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Female characterization in tWoT


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Hey you guys, I'm currently working on my Extended Essay project for the IB programme and I need some help.

I am writing about how RJ characterizes females in tWoT and how it differs from other (male) authors. I mean, he has a special way of describing them. There are always women in positions with authority (queens, village Wisdoms etc.) as opposed to many other fantasy books and epics I've read. I'm not saying that this is the only work by a male author with powerful female characters, but it is far from stereotypical. One of the themes in tWoT is the constant struggle between the sexes and the way they view each other. What are your thoughts on this? How does it affect the storyline and the different societies RJ build up? Personally, I find it interesting because it is unusual, although it can get a little annoying with all the focus it gets in the books. But anyway, your thoughts on this would be much appreciated.

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Dangerous topic. I think you'll find the fandom has very disparate views on this subject. If you ask me, I think RJ did a great job of placing women in important roles, and avoiding the inherent male bias in fantasy, but also has too many gratuitous, awkward naked women scenes.

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Guest Emu on the Loose

I'm probably going to strike a more critical tone than most people, but probably my single biggest complaint about WoT is the sexism in RJ's writing.

 

He was clearly aware himself of sexual inequality in the fantasy genre to say nothing of society at large. He put female characters into social roles that have traditionally been kept exclusive for males. He clearly tried to indicate that females are as competent as males in objective tasks. In that sense, his work is progressive.

 

Nevertheless, RJ himself had a parochial attitude toward gender roles, and both his male and female characterizations are annoying and a little bit creepy in their indulgence of gendered divisions which do not physically exist in the sexes. Yes, he put females in roles traditionally reserved for males, but he always did so with an implicit caveat of some kind.

 

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Maidens of the Spear. RJ allowed the fiercest warriors in WoT to have females among their ranks. But the females had to be segregated, and suffered restrictions on what they could do with their personal lives (notably including marriage). This makes them more comparable to "battle nuns" than feminist archetypes.

 

I'm prepared to entertain the possibility that RJ did this purely to illustrate Aiel culture, and that it is in no way representative of his own views, but when you add up all of these asterisks when it comes to females in male roles, you start to realize that RJ never did write straight up sex-neutral characterizations featuring females in male roles. He always had to return to that theme of fundamental division. His females are always eventually saddled with "feminine" traits. (And the males are always saddled with "masculine" ones.) Even the ones who showed promise in the beginning, like Min, ultimately ended up reinforcing sexual divisions rather than promoting sexual equality.

 

Indeed, with RJ's WoT world metaphysics, sex in WoT is the most important distinction a character possesses. Half of the "One Power," the supreme controlling force of the universe, is forever off-limits to half the human population. And RJ rebutted criticism of this segregation preemptively, by casting Mierin Eronaile (who wanted to bring down that division for human advancement) as a villain comparable to the Christian biblical Eve.

 

In the final analysis, RJ is a transitional figure in the fantasy genre. Prior to the 1990s, mainstream fantasy writers firmly conformed to late-Christian gender roles. Beginning in the 2000s, we began to see many more sex-neutral characterizations flourish--probably as the children of second-wave feminists grew up and started to create their own work. Ultimately, RJ can be applauded for recognizing the problems of sexism, but he must be regretfully criticized for failing to develop a satisfactory reply to them.

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I'm probably going to strike a more critical tone than most people, but probably my single biggest complaint about WoT is the sexism in RJ's writing.

 

He was clearly aware himself of sexual inequality in the fantasy genre to say nothing of society at large. He put female characters into social roles that have traditionally been kept exclusive for males. He clearly tried to indicate that females are as competent as males in objective tasks. In that sense, his work is progressive.

 

Nevertheless, RJ himself had a parochial attitude toward gender roles, and both his male and female characterizations are annoying and a little bit creepy in their indulgence of gendered divisions which do not physically exist in the sexes. Yes, he put females in roles traditionally reserved for males, but he always did so with an implicit caveat of some kind.

 

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Maidens of the Spear. RJ allowed the fiercest warriors in WoT to have females among their ranks. But the females had to be segregated, and suffered restrictions on what they could do with their personal lives (notably including marriage). This makes them more comparable to "battle nuns" than feminist archetypes.

 

I'm prepared to entertain the possibility that RJ did this purely to illustrate Aiel culture, and that it is in no way representative of his own views, but when you add up all of these asterisks when it comes to females in male roles, you start to realize that RJ never did write straight up sex-neutral characterizations featuring females in male roles. He always had to return to that theme of fundamental division. His females are always eventually saddled with "feminine" traits. (And the males are always saddled with "masculine" ones.) Even the ones who showed promise in the beginning, like Min, ultimately ended up reinforcing sexual divisions rather than promoting sexual equality.

 

Indeed, with RJ's WoT world metaphysics, sex in WoT is the most important distinction a character possesses. Half of the "One Power," the supreme controlling force of the universe, is forever off-limits to half the human population. And RJ rebutted criticism of this segregation preemptively, by casting Mierin Eronaile (who wanted to bring down that division for human advancement) as a villain comparable to the Christian biblical Eve.

 

In the final analysis, RJ is a transitional figure in the fantasy genre. Prior to the 1990s, mainstream fantasy writers firmly conformed to late-Christian gender roles. Beginning in the 2000s, we began to see many more sex-neutral characterizations flourish--probably as the children of second-wave feminists grew up and started to create their own work. Ultimately, RJ can be applauded for recognizing the problems of sexism, but he must be regretfully criticized for failing to develop a satisfactory reply to them.

This. The WoT was progressive for its time, but now its portrayal of gender roles is traditional and outdated.

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Guest Emu on the Loose

As an aside, I'm not necessarily opposed to the premise of a sex-segregated magic system. Every fantasy story is allowed to have a gimmick or two, especially when it's an essential part of the story. After all, "warp drive" is every bit as conceptually silly as "universal power source that cares about your 23rd chromosome," but we get good mileage out of the warp drive gimmick--and that could have been the case here with the One Power.

 

Actually, we do get good mileage out of the One Power. WoT has a great magic system, one of the best of any established fantasy work. But, because of the execution, the One Power premise shows off RJ's own sexism as surely as it shows off the sexism within the WoT universe. I don't have an issue with the latter, but the former impacts the series in a negative way.

 

Again, that's just an aside. I just didn't want to give the impression that I don't think it's perfectly legit for a writer to deal with sexism as an issue in their story.

 

(Edited for grammar and formatting.)

Edited by Emu on the Loose
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Guest PiotrekS

I'm probably going to strike a more critical tone than most people, but probably my single biggest complaint about WoT is the sexism in RJ's writing.

 

He was clearly aware himself of sexual inequality in the fantasy genre to say nothing of society at large. He put female characters into social roles that have traditionally been kept exclusive for males. He clearly tried to indicate that females are as competent as males in objective tasks. In that sense, his work is progressive.

 

Nevertheless, RJ himself had a parochial attitude toward gender roles, and both his male and female characterizations are annoying and a little bit creepy in their indulgence of gendered divisions which do not physically exist in the sexes. Yes, he put females in roles traditionally reserved for males, but he always did so with an implicit caveat of some kind.

 

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Maidens of the Spear. RJ allowed the fiercest warriors in WoT to have females among their ranks. But the females had to be segregated, and suffered restrictions on what they could do with their personal lives (notably including marriage). This makes them more comparable to "battle nuns" than feminist archetypes.

 

I'm prepared to entertain the possibility that RJ did this purely to illustrate Aiel culture, and that it is in no way representative of his own views, but when you add up all of these asterisks when it comes to females in male roles, you start to realize that RJ never did write straight up sex-neutral characterizations featuring females in male roles. He always had to return to that theme of fundamental division. His females are always eventually saddled with "feminine" traits. (And the males are always saddled with "masculine" ones.) Even the ones who showed promise in the beginning, like Min, ultimately ended up reinforcing sexual divisions rather than promoting sexual equality.

 

Indeed, with RJ's WoT world metaphysics, sex in WoT is the most important distinction a character possesses. Half of the "One Power," the supreme controlling force of the universe, is forever off-limits to half the human population. And RJ rebutted criticism of this segregation preemptively, by casting Mierin Eronaile (who wanted to bring down that division for human advancement) as a villain comparable to the Christian biblical Eve.

 

In the final analysis, RJ is a transitional figure in the fantasy genre. Prior to the 1990s, mainstream fantasy writers firmly conformed to late-Christian gender roles. Beginning in the 2000s, we began to see many more sex-neutral characterizations flourish--probably as the children of second-wave feminists grew up and started to create their own work. Ultimately, RJ can be applauded for recognizing the problems of sexism, but he must be regretfully criticized for failing to develop a satisfactory reply to them.

 

I think you mistake gender equality for uniformity.

 

As to the gist of the question, I think that the caveat one needs is this: this is epic fantasy, a story about the fundamental fight between good and evil, a fight in which male and female protagonists are both essential. It is true that its approach to gender issues is important, the male-female division and complementarity is often emphasized and the gender element is built in very metaphysics of the world (the True Source has male and female halves, which work against each other and in the same time together, turning the Wheel of Time).

 

But RJ has never said, as far as I know, that he wanted to write a story about gender roles. He said he'd wanted to write a story about a clear-cut fight between good and evil, and also a story about a guy who was told that his job was to save the world. So I think that all this social gender constructs, such as Maidens of the Spear, are interesting and colorful, but they shouldn't be attributed too much importance or meaning. It isn't a story about how gender roles should look like in ideal world or how they must look like in real world. RJ simply found it interesting to "turn the tables" and create a world where there exists a fundamental disadvantage for men in terms of magic power and tried to adjust the world to this.

 

I would risk saying that he didn't really try very hard to achieve this role reversal, because even though the women are often found in positions of power and authority, wage wars, fight in armies, control magic, politics, schools,science and health care, they also do the house work, care for the children (and for the men, who they often see as little more than big children). The women are advanced in comparision to, let's say XVIth century Europe, but men are hardly relegated to "traditional women's roles", or even any significant inferiority in relation to women. The only male group that I recall as totally subjogated to female power are the warders, which seems weird. This total role reversal would be difficult to engineer, when you take biology and psychology into account.

 

Other area where these "turned tables" can be seen more clearly is marriage customs, where men are often not allowed to decide who to marry (the Ogier, sometimes the Aiel).

 

So whereas you can find a lot of interesting social constructs related to gender, there are far less examples then there should be if WOT was a story concentrated mainly on gender and social relations. And it is not. Gender issues are shown often, but their analysis is usually shallow, their meaning and plot consequences insignificant.

 

There is one interesting observation RJ made though, in relation to gender roles: look for "soft power". For example in the Two Rivers there seems to exist an equillibrium between a Village Council and a Women's Circle. But the men are more often than not influenced or rather ordered around by their wives, so the power is in reality shifted in women's direction.

 

Last point re: sexism in WOT. I think that most of it everyone save the most zealous over-sensitive critics would treat as innocent. There is one example that is bad IMO and it is sexual nature of Dark One's punishments of female Forsaken (rape, to put it clearly). This is violence mixed with sex and it is limited to females (males are never punished in that way). This is one territory I'd rather RJ hadn't entered or, if he really wanted to emphasize Dark One's cruelty and twisted nature, he should punish also a male Forsaken in similar manner.)

 

Wow, sorry for a rant :unsure:

Edited by PiotrekS
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WoT portrays women as snot nosed bitches who always think they know better than men. In the WoT world there is an absolute equality between men and women. In fact, this equality may actually be inequality that is slanted towards the women's side due to the 3000 years of Aes Sedai power influencing the world. All in all, sexism does not exist in WoT despite the many people who are going to pretend it does because many women tend to fit traditional roles in the story (house keeper, wisdom, etc).

Edited by Mark D
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Guest Emu on the Loose

WoT portrays women as snot nosed bitches who always think they know better than men. ... All in all, sexism does not exist in WoT...

I don't follow your reasoning.

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WoT portrays women as snot nosed bitches who always think they know better than men. ... All in all, sexism does not exist in WoT...

I don't follow your reasoning.

 

I meant sexism as it exists in the modern world with men have a higher position on the ladder of equality than women.

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Jordan made all of his societies at least lightly matriarchal (with the sole exception I can think of off the top of my head be Amadacia). The gender-specific magic system and the taint on the male half allowed this. You pretty much have to go to these extremes to create matriarchal societies at that level of technology. In any society that relies on men to fight, men as a gender are going to have a lot more power (The Walking Dead (at least the TV show) has picked up on this).

 

Jordan also thought through what this would mean. Hence the massive amounts of rather nasty sexism from women in his world. On a more positive note, it has resulted in the complete disappearance of prostitution. I'm not sure prostitution could ever disappear entirely, but while I know very little about its history, I would suspect that prostitution is much less frequent in countries with more equitable gender balances.

 

He already jumped up the importance of gender divisions by splitting the magic system, did it again with the taint on the male half, and then really amps things up with the cleansing of the taint. After thousands of years of only women magic users and the attendant sexism, the introduction of very powerful male magic users will be jarring to the system. It's really all a great concept, and his failings lie not in his understanding of gender roles, etc., but rather in his female characterization abilities.

 

Jordan chose to keep distinct gender roles in WoT for, presumably, two reasons. First, conflict, including gender conflict, is what makes fiction interesting. Second, he was aware of reality. The view that distinctions between the genders is a social construct is completely without merit. It lacks historical, biological, physchological, or common sense support. It requires a rather convoluted and (sadly) impressive series of assumptions and gaping leaps of logic.

 

To return to the original question and sum up: Jordan looks at what it would take to create a matriarchal society, what the results would be, and what would happen if that matriarchy gets challenged. All very interesting questions and very fertile ground for speculative fiction.

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Another aspect of gender in the WoT universe is the characterization of how the different genders deal with the Power. It's not just that the Power is itself gendered into a male half and a female half. Using the One Power is characterized as taxing, and a person either has to be taught how to do it, guided through doing it, or run a high risk of death. The point here is that grasping the One Power is not easy for either gender, it involves mental exercises and training that are hard. Now look at how those genders grasp the Power: females must surrender and submit, males must dominate and control. The message seems to be that a mental state of submission and surrender is not a natural or easy one for women, likewise, a mental state of domination and control is not a natural or easy one for men. Women are not naturally submissive, men are not naturally domineering, but when they school themselves to these states, they gain awesome power and ability, and when they work together in these states, their power and abilities are greatly enhanced. That seems like a pretty powerful statement about gender: Women ought to submit, men ought to control, neither find it easy, but when they do, both are better and everybody around them is better off.

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Why do people keep saying WoT is sexist? Certainly it doesn't slavishly follow the politically-correct line that gender is completely irrelevant, but look at it in context. RJ said somewhere (don't remember the link, sorry) that he got a lot of inspiration for WoT after reading a book about a woman who wanted to become a magic user, but only men were allowed to wield arcane force. He thought that that was an interesting premise, and decided to use it in his story, but with sexes reversed. Hence a gender-divided magic system, the taint on Saidin and the cleansing of the taint, creating a world in which men are fighting for their equality.

 

He also said that he was very interested by the differences between genders, and these do exist, regardless of how unpolitically-correct it is to mention the fact. Sexism is utterly stupid: if a man or woman is qualified for a given role and wants to take it, why stand in their way? But it is not sexist to be interested in how men and women vary, nor to write a story in part about men seeking to be accepted as magic users, nor to attempt to realistically portray the implications of three thousand years of female Aes Sedai and crazy false Dragons.

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You pretty much have to go to these extremes to create matriarchal societies at that level of technology. In any society that relies on men to fight, men as a gender are going to have a lot more power (The Walking Dead (at least the TV show) has picked up on this).

This: In general men are bigger and stronger. That's not sexism that's fact, as a species humans are very close to equal in genders, but men are just physically superior. I think accurate representations of gender roles are often mistaken as sexism on this site.

 

Also I frequently see people talking about sexism towards women, but i think both genders are shown in both postive and negative lights and there is tendency for some to pick out only certain quotes and claim the series and Robert Jordan himself are sexist. That's just not true.

 

There is one example that is bad IMO and it is sexual nature of Dark One's punishments of female Forsaken (rape, to put it clearly). This is violence mixed with sex and it is limited to females (males are never punished in that way). This is one territory I'd rather RJ hadn't entered or, if he really wanted to emphasize Dark One's cruelty and twisted nature, he should punish also a male Forsaken in similar manner.)

 

 

Unfortunately rape is something that is pretty much limited to women. In today's or any society men don't really need to worry about being raped, and that's just the way it is.

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There is one example that is bad IMO and it is sexual nature of Dark One's punishments of female Forsaken (rape, to put it clearly). This is violence mixed with sex and it is limited to females (males are never punished in that way). This is one territory I'd rather RJ hadn't entered or, if he really wanted to emphasize Dark One's cruelty and twisted nature, he should punish also a male Forsaken in similar manner.)

 

 

Unfortunately rape is something that is pretty much limited to women. In today's or any society men don't really need to worry about being raped, and that's just the way it is.

 

Not to mention that Shaidar Haran is male (at least I think he is. Are there female fades? I don't think I've ever seen one mentioned). He could be homosexual of course but the opposite is rather more likely.

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It seems to me that most of these arguments split down lines of personal ideology. I belive most of those posting miss the point of the topic and run amuck with their personal values.

 

What follows is a bold statment that has incited controversy before:

acnowledging gender differneces is not sexism...

 

Men and Wimen are different.

We think different, we act different and when we act the same we do it for different reasons.

There is nothing superior about one over the other but we are not the same.

 

I think Jordan did a better than fair job of treating everyone with a touch of class.

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This: In general men are bigger and stronger. That's not sexism that's fact, as a species humans are very close to equal in genders, but men are just physically superior. I think accurate representations of gender roles are often mistaken as sexism on this site.

 

I'm sure that someone will disagree with that on general principle. :laugh:

 

 

In all seriousness, wikipedia has a fairly decent article on sexual dimorphism in humans.

 

Basically, the average man is significantly taller (six inches on average), heavier (15% heavier on average), stronger (as much as 50% stronger on average depending on the study), have denser and stronger bones, tendons and ligaments, greater lung volume per body mass, larger hearts and a larger oxygen carrying capability in the circulatory system, faster wound clotting, higher pain tolerance with regards to some types of pain. On the other hand, women's senses are more sensitive than those of men, women can carry more fat safely than men can, woman have naturally lower blood pressure, women have more white blood cells and probably better immune systems overall than men, and the parts of the brain associated with things like language and emotion are somewhat more developed in women.

 

There's a reason that the stereotypical male response to something is to want to hit it with a very large rock, while the stereotypical female response is more along the lines of "we need to talk." And when a male hears those words, he wants to hit something with a very large rock. And as for the woman, "Do you know how that made me feel?" :myrddraal:

 

Hulk_SMASH_by_el_grimlock.jpg

A typical male, engaging in typical Y-chromosome problem solving.

 

2011-04-12-monalisa.jpg

A typical female. And it's been driving men nuts for centuries, trying to figure out why is she smiling like that?

Edited by Hopefire
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On a more positive note, it has resulted in the complete disappearance of prostitution.

Not true. It's mentioned a few times specifically with the camp followers, and it's alluded to in places like Lugard. RJ just kept the sexy stuff under the radar.

 

 

 

2011-04-12-monalisa.jpg

A typical female. And it's been driving men nuts for centuries, trying to figure out why is she smiling like that?

 

Because she is a man.

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Well, I guess there are other fantasy series ("Malazan Book of the Fallen" springs to mind), where women have more major roles in more direct fighting- battlefields, combat, assassinations, etc, than they do in the Wheel of Time, but I remember at the time of reading through the first books, the pleasure of having these female characters who are powerful in their own right, and serve roles other than love interest or enemy :P Not to imply that this is what all fantasy is like, far from it, certainly these days, but I remember in my early days of reading fantasy, having the sense that either female characters were very much in the background, or that they'd be built up as brilliant, and then inevitably end up having to be rescued by the hero. In fairness, I was probably just reading the wrong books (I don't even remember which books/series gave me that impression, TBH, it just seemed almost inevitable).

 

It's one thing I like about WoT- there are many prominent female characters who aren't simply there as love interests (I know pretty much every character in WoT does end up getting paired off, but I doubt there's many who'd argue that Gawyn or Lan are more prominent or important characters than Egwene and Nynaeve, whatever you feel towards their respective characters), they have stories of their own, they advance the plot. Sometimes they get rescued, sometimes they do the rescuing, sometimes they rescue each other. I realise I'm putting this in quite basic terms, but I'm trying to remember how I felt when I read through the books.

 

Don't get me wrong, it doesn't mean I love all the female characters (I can't stand Egwene, and Moiraine bothered me a lot in the first few books, too, not to mention some of the more infuriating customs of the Aes Sedai). Nor does it mean they're always brilliantly written. Don't get me wrong, RJ is probably my favourite author, but in a few cases, it does seem that the idea of a strong woman is someone who is bossy and stubborn to a fault- though this does vary between characters, particularly in the later books, making me wonder if its more to do with the worldview.

 

As far as how women as a whole are placed in the world of WoT- there are a LOT of matriarchal societies, as noted. There's also a fair amount of sexism. Saying that, though, this is a world where male channelers inevitably (up until the taint) go insane and cause mass destruction. Aes Sedai aren't exactly trusted in many places, but male channelers are feared, because they turn crazy and kill people. Centuries of this, and its understandable that there's a level of sexism in the world. Its not fair, but in terms of the history of the world, its understandable. Many of the female characters do cease at least SOME of their more sexist traits, even though its grudging on occasion XD For the roles of men vs. women- Men are, on average, stronger than women, as people have pointed out. For those without the One Power, men are, on average, going to be "better" at certain jobs that require physical strength, that's also understandable. In many cases, its unusual for women to take up arms, or be bodyguards, Birgitte is the first female warder that we know of, there is only one Aiel warrior society for women, despite it never being mentioned that they are any less proficient in battle. I don't understand certain aspects of this, however- why must a woman give up the spear when she marries? I can understand that when she has children, she's not going to be in prime battling condition, but getting married? And why is Rand so traumatised when women die, as opposed to men?

 

So, overall, if you're looking for a series where women and men seem to have more interchangeable roles, or where more women are striding into battle in a non-magical sense, then you might not find this to your taste- I mentioned the Malazan... series above, and its one I thoroughly recommend, my other favourite fantasy series. Nor does WoT offer a perfect world, free of sexism, and with total freedom for the individual to do what they want, regardless of gender- the genders are hugely divided, in some sense. WoT DOES, however, offer a more "traditional" worldview with some twists- sexism more directed towards men, etc. It also offers female characters of great importance to the plot and overall story in their own right. I'd say as a fantasy series, there's a lot worse out there for female characterisation, and the role of women in general.

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