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NOTE: This article was originally written in October 2001, published February 2002 on SFFWorld.com, and revised (here) November 2003.

This article contains spoilers up to Book 9.

Click HERE if you're offended or want to argue.

Sexism in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time

by Abby Goldsmith

          Separate But Equal.  The slogan is associated with racial segregation, a tiny step away from bigotry and oppression.  I have trouble accepting the idea that "Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus", because that's really just a way of saying that male and female are separate but equal.  We are all human.  The two genders may be different in general ways, but crossovers do exist.

          Fantasy author Robert Jordan starkly delineates the separate properties of Male and Female in his acclaimed Wheel of Time saga.  No crossovers exist in the Wheel of Time world.  Women and men behave differently, have separate roles in each culture, and each sex regards the other as incomprehensible, insane, or difficult to deal with.  The series is based on the premise that men and women cannot fill each other's roles.  When a woman attempted to unite the separate male and female sources of the One Power (saidin and saidar) into one source (the drilling of the Bore), mayhem resulted (the Breaking of the World).  Even the ancient power symbol of Aes Sedai represents the separation of the two genders: A white teardrop for female, and a black fang for male.

          In my article Robert Jordan: Genius or Hack?, I praised the author for his powerful portrayal of female characters.  While my opinion on that remains firm, I left out my criticism.  Here I'm going to let loose.  I do have some bones to pick about Jordan's portrayal of womenfolk, menfolk, and their interactions.

          Some uncomfortable examples:

  1. There is a theme in the books that a couple needs to have a dominant partner and a subordinate partner.  If one dominates in public, the other dominates in the bedroom, and so on, but apparently they can't be equal in any one aspect of life.  In fact, most Randland nations proscribe highly specialized roles for each sex.  In Altara, only women can own inns, and only men can own fishing boats.  In Saldaea, a woman is expected to marry a man who is stronger than she.

    Lady Deira: "A woman wants a strong man, stronger than she, here."  Her finger poked his chest hard enough to make him grunt.  "I'll never forget the first time Davram took me by the scruff of the neck and showed me he was the stronger of us. It was magnificent!"  [Vol.7, I'll find the page number sometime]

    What bothers me is the fact that Saldaea is portrayed as a healthy nation with strong and happy women.  Maybe it's because I'm not into S&M, but I can't imagine most women would be happy in a culture where she is supposed to be weaker at heart than her husband.  The Saldaean heroine of the series, Faile, is constantly trying to provoke her new husband, Perrin, into yelling at her and showing her who's the boss.  Not only does this make her hard to like, but I also find it hard to identify with her.

    There are plenty of other examples of the dom/sub theme.  Egeanin is a member of Seanchan nobility, and she has bought Bayle Domon as her property (a slave).  She dominates him in public, but the books make it clear that he dominates her behind closed doors.  Suian Sanche is an Aes Sedai (woman with powers) who allows herself to be spanked by General Gareth Bryne, ostensibly because she trapped herself into an oath to obey him, but also because she has secretly fallen in love with him.

    Suian and Gareth: His methods of dealing with her temper -- once she threw plates and boots, anyway -- outraged her and provoked threats of dire consequences, yet though she could have wrapped him up unable to stir a finger, Siuan never touched saidar around him, not to do his chores and not even when it meant being turned over his knee. That fact she had kept hidden from most so far, but some things slipped out when she was in a rage, or when Leane was in a humor.  [I'll find that page number ... sorry!]

  2. Now let's concentrate on domestic violence, which is an aspect of domination/subordination.  What makes me uncomfortable is the fact that men in the books are always justified in spanking their partner (yes, physically spanking), whereas women in the books are always in the wrong when they physically hurt a man.  There are plenty of examples of women being violent toward their male partners -- usually aiming to seriously wound them or hurt them, though they never spank -- but those women (Faile, Tylin, Nynaeve, Egeanin, and Morgase) attack their partners in order to make themselves look better, or they do it out of spite or greed.  It's a different situation when Gareth Bryne spanks Suian, or Perrin spanks Faile.  Suian had tried to shirk an important oath, while Faile had verbally and physically abused Perrin for petty reasons.

    Faile and Perrin: Her full-armed slap made spots dance in front of his eyes. "What did you mean," she practically spat, "charging in here like a wild boar? You have no regard. None!"
        He took a slow, deep breath. "I asked you before not to do that."
        Her dark, tilted eyes widened as if he had said something infuriating. He was rubbing his cheek when her second slap caught him on the other side, nearly unhinging his jaw ....
        "I told you not to do that," he growled. Her fist was not very big, but her sudden punch to his shortribs drove most of the air from his lungs, hunching him over sideways, and she drew back her fist again. With a snarl, he seized her by the scruff of her neck and ....
        Well, it was her own fault. It was. He had asked her not to hit him, told her. Her own fault .... She had been furious, of course. Furious with Loial for trying to intervene; she could take care of herself, thank you very much. Furious with Bain and Chiad for not intervening; she had been taken aback when they said they did not think she would want them to interfere in a fight she had picked. When you choose the fight, Bain had said, you must take the consequences, win or lose. But she did not seem even the tiniest bit angry with him any longer. That made him nervous. She had only stared at him, her dark eyes glistening with unshed tears, which made him feel guilty, which in turn made him angry. Why should he be guilty? Was he supposed to stand there and let her hit him to her heart’s content? She had mounted Swallow and sat there, very stiff-backed, refusing to sit gingerly, staring at him with an unreadable expression. It made him very nervous. He almost wished she had pulled a knife. Almost.  [chapter 27, Vol.4]

    What is the reader supposed to infer from this behavior between men and women?  That women deserve to be physically dominated and tend to pick fights?  I also wonder what sort of pent-up resentment the author has toward women, and why.

  3. During the first three volumes, Moiraine and Loial made it clear that men and women during the Age of Legends were equal wielders (channelers) of the One Power.

    Moiraine: "No one knows the strength of the Forsaken, except that Ishamael and Lanfear were the strongest, but ...."  [p.599, Vol.3]

    Loial confirms this on p.600, mentioning that Be'lal was envious of Lews Therin, Ishamael, and Lanfear.  So Lanfear is close in power to the two men.  We can infer that men and women are generally equal in the One Power.  Very good.  Makes sense.  But then, in Book 5 (The Fires of Heaven), Asmodean told Rand that men are generally stronger in channeling the One Power.  This was later confirmed by dialogue between the other Forsaken.  Why did Robert Jordan feel the need to change the established fact?  By making men stronger in the One Power -- especially because they are generally stronger physically -- he has abolished the theme of balance between men and women that is so integral to his series.

    Beyond this belated fact of innate strength, male channelers in the series have several advantages over women channelers.  The men learn in a matter of months what women needed years of study to be able to do.  Men can totally dominate women channelers with their bond, whereas women cannot do a thing when they bond a male channeler.  One man can shield two women or more.  Again, what happened to balance and equality?

  4. The books perpetuate some unfortunate stereotypes about women and men.  The heroines instantly bond with each other and constantly commiserate with each other about men, whom they blame for just about anything they don't like.  The women are uniformly contemptuous of men.  This is NOT a reflection of reality.  Likewise, every male in the books, whether he's a good guy or a bad, considers women to be incomprehensible.  I think this portrayal is a gross oversimplification.  It detracts from the realism of what would otherwise be excellent characters.

  5. A ta'veren is someone who influences the pattern of fate, changing lives and history.  There are several women in the series who could qualify (Egwene, Elayne, Nynaeve, Birgitte), yet there is never so much as a hint of a mention that they might be ta'veren.  Meanwhile, the three male protagonists are hailed as ta'veren multiple times.  I can only guess that the author wants to heighten the importance of the men. 

  6. Finally, let's acknowledge the fact that women seem to get stripped naked quite often in the series.  That's not sexism -- and we are dealing with a male fantasy author here -- but again, there is an imbalance.  How often have we seen men naked in Randland?  I don't see why we can't get a few nude shots of Rand, Mat, or Perrin.

The larger picture:

          As his fans know, Robert Jordan is one of the few authors of any gender in any fictional genre who has the skill and motivation to feature powerful female characters in his work.  He's not afraid to devote long segments of the story to the adventures of heroines, and it's not all about naked scenes for teenage boys to drool over.  In all fairness, there was that segment in A Crown of Swords where Mat was more or less forced to be a royal sex pet; the only situation in the series where a woman dominated a man for reasons other than spite or making herself look better.  Queen Tylin just wanted some fun.

          Jordan has some peculiar views about male and female relationships.  Some of his ideas seem far removed from reality, and there are a few scenes that left me wondering if I (as a woman) should be offended.  Still, all of the above is not enough to extinguish my interest in the series.  After all, part of the inherent fun of reading is to catch that glimpse into the secret mind of the author.  I can forgive Jordan for his eccentricities.  He gives us these enthralling books, after all.