So deeply ingrained that you hardly notice it is there at all

Terry Pratchett gave a talk in 1985 titled Why Gandalf Never Married.

(Well first of all because Tolkienland is almost entirely male. Tolkien clearly didn’t want no stinkin’ women cluttering up his myth. Women are downers; everybody hates them.)

While I was plundering the fantasy world for the next cliche to pull a few laughs from, I found one which was so deeply ingrained that you hardly notice it is there at all. In fact it struck me so vividly that I actually began to look at it seriously.

That’s the generally very clear division between magic done by women and magic done by men.

*waves from the back row*

I notice it. I notice things like that. Feminists do notice things like that. It’s why everybody hates us, even more than everybody hates women. We notice things like that, and what things like that imply about what everyone thinks about women. And then we get very pissed off and worried about the future for girls, and we talk about it a lot, and everybody hates us even more.

Let’s talk about wizards and witches. There is a tendency to talk of them in one breath, as though they were simply different sexual labels for the same job. It isn’t true. In the fantasy world there is no such thing as a male witch. Warlocks, I hear you cry, but it’s true. Oh, I’ll accept you can postulate them for a particular story, but I’m talking here about the general tendency. There certainly isn’t such a thing as a female wizard.

Sorceress? Just a better class of witch. Enchantress? Just a witch with good legs. The fantasy world. in fact, is overdue for a visit from the Equal Opportunities people because, in the fantasy world, magic done by women is usually of poor quality, third-rate, negative stuff, while the wizards are usually cerebral, clever, powerful, and wise.

Well yes. Welcome to the wonderful world of Being Aware of Cultural Stereotypes Everywhere.

Of course magic done by women is usually of poor quality, third-rate, negative stuff, because that’s how women are in the stereotypes. That’s why we fight them. Because they self-perpetuate, and they lead to all sorts of shitty consequences.

Now you can take the view that of course this is the case, because if there is a dirty end of the stick then women will get it. Anything done by women is automatically downgraded. This is the view widely held — well, widely held by my wife every since she started going to consciousness-raising group meetings — who tells me it’s ridiculous to speculate on the topic because the answer is so obvious. Magic, according to this theory, is something that only men can be really good at, and therefore any attempt by women to trespass on the sacred turf must be rigorously stamped out. Women are regarded by men as the second sex, and their magic is therefore automatically inferior. There’s also a lot of stuff about man’s natural fear of a woman with power; witches were poor women seeking one of the few routes to power open to them, and men fought back with torture, fire and ridicule.

I’d like to know that this is all it really is. But the fact is that the consensus fantasy universe has picked up the idea and maintains it. I incline to a different view, if only to keep the argument going, that the whole thing is a lot more metaphorical than that. The sex of the magic practitioner doesn’t really enter into it. The classical wizard, I suggest, represents the ideal of magic — everything that we hope we would be, if we had the power. The classical witch, on the other hand, with her often malevolent interest in the small beer of human affairs, is everything we fear only too well that we would in fact become.

Yes…That’s the same thing. That’s not a different thing, it’s the same thing. The classical wizard represents the ideal, and the ideal is of course male. That’s the same thing. Always, without even thinking about it, thinking the ideal, the standard, the generic, the typical, the best, the most usual, the classic, the normal, is male, while the female is always the exception, the weird, the not as good – that’s the same thing. It’s the entrenched stereotype, that we’re all stuck with (unless we grew up in a very unusual and very isolated bubble), that males are general and right while women are defective.



  1. cafeeineaddicted says

    I had to check the date, but I’m not surprised that this talk was out 2 years before Pratchett’s “Equal Rites” which dealt precisely with that issue of male and female magic, women wizards and witches.

  2. Al Dente says

    Pratchett has some very strong, three-dimensional women in his books. Granny Weatherwax may be short on formal education but her intelligence and insight into human relationships is formidable. Plus she doesn’t take any shit from anyone. Nanny Ogg is also a memorable character, able to face down the King of the Elves in his lair. These two characters are both witches.

  3. John Wasson says

    Indeed, “without thinking about it”. If one does think about it “the entrenched stereotype” is absurd because there’s no evidence. In a similar way I’ve heard otherwise intelligent racists lead themselves into absurdity with arguments trying to defend racism.

    There is evidence contrary to the entrenched stereotype. Take science. Noether (a pure mathematician but Noether’s theorems in mathematical physics–invariance, symmetry, conservation–fundamental) and Curie historically of course. And currently, Shirley Tilghman’s balancing of her brilliant career. Suzanne Fortier at McGill, 64 and stoked. A polymath with emphasis on the math: she and Dr. Hauptman “would sit together and admire the equations because there is such beauty. It’s like looking at musical scores, with symmetry and harmony and all that. It’s just so beautiful.” (Globe and Mail, Sept. 20, 2014, B-3) R.I.P. Dirac. Some move on from advanced science: Vandana Shiva (PhD on the core of quantum mechanics); Angela Merkel (advanced degree in physical chemistry). Synthetic thinkers like Ellen LaConte. This just off the top of one’s head. And in other areas, literature …

  4. Blanche Quizno says

    Well, the entrenched stereotype shows up in headlines like “Female Doctor Contracts Ebola”. Why not “Doctor Contracts Ebola – Dr. Viola Bruff was diagnosed with ebola yesterday blah blah blah”? Virtually all the highly paid, dynamic professions are assumed by default to be masculine (even in a language without masculine and feminine articles).

    The Harry Potter movies had formidable female characters, notably student Hermoine Granger, “the most brilliant witch of her generation”, who saves hero Harry Potter’s ass more than once. One of the main teachers was played by Dame Maggie Smith, and the evil headmistress was played by the excellent Imelda Staunton. Of course, the noble headmaster Dumbledore was a man, and Our Hero, Harry, was male, AND the worst villain of them all was a man, and most of the characters were men…yeah, still a long way to go. And that French school for witches seemed to only teach the students seduction spells…barf.

  5. qwints says

    Pratchett seems to be differentiating between ‘women are inferior therefore women characters have inferior magic’, and ‘these characters have inferior magic, therefore they must be women.” While the same misogyny motivates both tropes, they’re not the same thing and an author who’s aware of them would subvert them differently. Pratchett’s work, for example, makes the sex discrimination explicit and institutionalized while having his witch protagonists be much more competent in general than his wizard practitioners, with complex characters and exceptions on both sides.

    The tone of the post, which I perceive as a condescending ‘welcome to the party,’ is somewhat off-putting giving that the speech is almost 30 years old.

  6. Dylan Gault says

    A few years ago I taught a class looking at the way role-playing games work and some of their sociological implications. One thing that we looked at was the potential for these games to reinforce social constructions, including ideas of gender.* There is a lot that can be said on this topic, but I’d like to leave at least one positive story here.

    One of the first issues of Dragon Magazine, the official magazine for Dungeons & Dragons, included an article about female versions of the classes that one could play in the game (e.g., fighter, thief, wizard). The substitutions were what one expects: less direct confrontation, more seduction and beguiling. While many ideas that appeared in Dragon Magazine would eventually appear in the official rules for the game, these ideas on gendered classes never did. The rules of Dungeons & Dragons have continued to remain almost entirely free from imposing gender differences.

    While I don’t doubt that there are many other ways that pernicious ideas of gender entered these games as played, I was quite pleased to find that the core role-playing game avoided, for the most part, embracing these ideas as rules.

    * For the class, I adapted some of the work of Ruth Hubbard on how assumptions about gender can enter scientific descriptions, which are then in turn used to justify these assumptions. Similarly, in role-playing games one creates a narrative world, one in which at least some things must be believable and may shape or reinforce what participants believe in the future.

  7. Kelseigh says

    I think this is one reason why when it comes to “sorcerer’s apprentice” narratives, I like XXX-Holic by CLAMP much more than Harry Potter. HP’s magic is highly male-dominated and hierarchical, while XXX-Holic is a more free-form, individual approach that derives from a female authority figure, capricious though she may be. I far prefer the side that exhibits caring and empathy.

    Plus, Watanuki is a much more appealing character to me than Harry, who always comes off as a bit self-centred. Yes, the former starts out that way but he grows out of it to become not a legendary hero or saviour, but rather a good person who’s good for those around him.

  8. Pliny the in Between says

    The Dune universe is another fine example
    “(Reverend Mother) There is a place, terrifying to us, to women.
    (Paul) This is the place they cannot look.”

    Of course a male messiah was just the ticket to set right the centuries of female scheming that had gone before and see what they had missed..

  9. Katydid says

    Terry Pratchett was absolutely brilliant. It’s a tragedy that Alzheimer’s has taken his mind. As noted above, his witches are certainly no slouches. One of Pratchett’s tricks is to lull you into believing a character is superficial, then suddenly twisting the situation so you see the underlying cunning.

  10. says

    Reading the Tiffany Aching books to my daughter at the moment, she is a bit young to properly understand them but Tiffany is the shero of the books. A young girl saving the Barons son from the Quin (Not Zoe 😉 ) and when they are out everyone creates their own narrative where of course he saved her. He has a sword and is the son of a Baron, so how could it have been her! Great books, I read them myself first as the “for younger readers” advisory… Ha, no way, Pratchett is brilliant even in his kids books.

  11. brucegee1962 says

    I think a particularly painful example of this is Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series, since she should have known better. I know that she wrote Tehanu later to try to redeem herself, but the sexism of Earthsea is pretty engrained. I heard her lecture about it once, and she said if she’d written it when she was a bit older, it would certainly have taken a different shape.

  12. Anne Fenwick says

    Then he went on to make a whole career out of writing very gendered magic, but gendered in an interesting way.

  13. sonofrojblake says

    The tone of the post, which I perceive as a condescending ‘welcome to the party,’ is somewhat off-putting giving that the speech is almost 30 years old.

    This. Very much this.

  14. sonofrojblake says

    Especially the acidly condescending:

    Welcome to the wonderful world of Being Aware of Cultural Stereotypes Everywhere.

    It’s almost as if the person who wrote that is entirely unaware of this man’s decades-long writing career, the 85 million books he’s sold, a large part of the appeal of which are his extremely keen understanding and subversion of cultural stereotypes. Not what I expect on this blog at all.

  15. says

    That wasn’t what I meant. I realize that’s not easy to tell, but it’s not. I meant various other things – to take off from his points to make slightly different ones, to note how much is unchanged, to expand on his points.

    What acid there was in “Welcome to the wonderful world of Being Aware of Cultural Stereotypes Everywhere” was meant for the annoying persistence and ubiquity of those stereotypes, not for Pratchett.

  16. Marnie says

    I just finished C. S. Friedman’s Magister Trilogy. It actually deals with this whole idea of witch magic versus magister (sorcerer) magic. In this series, only men can be magisters and one can only be a magister by learning from another magister. It is simply believed that women cannot be magisters, only witches. Witch magic, while good can never be as good as magisters’. The book deals pretty well with how intrenched patriarchy perpetuates a system that unnecessarily excludes women. It also looks at the different ways women try to circumvent this system intended to keep them out.

  17. qwints says

    That makes sense. I think I perceived the post as an imagined dialogue rather than a commentary on the speech because of it’s structure interspersing excerpts from the speech with direct responses.

  18. sonofrojblake says

    That wasn’t what I meant. I realize that’s not easy to tell, but it’s not.

    What’s that phrase people here love to trot out? Intent isn’t magic.

    Lecturing Pratchett on the prevalence of stereotypes (which is what this post and that line in particular do sound like) is like lecturing Stephen Hawking on the fact black holes exist and that physics is complicated. My first response to this was to assume that, having successfully taken down Shermer, Dawkins, Harris and Randi, you’d looked around and thought “who else do the male geeks idolise?”, and lacking any actual evidence that Pratchett is a clueless misogynistic douche (and in fact having in excess of sixty books in print that arguably prove the exact opposite) you resorted to digging up something he said thirty years ago and critiquing that.

    Like I said – not what I expect from this blog at all. I am disappoint.

  19. Silentbob says

    @ 19 sonofrojblake

    “Intent isn’t magic” does not mean that the author’s intent is not what they say it was. Continuing to say you are disappointed at Ophelia for “lecturing Pratchett” when she has already said that is not what she is doing makes no sense – unless you are actually accusing her of lying. Are you?

  20. sonofrojblake says

    One addendum to what I said in 19: Shermer, Dawkins, Harris and Randi took themselves down.

    @Silentbob. Thank you for educating me on what that phrase means. That wasn’t patronising at all.

    they think that because they didn’t mean that [thing they wrote to mean what it sounds like it means], it magically [does]n’t anymore

    You can be a decent person and be wrong

    the best thing to do is to apologize and seek understanding of what you did, not provide them with a complete audit of your intentions and how not-bad they were

    See post 16 for a complete audit of intentions.

    “You shouldn’t be upset because I didn’t mean it that way” isn’t going to cut it.

  21. says

    sonofroj @ 19

    Well, I don’t love to trot out the phrase “intent isn’t magic.” It’s not something I say.

    In any case I didn’t say it was magic. I simply explained what I meant, while saying that I realize it wasn’t easy to tell that I meant that. I wasn’t defending or “doubling down” (another phrase I don’t use or much like), I was just explaining what I meant.

    Your first response is noted.

  22. says

    sonofroj @ 21 – This is Butterflies and Wheels, not Brute Reason.

    Please note that I didn’t say “you shouldn’t be upset” or anything like it. I simply explained what I meant.

  23. Jackie says

    I’m a fan of the writings of HP Lovecraft, but he explicitly states that higher magics and maths are beyond the abilities of women. In The Thing at the Door *spoilers* a woman even steals a man’s body so that she can finally achieve her magical goals. She needs a man’s brain to pull it off. He was a flaming racist too.

    I love Terry Pratchett. His books are marvelous.

  24. Jackie says

    What’s that phrase people here love to trot out? Intent isn’t magic.

    Yeah, I just love to confront bigotry. I don’t just like to do it. I fucking LOVE to do it! It’s so fun to “trot out” reminders that people can behave and think in prejudiced ways without intending to when they mansplain to me reasons why I should not complain about sexism. It’s great! Thank goodness there is so much bigotry aimed at people like me so that I get the awesome opportunity to receive the backlash that inevitably comes from pointing it out. I totally don’t die a little inside with every swipe at my humanity. I never worry that it will end in me being singled out for torrents of defamation and abuse like other women are. Why would I? It’s hoot! Whoo-hoo! I bet throwing out the “race card” is just as fun, if not more so.

  25. Jackie says

    Son of a blake, I cannot believe you had the spoons to complain that someone was being patronizing toward you after that “love to trot out” sneer.

  26. sonofrojblake says

    This is Butterflies and Wheels, not Brute Reason.

    It’s not Facebook or Reuters or either, but you seem to have no problems about referring to them when it’s relevant. Or are commenters not allowed to do that?

    I simply explained what I meant, […] I wasn’t defending […], I was just explaining what I meant.[…]. I simply explained what I meant.

    Uh, yeah. I get that. Saying “I was just explaining what I meant” three times within six sentences does come across as a *little* defensive, though, don’t you think?

  27. John Morales says

    [OT + meta]


    Meh. When I first saw this post, I thought its phrasing less than felicitous, but I can contextualise what Ophelia writes because I’ve been reading her for a decade or so.

    Saying “I was just explaining what I meant” three times within six sentences does come across as a *little* defensive, though, don’t you think?

    There are multiple possible motives. Perhaps consider it could be she’s trying to get through to you, in spite of your frivolous invocation about intent not being magic. You’d do better to save that for cases where harm is caused.

    It may have been worth calling out, but after the response @16 you should have got it — as you now claim you do.

    I think it is you who is coming across as defensive.

    (Also, you don’t think that suggesting she’s being defensive comes across as a *little* offensive? 😉 )

  28. says

    sonofrojblake, intent isn’t magic.

    What that means is that intent doesn’t magically transform actual harm done into no harm done.

    What it doesn’t mean is that intent is entirely irrelevant in every single case.

    That latter would be the slymer troll straw man caricature of the meaning of the phrase “intent isn’t magic.”

    I’m sure you’re using the slymer troll straw man caricature of a popular SJW meme completely by accident, though. Right? In other words, your intent isn’t irrelevant. If you were doing it on purpose, that would be shitty. However, regardless of whether you meant to propagate a straw man caricature a little further or not, it’s still a straw man caricature. In other words, intent isn’t magic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *