Analysis

Six Sexist Themes From the Early Wheel of Time Books

Cover art from A Crown of Swords
It’s been over six years since I first wrote about sexism in Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time. At the time, I didn’t expect to touch on the subject again, but that post’s comment section remains active to this day, so I know a lot of people are interested. Naturally, the only thing to do was reread The Wheel of Time and report back on what I found. However, it turns out there are fourteen books in this series, fifteen if you count the prequel novel. No one has time for that,* so instead I’m only looking at the first four books today. For those keeping track at home, that’s The Eye of the World, The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn, and The Shadow Rising. Don’t worry, that’s well over a million words, so there’s plenty to cover.

1. Objectifying Description

Cover art for The Path of Daggers

The first sexist problem you’ll come across in ye olde Wheel of Time is the way it describes women. Namely, it describes them like its purpose is not to give readers a window into the world, but purely to titillate. Which it probably is, I suppose. We’ve got boobs and butts everywhere, of course, plus a lot of swaying hips and everyone’s favorite: super sheer clothing. It’s like they’re naked, guys, do you get it?

This kind of description is unfortunately par for the course in a lot of spec fic books, but WoT often takes it to unusual extremes. One of my favorite examples is in the prologue for book two, where the viewpoint character is a scheming villain meeting with other villains.* Naturally, this bad dude is constantly thinking about how he can get the upper hand over his rivals and what dangers they pose to him. He’s very observant, so his viewpoint focuses on how the other villains talk or stand and what that says about them.

At least, that’s how he examines the men. Whenever he looks at an evil woman, the description suddenly shifts to how hot they are and how exposed their cleavage is. That’s pretty odd. Does this guy just not consider women as possible threats? Seems unlikely for such a cunning and ruthless villain.

This casual objectification is so common it eventually fades into background noise, and you only notice it in unusually extreme sections, like when the villain Lanfear is so hot that she can even attract dudes of a totally different species. And just like you’d expect, this objectification often comes hand in hand with making women uncomfortable, like when the normally butch Min has to dress super femme for an undercover assignment. It’s very sexy how uncomfortable she is, you see. Jordan even introduces a special magical effect to keep his long-lived lady mages super hot looking as they age.

Compare this to how the male characters are described, and, of course, there is no comparison. The men are described like real people. Some are dashingly handsome, some are rugged and worn, whereas others aren’t even attractive at all. GASP. You know, the way you describe people when you’re trying to give your reader a view of the world rather than imitating the soft-focus camera on a low-budget sexploitation film.

2. Slut Shaming

Cover Art from The Gathering Storm

As concerned as The Wheel of Time is with making sure you know how hot all the women are, it also wants you to know that none of them would ever do anything so scandalous as, shudder, being sexually forward. At least, none of the women we’re supposed to care about.

This theme doesn’t suffuse every page the way our previous entry does, but when it does show up, it’s even less subtle. There’s a scene where one character slaps a man for groping her, even though she actually didn’t mind being groped; she just had to put on a show so people wouldn’t think she was a slut. Ew.

Believe it or not, that actually happens more than once! In another scene, a man forces a kiss on a woman, but it’s okay because she secretly wanted it and was just being ornery. These scenes are actually gross for two reasons. First, they imply that it would be somehow wrong for a woman to make it clear what she wants. Second, they reinforce the idea that women secretly want to be harassed and assaulted, a belief that causes serious harm in the real world.

But the slut shaming really kicks into high gear when the story introduces Berelain, a character who seems to exist for no reason other than to be slut shamed. The more established female characters* are all written to hate her because she has the audacity to dress sexy and make her affections known to men. Doesn’t that just sound like the worst?

Later on, the books offer us a bizarre explanation about how men will fall in love with the first woman who’s nice to them, so it’s the women’s job to make sure men fall in love with the right partner.* Berelain is bad because by being overtly sexual, she’s distracting the poor men and keeping them from the woman they should be with.

What is going on here? Not only does that idea infantilize men,* but it reduces romance to a bizarrely calculated dance sequence where everyone has to end up with the right partner, or else. There’s no room for spontaneity or passion, no room for two or more people to click over shared interests, just two-dimensional emptiness, and all in the interests of shaming women for being sexually active. Then again, considering this is the book where Elayne falls for protagonist Rand completely offscreen and for no discernible reason, maybe that’s how Jordan thought love worked.

3. Gender Essentialism

Rand deflecting a fireball from the Wheel of Time

As gross as they are, objectification and slut shaming aren’t particularly unique to The Wheel of Time. For that, we have to get into the gender essentialism that permeates every aspect of the world. In my original post, I looked at how this essentialism affects WoT’s magic system, but it is everywhere. Men are like this, women are like that, and anyone that doesn’t fit is a weird exception.

One way we can spot this essentialism is that Jordan just writes it out for us in plain English. He uses lines like “Men forget but never forgive, women forgive but never forget,” delivered by one of the wise mentor characters to be sure the point is clear. Even as a kid reading that for the first time, I knew something was wrong, since I have a pretty good memory and I’d just forgiven my brother for deleting my Final Fantasy VII save file.*

But when it comes to gender essentialism, nothing can compare to the sheer volume of time spent on how men and women can’t ever understand each other. None of the boys know how to “talk to girls,” whereas the women’s idea of courtship is akin to an elaborate hunting exercise full of traps and false trails. Female characters constantly despair over how stubborn men are, with terms like “woolhead” being repeated so often that they start to lose all meaning. Meanwhile, you can’t go two sentences in a male POV without being told how irrational women are. Sometimes Jordan slips up and admits that women can be stubborn, too, but only as part of their irrationality.

You might recognize this as a continuation of the juvenile idea that women are “crazy” and men are “stupid.” At least, that’s what they called it when I was in high school. You might have heard it under a different name, but the basic idea remains the same: women can’t make rational choices, and men just don’t know any better.

This gender essentialism hurts the books in several ways, the most obvious of which is how laughably untrue it is. Anyone who trusts the evidence of their senses rather than stereotypes can tell you that different genders don’t make for different species. This extreme binary also erases the existence of anyone who doesn’t fit into one of the two boxes. Nonbinary characters are right out, the idea of a trans character is extremely messy, and even the reveal of gay characters later in the series is difficult to believe. How could two women be in love when they’re both so obviously irrational? Everyone knows you need a combination of stubbornness and irrationality for good dating prospects. It doesn’t help that most of the gay characters use the exceptionally homophobic Evil Man-Hating Lesbians trope.

More subtly, this theme supports the insidious “boys will be boys” idea that does so much damage in real life. On the surface, it looks like Jordan is equally stereotyping both genders, but that’s not how sexism works. In reality, when people say that men don’t know any better, it’s used to avoid holding men accountable for their actions. Inversely, when people say that women are irrational, it’s used to invalidate women’s experiences and punish them for speaking out.

4. Kink Gone Wrong

Cover art from Lord of Chaos

It’s an open secret that despite The Wheel of Time’s almost total lack of actual sex, these books are incredibly horny. It’s as if a light BDSM glaze has been applied to the entire world. Rarely does a chapter go by without some talk of spankings or sexualized public humiliation. It’s everywhere, and it’s really off-putting. It’s like Jordan is constantly leaning out from behind the page to tell me about his fetishes. And yet, I have to talk about it because of how sexist it is.

To be perfectly clear, there is nothing wrong with kink between consenting adults, be it BDSM or otherwise. That isn’t what WoT shows us. Instead, the kink is used almost exclusively as a way to degrade women. The Aes Sedai are an entire organization of magic women built on corporal punishments and other forms of humiliation. The Wise Ones are similar, and their initiation ritual requires a woman to run naked into a spooky abandoned city. Maybe ghosts hate clothes or something.

This happens at the individual level, too, a lot. When two prominent Aes Sedai talk about their dangerous plans to save the world, they make a point about how they’ll probably get switched if they’re discovered. You know, on their butts, which is a sexy part of the body. Dear lord, these books are immature. Moving on, we also have a number of men who threaten to spank women for misbehaving. Pro tip, my dudes: if she doesn’t enthusiastically agree to it, that’s sexual assault! Don’t worry, women get in on this, too, but mostly against other women. In one sequence, two female characters confront each other in the dreamworld, and naturally they fight by making each other’s clothes vanish.

Every once in a while, a man is threatened with spanking, but it’s clear that Jordan’s heart isn’t in it. I guess that didn’t turn him on the same way. When male characters go to that same spooky city from the Wise Ones’ initiation rite, they notably get to keep their clothes on. Nor are men routinely given demeaning tasks as a punishment.

What WoT has done here is weaponize kink against its own female characters. This is an insult to all the people out there who practice consensual kink without harming anyone. Something they enjoy is being used to tear down a group of people for no reason other than mild titillation for a certain section of the audience. It lets Jordan get his sexy moments without the inconvenience of his characters actually having sex, and the only cost is a degrading world in which every (attractive) woman is at constant risk of abuse. It’s also just weird that the entire world seems to share the same fetish, like if every character was really into balloons.

5. Infantilization of Women (and Men)

Cover art showing tiny Moraine on her tiny horse.

There’s no way around it: Robert Jordan writes most of his female characters like they were children. Some exceptions do exist, but they are few and far between. At the far end of childishness, we have characters like Faile, love interest to one of the three main dudes. In these early books, her entire schtick is making unwise choices, holding petty grudges, and throwing tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. She also likes to physically attack her boyfriend, but it’s fine because she’s a tiny weak woman and he can easily restrain her, which is even played as sexy sometimes.

Not every woman is so extreme, but they’re all affected in one way or another. In the backstory, the supposedly savvy Queen Morgase banishes her closest advisor after one heated fight. Lanfear, one of the main villains, pouts when she can’t seduce the main character into doing what she wants. Berelain, the slut-shaming champion from earlier, makes it her life’s mission to seduce one of the main characters just to piss off his girlfriend. Lots of very adult decisions, as you can see.

Beyond the actions of individual characters, large sections of the setting are set up to infantilize women as much as possible. A lot of the previously mentioned kink gone wrong is featured here. Both the Aes Sedai and the Wise Ones base their entire training regimen around treating women like children in need of highly sexualized punishments, which is a particularly gross combination.

If that isn’t enough, WoT’s male characters are often put in the position of having to placate angry female characters. If Jordan had written everyone like the adults they’re supposed to be, then these inter-character conflicts would be serious problems in need of solving. Instead, the angry women are treated like something the men just have to weather as best they can, since there’s no point in applying reason. You might recognize this as a tactic generally reserved for very young children who haven’t yet learned how to deal with their feelings.

In the interest of fairness, Jordan also infantilizes his male characters on occasion. Yay? As part of WoT’s never-ending battle of the sexes, we sometimes get female characters explaining how men need to be led around by the hand, taught not to ask too many questions, and probably to eat their vegetables. Believe it or not, this doesn’t actually fix the problem. Shocking.

For one thing, you don’t generally want to infantilize any of your adult characters. That just makes them super annoying. More importantly, gendered power dynamics mean this isn’t a level field to start out with. Even if Jordan was as devoted to infantilizing men as he was with women, which he wasn’t, the treatment of female characters would still cut much deeper. Lots of people in real life already believe that women are inherently childish, while this is almost never said about men except to excuse bad behavior. Because of this context, scenes where female characters talk about how immature men are actually make the women look bad.

6. Women Are Manipulative Schemers

Cover art from New Spring

To finish off our examination of WoT’s sexist themes, it’s time to look at how often the female characters are portrayed as underhanded and controlling, always scheming to get men and sometimes other women to do what they want. This starts right away with Moiraine, easily the best character in the early books.

Moiraine is a clever planner and a skilled tactician. She saves the other characters’ lives on multiple occasions, even when they go against her directions. Moiraine knows how to make the hard choices, preserving the good guys’ strength when others would have wasted it by fighting too soon. Her competence is proven over and over again.

Naturally, the other characters cannot shut up about how much they all desperately want to get free of Moiraine’s clutches. It’s never clear exactly why they want this, just that doing what Moiraine says is somehow bad, even when it leads them to victory every time. They just keep going on about how manipulative Moiraine is and how they can’t let her “put strings on them,” along with other colorful fantasy metaphors. The issue doesn’t seem to be specifically what Moiraine wants them to do but rather that she wants them to do anything at all.

This is a bizarre trend until you realize that in Jordan’s world, all powerful women are super manipulative, and everyone else is in a constant state of trying not to get manipulated by them. The Aes Sedai in particular are all manipulation, all the time, which is especially weird because they have the least need for it. They have actual magic powers. If anyone can afford to be direct, it’s them.*

While the Aes Sedai are WoT’s most extreme manipulators, they are hardly the only ones. Throughout the early books, we get lots of dialogue explaining that even though this is clearly a patriarchal society, it’s really the women who are in charge because they can manipulate the men into doing things. The books are also big on the idea of women as a hive mind, where if a poor man offends one woman, he’s suddenly offended all of them.

Jordan is so committed to this theme that he includes a Moiraine POV chapter in book four just so we can see that she really is as manipulative and controlling as the other characters say she is. Sorry, Jordan, but she’s still right. You created a female character so powerful even you couldn’t degrade her.

In addition to shattering believability for anyone who lives in the real world, this theme reinforces the idea that women are inherently dishonest. They can’t be trusted and always have ulterior motives, even the ones who aren’t totally evil. It also furthers the myth that women are actually the ones with structural privilege, since men are supposed to open doors for them and what have you. This argument was used to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment back in the ’70s, in case you were wondering about its real-life consequences.


To be honest, even I was surprised at how sexist The Wheel of Time turned out to be once I started my reread. Jordan keeps a lid on most of these themes for the first book but really cuts loose after that. The only positives I can give WoT is that it does have a good percentage of female characters, and it features very little rape, at least so far. Those points are significant, but it’s difficult to enjoy them when everything else is a full orchestra blasting misogyny directly into my eyeballs.* I really hope the upcoming TV show takes corrective action here, or it’ll be a chore to watch. And once again, thank you to the many commenters who’ve kept the older post active. Who knows, maybe I’ll write another article if there’s enough interest.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Read more about ,

 

Comments

  1. Julia M

    “Whenever he looks at an evil woman, the description suddenly shifts to how hot they are and how exposed their cleavage is. That’s pretty odd. Does this guy just not consider women as possible threats?”

    Silly Oren! Everyone knows that when a woman becomes evil she turns three times sexier. All hetero male villains are contractually obligated to oogle them. It’s in the manuel! Also, this guy is probably assesing the men to see how likely they’ll be a wingman for him.

    • Julia M

      On a more serious note, these books seem quite bad. The kink and infantilization tropes take away a woman’s control of her decisions and her own body. This one of the reasons why people think women can’t be in power, because of this. Same with the schemers one. And, for anyone who says that since these books are a little older, we shouldn’t judge them by 2020 standards (this goes for anything really), these stereotypes still hurt people today, so we have a duty to call them out so people don’t normalize them.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        The whole “product of their time” argument is especially silly for Wot, the final book of which was published in the ancient year of 2013. And as an editor, I can personally attest that many writers are still being inspired by these books, which is exactly what you’d expect for such a popular series.

        • LeeEsq

          Robert Jordan was born in 1948 though and a lot of people really don’t overcome the received wisdom of their younger years. The post-Jordan author was born in 1975, so probably absorbed a lot of this too when growing up and also wanted to continue in the style of the series because he was hired as a hack in the original sense of the word.

          I think the “product of the time” argument is nonsense but for different reasons. There are 330 million people in the United States and many of them still hold beliefs like the above or at least some of them, especially if they see it as advantageous to them. I was born in 1980 and many people I know about my age expressed ideas resembling stuff like the above.

          • SunlessNick

            Conversely, back in “their time” there were still people who knew better – so could they have.

    • Jeppsson

      I’m SO tired of the sexy female villain trope. It’s particularly egregious in movies and TV, I think.

      A friend of mine said it’s probably because Hollywood tends to cast attractive women in all female roles, which he admitted as a problem, but he didn’t see it as a special villain problem. But casting attractive women isn’t the whole explanation! Female villains usually also do this thing where they’re acting “seductively” 24/7 for no reason.

      Devs managed to cast Alison Pill as a villain, dress her in perfectly normal, casual clothes, and have her walk and talk like a normal person, rather than purring out every line and slinking around with swaying hips and boobs.
      Sure, Alison Pill isn’t super hot by regular Hollywood standards. But Kingdom managed to cast Hye-Jun Kim as the villain Queen Cho, and she’s really beautiful. EVEN SO, they somehow managed to have her walk and talk like a normal person, and not have her beauty be a plot point. It CAN be done!

      • Cay Reet

        I think the main problem is not the Hollywood casting process, but the way the female villains are written – almost always at least as part femme fatale. That isn’t necessary, so even an attractive female villain can manage not to act seductive all the time. They can dress regularly or practically, they can hold a conversation without sending all kinds of sexy signals, and they can manage not to base their evil plan (I’m all about evil plans myself) on ‘I’m so hot that everyone is going to do what I say.’

  2. LeeESq

    I’m proud to say that even at the height of my Spec Fic reading, I’ve kind of shifted genres to more literary fiction, especially multi-generational family sagas, by my mid to late twenties, I’ve never had any temptation to read the Wheel of Time series.

    A lot of speculative fiction, especially works written by people born before 1980, fall into these sorts of sexist traps because it was received wisdom at the time. Even today, there are plenty of people, and young people at that, who see these things as received wisdom. I’ve definitely listened to conversations with people my age where “men are like this, women are that” talk happened. Speculative fiction might fall into things like gender essentialism because it makes formulating fantasy societies easier for the writer beyond received tradition like a school of magic practical jokes that only children and adult men can cast because unlike women, men never really mature, etc.

    • Julia M

      That’s why you should make sure your work doesn’t fall into sexist traps…or die.

  3. Elda King

    The worst part is that in the mid books several of those issues actually escalate, with some of the most egregious offenses.

    I think it has some marginal improvements, though (except on gender essentialism, that is the core of the entire thing); the prequel story, for example, is quite a bit better. If I hadn’t started with the prequel, and its Moiraine point of view, I probably couldn’t have powered through the series (less than 6 months).

    “…and it features very little rape, at least so far.” Yep, so far.

    • Elda King

      One day I’ll have to write what I actually enjoyed about the series, because whenever I talk about it all I can give are warnings and caveats.

      It probably looks absurd that I would even read the thing, but it’s more an issue of “before we even start, here are a bunch of content warnings”.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah I’ve heard that becomes an issue later in the series. I figured it was only fare not to ding the early books for it, since I’m not giving them bonus points for later improvements.

  4. El Suscriptor Justiciero

    > a bizarrely calculated dance sequence where everyone has to end up with the right partner… or die.

    Sorry, I had to do it

  5. StyxD

    Wow. I heard there was some messed up bondage stuff in certain aspects of Wheel of Time worldbuilding, but I didn’t know it was so pervasive and ingrained with the world at large. Cue the “Wait, it’s all a magical realm? / Always has been.” meme.

  6. Morgan Lefay

    And don’t forget the fact that all women of the series but Moraine share exactly the same personality.

  7. Jon Sparks

    I was born in 1957 and I don’t buy the ‘product of its time’ excuse. Still less for Brandon Sanderson. Anyone who’s been watching ‘Mrs America’ has a very good idea that feminism was a very big deal in 1975.

    • Cay Reet

      Yup, that was smack in the middle of the second wave of feminism. A lot of women were very outspoken about sexism them.

  8. V

    I must admit I’ve occasionally wondered if just disliking the books slanted some of your mentions of the series. That said there’s almost no problems or inaccuracies in this one and the few issues are either subject to interpretation or based on limiting yourself to the first 4 books.

    Mildly curious how you will interpret the events I had issues with even when ignorant (Faile’s abduction alone probably has over a dozen things that seriously ew if you give them any real thought).

    So only a few notes-
    1)The reason Aes Sedai manipulate is part of the price their predecessor’s decided on for moral superiority and trying to retain trust.
    Personally I’d have thought a name change would be better. They’re still not trusted because the Breaking was by male Aes Sedai and the Aes Sedai were originally both men and women.
    Anyway one of the 3 Oaths is about not using the Power as a weapon against any people but darkfriends unless it’s a life or death issue. So no smashing armies or kingdoms with magic.
    Another Oath is to speak no word that isn’t true. When you don’t lie and you don’t have easy violence available you get very crafty with words and manipulations, very fast. Over their long lives even the ones that dislike such manipulating pick up some of it.
    Even if it’s for the best though people hate being manipulated.

    2) Morgase was literally under mind control by Rahvin, and Berelain is not being petty. Berelain misunderstood Rand’s turning her down as political maneuvers and a recommendation that she pursue his friends for a political marriage instead. She felt Matrim wasn’t a good fit so settled on Perrin and didn’t care about a prior relationship getting in her way.

    3) men are given corporal punishment too, but you really can see the link issues because men get a strap whipping their backs and women get a spanking on the ass.
    My younger self didn’t notice. Admittedly my younger self also took the 2 genders both judging each other as a sort of equality and proof that such things are ridiculous. I’d like to think that was the intent and the goal wasn’t achieved but I’m admittedly biased.

    On a more personal positive note beyond helping with whatever sexist bs has buried itself in my brain and needs to be eliminated and kept out of my stories; I want to thank you for showing me a major problem with really long stories. Putting something too far down the road is terribly problematic.

  9. Michael

    Yeah, this was one reason I gave up the series (maybe the main one). It just got incredibly annoying before too long, with the same anguished “What do women want?” from the men, then “Men are idiots who need to be led” by the women over and over again every book. The sexism aside (which is certainly bad to be sure) it’s just aggravating. Some of the characters could be that way, sure, but they all are. Like you said, gender essentialism. It would be a little better if anyone were shown as wrong in this, but they never are that I read. The very natural laws agree-men and women really are that way. I actually hadn’t noticed or perhaps remembered everything you said here, so it was helpful, thanks. After reading the first six books, it had some good aspects (strong worldbuilding, compelling intrigues) but otherwise largely fell flat. I think it is overrated honestly. There are more problems than positive stuff.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.

Follow Us

Facebooktwitterpinterestrsstumblr

Get Our Email Newsletter

We'll send our best work every month.