy. Perhaps it’s possible that because of her worldview, that’s the lens by which she interprets. Given, with a topic like sexism, racism, etc., you could argue that it’s easy to stumble into saying something that either is sexist or racist, or could be misconstrued as one or the other. The real issue, even had Patrick said something that most would interpret as sexist, would be what the intent of his words and his heart are. And perhaps because the discussion following what he said went fairly well, that might mean that Mary understood it wasn’t his intent to offend.
    All that being said, in our culture and its current strange state, the last place you should have to walk on eggshells would be in a company of writers. And one of the safest statements one should be able to make in that company ought to be an analogy, almost regardless of how egregious it is.

    • Candy Mercer says:

      you nailed it. people are viewing the world through their lens more than ever. its a real problem. its even worse when you see the problematic in everything. it is soul destroying. i know. i am having to relearn better cognitive skills after being led astray down the dark path of social justice nihilism. it becomes a reflex. I am having to work very hard to not automatically look at everything and everyone in the worst possible light. its not healthy.

  3. Cynthia Landon says:

    Maybe I shouldn’t respond to this because I think I’m extraordinarily thick skinned when it comes to stuff like this. I’m pretty much never offended by things I know others have said they found sexist, and almost always assume something is innocent or said with best intentions until proven otherwise. (That someone is just friendly and maybe a little awkward, but not a creeper, for example) 🙂

    So this isn’t offensive to me in any way. But, if I were to GUESS (probably about as good of a guess as any of you guys) I would guess that it comes from what Peter said about being compared to non-human things. While that might seem kind of sensitive to the rest of us, I can imagine to someone who has been made to feel worthless, or sub-human, this could hit a raw and painful place inside. I’m thankful that I have lived a life primarily surrounded by men who treat women with care and respect. But I do know that not everyone has been so fortunate and I try to remember that when things like this are a bit confusing to me.

    Given that we all come from different places and find different things unnerving or even upsetting or offensive, I think the best we can expect of each other is listening, understanding, doing our best not to offend a person a second time, and most importantly forgiveness when someone unknowingly hits a sore spot of yours. I don’t think this case is super obviously sexist (or we wouldn’t be having this conversation). For me, as long as someone didn’t intend to hurt, and listens to why it hurts, and tries to keep from hurting me again, we are all good.

    • Candy Mercer says:

      yes to all of the above. you cant treat people as the enemies, and think the worst all the time, see my above comment on nihilism. and having a reasonably thick skin is incredibly important. its not to let real injustice go unnoticed, but to protect against feeling slighted all the time. like having the inner strength to not take thinks personally is a really healthy thing, and in this internet age of pile on attacks and reflexive hate, its a necessary thing. i have been called everything, it used to get to me, but now i see it for what it is and it just rolls off. dealing with emotional manipulation is a bit harder, but I am getting to the point where i can see it, point it out, and move on. its not working anymore. i think calling attention to little things like this is just not productive.

  4. Phaze Interval says:

    I don’t parse the analogy as sexist in the slightest. However, I can see how one might find it “problematic.” Patrick references the gender of the person in an analogy where gender is irrelevant. I don’t have a problem with this but basically gendering anything these days tends to rile people up.

    Another interpretation is that Patrick is using this analogy to make a point and in doing so has objectified the woman in the story, she now has no agency and is just a prop for the host to use to make their point.

    I know that sounds like a Mr. Fantastic style reach –and it is– but that is sort of where we’re at right now. If I had to try and explain why: I’d say we live in an absurd, anxious world.

    • Patrick’s expression there shows how skill as a writer – twisting a dry academic comment into a vivid metaphor towards the end. Mary’s cricitism is valid in that it does have sexist implications.

      But there is a key thing that people like us (I write as a white male feminist 😉 often fail to understand about racism and sexism: that it is unavoidably about context. Almost any comment *can be* interpreted as sexist/racist is given the right context. It’s not a dichotomy of good/evil where the utterer is evil, which is how people often interpret it, defensively.

      To say that it actually is a matter of interpretation, and that such a criticism is valid if it can be shown to be feasible, is not some kind of snowflakism (ha! Neologism) where anything can be construed as wrong and offensive. The point is that it can be “called out”, the speaker can and should be at liberty not to “correct” it either – the important thing being to have this kind of discussion, and think ‘yeah, there’s not much wrong with his original metaphor, but replacing” woman” with “lover” works equally well, let’s do that instead and make one less implication of objectification.’

  5. Baylor says:

    Sadly I just think it is just a casualty of the “woke” culture. Things people of all gender, race and Creed have said since the dawn of time are now being misconstrued and measured by a society that now considers gender as a trait rather than science.

    I’m not implying that Patrick or Mary subscribe to that notion, but when I was growing up in the 80s, nobody would have even considered Patrick’s statement even remotely sexist – unless they were purposely trying to.

  6. Andrej says:

    One analogy using sexual relationships with dark-eyed women to describe an object, action or feeling is not sexist.

    But imagine all male writers are personified into one person, you Uncle Paulie. And every time, like almost literally every time, Uncle Paulie wants to describe something, he uses some questionable imagery:

    This steak is just like an affair with my cousin’s wife: hot on the surface but raw down beneath.

    My sciatica is acting up like a woman on the rag.

    This coffee is smooth, like kissing a mulatto girl just after sunset.

    After a while, basically any time he says anything about women he will sound disgusting.

    And although it is wrong to lump all male writers together, and although Patrick could be a very nice man and not sexist at all, I can understand why people are tired of using affairs with dark-eyed women as analogies. I believe this is why they trotted out the word that has set off this post.

  7. Candy Mercer says:

    I really think it is an over reaction. I find nothing sexist. It is incredibly nitpicky and really diminishes real sexism. Complete over reach. The bigger question I ask about these situations is why? Why did she go there?

    I am formerly hard left, and identified as feminist for my entire life up til now. I feel feminism as it stands is hurting women, is divisive and is not about empowerment anymore. This reflects my age, and my understanding of feminism as empowerment and equality. The current feminism is not strong, it appears so, but when you get offended by absolutely trivial things, it is weak. She was wrong, and is just parroting the zeitgeist.

    It will be noted he also spoke highly of the women in both instances. He was expressing like and admiration for them.

    There was also a sense of her being offended I think because he used sex as a metaphor. That might not have been the best choice professionally, but hardly something to get called out on. Being pedantic, she called him out on something that was mildly sexual by mislabeling it sexist. He could have done better just to avoid anything sexual in these metoo days, but I also, just feel like, again, you should not have to walk on eggshells, and that is being very nitpicky to pick up that as sexual.

    There was a case recently where a Freedom Riding Holocaust survivor Dr. Ned Lebow was professionally censored for daring to make the joke “Ladies Lingerie” in a crowded elevator. He meant nothing sexual, it is a catchphrase from his era. The offended woman is the one who imbued his intent as sexual and coercive and was so shook she could not speak to him. This, at a conference on international conflict resolution. She is also in her 50s. And Israeli. Tough woman.

    But those two words brought her to her knees so much she filed a complaint and he was censored after he refused to a forced apology. This man is married to a gender studies professor. He has a sterling record. But now he is known as a disgraced sexual harasser. This is an extreme example, but absolutely real. I, and several other survivors of sexual assault, filed a letter in defense of Professor Lebow. It is a mixed up world where I feel I have to come to the defense of men, but men are getting a bum deal right now. I worry about young men in particular, internalizing this message. How do I know? I lived with real sexism. But you know what? I did what I wanted to do.

    Sorry for a bit of a rant, I just wanted to have your back here, and also let men know this is not OK. You can’t even really complain right now. But some of us women see it, and see how wrong it is, and do not agree. I think it is mainly us older women though.

    • Duncan says:

      As a man, the best way to “have our back” isn’t to defend questionable jokes or hacky analogies, but rather to support the women calling out questionable behavior and accept genuine apologies from the men. If a friend had a little something distracting stuck in their teeth, they’d want to be told so that they could fix even if it made them a bit self conscious. You wouldn’t worry that you need to “save” your observation for when they have something huge stuck in their teeth and hopefully next time they check their teeth in a mirror after eating. Everyone makes insensitive/unaware comments occasionally and typically people are trying to help when they point that out.

      Patrick Rothfuss has an unfortunate habit of making these kind of sexualized analogies: https://jezebel.com/bestselling-fantasy-author-writes-icky-sexist-blog-post-5942221/amp
      Individually, any of them are innocent enough, but overall it generally gives the impression that he assumes his audience is default male and that assumption influences how he makes his points. Reminding him repeatedly that that isn’t the case is the act of a friend who wants him to be more aware if his surroundings.

  8. Hi! A friend pointed me over here.

    So, Pat’s an old friend and I read a lot of his writing. I’ve seen him make use of this analogy other places with a lot more detail, so I knew where he was going. I’ve seen him get flak for it. In this case, I was in a position to say “I’d love it if you’d use a different analogy.”

    In the moment, I thought we weren’t going to keep it. We have a hand signal we use when we need to interrupt the podcast, so when we decided to keep the discussion that was like a gift.

    At the same time, I didn’t slow down to unpack all of the problems with the systemic use of women as an objectified metaphor because the guys got it. (And thank you, Peter Hayward, for citing similar examples here.)

    This particular one wasn’t terrible, but if I had let it roll what would possibly have happened is that to engage with metaphor, we would have to extend it. I’ve been in situations, similar to this, in which panelists continue using women as metaphors.

    If he’d just been talking about relationships, I wouldn’t have had my “danger” flags go up.

    We also talked about it post-recording and Pat continued to refine a new analogy.We recorded a three or four more additional episodes.

    • Mike says:

      That’s pretty cool that you (someone involved in the discussion Jamey posted about) came here to offer your thoughts that we were only able to make guesses on. Thanks for adding this firsthand info to this discussion.

    • Stephen says:

      [parts of this comment have been redacted due to the tone violating the rules of engagement for this blog]

      In comments under the episode (both on the podcast website and twitter), you say that what upsets you about such metaphors and the reason they are sexists is because they suggest men value women’s appearance over abilities.

      But having a tempestuous night with a dark-eyed woman suggests nothing about that woman’s abilities. It’s just an affair where two (not one!) people find each other attractive.

      The man does not care whether she’s a rocket scientists or can play the piano. And the woman does not care whether he is a genius engineer or a good father. They both value each other’s appearance because that is what they are looking for that weekend. Attraction between men and women is not sexism.

      • When we’re discussing narrative, we can really only know what is on the page. We can interrogate that to see what’s important and two of the cues we use, besides the actual words used, are “Focus” and
        “Breath/Rhythm.”

        Focus is what the character is thinking about, which we can tell because the words they use point us to that.

        For instance, “The man walked into the room, in the chair was a blonde.”

        Breath/Rhythm tells us how the character feels about a thing, based on how long they linger on something.

        For instance, “The man walked into the room, there was a blonde in the chair. She had hair to the base of her spine and legs that wouldn’t stop.”

        Vs.

        “The man walked into the room, in the chair was a blonde. The chair was a fine bent hardwood with an embroidered cushion, probably from the early 1800s.”

        In these examples, “the man” takes shape as two very different indivduals based on what he focuses and lingers on. But in both cases, the woman is a cipher because we have only her appearance, but nothing about what she is noting or lingering on.

        So, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with mutual attraction between people. The first part of the analogy, I also had no issues with “marriage” vs. “high school crush.” My danger flags went up later.

        As you note, I’ve said that there’s a pattern of valuing women’s appearance over their abilities. In this example, the number of words dedicated to her appearance fit into that pattern.

        Fortunately, Pat understood quickly, and we were able to move to the question of the podcast which was about how to revise something that you’ve decided to change. It was a fun discussion and continued for awhile after the episode ended. I wish you’d heard his lecture about revisions, in which he talked about how much he agonizes over each word in a manuscript. The number of revisions the man goes through is truly staggering.

      • Harry Fox says:

        The men who think in the same way as the example man in your metaphor value women as objects!
        Is that really so offensive?
        The reaction here outweighs the comment, surely.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Mary: I’m flattered that you would see this and take the time to respond. I didn’t want to make this post about your work or Patrick’s work, but since you’re here, I want to say that your Lady Astronaut series was among my favorite books I read in 2018 (https://jameystegmaier.com/2019/01/my-favorite-books-of-2018/). Keep up the great work, and I appreciate the conversation created by this episode of Writing Excuses.

Leave a Reply