7

Does Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin pass the Bechdel test? (I was just told by a fan that it did; but they weren't fan enough to have proof from the books, and I vaguely recollect it had a mostly-male wizard cast).

The movie book has to have at least two [named] women in it,
who talk to each other, about something besides a man.

I'm mostly interested in "A Wizard of Earthsea" but for extra credit, other works in the series can be included.

Since there are non-human characters (I vaguely remember dragons, but it's been years since I read so don't know if they are gendered), any sentient being counts towards the test, not just humans.

  • For those of us not in the know, could you include a link/definition for "the Blechdel test"? – Steve-O Jul 6 '17 at 23:16
  • 4
    I tend to think he means the Bechdel test, but since the spelling suggests a possible sarcastic variation, I'm hesitant to edit it for him -- DVK is pretty detail oriented, and would rarely miss such a thing... – K-H-W Jul 6 '17 at 23:18
  • 2
    @K-H-W - I'm detail oriented... i'm also notoriously awful at spelling :( I mis-spelled "Voldermort" on a post with 10,000 views. Feel free to fix :) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jul 6 '17 at 23:21
  • 1
    @K-H-W - I'm above that sort of puny punnery. </snob> :P – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jul 6 '17 at 23:23
  • 3
    I wonder what's up with the downvotes -- Knowing Ursula LeGuin's work, it's a very good question, and one that clearly occurred to her (in one form or another) years later. – K-H-W Jul 7 '17 at 0:24
10

I don't have my copies handy, but, off the top of my head, no, the first book does not, as it has precious few named females, and as far as I recall, none of them spend time talking to each other. (The Phallocentric nature of the Wizardling part of the world actually becomes much more plot-central to some later novels, as well as the prequel stories; it is a men's club in A Wizard of Earthsea, but wasn't always like that.)

Thinking back on female characters from WoE:

  • His aunt, who gives him an (albeit limited) intro to magic
  • The daughter of the Lord of Re Albi (well, an enchantress, as I recall, really)
  • Various non-speaking female filler characters (vendors, etc.)
  • Vetch's sister who wears a small dragon on her wrist

Those being the only ones I remember from that book, I would think it fails the test.

That said, the second book does pass the test; the Tombs of Atuan has a female protagonist (Tenar), and several other female characters. Most conversations have nothing to do with a man; Tenar being a priestess overseeing a dark tomb, there are many other subjects, but rarely do they talk about men.

Tenar's next starring book, Tehanu, also likely passes the test, although it's been years since I've read it. The later supplemental works certainly pass the test, especially since some of them address the apparent misogyny found in the early works.


Now, for some external support, since I don't have my copies to cite:

  • Supporting book 1 failing: This article

    "I realize things were different in 1968, but this book is kind of sexist. Actually, it’s not kind of sexist, it is sexist. It’d be nice if a book written by a working woman included any female characters of substance. If A Wizard of Earthsea were a movie, it’d absolutely fail the Bechdel test. The few women/girls we meet briefly are simplified stereotypes: The Witch, The Virgin, The Crone. It’s awesome that Le Guin was ahead of her time in featuring characters of color, it’d just be that more awesome if the school had been co-ed or “witch magic” wasn’t an object of scorn by the male wizards."

  • Confirming that #2 passes: This article

    "The book passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, surpassing that minimum requirement and going on to make female characters important, to make their choices matter, to make important plot points and even the continuation of the book, or the universe. Also, to make this not a big deal."

  • 2
    I'm sure Richard has his junior novelizations ready :) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jul 6 '17 at 23:28
  • 2
    @DVK-on-Ahch-To - I've never read them. I could grab them, work out which characters are female and check to see whether they've spoken to each other. Or I could just not, which seems a far more sensible use of my time. – Valorum Jul 6 '17 at 23:38
  • Also, if you are interested this article is a list of books that DO pass the Bechdel test. – K-H-W Jul 7 '17 at 0:05
  • 8
    In fairness to Le Guin, the portrayal of a sexist society (e.g. male-only magic school, men having contempt for women's magic) is not in itself sexist. What I find slightly more worrisome (and perhaps a tad perplexing, given Le Guin's general feminism) is the occasional apparent endorsement of these ideas by the narration, and the lack of any challenges to them in the first book. There's also not much excuse for the female characters being so stereotypical and lightly characterized, though this certainly grows less so in later works. – Adamant Jul 7 '17 at 0:34
  • 1
    I just flicked through my old copy. I couldn't see any such conversations, but it's also worth mentioning I also didn't see any lines of dialogue between any two characters who weren't Ged, about anything other than Ged. It's part of the atmosphere of the book that he's always the outsider looking in or the mysterious stranger passing through – user56reinstatemonica8 Jul 7 '17 at 8:24
1

The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, has multiple named female characters who speak to each other at length about daily life and about the titular "tombs", mentioning men only in passing in a few short passages ("The priest-king puts on his pants one leg at a time." is a rough paraphrase, from memory).

I don't recall either of the other books of the original trilogy passing the Bechdel test; Earthsea wizards believe women to be unsuited to proper magic ("Weak as woman's magic, or wicked as woman's magic" was a catchphrase quoted internally), and the one example in the first book of a powerful female magician was indeed evil to the core (the other example of a female magic worker, Duny's foster mother, had very little power).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.