Wheel of Time side post: On Women

I promised a while ago that I would make a post about the depiction of women in the Wheel of Time, and have had the result sitting around not quite finished for more than a month. Since I’m about to buckle down for the last push on revising With Fate Conspire, I might as well get this out of the way and off my mind.

Before I get to the complaints, though, let me say a few things about what Jordan does right. To begin with, he passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Even in the first book, Egwene, Nynaeve, and Moiraine are all significant characters, and once the story moves off to the White Tower in The Great Hunt, the importance of women to the plot is firmly assured. I can think of a distressing number of recent epic fantasies that don’t do half so well on that front.

Furthermore, the women aren’t there to be damsels in distress. They don’t get captured or tortured or raped, or killed off to upset the hero. Rand’s angst over the death of women aside, I’d have to go searching to find anyone stuffed into the refrigerator; no significant examples of that leap to mind. Heck, most of them aren’t even love interests: Egwene and Nynaeve both have their own romances, rather than being the object of someone else’s, and while Elayne may have been introduced in that role, it isn’t long before she’s doing far more important things.

That stuff is all good. So why do the women of the Wheel of Time get so badly up my nose?

For me, the heart of the problem is encapsulated by the old Aes Sedai symbol. It is, of course, the familiar yin-yang sign — but without the dots of reversed color. I don’t know if this is true, but I heard once that the reason for those dots was to show that the two opposing principles each contained the seed of the other; they aren’t matter and anti-matter, annihilating upon contact, but rather a cycle endlessly transforming.

Except in Randland, where there is no such happy crossover.

It’s been a long time since I read any interviews with Jordan, so I no longer have precise quotes to back this up, but the things he said there made it abundantly clear that he subscribed to a “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” paradigm. Forget nuance; forget the role of cultural conditioning, and the possibility that there are many different ways to be a woman (or for that matter, a man). Nope, women are all the same in certain fundamental respects — respects which, when I read them, sounded utterly alien to my feminine self.

Fantasy is prone to essentialism, saying that X group or thing is Fundamentally Like This. I understand why; myths rarely feature complex characterization and subtle motivation. Evil things are evil, good things are good, etc. I’ve long thought that fantasy as a genre has to grapple with that tension, between archetype and reality. We definitely have to think about what archetypes we use, especially when they get inscribed on the level of cosmology.

As they do here. The One Power is more like two, based on gender. (Or sex, but I seem to recall “Halima” using saidin, so really it seems to depend on some unalterable characteristic of the soul.) The difference itself is gendered: saidar, the female power, must be embraced, and all the metaphorical images used to assist in doing so are things like flowers opening up to the sun. Saidin, on the other hand, must be seized, and using it is a constant battle for control, where any instant of weakness gets you burned. Men don’t embrace things, and women don’t seize them — and the two paradigms are so mutually incomprehensible that women cannot teach men anything useful about channeling, nor vice versa.

Furthermore, men and women innately have different strengths when it comes to the elements. Women incline to Water and Air; men incline to Fire and Earth. (They share Spirit equally.) There are good arguments in favor of no element being “stronger” than the others — but you could still have that, without inscribing the elements onto genders. Of course, if we want to talk about inscribed differences, how about the fact that men are inherently stronger in the Power? Women have their own advantage, of course: they can link, which men can’t do without a woman’s help. (See, women are good at working together!) The dynamics of who leads are pretty damned complicated, but let me tease out one pattern for you: there is only condition under which a woman must lead, and that’s if the participation of men in an expanded circle is at its absolute minimum. One man and one woman? Man leads. Maximized circle? Man leads, again. This isn’t a matter of society and conditioning; it’s the way Jordan has chosen to design his universe. Period, the end.

Oh, and let’s not forget what happened when some old Aes Sedai tried to find a source of power that wouldn’t be divided by sex and/or gender: they freed the Dark One. That’s right, folks; trying to escape the essentialized gender binary leads straight to evil. Whee!

Let’s leave cosmology behind and talk about society. The first one we see is Emond’s Field, which likewise subscribes to a “separate but theoretically equal” model of influence: the Village Council and the Women’s Circle. The men seem to operate by sitting around drinking and debating what they should do. Women get together — I think in a more behind-the-scenes fashion, rather than formal meetings held in a “public” building like the inn — where they cook up their own plans, and then plot how to get the men to think it’s their own idea.

Because that’s how women get things done: by manipulating men. Because of this, men have to hide what they’re doing if they want any freedom. Women are killjoys, you see, always disapproving of fun things like drinking and gambling, and trying to make men eat their vegetables. No, really: there’s a whole running thing in The Fires of Heaven where Nynaeve and Elayne are bitching about how they can’t send Thom and Juilin to buy supplies because the men will just come back with meat, no green things. It’s like all the men are nine, and all the women are their mothers.

And the thing is, this doesn’t seem to vary by culture. The Aiel have the clan chiefs, and also the Wise Ones, who scheme how to get the clan chiefs to do what they want. Roofmistresses, like housewives back in Emond’s Field, rule authoritatively over the domestic sphere. Their physical environments could not be more different, which ought to mean their societies are, too — and yet the things Aiel men say about Aiel women, and vice versa, could frequently be subbed in for Emond’s Fielders without a hitch. (There are exceptions, of course, especially where sexual matters are concerned. But still: the sense of what masculine and feminine gender mean don’t seem nearly as different as they could, or should, be.)

The poisonous effect of this pattern shows up in the language used to describe the interactions between the sexes. When a woman gets a man to do what she wants, it’s frequently described as “bullying” — the abusive exercise of force or coercion. Not persuasion, or even simple logic, the woman saying something the man acknowledges as a good point. What’s our model for a woman successfully (and non-bullying-ly) influencing a man? Moiraine and Rand, apparently. She doesn’t get anywhere with him until she promises to obey, whereupon her obedience elicits the same from him. Apparently Rand is saidar, and she has to submit and open up in order to control. It’s a valid method, but it shouldn’t be the only one; what I don’t remember is whether later books give us a competing model, some other Aes Sedai who successfully changes Rand’s mind via rational arguments or whatever.

And then there’s the oddity that women never seem to use that model among themselves. The closest example I can think of is Siuan and Leane after their arrival in Salidar, where they put up a pretense of obedience to cover their manipulation. We more frequently get a running motif of “Woman A is so strong and hard! But here’s Woman B, who’s even stronger and harder, so much so that she can either beat Woman A into submission or verbally whip her until she cries!” Nynaeve gets trumped by Moiraine, Moiraine gets trumped by Siuan, Amys gives them both a run for her money and then gets trumped by Sorilea, and we haven’t even gotten to Cadsuane yet. I want to see the woman who isn’t intimidating at all, but who is acknowledged to be so brilliant that when she renders an opinion, those hard-ass women listen.

When it comes time to train the women, again, it’s all about force. Jordan is way too fond of it for my taste: whether it’s the Aes Sedai or the Wise Ones or whoever, shortcoming or disobedience among the students is punished with physical abuse, humiliation, or scut work — often naked. And the punished individual frequently ends up crying. These are techniques used in many real-life situations, of course, but something about the presentation rubs me the wrong way, maybe because of how often the women are naked and/or crying. Or maybe because the same thing never seems to happen to the men: when Asmodean fails to cooperate, Rand doesn’t channel to hurt him until Asmodean bawls for mercy. To the best of my recollection, the Asha’man aren’t sent to run naked around the Black Tower in freezing weather. Men don’t resort to switching, birching, or beating each other with shoes at the drop of a hat. Partly this is because the male characters are much less often in a training situation than the female ones are — but that’s a choice, too, and tells us something. Mat doesn’t have to apprentice himself to Gareth Bryne for months to be a military genius; he gets it magically instead.

All of it, of course, is made more obnoxious by what I can best sum up as “bitchy hypocrisy.” This really gets rolling in The Fires of Heaven, which is why I cooked up most of this post after reading that book. Nynaeve goes on endlessly about Elayne’s “viperish” tongue, but of course she uses nothing but sweet reason, right? Leigh Butler over on Tor.com found that sequence funny, but it didn’t amuse me in the slightest. In theory, it could have worked; sometimes people really are hypocritical. But Jordan’s not good enough at characterization to sell me on it. Instead he clubs me over the head with that motif, over and over again, Nynaeve judging Elayne, Elayne judging Nynaeve, Egwene judging them both, them judging her, until I just wanted to gag them all.

Especially because of the way it spills over to the interactions between the sexes. In TFoH, Nynaeve literally thinks about how she’ll yell at Thom and Juilin if they try to intervene in the situation with Luca . . . and then gets pissed at them because they don’t. Likewise, she gets angry at them for doing something useful before she gives them the orders to do so. To be fair, Nynaeve’s currently in the stage of trying to circumvent her block by being angry all the time, but it isn’t just her; if I had to sum up this feminine dynamic in one word, that word would be “strident.” And it gets so very, very tiring.

To close this out, I want to talk about relationships. The TFoH post dealt with the sex half of it already, but there’s also romance to consider, and the way in which it fails to be convincing.

The thing is, men and women almost never seem to be friends. If I’d been thinking about this sooner, I would have kept an eye out for whether the books ever use that word for someone of the opposite gender. There are romances, and there are mothering relationships (usually unwelcome); there are hierarchical setups and the occasional bit of armed detente, but very few simple friendships. Moiraine and Lan, sort of, but it’s complicated by the Warder bond. Mat and Birgitte. I feel like Rand and Nynaeve achieve something of the sort circa Winter’s Heart; hopefully that won’t turn out to be wishful reading when I get back to it. Egwene and Rand should be, but the whole “she’s Aes Sedai and a Wise One” dynamic warps it.

Of the romances, I randomly like Chiad and Gaul. Why? Because it’s mostly offstage, which means my imagination can work without having to get past the actual story first. The rest generally fall too heavily on the “tsun” side of tsundere. What does Aviendha see in Rand? What does he see in her? From another author, it might be physical attraction, but we’ve already discussed how little that figures into these books. It could work for me if it had to do with Rand’s respect for the Aiel, and Aviendha’s respect for his determination to learn about them, but that particular narrative exists mostly in my head, not on the page. Elayne and Rand are even worse: they fall in love when they’ve barely even spoken with one another. It ain’t lust, and there isn’t much else it could be, either; I’m forced to conclude it’s fate.

Aside from Chiad and Gaul, I do like Lan and Nynaeve, and for one simple reason: I can see that they respect each other, and I understand why. Nynaeve herself sometimes gets in the way of me liking that relationship (until she gets over her block), and okay Lan’s side is pretty thoroughly cliche, but at least I can point to what got them started: Nynaeve’s determined and successful pursuit of the Emond’s Fielders back in TEotW. It’s a foundation I can believe in, more than I do with the others. Contrast them with Faile and Perrin, who almost have a very similar foundation . . . but I can’t see the respect there, not on her side. Since there are plenty of reasons to respect Perrin, Faile’s shitty treatment of him makes her look all the worse. And unspoken incidents of Perrin apparently spanking Faile when she gets out of order don’t do his image any good, either.

Fundamentally, though, the reason why the romances aren’t convincing is that the women aren’t convincing. Jordan’s view of the innate nature of the female creature isn’t one I recognize in myself, nor in most of my female friends. So half of the equation has already fallen down, making it hard for the whole to stand up.

Given how important women are to the story, it frustrates me to see them badly handled. If they had more variety, if they interacted differently with the men around them and didn’t all have that strident edge, I’d be holding the Wheel of Time up as a fine example of epic fantasy that does gender issues right. Instead Jordan reverses the pattern I see with other authors: instead of a tiny number of interesting characters who don’t get enough to do, he has a large number of repetitive clones that carry a lot of the plot. I’m honestly not sure which one annoys me more.

61 Responses to “Wheel of Time side post: On Women”

  1. Marie Brennan

    I don’t get the impression — from the books, or from the interviews I read years ago — that Jordan intended me (or any other reader) to sympathize with the men and view the women as the problem. However, just because he didn’t intend it doesn’t mean that isn’t the shape the story often ended up taking . . . .

  2. Marie Brennan

    Understandable. It’s always been one of the big obstacles for me enjoying the series, even back in high school when I wasn’t thinking very critically yet.

  3. shadowkindrd

    until I just wanted to gag them all.

    THIS. And not just the women. The men, too. The women aren’t women. They’re caricatures of women. They’re every scolding devious manipulating woman who has ever walked the face of the planet, all rolled up, then cut into slices like a sushi roll. At one point in the series, I couldn’t tell the difference between Elayne and Egwene, and the only reason I knew it was Nynaeve was that she was pulling her damn braid.

    No gratitude. No manners! Good gods, my mother and my grandmothers on both sides of the family would have kicked my ass if I’d been as rude as these women are to men. And they’d have kicked the guys’ asses just the same. Manners. Seriously! It’s like all of them choked on acknowledging any sort of assistance. It’s mindboggling the amount of rudeness that goes on in this serious. I want to cosh them all up side the head and dump them into the well to seal the breech with their own pettiness. Oh, but men aren’t allowed to be rude without having the proverbial ten tons of bricks dropped on them. Women are allowed. *boggle*

    At least Rand gets over it in book 13. Kinda wish the rest of the cast would catch up.

    Rant rant rant rant rant rant rant.

    At least Sanderson has done some smoothing out of these issues, but he’s hampered by what has gone before. In his own writing, he does just fine.

    • Marie Brennan

      They’re every scolding devious manipulating woman who has ever walked the face of the planet, all rolled up, then cut into slices like a sushi roll.

      This sentence wins. <g>

      I think the men get away with a shocking amount of rudeness, too — witness how both Rand and Mat behave at certain points — but in general, you’re dead right; the default state between the sexes seems to be not far shy of open hostility. God forbid they ever cooperate with each other without first dragging their heels for six chapters.

      I was hoping Sanderson might file some of the worst edges off. He’s stuck with what Jordan set up, but isn’t working from the same underlying assumptions, which helps.

  4. moonandserpent

    “Before I get to the complaints, though, let me say a few things about what Jordan does right. To begin with, he passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.”

    I firmly reject your stance that there are any women in these books. They’re all strange automatons who seem to be women but have nothing resembling human thoughts, fears or emotions. The wheel of time books slide under the Bechdel Test door in much the same way that the GOR books, do.

    • Marie Brennan

      I like hyperbole as much as the next girl, but I wouldn’t put these into the same box as Gor.

      The thing that drives me crazy is, I actually liked a number of the female characters . . . when they first showed up in the story. I liked Nynaeve. And Aviendha. And Min. But he wasn’t good enough at characterization to keep them distinct, so over time his biases took control, and they all slid into being the same thing — which was more or less a watered-down version of Lanfear.

      • moonandserpent

        I was dialed pretty low on my hyperbole meter, there are some bits with women in the Gor books that are far superior to the WoT’s attempts at characterization.

        My hate for the WoT is very, very strong. It’s one of the few works of fiction I’m willing to allow myself to utterly despise.

        • Marie Brennan

          I can’t imagine reading enough of the Gor books to uncover any gems. For me, those fall into the camp of “utterly despise.”

          • moonandserpent

            I had a friend convinced I’d love them. I really just think she was hoping I’d get some ideas, but that’s a different story.

            I think I’d despise the Gor books if I actually had friends who held them up as Awesome Fantasy the way people adore the WoT books.

            (Which is not to say I haven’t read horrible loathsome crap on its own merits – I read all 12 books of the Mission Earth series in elementary school.)

            But MAN I hate the WoT books.

          • moonandserpent

            OH! And the Gor thing didn’t come out of my ass. There’s a lot of supposedly sapphic kink in the WoT books and they always remind me of Gor, in all honesty.

          • Marie Brennan

            I almost typed a long comment about certain things held up as Awesome Fantasy that I despise quite a lot . . . but then it occurred to me I have better things to do with my afternoon. <g> (Plus, I have admittedly gotten more self-conscious about public criticism since the authors I’m criticizing started being people I might find myself encountering professionally.)

          • moonandserpent

            Hah! Yah, my last few “man, I hate this” rants have been followed up by emails from the people I’m complaining about.

            Damn global community crap. 🙂

          • Marie Brennan

            I might run into them in person, which is even more awkward.

            (In fact, it’s already happened; I took a certain piece off my website years ago after meeting the author, for fear he might see it.)

          • moonandserpent

            Oh? Yeah, I could go on about self-policing. Somewhere else.

            (Though I’d still write “Stephen R. Donaldson and Gender: WTF?!” in a heartbeat.)

  5. catvalente

    Funny thing is, when I was a teenager my male friends kept shoving these books at me saying if I liked Tolkein I’d like this more because it had such great female characters.

    I hated the series and gave up after book 2.

    • tooth_and_claw

      I didn’t even get to chapter 3 on the first one before setting them down.

      But then, I did like the Xanth books, so uh, no room to talk.

      • Marie Brennan

        I was in a Costa Rican rainforest and had nothing else to read. And really, of all the things I could have gotten fannish about when I was sixteen, this is far from the worst. <g>

      • jennifergale

        Ditto on both counts. I tried the first book, back when that was the only book, and disliked the female characters. This could be blamed on Eddings. After reading the first book in his second trilogy and staring at what was essentially the same Female Character but with the name and body type changed, I’d discovered my first trope, and WoT suffered accordingly. I was 15 and idealistic.

        (But, yeah. I still have no idea why I read Xanth books for as long as I did…)

    • Marie Brennan

      It has female characters, which is more than you can generally say for Tolkien, and none of them get metaphorically characterized as “frigid” the way Eowyn does. But obviously that doesn’t get you terribly far.

      • catvalente

        You know, it never occurred to me what all that icy flower shit was all about.

        • Marie Brennan

          I don’t know that Tolkien meant it in a sexual sense — but the fact that all the imagery around her is cold and icy and so on, until she decides not to be a warrior anymore (and to marry Faramir instead of pining after Aragorn) and then the sun comes out and the flowers warm up or whatever the hell the actual phrasing was . . . yeah. Made it very clear that I was not supposed to want to be warrior!Eowyn, because warrior!Eowyn, while useful, isn’t the natural order of things.

          Bah, I say. Bah.

  6. starlady38

    Oh, barf.

    *strikes this series firmly off the list of things to even consider reading in this lifetime*

    • Marie Brennan

      No, somebody your age and with your critical training would not like it at all. I got into it well before I was thinking critically, and appreciated it at the time for the things it does quite well (of which there are some — gender just isn’t among them.)

      These days, I’m re-reading it for reasons of craft, to see what Jordan did right and what he did wrong in constructing a multi-volume epic. It’s been very enlightening so far.

  7. unforth

    I’m reading through, and so far don’t have loads to say, as you and I have spoken about this before and I know we largely agree on it, but this one caught my eye:
    what I don’t remember is whether later books give us a competing model, some other Aes Sedai who successfully changes Rand’s mind via rational arguments or whatever.
    …because I think Cadsuane manages it, but I never remember the later books very well. And Min, in general, has been able to accomplish things without getting accused of bullying (not always, but sometimes).

    Woman A is so strong and hard! But here’s Woman B, who’s even stronger and harder, so much so that she can either beat Woman A into submission or verbally whip her until she cries!”
    And more than than, that often a side effect of this is that Woman B will be better with saidar than Woman A – not always, I can think of exceptions – which leads to the funny question of who is embracing what, exactly? If being more of a hard ass means you can draw more of the power, wouldn’t that fit the male paradigm better?

    but who is acknowledged to be so brilliant that when she renders an opinion, those hard-ass women listen.
    Verin. Sort of. (it’s bothering me how many of my side comments have to have wavering vocabulary with them, because ultimately, you’re right, his stereotypes always hold – underneath, Verin’s the most manipulative of all…)

    Egwene and Rand should be, but the whole “she’s Aes Sedai and a Wise One” dynamic warps it.
    Also I’d say the visions that people keep having of her condemning him to death probably don’t help either. 🙂

    The thing is, men and women almost never seem to be friends.
    I can think of one or two, which doesn’t really help. The first that comes to mind is Tam and…er…Marin (Egwene’s mom, whose name I might have wrong). Actually, all of the “good” men of Emonds Field seem to get along with her. A few of the men (Perrin comes to mind) seem to be on friendly terms with Min. Lan and Moiraine’s relationship is very complicated, but I’d be prepared to go to bat to say that they are friends. …I can’t think of any others (though I do agree with the late arrival of a Nynaeve/Rand friendship). And that’s pathetic in a book with this many characters.

    I’m forced to conclude it’s fate.
    It’s fate. That’s the only explanation for those two. But with Rand and Mat and Perrin, he at least has it make sense that it’s fate. The relationship I’ve always liked is Min and Rand, probably because I’ve always felt that Min is the only sane female in the entire series (and I’m absolutely positive this is because she’s a “tomboy” – Jordan was writing her to be “more like a man” in his mind) but I actually think he pulls off the best friend/sister/girl next door kind of romance there (in as much as he’s capable of writing romance at all). I also think, despite it’s many highly irritating moments, that Nynaeve/Lan’s “romance” comes together fairly well. And in Jordan’s defense on romance, there is one thing he does well more than once: he frequently convinces me that couples who have been married for a long time (ie Rhuarc and his wives) actually do love each other and care for each other. Maybe even too much so – I remember there’s a random side character in the Great Hunt who runs a tavern by herself, and she tells her backstory as having been with a husband with whom she argued every day, yet when he died she realized he was the one. He clings so much to this dichotomy of mutual exclusive spheres that I don’t know if we ever encounter a relationship that doesn’t somewhere underneath it all have a kernel of actual love and devotion, no matter how messed up it appears on the inside. (I’d make the case that my sweeping generalization even applies to folks like Lanfear – the way Jordan wrote it, it’s the kernel of love for Lews Therin that drives Mierin to what she does……..)

    • unforth

      For a few general points…
      One of the things that really surprised me when I last re-read Jordan (2007) was that the women actually bothered me LESS than they had in previous readings. When I used to read the series, it had literally gotten to the point that the only female character I didn’t cringe to see their name on the page was Min (and to a lesser extent I liked some of the side character, like Verin, and at times I liked Moiraine). This most recent time around, I was reading with newish eyes, being much older and having not read the series in about 8 years, and it did reflect on the women to their benefit. I even grew slightly tolerant of Faile, who I’ve always loathed more than the others. But I’m convinced that this acceptance came despite everything you’ve discussed – it wasn’t because, with more maturity and fresh views, I thought the women were better written, it was because with more maturity, I could forgive it more, suspend at least a little bit of my disbelief (screaming with rage in the corner) and just read. To put THAT statement in perspective, the first time I read Fires of Heaven (which was the newest book when I started, and therefore my original “stopping point” back when I first read them) I LITERALLY skipped the chapters about the girls. Even now I’m often surprised by what the girls do and when, because the first few times I read the books I didn’t read what they did – I skimmed it, waiting for a chapter where the names on the first page would indicate that Rand was involved. I would usually read Mat, also, but once Perrin left Two Rivers I skipped him to (because it meant reading Faile, too). So it wasn’t too hard to recover from that particular extreme.

      I think you hit the nail on the head with the women – the only woman in the series who I feel I can identify with is Min. I do believe that there are some women like the ones that Jordan writes about. Perhaps (warning: about to go full blown stereotypical) the kind of guy who would go to the Citadel doesn’t end up meeting any other kind of girl, maybe they’re all the catty Mean Girls model of hot popular bitch. If that were somehow possible, then maybe, somehow, his characterization would work…oh wait, no it wouldn’t, because underneath it all those kinds of girls AREN’T noble, or brave, or strong – they’re not secretly heroines. (/stereotyping).

      Just to end this, I think what I always found most frustrating was that almost without exception many of the female characters would “start out okay” and then turn into the heinous flaming nutjob. Aviendha starts out okay. Egwene starts out okay. (then again, Nynaeve starts out nutjob, and actually gets steadily better, by the last book I read I was actually starting to like her). Yet somewhere along, their character development takes a left turn, and I think it relates to the lunacy of the training and the One Power – Egwene “has to be that way” in order to be successful as an Aes Sedai. Ya know, when Rand goes through the same kind of crazy personality transformation, they spend an entire book trying to fix him to get him more like how he used to be…but with Egwene, it’s just assumed it’s growth. And that’s scary.

      • Marie Brennan

        Re-reading, I find myself better able to deal with the flaws, because I’m not that emotionally invested any more. And I can see the roots of the various problems much more clearly, which makes it easier to come to terms with them. (This probably wouldn’t work for everybody, but I’m the sort of reader who likes to intellectualize things, so.)

        You’re exactly right that it’s the gradual transformation into heinous flaming nutjob that really drives me crazy — because a lot of those female characters didn’t suck when they first showed up. (I’d only slightly disagree about Nynaeve; I’d say she starts out as the prototype for the nutjob, gets substantially worse — and then gets over it.)

        Because so many of the key women in the story are connected to either the Aes Sedai or the Wise Ones, it’s hard for me to say whether I think that character type is specifically bound up with Jordan’s assumptions about women with power. It might be, though.

        • unforth


          I definitely simplified Nynaeve’s process – I absolutely agree she does get worse, but then she does ultimately get better. 🙂

      • genarti

        Then again, Nynaeve starts out nutjob, and actually gets steadily better, by the last book I read I was actually starting to like her.

        I would say that Nynaeve starts out okay (when she’s young and fiercely protective of her village kids and trying to learn all she can without giving in to this strange bossy fanatic lady), and then swiftly descends into flaming angry nutjob, and only gets better again gradually. Her long period of being irrationally angry at everyone ever — even given the saidar-block givens — annoys me inordinately, because she started out with such potential to be a tempermental but human character instead of a Jordan-lady stereotype.

        I haven’t reread the series, nor read the Sanderson books. (Though I’ve heard good things, and I’m intending to.) But I know that there were lots of points where I was reading the series because I wanted to find out about this or that character, and skimming through the times when everyone (man or woman) turns into unappealing caricatures of themselves.

    • Marie Brennan

      …because I think Cadsuane manages it, but I never remember the later books very well. And Min, in general, has been able to accomplish things without getting accused of bullying (not always, but sometimes).

      I don’t remember Cadsuane well enough to judge, and Min so far has not spent enough time actually around Rand for me to judge.

      And more than than, that often a side effect of this is that Woman B will be better with saidar than Woman A – not always, I can think of exceptions – which leads to the funny question of who is embracing what, exactly? If being more of a hard ass means you can draw more of the power, wouldn’t that fit the male paradigm better?

      Actually, I’m not sure that’s common; Sorilea isn’t strong in the power, and Nynaeve, who’s stronger than anybody else, spends a fair bit of time at the bottom of the Hardass Pecking Order.

      Verin: she could be, but isn’t in the books I’ve read, because a) she’s mostly offstage and b) she’s not set up as brilliant; she’s set up as vague and nonthreatening and then occasionally quite savvy. Not quite what I was thinking of.

      Friends: they’re sometimes “on friendly terms” with someone of the opposite gender, but how often is that a strong bond, strong enough to shape the story?

      Romance: really, the word tsundere is dead useful to me, because it concisely sums up what appears to be Jordan’s idea of love (which I find to be extremely dysfunctional). There’s another word that probably fits Lanfear better, though: yandere. We don’t really see what she was like as Mierin, but the destructive side of it is definitely there . . . .

      • unforth

        On Min, my memory is that once she’s around a lot (especially in 6 and 7, when Rand is largely in place at Cairhien) people frequently go to her to try to get Rand to do things – but this kind of makes sense, because Rand is acting increasingly like a power-tripping lunatic. She occasionally does bully him, but not in a way that she gets called on – instead, it just fosters an attitude that she’s the only thing keeping him sane and the only one who can get through to him (especially after the stuff at the end of Lord of Chaos, if I’m remembering right).

        You’re right – I think I got the being more powerful in the One Power part wrong…which doesn’t help.

        Friends: I’d say Lan and Moiraine are the only case I’m prepared to make on that definition. The others who might fit it (Mat or Perrin and Min for example) just don’t spend enough time together for it to matter. Speaking of Mat: the way all the women treat him the entire series is absolutely ridiculous. Even after he’s proven himself, women who’ve never met him will still treat him as unreliable. Hmm…what about Birgitte and Mat as friends? I don’t remember it very well…

        Whenever I see a romance in the Tsundere vein, it drives me away – it’s so alien to me as a way of getting to care for someone. When manga uses it heavily it’s generally a good way to tick me off (except in Hana Yori Dango, where somehow it actually works, maybe because the guy who the girl is acting that way towards acts like an ass a lot of the time but turns out to be a really nice guy underneath it all).

        • Marie Brennan

          I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for Min as I get to the later books.

          On the topic of the One Power — look downthread for a link to an exhaustively detailed article on how it’s used to rank the Aes Sedai internally.

          You’re right about how Mat gets treated. Now, I can believe he’s the sort of guy who looks unreliable: if his physical appearance, body language, etc say “scoundrel,” then women will react to that. (Especially the ones who haven’t met him, and therefore don’t know he’s proven himself.) But I do agree that he gets the short end of that stick more than he actually deserves.

  8. midnight_sidhe

    This is an excellent post. (I’ve been waiting for it eagerly ever since you mentioned it was coming, and it was exactly what I was hoping for.)

    Have you ever read Jordan’s non-WoT stuff? When I was in high school, I saw a couple of his historical fiction novels in Powell’s and picked them up out of curiosity. His women are exactly the same. They don’t suffer as much from the clone issue, because there are fewer of them, but you can see the same types. That was probably when I realised that Jordan just flat out didn’t understand women.

    What always kept me reading Jordan was the world-building. All of the things that bugged me about WoT – hating the characters, hating the direction the plots were going into, hating the way he lost control of it, seriously bothered by all those sad naked women (THANK YOU for mentioning that) – got worse and worse with each book, but I’m a sucker for world-building and no one did it as well as he did, except possibly Michelle West.

    • Marie Brennan

      No, I’ve only read the WoT books. Never had any desire to pick up the others, and having read your comment, I never will . . . .

      His worldbuilding is very compelling in some ways and very flat in others, but I definitely found it a selling point for the series overall.

      • midnight_sidhe

        Yeah, think “Rand and Lanfear in American Revolution-era Charleston with lots and lots of sex” and you’ve practically read it already. (The sex was a bit of a shock after the asexuality of WoT, though.)

        It’s very telling that my favourite book set in the WoT-verse is the book written about the world itself.

  9. Anonymous

    blarg!! you WOULD post this on the day I have the most to do at work!! curses!!!

  10. Anonymous

    Ok, I realized work was much less important than reading this post and the comments, anyway.

    Marie, I think I tend to side with you on loving the series, hating some of its basic premises. Once again, a lot of your points chimed.

    My notes:

    -re: saidar/saidin: I’ve always thought the ultimate savior of the world should just be a hermaphrodite. Think of it! The ability to link with yourself! (if saidar/saidin access is sex-linked and not gender-linked, though as you point out re: Arangar that may not apply).

    -re: female training rites of passage: may I please point out that not only are they usually naked, they are often DRENCHED IN WATER. Frat boy wet dream, anyone? Also, spanking. Seriously. Just. Barf.

    -re: “embracing” saidar: it is also said women must “surrender to” saidar. Just to shore up your point.

    That’s all for now. Thank you for taking the time to post this!

    • Marie Brennan

      Ok, I realized work was much less important than reading this post and the comments, anyway.

      I’m not sure whether to say “thanks!” or “I’m sorry.” <g>

      -re: saidar/saidin: I’ve always thought the ultimate savior of the world should just be a hermaphrodite. Think of it! The ability to link with yourself! (if saidar/saidin access is sex-linked and not gender-linked, though as you point out re: Arangar that may not apply).

      It would have been interesting to make Balthamel channel saidar once incarnated in a female body — that would have given channeling an obviously biological component — but of course that would have meant everybody in Salidar would spot it instantly. But I like the notion of a story where transcending the gender binary would be a good idea instead of a bad one.

      (If I were redesigning that aspect of the cosmology, I’d toss out saidar/saidin and say that each of the Elements requires a different technique for accessing it. Then women could, as a group, be more inclined to certain Elements, and men to others, but there would still be room for women who are unexpectedly talented at Earth or Fire, and vice versa. And weaving multiple Elements at once would be a very impressive trick, because you’re surrendering to one while seizing another, etc.)

      • Anonymous

        which sounds rather like Avatar! (the last airbender one, not the blue guys in james camerondom one)

  11. Anonymous

    The long-awaited Women in WoT essay! I have to say, I was unconscionably giddy to see it finished. I expected to have a lot to say and disagree with, but… well, I more-or-less totally agree. I think Jordan did a lot right with gender in his series (he really does succeed at the Bechdel Test), but his fundamental “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” views really, really get on one’s nerves.

    “I want to see the woman who isn’t intimidating at all, but who is acknowledged to be so brilliant that when she renders an opinion, those hard-ass women listen.”

    I think Verin is probably the character closest to this, and also, incidentally, a character I’ve come to consider one of his greatest creations, but that depends on the last few books, which I know you haven’t gotten to, yet. Of course, she’s also handsdown the SNEAKIEST character in the whole series, but in a very weirdly awesome way.

    Also, I think Nynaeve in particular in the later books breaks out of some of the bitchy hypocrisy thing. Really, having just read Towers of Midnight, it’s amazing how good her character arc has been. She’s grown a tremendous amount, and I think Sanderson is particularly good at highlighting the funny side of her sniffs and snorts.

    I’ve read that Jordan has said that all his women are really facets of his wife Harriet, which might explain why so many of them seem so alike, though I think it might paint a picture of Harriet that isn’t always flattering, when I’ve heard she’s a lovely woman. Also, he apparently came from a family where this sort of gender dynamic played out before his eyes, which is also an explanation.

    • Marie Brennan

      Glad to deliver! Like I said, it’s been sitting around almost finished for a while; I decided I wanted to get it out there before I re-read Lord of Chaos and find myself with new things to add.

      mentioned Verin above, and I agree that she’s the closest — but still not quite what I had in mind. (Of course, as you say, I haven’t yet gotten to the most recent three books, and I know there’s cool Verin stuff in there.) The thing I think is missing with her, from what I really want to see, is that people don’t actually stop and listen to her; she’s presented as vague and harmless and sort of bumbling, and I the reader can guess she’s being very effective — but that’s not the same as having the whole White Tower respect her for her intelligence.

      Nynaeve definitely gets better. Winter’s Heart was where I remembered why I had liked her, back in the day, and I’m glad to hear her improvement continues on.

      I try to stay away from the comparison to Harriet, because it feels like I’m resorting to ad hominem attacks; as you say, those comments don’t make her look very good. But yeah, every so often I find myself wondering about Jordan’s own marriage, and not in a good way.

      I would say that whatever environment he was raised in, surely he could look around and see that not all women were the same — but some people aren’t observant about that kind of thing. Jordan’s abilities at characterization aren’t terribly high even with the male characters, so he doesn’t seem to have been a good student of human nature.

  12. genarti

    What’s our model for a woman successfully (and non-bullying-ly) influencing a man? Moiraine and Rand, apparently. She doesn’t get anywhere with him until she promises to obey, whereupon her obedience elicits the same from him. Apparently Rand is saidar, and she has to submit and open up in order to control.

    One of the reasons I love Lan and Moiraine’s friendship so much — and despite all the complicating dynamics of Warder and Aes Sedai, I would declare it a solid friendship of equals — is that this pattern is reversed. Lan is the one who has sworn obedience, and who influences (when he does) through persuasion or pointed silence or whatever, and Moiraine is the one whose decision carries the day. And there are times when both the text and the characters acknowledge that Moiraine was right, and Lan was wrong. I’m thinking specifically of an early example about, IIRC, bringing the Emond’s Field girls along as well as the boys.

    Granted, the first WoT I read was the prequel novel New Spring, which lays out how those two met and the foundations of their relationship, when they were a lot younger (chronologically and emotionally) than in canon. That colored my view of them throughout the rest of the series. I certainly wouldn’t call New Spring flawless — Moiraine is MUCH more of a standard sniffy Robert Jordan woman in there, and some glaring aspects of the Malkieri culture’s gender dynamics make me kind of sidle away — but it does benefit from focusing on three specific characters instead of a horde of them, and from being much more limited in scope as well.

    • Marie Brennan

      I haven’t read New Spring, though I’ll probably slip it into my re-read schedule somewhere. Good call on pointing out the reversal of their gender dynamic, though. That’s probably why their interactions always strike me as a breath of fresh air, compared to most of the other relationships in the series.

      • Anonymous

        New Spring is awesome. Well, what I mean is it has elements of the best of Jordan’s storytelling throughout it. The story arc itself is less meaty than you might be expecting/hoping for (I guess it’s much shorter than he was used to writing…?) but there’s a lot of satisfying stuff.

  13. Anonymous

    This was a very interesting read, and I agree with much of it, but not everything.

    That there _are_ lots of differences between women and men, everywhere, feels quite natural in his world, since the One Power is divided as it is. And I can imagine that the Breaking did its share to drive that wedge in between both genders. Which leads me to this: since we get to see so few women who aren’t a part of a channeler organization, isn’t it difficult to say if the behaviour is specific to all women, or just channelers? I’ve always felt that Aes Sedai are almost unnaturally arrogant and scheming as a group, and often behaves utterly childishly. So, anyone who becomes a part of them (Egwene, Elany, Nynaeve) are probably doomed to turn into such creatures. Unfortunately.

    That doesn’t mean I like all of the differences. You make a lot of good points. I just mean that differences feel like they belong in his world.

    [i]Of course, if we want to talk about inscribed differences, how about the fact that men are inherently stronger in the Power? Women have their own advantage, of course: they can link, which men can’t do without a woman’s help.[/i]

    I would also like to add that while men can be stronger in the One Power, men aren’t generally stronger. I believe Jordan explained it as men having a couple of levels of strength above the strongest woman? Whereas the weakest man and woman are equally strong. He’s also said that the strongest man and the strongest woman can accomplish the same things, since women are better at weaving than men. Although, I suppose you could write a disseration about why women are better at “weaving”, specifically … 😛 But they are nevertheless equal in terms what they can accomplish.

    Concerning the training of women compared to men – I’d say that the Black Tower is much worse. We don’t get to see it as much, but what we do see isn’t very pleasant. I mean, Taim knocking people out with the One Power? Executing people? That’s not particularly gentle. The men in the Black Tower are, as I’ve intepreted things, treated much, much worse than the women in the White Tower. But I’ll conscede that the women seem to be naked quite a bit more than the men.

    [i]Nynaeve gets trumped by Moiraine, Moiraine gets trumped by Siuan, Amys gives them both a run for her money and then gets trumped by Sorilea, and we haven’t even gotten to Cadsuane yet[/i]

    That was hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing, mostly because I’ve always liked Cadsuane.

    As for women who don’t bully … well, they’re too rare, I agree. But they are there. Min, for instance. And Verin. Cadsuane bullies, but I don’t think she does it like most others … I can’t put my finger on it, but it always feels as if she does it better, and for better reasons. And that it’s not just because she cannot reason with someone; it’s simply because when she does bully, it’s the best way to accomplish her goal. And, since she’s a kick-ass Aes Sedai legend, she’s got a bit more realistic reasons for often being a bully, since she’s been at the top of the pecking order for 300 years. So I like her.

    And I like Min and Verin as characters, because they do stick out from the rest, in many ways.

    • Marie Brennan

      Re: …

      I said elsewhere in this thread that it might be, not a channeler thing, but a women-in-power thing — since we see many of the same behaviors from the Wise Ones, not all of whom can channel. Frankly, though, that’s an even less pleasant notion. (Though Morgase, at least, is a possible counter-argument; we don’t get her pov until she’s out of power, of course, but at least in TFoH she doesn’t fall into the various traps of pride the others seem so prone to.)

      But ultimately, “I just mean that differences feel like they belong in his world” actually make things worse in my eyes. Jordan chose, consciously or unconsciously, to construct a world where these things were true — and not because he was out to problematize them and make interesting comments on their flaws. Pair it with his comments in interviews, and it seems like he really believed the real world works this way, minus the magic.

      If you have quotes to back up the notion that the weakest male channeler and weakest female are equal in power, I’d love to see them. (I ask because I don’t remember seeing that, but I could have missed it.) Doesn’t change the fact that I raise my eyebrow at giving the men a higher “cap,” or counterbalancing it with the whole complex mess of linking, but it would be good to know.

      The Black Tower isn’t nice, no. My point was that it doesn’t seem to operate on an engine of humiliation the way the women’s training does — and the fact that humiliation is a common thread from the White Tower to the Kin to the Aiel (i.e. essentially universal) is what makes that aspect so squicky to me.

      There are non-bully women, but they’re not as central, are they? Verin’s everybody’s favorite counter-example, but she’s not exactly as central as Siuan, or a dozen other women I could name. Don’t get me wrong; I do like her, quite a lot. But I would like her even more if she were a really important character, counterbalancing the pattern we see with the others.

      • Anonymous

        Re: …


        There are a couple of quotes at the beginning about strengths. If anything, regarding the strengths, WoT has something more equal. In terms of physical strengths, men are _generally_ stronger, but in the Power, a woman will always be “better” than a man of equal strength.

        Bringing up Morgase, I’ll have to add that I actually like her, too, in the later books. But again, not a major character (even if she’s important, being queen and all).

        So,I do agree that the non-bully women are too non-central. I’d love to see more of Verin, for instance.

        I als though of another (albeit minor) female character that doesn’t seem manipulative. Alivia, the former damane. I like her, and she’s the only female channeler who’s had zero contact with the Tower or Wise Ones. A slave for 400 years, and last time we saw her, she was recuperating quite well. But, like the others, she has such a minor role …

        And I’ll also agree that the Black Tower doesn’t seem to rely on humilation as much. Would be fun if it did. Or if we’d get to see more of how the training there works, in general.

        • Anonymous

          Re: …

          I just came up with a character that does seem to argue rather than bully.

          Seaine, the one from the White Ajah. She’s a minor character, true, but she see her several times. While I also like Saerin (because she seems like such a non-stereotypical Brown) it’s a pity she took charge of their mission, because Seaine really did seem like the one who’d argue and reason with someone, and not have to bully to get what she wants.

          Daigian, if I recall correctly, didn’t behave much like the rest of the Aes Sedai, either. The little we got to see of her. But then, she was extremely weak in the Power …

          And I think that’s another reason why Aes Sedai bully all of the time. Their entire ranking system is based on strength, which is really foolish. Why someone young, inexperienced and stupid should outrank an older, smarter and wiser Aes Sedai is beyond me, but I’d guess that’s a very good reason for them to be the way they are.

          Not that it explains why all other women have to be like that …

        • Marie Brennan

          Re: …

          Wow, is that a detailed piece. I’m impressed. (And you supplied me with quotes, which people almost never do when I ask! I’m guilty of it, too; I’ve often misplaced wherever I got the data from.)

          It’s a telling point that I don’t remember most of the women you name: Alivia, Seaine, Saerin, Daigian. Granted, I only read the later books once or twice at most, and that was years ago — but I remember Cadsuane, and she’s a late addition, too. I would have loved to see more diversity of nature among the central female cast.

          The odd thing about the strength-as-rank-creates-bullying notion is, it doesn’t seem to fit in with the “surrender to saidar” motif. The story says outright that very few “meek” women attain the shawl — but why would saidar potential correlate with a Type A personality? Nor, frankly, does it make sense in a society where the participants can eyeball each other and know outright who has to defer to or obey whom. The meekest, most absent-minded Aes Sedai should wield huge influence every time she opens her mouth; there’s no need to bully each other to get obedience. That scenario would make more sense to me if rank were a) not immediately obvious and b) based on a confluence of factors, some of which can be obtained by a determined and forceful woman.

  14. Anonymous

    I’ve long been torn on this issue between two things:

    (1) The author’s point that Jordan sees gender in rigidly essentialist terms.
    (2) That Jordan is deliberately inverting the patriarchy.

    I think these play together very poorly. I’m male, and began reading these books ages ago (long before graduate work in fields touching on feminism, for example!), and suppose that I’m supposed to identify most clearly with the three male leads (Rand, Mat, Perrin). They are then often frustrated by obstinacy amongst the ruling elite (i.e., the White Tower) and the sense that their ideas are not worth taking into account in trying to decide their own fates. Ideally then, and at times I suspect this really is Jordan’s intent, I should then recognize “huh, would I have this same negative reaction to the people in power if they were women?”

    The trouble is that Jordan’s take on the essential nature of the female gender leads him in the direction yhlee describes. Namely, the females are petty, and so our sympathy with the male characters is never translated into reflection on power structures in society, etc. etc. Rather, those old views are reinforced by the “observation” (kind of a weird word for a fiction scenario!) that women really are petty, annoying, close-minded when put in power.

    That is, I think that the phenomena yhlee mentions was not the intent, but rather a side-effect of the more general problem identified by the author of this piece (which, incidentally, I think is spot-on; I could only quibble with an example or two, and never the point – nicely said!).

    • Marie Brennan

      I could actually get behind the story if it really started reflecting on the kind of thing you’re talking about: power structures in society, especially when crossed with Destiny And Prophecies, and how one might attempt to navigate the kind of control both of those systems impose.

      Sadly, that’s rather too high-level for the actual story.

  15. Anonymous

    As a person who used to be a ‘night person’ (up until 3am or later) and has now made the transition to being an early bird, I can guarantee you that I get more crap from my friends now for wanting to be in bed by 10pm so that I can be up by 5am and write before work than I ever got with my previous schedule.

    I think any admiration for this ‘virtue’ comes with a healthy does of ‘old-man-shame’

    *gives you beady-eyes*

  16. Anonymous

    End of Book 6

    Thanks for this wonderful review. I was starting to wonder if I was the only one who felt this way about the female characters. I just need to vent now that I’m reaching the end of Lord of Chaos.

    By the end of book 6, the howling (as in howling shrews) has reached new heights. I’ve realized what rubs me so wrong about the women in this book. It’s not that they resort to the howling, it’s that they make no attempt at civility. While it’s believable that characters could act that way, it’s completely unbelievable that they would all treat men with such contempt from the get-go.

    The constant attempts to bully Mat with the Power are nothing short of a man in the real world slapping a woman around because he’s bigger and stronger, making demands and mistreating all women simply because he is able. It is the worst sign of weakness and these women do it CONSTANTLY.

    What’s worse, they treat men this way who repeatedly save them from being killed, captured, tortured, etc. (Tom, Juilin, Mat) I’ve just reached the point where Elayne and Nynaeve have decided to experiment on his foxhead medallion (by channeling at him against his will) while simultaneously trying to usurp his command of his men, all the while making demands of him (never requests) and not informing him in the least about what he’s walking into. Then they berate him for not planning ahead, as if he could with no information. You would think that, at least, when they saw Mat again after so long (last encounter being when he saved their lives) they would greet him with a smile and a “good to see you Mat! Are you well?” NOPE. All “icy” stares, arms folded beneath breasts, sniffs, raised chins, and other such howling.

    I can’t make myself enjoy the antics of these women no matter how hard I try. I know Jordan’s attempting humor in a lot of these places, but it’s just sickening.

    • Marie Brennan

      Re: End of Book 6

      There’s a point later in the series where Tam al’Thor verbally smacks down Cadsuane and the other Aes Sedai for being bullies with the Power. I don’t like the dynamic, but I do like that it gets called out at least once — because as you say, it’s abusive. Cadsuane’s pov is that you have to act that way so that people will be in the habit of doing what you say when the crisis comes, but if that’s her aim, she misses it very badly; she just pisses off the people she most needs to work with.

      And yeah. Any attempt at humor there fails, as does any attempt at making a gender-reversed point. There isn’t enough subtlety or variation to achieve those effects.

  17. Marie Brennan

    Re: End of Book 6

    Is it Verin who names Alanna’s action for what it is? I know somebody thinks about it as being “little short of rape,” and then amends it to “maybe not short at all.” (Or something to that effect.)

    In one of the books — I don’t remember if it’s The Gathering Storm or Towers of Midnight — Tam calls Cadsuane et al out on being bullies with the Power. It needed to be said; I just wish it weren’t a male character who does the calling out. Because yeah, they use it in a lot of abusive ways, because they can.

  18. Anonymous

    As Sherlock Holmes said:

    “It would strike him that in disappearing he might throw all pursuit off his track, and at the same time have an ample and crushing revenge upon his old sweetheart, if he could give the impression that he had been murdered by her only child. It was a masterpiece of villainy, and he carried it out like a master. The idea of the will, which would give an obvious motive for the crime, the secret visit unknown to his own parents, the retention of the stick, the blood, and the animal remains and buttons in the wood-pile, all were admirable. It was a net from which it seemed to me, a few hours ago, that there was no possible escape. But he had not that supreme gift of the artist, the knowledge of when to stop. He wished to improve that which was already perfect — to draw the rope tighter yet round the neck of his unfortunate victim — and so he ruined all.”

  19. Anonymous

    I honestly can’t really say, as I haven’t read War and Peace etc. I’d say at least one major difference, though, is that unless the single-novel epics are published serially (which happened with Dickens), they don’t have the multi-volume problem of not being able to go back and revise to fit later ideas.

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