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.]