Friday, March 11, 2011

Robert Jordan and Gender Roles in the Wheel of Time UPDATED: 15 March 2011

Brandon Sanderson started an interesting discussion on Twitter today in regards to Robert Jordan and sexism in The Wheel of Time. With a flood of replies, Brandon moved the conversation over to TweetDeck to post a response unconstrained by 140 characters or less. That reply can be found here.

I disagreed with Brandon's general rebuttal. I even found it ironic that Brandon opened with a patronizing statement framing the debate as anyone who disagrees obviously doesn't understand feminist literary theory.

I responded with the following comment which I feel sums up my opinion of the matter:

"Starting your debate with a statement that amounts to "if you disagree then you don't understand" is not a constructive way to debate anything.

That aside, having read WoT since before the internet was common, I always assumed that it was a given that WoT was sexist. It wasn't until I was online and visiting other fan sites that I realized there was even a debate.

I see every major female character in the book as being defined by their relationship to a man. Whether it is Rand's harem, Lanfear's obsession, Moiraine's dedication, Nynaeve's surrender, etc all females characters have very little to stand on without their male figure. Some are better/worse than others but generally if you're a female character then the defining element of your character in WoT is your male relationship or rejection of it. The only character that I think makes any serious attempt at breaking away from this is Egwene but she is still conflicted between her duty as Amyrlin and her love of Gawain.

If you look any any female organization in the book, they are again defined by standard male centered terms. Any empowered woman or female organization is the exception in WoT. The Queens of Andor are special compared to the rest of their subjects and defined by their relationship with the Aes Sedai. The Aes Sedai themselves exist outside of any power structure and are defined by their association with otherworldly powers, to me clear parallels to the witch/nun archetypes. Warders are just one giant metaphor of mysterious female power controlling men, the classical fear of antiquity. Even village Wisdoms are defined by secret otherworldly female knowledge to be feared by men. Maidens of the Spear are defined by their rejection of traditional female Aiel roles and assumption of male Aiel roles and to break that means to be cast from the Maidens. Domani merchant women are defined by their sexuality and the ability to seduce/enslave men.

Even Saidin and Saidar to me seemed like a Freudian joke with the male half focused on conquering and the female half surrendering. Even the descriptions of the five powers frame the male half being hard power and the female half being soft power.

So whereas women are defined by men, men are defined by their purpose. Whether it is the Last Battle for Rand, the Hammer/Axe for Perrin, Mat as a Battle Master, etc they are not defined by women. Women's roles are focused on assisting/steering men to their destiny.

All this being said, I have never taken umbrage with Jordan and his views. To me they were never important to the story as the story was the showpiece. I always viewed Jordan's take on the male/female relationship as simply being indicative of his generation. But to think of Jordan as being a progressive writer? I find that amusing."

Image Source: McMillan

UPDATED 14 March 2011:
Terez @ Logic Tree linked to my post and has her own great viewpoint.

UDATED 15 March 2011:
I have continued this topics discussion on Terez's website Logic Tree.  Please visit.

UPDATED 15 March 2011:
I wrote a follow up post with my opinion on Robert Jordan. LINK


  1. Gender obviously plays a large role in the series. But I feel it is directly asaulted for what it is. The books give you a good feeling for each society and their individual stances on the genders. But Robert Jordan plays with so many ideas in the subject through out the novels that he can be seen as open minded and his story telling as an exercise in reviewing different gender roles.

    There is a large variety of characters and they all have their own thoughts and opinions on this. He makes that quite clear, time and time again. Trying to boil down the female characters to any realationships they may have is sexists in itself and a disgrace to wonderfull rounded characters created by Robert Jordan. Nynaeve's 'surrender' story line you metions isn't even connected to her relationship with Lan. Morain's dedictation?? You mean her dedication to trying to guide a win in the final battle. Just because a character loves someone, does not mean that it overshadows all else they do and are in the book. Even trying to degrade Egwene becasue she falls in love - does a woman have to give up love to elevate in your eyes? The male characters stuggle just as much if not more in their ties to relationships.

    Robert Jordan simply expores genders, their roles, and the balances between and I do not see how tht can straight up be consided sexist in itself.

  2. Excellent response! I agree whole heartedly :)