The world of Earthsea is very, very sexist. Women are relegated to very low-level jobs, they are essentially chattel, and they have very few options in life. What could be the most powerful position for a woman–that of witch–is undermined by a culture of misogyny. And make no mistake: this is blatant, unveiled misogyny. Multiple men throughout the books say things like “everything women spew is mindless poison,” “you and all of your kind are despicable,” or “women’s work is beneath me and without value.”
Obviously, Ursula LeGuin herself is not sexist. Although one could say she is not without sin: she did knowingly make all the women characters in “A Wizard of Earthsea” into stock treacherous seductresses. But that’s beside the point.
What she was trying to do in these books was deal with the sexism of the real world through its reflection in Earthsea. She intensified what she had gathered from reading history and fantasy, and from living in the world of the mid-twentieth century, and created a world of rampant sexism.
What I can’t help but wonder is: was this at all useful? You see, this mode of “intensifying” sexism in Earthsea implies that what LeGuin sees in our world is misogyny. It claims that the root of sexism is hatred of women, and that it must be dealt with on those terms.
But most of the men of our world–and indeed, perhaps the majority of men of the past–did not have these attitudes. They might claim that women cannot be as smart as men, but they be unlikely to insist that every single woman is stupid. They can call women’s work “less,” or of lower status, but they wouldn’t say it is without value. After all, they had to eat too–they can’t call their food valueless.
Today, what are considered the most sexist societies on the planet insist that they honor women. The Saudis claim that women’s beauty is too powerful to be shown in public, Qataris believe their women are above the world and should be kept away from it. Eastern Asian societies demonize working mothers by celebrating motherhood itself. The Christian extreme right insists that women are pure and beautiful, and thus must be protected. And this is far from a new phenomenon: throughout history, societies have celebrated the “women’s role” and kept the woman confined to that role.
Arguments can be made that this is just a way of disguising misogyny. But I would wager you’d be hard pressed to find a man who doesn’t love his mother, even among the ranks of the worst sexists int he world. Can a man who loves his mother truly be a misogynist? If the answer is yes, how do we change anything?
I don’t have the answers. But maybe the fact that Earthsea has me asking the questions at all is the whole point.