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A WHEEL OF TIME COMMUNITY

Gender Essentialism and The Wheel of Time


Lezbi Nerdy
  • Lezbi Nerdy examines the nature of gender essentialism as explored in The Wheel of Time


Lezbi Nerdy is a Wheel of Time content creator who recently realized that she has been reading and re-reading the Wheel of Time for more than half of her life, which freaked her out a little bit.  When not obsessing over Wheel of Time and other nerdy pursuits, she works at a language therapy center in South Korea and enjoys long, socially distanced walks while wearing a mask and listening to podcasts. 

You can check out her youtube channel at http://www.youtube.com/lezbinerdy and if you are so inclined, you can support her on patreon. http://www.patreon.com/lezbinerdy

 

The Wheel of Time changed the way I read.  So much so that I have in the past claimed that it is the first fantasy series I ever read, which in retrospect is just not true.  I have also said that The Eye of the World was the first “real adult book” I ever read, which… also, in retrospect, has turned out to not be true.  But it definitely feels true, and when trying to figure out why, I think I have landed on an answer.  The Wheel of Time changed how I read books. It turned me into an active reader in a way that just makes it feel like a turning point in my reading life.  This may simply be a by-product of the fact that I am an old-school fan, I was reading before the series was finished, and am among those who had to wait years between books, and wait over a decade to have the story finished.  So, in the time I was waiting, I thought about these books, and about where the story was going, I made guesses and had theories.  This is something I had never done prior to these books because I hadn’t needed to.  The stories I had read before were just… there.  I didn’t have to guess because if I just kept going, I’d find the answer. 

 

But I think it was more than just the wait for more books that caused this change in me.  The story, the world that Robert Jordan crafted just lends itself to theorizing.  The world is so wide in scope, that even with the story finished, there are still questions left.  And there is such depth to the world building that even if there are no canonical answers, it feels like there are. 

 

And so, when reading and re-reading this series before it was complete, my head was full of theories.  And there is one theory that, while it didn’t bear out in the end, I think it is worth examining. 

 

The world of Wheel of Time is a world that has fractured along gender lines.  It is a world in which gender essentialism is… well, it’s true.  We have a magic system that divides things along very binary gender lines.  All male channelers must use saidin, and all female channelers must use saidar.  And those two sources of power are inherently different.  It is gender essentialism written into the foundational magic system that turns the eponymous Wheel of Time. 

 

Characters in the books often muse at the nature of members of the opposite sex.  Men are spoken of by women in absolutes, and vice versa.  Women undertake actions and understand ideas that men don’t seem to know much about (for example, that a Two Rivers good wife would change the curtains in a house depending on the season), and men do things that women can’t seem to understand or dismiss as illogical.  It happens to such a degree that it can become frustrating to readers, even annoying, to hear these characters lump all members of the opposite gender into one group, to paint them all with broad brush strokes as all being the same.

 

But as I read, and re-read, I came to the conclusion that this was intentional, it had to be.  It had to be a symptom of something that was wrong and broken in their fictional world.  And it was a symptom that made sense to me.  If the foundational magic system of the world seemingly tells people that men and women are fundamentally different, and in fact, unknowable to each other, then why wouldn’t people just accept this as fact and not examine it further?   As Moiraine says in The Great Hunt, “A bird cannot teach a fish to fly, nor a fish teach a bird to swim.”

 

But of course, the fact that these differences between genders lean into very common and frustrating gender stereotypes was… well, as a woman, it was frustrating.  In order to use the male half of the source, men have to approach it directly, from the front, dominate it through force.  In order to use the female half of the source, women have to surrender to it, submit, and control subtly from within, or underneath the power. 

 

We see this play out in the way men and women use and gain power in the world of The Wheel of Time.  Men, for the most part; battle, conquer, or negotiate directly by saying what they want clearly.  The women, on the other hand, the women in power in the books are mostly seen as manipulators, they pull the strings behind the scenes.  There are, of course, exceptions to these ‘rules’, but in general, this is how things work in this world.  And because of our cultural biases, these two methods are not viewed equally.  Battling, conquering, being direct… most readers see these as noble characteristics, brave even.  Manipulating, pulling strings… most readers will see these as sneaky, underhanded methods. Even if both of these methods are used to achieve the same goals, they are not view equally. These factors color how characters and organizations are viewed. 

 

serenar_art Wot Ladies instagram.com.jpg

 

But again, this divide, this break between genders is literally baked into the foundation of this world.  Men must be dominant, because if they aren’t and they are a channeler, they literally won’t be able to channel.  And women must be surrendering, because if they are not able to surrender, then they literally won’t be able to channel.  If they do not conform, then they must learn to conform in order to fully grow into who they are meant to be.  Gender essentialism is enforced by how things work.

 

But gender essentialism is wrong.  Gender essentialism says that there are universal, immutable, intrinsic qualities to being male or female, and anyone with any sense knows that this is not true. I can tell you that in my over 20 years of teaching experience, there isn’t a single quality, hobby, or personality type that I could say universally applies to all the boys I’ve taught or all the girls.  There are numerous exceptions to every gender rule I can think of.  Even in that same conversation I previously mentioned in The Great Hunt, Verin comments on the faulty logic of the fish metaphor.  “There are birds that dive and swim. And in the Sea of Storms are fish that fly…” These universal generalities about “all women” and “all men” only serve to divide us and to make anyone who doesn’t fit feel like an outsider. To read more about gender essentialism, you can read this piece on Gender Essentialism Theory by Dr. E. Boskey.  

 

And as I said, as I was re-reading these books, I began to think that this was the point Robert Jordan was trying to make, or it was one of them.  That the characters were wrong about the nature of masculinity and femininity because they were fundamentally wrong about the nature of saidar and saidin.  And the reason I began to think this was because of Nynaeve.

 

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If you know my YouTube channel, then you probably know that Nynaeve is my girl.  She is my favourite character, hands down, and so she is the person I have thought the most about, and so yeah… on my re-reads it started to dawn on me that it didn’t make any sense that Nynaeve, for the first part of the series, can only channel when angry.  It goes against everything we know about the nature of saidar and female channeling.  Women are only supposed to be able to channel when calm, but that is out the window with Nynaeve, because she has to be livid to be able to ‘embrace the source’.  And secondly, women are supposed to only be able to channel through surrendering to the vastness of the One Power – literally are only able to use power by surrendering to power.  Now, maybe this is me, but anger is not a surrendering emotion in my book.  And from what we read and know of Nynaeve, it isn’t one for her too.  When she is angry, she bowls over people, she takes charge, she is blunt and direct, violent even.  She is displaying very characteristically masculine traits.  Theodrin even comments that she doesn’t understand how Nynaeve can channel in the first place because it goes against everything she knows about how the female half of the source works. 

 

And I honestly thought that this was the point.  That Nynaeve was going to prove that everything that everyone has assumed about saidar – and saidin as well – was wrong.  That Nynaeve was going to show that women don’t have to surrender, women don’t have to conform to these old and tired stereotypes about how women are manipulative and submissive.  And through this we would also learn that men don’t have to conform to male stereotypes either, they don’t have to be violent, to conquer and dominate.  That while maybe these old ways are easiest for most, they are not essential.  That the male half and female halves of the Source aren’t as unknowable to each other as originally thought, and through that that the world would come to understand that men and women aren’t as foreign to each other as well.  I thought it was going to be a part of the healing that this world was going to go through because of our main characters. 

I held out hope for this theory until the final book, even after she surrendered to the source at the bottom of that river.  But it didn’t happen.  I suppose, with the world continuing as it does, that this could be something that happened in the post-book era, but I think I have to accept that this wasn’t a part of Robert Jordan’s original plan.  And, if I’m honest, it is one of the very few things in The Wheel of Time that I’m disappointed with. 

 

I’ve said before that I always assume good intent with Robert Jordan, and even in this area this still stands.  I think that it was his intent to show the value in both ‘sides’ of the coin, to show that men and women must work together, that equality and cooperation are goals worth striving for.  But gender essentialism is an inherently limiting philosophy.   And when there are strict lines drawn between two sides, it practically invites people to make judgements about which is better. 

 

But with the show coming out, I think that there is a new opportunity to address this issue in the world of Wheel of Time in a way that doesn’t lock men and women into outdated stereotypes that were never universally true in the first place.  Obviously, I am attached to my personal theory about how this could be addressed; but regardless of how it is done, I think it would be in keeping with Robert Jordan’s vision of healing the divide between genders to not stick to the fundamentally flawed principle of gender essentialism. 

 

But these, of course, are only my thoughts.  What are yours? How do you feel about the role gender essentialism plays in The Wheel of Time?



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What a fantastic article/theory! My first time through the books, I didn't think much about the gender essentialism but I've noticed it much more in this book. Somehow I always thought Nynaeve had busted through, because that was who she was to me as a character. She was someone who is not moved, but tells others to move. That was my headcanon and on this current re-read I realize how much I was glossing over elements I didn't want to see!

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imlad

Posted (edited)

LezbiNerdy, you might just have given me some new head canon...

Edited by imlad

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Thank you! I have recently been having thoughts along these lines and am thrilled to read your ideas. As a CIS male I admittedly did not ponder such things during my original readings. I’m glad that I am being educated. And your ideas are enlightening and strike me as a missed opportunity for the series. 

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Hi

I was with you until you said "Nynaeve is my favorite" 🙂 Unfortunately, she is the one I like the least out of ANY female character mentioned in the entire series. 

 

As for your theory, I never looked at it that way. I'm from the generation that expected men to be strong and challenge forcefully while women worked behind the scenes and actually got things done (for very little credit I might add). 

Like you, I read one book at a time as it came out. I refused to reread the previous books every time a new book in the series came out so I'm guessing I missed a lot. (Not to mention that once Moraine was "killed" (MY hands down favorite character) I began speedreading the books and didn't slow down until the final book and she returned. 

That said I thought I read that it took both halves (male and female) now to combine and use the Power to its fullest. If so, wouldn't that make both genders equal now?

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Thanks for describing how your theory about how saidin and saidar wouldn't be kept separate by Jordan ultimately failed.

It reminds the reader about one of the main themes of the series, which is: division doesn't help, and unity includes everyone to create a tapestry, a complete whole. 

 

He alludes to this in the forces of light and dark as well as male and female. 

As a person who knows both my own light and darkness I could argue that the dual states don't really exist because I experience both day to day. And life is a mix of the two. Jordan intended the point to be made clear: that humans need both dark and light to be whole. He also argues that people need both male and female energy to be whole; to accomplish the biggest feats of power. 

 

His vision was one of transmutation and togetherness, of bringing the whole to fruition instead of picking it apart in division. The forsaken represent the latter. They want to keep people's minds divided, focused on differences not similarities. 

 

Readers are free to interpret the series as they wish but it'd be a shame if they overlook the existing themes of togetherness to focus on the divisiveness of exclusion. 

 

I set my counter argument to you, writer: which is that the show should not try to shoehorn concessions to modern fashion in this theme, but rather doubles down on carrying the message of inclusivity no matter the current circumstances of our world. The wheel weaves as it wills, not as I will it to

 

Nynaeve isn't an aberration because she's strong, nor is she not feminine, nor is she stereotypically male. She's just an individual with enough power and self awareness to be herself, and her motive is to help others. That motive makes her a productive member of society and of use to the wheel, regardless of her sexuality, gender etc. 

 

The wheel weaves a universe and populates it with diversity to tell a story. I can't agree that the show should tackle stereotyoes using its own voice because RJ had already done so, and I'd prefer the show to authentically convey his ideas of unity instead of trying to concede to fashion. 

Edited by MichaelOfTheWhite

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Great analysis! I've struggled like you, with the relentless-feeling way that Jordan drives home the division between genders throughout the series. 

I've wondered if he had an axe to grind; if he was truly blind to how extreme it felt... 

 

Your theory about Nyn would have been really really interesting! Imagine the way things would have cracked open if it turned out to not be your genitalia that determined which power you could tap into!

 

The thought that Jordan was intentionally emphasizing the gender battle in Randland to present a critique of the "men are from mars..." attitude that's so strong in our culture is a comforting one.  He clearly wanted to show the gender battle as something that was holding their society back.

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I recently re-read Philippa Gregory's "Women of the Cousin's War" (The "War of the Roses" is a later XIX c. appellation. Apparantly it was known by the name in the book's title back in the XVth c.). The book is not an historical novel which Gregory has been known for writing but an actual history book.

 

What really interested me is Gregory's introduction to this book. Within it she says that women and their hi/stories have been side-lined for the most part in the past because men mostly ruled and held posts of power, the chroniclers were pretty much all men too, and many of them monks too, weighed down with christianity's misogynistic canon regarding women. as an aside if you even look at the name/noun "woman" etymologically it comes from the masculine noun wīfman in OE (wifeman in ModE).

 

She goes on to state that the later historians, like the contemporaneous chroniclers, have all been men too, and it has only been in the last seventy years that women historians have started to come to the fore, and many of them have searched out the famous women of history (Tracy Borman's "Matilda Wife of the Conqueror" is a fine example). She states how difficult it can be to find their quotidian happenings because of their near invisibility in the historical records. But their histories can be found. 

 

I have always been interested in the stories of historical figures, of those who held power, and especially the women who held power, because their stories are just as important as men's stories are, if not in some cases even moreso, as a woman attaining power in a man's world takes an exceptional character and intelligence in many cases. This is partly why the Wheel of Time was so engrossing for me to read and re-read: our world where the taint on saidin has rendered women for the most part, across nearly the whole board, more powerful than men.

 

I also have enjoyed Steven Erikson's "Malazan Book of the Fallen". This is another epic world that gives women an equal footing with its men. Erikson has dragged the fantasy genre [sic] into the twenty-first century. The first book in this vast series is "Gardens of the Moon".  💙

gregory women cousins war.jpeg

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Interesting viewpoint, full of deep thought.

 

With any narrative, the reader can filter information and theories to their own tastes. Robert Jordan was a man writing his internal version of male-female dynamics, as was his due as the writer. And I believe the surrender requirement is difficult for many readers. I also have my own theory.

 

Anger is Surrendering.

 

Personally, I have always tried my hardest to constrain myself, my words, my thoughts, but especially my anger. However at times the only thing I could do was let myself get angry. It wasn't something I willingly grabbed onto, but instead something that crashes into you as if to sweep you away. If you do not surrender to your anger, let it in to run it's course, it will fester and turn ugly.

Striking out at another person, to me, is also giving up control of a physical situation. As long as you do not act, or react physically, you maintain control of the interaction. It's the fundamental part of pacifism (the way of the leaf): strength through non-violence. An action may ultimately be necessary but once you let it out, you no longer have full control if the outcome. That to me, action, is a form of surrender. 

 

I see this in the WOT. The females are taught to be calm and let the power in, whereas the males are taught to reach out and grab it. However, you'll note that the males are not instructed to get angry, just that they are required to control it once it is in them. There is a barrier for both methods, and neither could be considered easy or comfortable when first learning.

 

Though WOT may appear to be commentary on the sexes, it is just one man's perspective and not the reality of the our world.

 

 

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I.. do not have the same issues that come up here that you have Lezbi.

Saidin and Saidar, for me, at least, show how men and women learn to tap those abilities are pretty much a metaphor for how boys and girls learn that there exist differences between them. A boys hands are different from a girls hands, once puberty ends, for example.

 

A boy runs and walks different form how a girl runs and walks, as well, once puberty development is constant, because a boy has to learn to protect what is developing, just as much as a girl has to. I do not know what a girl has to learn, but as a man, I do know what I had to learn.

 

Because the voice shifts alone were embarrassing, going by my experience at school as a kid, and mine started at a very early age, and was the first sign of puberty beginning. In fact, I was the first boy to start that development of my age group. 

 

As they come to learn about those differences, they each learn that, for example, one boy or man is unique from any other boy or man he will encounter in his lifetime, and one girl or woman is unique from any other girl or woman as well. 

 

These differences are on what each boy or girl likes or dislikes, and these carry through each life.

Experiences and relationships with others and the world around them throughout their lives changes these even more.

 

Then there is what each boy or girl is skilled at and develops in over their lifetimes. 

 

For example, as a boy, I was an avid reader and a budding writer at school, but sucked at sport due to being sickly and was an average student. As a result, I was one of the top readers, where I could read at 5 what a 14 year old could, and at the top for my writing among my pears, but was awful at maths, where I was at the bottom. I could not go past basic sums, until I was an adult at 23, and at the same time, had the instinct to protect vital parts of my body, like my head from a very young age.

 

My dead sister, by comparison at the same age was an avid reader and a gifted cricket player, and she was a top student. She never needed any help with her school work. She was top at reading, writing and maths, in addition to being the top cricket player when she used to play Saturday morning cricket. In addition, she lacked the natural instinct to protect her body, like her head, from injury.

 

These differences between my sister and me show how life determines what happens as we lived our lives. 

Sadly, my sister did not get the chance to live that life, because of circumstances and one vital difference between us cut that life short.

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On 12/26/2020 at 6:51 PM, Charles Townsend said:

Anger is Surrendering.

 

Personally, I have always tried my hardest to constrain myself, my words, my thoughts, but especially my anger. However at times the only thing I could do was let myself get angry. It wasn't something I willingly grabbed onto, but instead something that crashes into you as if to sweep you away. If you do not surrender to your anger, let it in to run it's course, it will fester and turn ugly.

 

 

 

Excellent point about anger festering. And anger is not always bad--there is such a thing as righteous anger.

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On 1/12/2021 at 9:29 AM, wotfan4472 said:

I.. do not have the same issues that come up here that you have Lezbi.

Saidin and Saidar, for me, at least, show how men and women learn to tap those abilities are pretty much a metaphor for how boys and girls learn that there exist differences between them. A boys hands are different from a girls hands, once puberty ends, for example.

 

A boy runs and walks different form how a girl runs and walks, as well, once puberty development is constant, because a boy has to learn to protect what is developing, just as much as a girl has to. I do not know what a girl has to learn, but as a man, I do know what I had to learn.

 

 

I agree. I did not have the problems with the gender issues in WoT either. More often than not, it was a source of amusement to me because it sounded so much like the way men and women talk about each other in real life. Remember Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus? Generally speaking, men and women are different, physically, mentally and emotionally. And that's why we complement and complete each other. I know there are exceptions, as Lesbi Nerdy said, but to have exceptions you have to have rules. Stereotypes develop from observation of commonalities among a given population

(be it humans, animals, or whatever).

Regarding Jordan's use of gender, the fact that saidar and saidin are so different but produce the greatest results when used together I think speaks to the fact that no matter how different we are, we are best when we work together and allow our differences to compliment each other rather than divide.

Furthermore, I think Lezbi Nerdy is only focusing on one aspect of gender in WoT. In the Aiel culture, men and women are absolutely equal, and in the case of Wise Ones, women might actually have the greater power. Not to mention that when a man has 2 wives, he has no say in how that relationship works.

Domani women are the best traders in the land, and among the Sea Folk it's the women who are the mistresses of the ships and the men the masters of trade, and their marriage customs balance authority between husband and wife.

Among the Seanchan, I could not see any difference in authority or the way men and women approached positions of leadership. Women could be ship captains, military and political leaders and be every bit as tough as the men.

On the whole, I think their is much more gender diversity than Lesby Nerdy gives Jordan credit for, but of course different things stand out to different readers.

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On 1/12/2021 at 6:29 AM, wotfan4472 said:

are pretty much a metaphor for how boys and girls learn that there exist differences between them

 

This sounds pretty much exactly like "gender essentialism."  There's a Wikipedia article that begins to describe the various criticisms of this that various learned people have: 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_essentialism

 

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