Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Wheel of Time and Women

As anyone who has heard me go on for an extended period about the Wheel of Time series my boyfriend Wil can tell you, I have strong opinions about the Wheel of Time books, created by Robert Jordan. On one hand, I can't stop reading (and re-reading) them. On the other hand, they're sorta terrible.

So, unlike the time when I promised to review every classic Disney movie and then didn't, I'm going to write a series of posts explaining why the Wheel of Time books are simultaneously so good and so bad, addressing issues ranging from characterization and prose style to Jordan's take on race and gender issues.

Today's post is about women in the Wheel of Time. 

White Tower by Rob Christianson
Women are crucial to the series, as individuals and in groups. One of the most compelling inventions of epic fantasy is the White Tower of the Aes Sedai, which blends all of the raw magical and political power of the Bene Gesserit with the wide-eyed wonderment and growing pains of Harry, Ron, and Hermione as they train at Hogwarts. The Aes Sedai are a group of women who have received training in channeling, which means manipulating elemental forces to alter the world. Because of these powers, they are feared and/or revered across the world. Their headquarters and training ground, the White Tower, has three and a half thousand years of history behind it, and several important prophecies mention its role in the coming apocalypse, the Last Battle.

Basically, it's a huge all-girls' school-slash-abbey for training in magic and world domination. Which. Sounds. Incredible.*

Jordan has spent a lot of time fleshing out the Aes Sedai and the White Tower, giving them rules that both make sense and contribute to the plot, nuanced political factions within the tower, a diverse reputation across the various lands, and lots of cool gadgets. Their history is just as important a part of the Wheel of Time as the history of Rand al'Thor himself (the legendary savior called the Dragon Reborn) and the end of the series makes it clear that they will continue to guide the world even after the Last Battle. They are so central that you could rewrite the entire series just from the p.o.v. of the White Tower and its members, and not really lose a lot of plot. (IMO, that would be a better series, but I'll talk more about that as we go.)

The Aes Sedai are just the most prominent group of women influencing events in the Wheel of Time. They are joined by the equally impressive, charismatic Aiel Wise Ones, the Kin, and the Windfinders and Wavemistresses of the Atha'an Miere. 

Individual women in the Wheel of Time are also strong, brave, powerful, and important. I'm hard-pressed to think of any of the major female characters who only serves as a prop for a male character; they all have complicated inner lives and motivations.*

Picture by Seamus Gallagher
My favorite (everyone's favorite?) is Egwene al'Vere, who is basically the BAMFiest BAMF of all time. She's accomplished and talented. She faces danger when she teaches herself how to dreamwalk, works hard when she trains as an an Aiel Wise Woman while she's training for the White Tower, and puts up with no shit from anyone when she becomes the youngest Amyrlin Seat ever. She also has great inner strength, a reserve which she draws upon and intentionally deepens whenever she encounters difficulty, such as being manipulated by older counsellors in the Hall of the Tower, being captured by enemy forces, or tortured by rival Aes Sedai. 

But Egwene is not just a bad-ass woman, with the hardness and emotional emptiness that often accompanies that stereotype. Jordan lets us see her insecurities, her vulnerability, her growing sense of purpose and calling, as she struggles between her personal relationships and her duty as Amyrlin Seat. 

So . . . all of that sounds great, you say. Where does Jordan go wrong?

While his women are awesome, strong, fully-realized characters, he also plays on the most overused, banal gender stereotypes imaginable to create them. For instance, the idea that women are super dramatic, emotional vomit machines.

A great example of this are the Aes Sedai. One of the hallmarks of this group is that they have great emotional control. Their faces are smooth and give nothing away, an affect which is very intimidating for any Muggle-types treating with them. We are told this fact about them many times. So, that's how they are in action, right?

Oh yeah, EXCEPT for literally ANY TIME they are "on screen," when Jordan can't wait to tell you how much drama was going on and how shocking it was to see the famed unreadable Aes Sedai displaying emotions by any number of verbal or physical tics such as: gasping, crying, staring daggers, making a face, yelling, snarling, cursing, smoothing a skirt, twisting a skirt, bunching up your fists in a skirt (lots of skirt-related drama), etc. Even the WoT Wiki recognizes this, as it defines women as: "People who sniff, stare, smooth their skirts, and fold their arms under their breasts, and other stuff also, but mostly that."

Nynaeve by Jeremy Saliba
Nynaeve's ever-loving braid pulling is the most extreme example of the emotional-vagina syndrome in the Wheel of Time. Nynaeve is already supposed to be a pretty high-strung person, ("even for a woman," I hear Jordan saying from Epic Fantasy Heaven right now) but whenever she gets mad, she pulls and tugs at her braid. There are approximately 407 references to her pulling her braid in the entire series; she is mad almost all the time. Cause, women, right?

The other fun gender stereotype that Jordan draws on is the somewhat muzzy idea of "femininity."

This comes out in the way women control their half of the Source, the force that keeps the world turning and allows them to manipulate the elements. Because men can channel, too, in the Wheel of Time. Early in the series, they don't channel as much as women (we'll get to why next time) but they can access the Source. And when they access it, they fight it, like a raging fire. It almost consumes them, and they battle it for dominance every time they tap into its power.

But women . . . no, women don't get power by fighting, strength, or brute force, no sirree. That would be unfeminine. Women flow. For women, channeling involves flowing with the Source as if it's a river. It involves imagining themselves as a flower opening to the sun. Primarily, it involves surrender. Geez, who wrote this, Robin Thicke?

I can't even get into all the ick I feel about those images being connected to the idea of a woman's power. If I try, I just sound like a freshman whose mind has just been blown by their first women's studies course. Suffice it to say, the connotation of women as a delicate flower and the necessity of surrender ("In magic as in love, grasshopper") is overplayed and pretty cheesy here. 

What's the takeaway? For me, it's this. Jordan's series tries real hard to be feminist. You don't create a world in which women control most of the magic for centuries, in which half of the nations we encounter are ruled by women, and in which the central organization for both magic and politics is run entirely by women, and not have some kind of feminist message. And, in some respects, it succeeds beautifully. If I ever write fan fiction, it's gonna be White Tower fan fiction. But the strength of Jordan's message and his storytelling was undercut by his own gender biases, as will be even more clear when I talk next about masculinity and the Wheel of Time. 

*It's like the concent from Neal Stephenson's Anathem, except just with women! Aghghghgh!

*I dunno, except maybe for Min? I feel bad saying it, because I like her a LOT more than I like some of the other aggressively "sassy" lady-type characters, but she may just be a prop for Rand. Dang.

1 comment:

L Thomas Baxter said...

It's been a while since I last read TWoT; I think I stopped some time around the seventh or ninth book. Revisiting my memories of it, and specifically the gendered relationships in Saidar and Saidin, I'm surprised by how it parallels aspects of sex magic. Both in the orgasmic undertones of accessing source, and in the parallels of Dominance and submission (particularly the male Dom female sub aspects).