Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Wheel of Time and covert misogyny

            I used to love the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan and I feel bad about how harsh I’m going to be on it.  Robert Jordan or James Oliver Rigney Jr. as his friends knew him, was not only one of the world’s most prolific modern fantasy writers, but he was also a veteran of the Vietnam War, and a nuclear engineer for the United States Navy.  In short, he accomplished a great deal more then I have at the moment so far be it from me to insult the man’s work.  When he passed away in 2007 at the relatively young age of 58, the world lost quite a man.  That being said, arguably the man’s greatest accomplishment is the incredibly lengthy and in-depth Wheel of Time series.  The Wheel of Time series is hard to describe, hell, I’ve rewritten this sentence at least thrice already trying to.  WoT as the fans abbreviate it on that internet, is difficult because so much of it is based upon concepts rather then story, which is both a blessing and a curse in many regards.

            WoT is at it’s core about the perception of mythology.  Every book opens with the phrase “The Wheel of Time turns and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.”  The titular wheel is a pseudo-religious symbol of a spinning wheel that weaves reality out of nothing.  The basic idea is that there are seven repeating ages all of which have similar themes and events.  This is carried further by the fact that many characters and events bear the mark of our own mythologies.  The three main protagonists share traits with a number of Norse deities and Arthurian myths and the events of the story are meant to be the events that inspired many of our own stories, such as the sword in the stone or the like. The story follows three young men: Rand Al’Thor, the primary protagonist, Perry Ayabara, and Matrim Cauthon.  All three main characters are marked by destiny, something that, while not common, is a known phenomenon in this world.  The story concerns their travels throughout the world (commonly called Randland by the fans but with no name within the story) and their fight against an encroaching darkness. 
Before I start with the main thrust of my argument I should clarify that the series has many interesting aspects.  Jordan’s engineering background is present in the world’s magic system, which is complex and well-laid out.  The three main characters are believably flawed and really do come off as three young men being forced into adulthood by the harsh reality of the outside world.  The series is also host to an ensemble cast of interesting support characters.  This is the first series where my favorite character is a voice in another character’s head.  But for all of its valid points, the Wheel of Time series is incredibly and very subtly misogynistic.
            So one of those concepts that I mentioned earlier is that the series is kind of gender flipped. While all of the main protagonists are male, the Wheel of Time takes place in a world dominated by women.  The reasoning is based in the world’s magic system.  See when the universes’ big bad, a being referred to simply as the Dark One (implied much like Stephen King’s The Red King, to be our own Satan) was last beaten, the ramifications involved the male side of the world’s magic being tainted.  What is the effect of this infection?  Whenever a man tries to channel, the in-universe term for casting magic, there is a greater and greater chance that he will be driven mad.  The effect is roughly a millennium of men literally destroying the world so effectively that modern day Randland looks nothing like what it did in the last age though it is implied that such events are common on the cosmic scale.  With one or two exceptions, one of which is important to the story, all of the survivors of this disastrous millennium were aided by female magic users in some way.  This setup means that men, especially men that can channel magic, are not trusted on a cultural level since a single male channeler of some talent could bring back the apocalypse with ease while women with similar abilities are first seen as basically benevolent guardians.  This results in many nations having women in power and many cultures recognizing women as the dominant party in the relationship.  
Men aren’t regarded as evil or even as spineless, but they are certainly eyed with a degree of suspicion.  As a perfect example, in one culture women wear knives at their hips, the cultural reason being that theirs is a nation of warriors and even the women will fight if necessary.  However at the same time, it is implied that women in the culture are known to gut their husbands for slights against them like cheating with another woman or the like.  When this practice is brought up, it is confirmed that women in this culture are assumed to always be in the right and the gutting is at their digression.  I hope that you can see where I’m going with this.  A very subtle theme that I’m not entirely sure is meant to be intentional is that a culture dominated by women is a culture dominated by what TV Tropes would call Alpha Bitches.  It really gets bad at times, almost to the point that I had to stop reading.  The worst offenders on the cultural level are the Aes Sedai, the most series’ most prominent organization of female channelers. 
The Aes Sedai are often regarded as a necessary evil by the world.  Members of the organization are often used as royal advisors, certain members make up a ruthless inquisition that hunts out men who can perform magic and still others are trained in battle to serve the side that the White Tower, the Aes Sedai headquarters, believes is in the right.  Aes Sedai are regarded with suspicion by most everyone who doesn’t work with them on a daily basis and even those who do are wary of their powers and their demeanors.  See any member of the order who is powerful enough to be given an assignment outside of the Tower is assumed to be immensely powerful given that the order is a meritocracy with a capability to channel being the determining factor for advancement.  But determining factor is probably too strong a word, channeling is the only factor that is examined and as a result almost every Aes Sedai that we meet in a position of power with the exception of the main female supporting cast, is usually an arrogant and self-absorbed woman whose own agenda will come into conflict with that of the protagonists.  What’s worse is the fact that women who can channel but aren’t quite as talented are effectively strong-armed into joining the order and are forced to remain as novices in the order.  These women are treated poorly for the length of their substantially long lives (all channelers are gifted with near-immortality) and are forced to “learn” lessons that are practically impossible for them to complete.
Not only do the Aes Sedai and their practices get repetitive but it’s also rather disturbing as many of the aforementioned women in power are taught their place (often through force) by the male characters.  This is where the misogyny comes into play.  For a while I applauded WoT for being progressive by having a number of cultures dominated by women, but then I realized that on an almost universal level, these cultures are implied to be flawed because women are in control.  But I’d be able to forgive that if not for the fact that the individual female characters of the series are characterized so poorly.
The main female characters of the Wheel of Time series are actually pretty offensive and I’m a guy.  But I should elaborate on the matter.  Much like Rand, Perrin and Mat, many of the main female characters undergo a story arc that involves them moving from being regarded as girls to being regarded as women.  A few of these arcs are handled well.  The best arc goes to Min Farshaw, my favorite of the female characters, she goes from being a wise beyond her years young girl stuck in a small town to a shrewd player on the world stage who is almost Rand’s First Lady in many ways (though she is only one of his three lovers…yeah, Rand gets a bit Gary Stu-ish).  But others aren’t so lucky.  For me the absolute worst of it is Elayne, a girl who ends up as another one of Rand’s love brigade.  Elayne starts off the series as a stubborn young woman who is the heir apparent of one of Randland’s larger kingdoms.  From the beginning she is characterized as being headstrong, bullheaded, determined and while naturally talented she still has a lot to learn both about her talent for channeling (which most of the strong female characters in the series have) and about the world at large, a world that she will play a large part in when she becomes queen of her nation.  Through the course of the series she becomes involved in stopping a number of conspiracies, goes on a few of adventures and is forced to face the darkness of the world.  However, by the 10th book of a 14 novel cycle, she is still foolishly stubborn and while she has advanced both in talent and in political standing, she is still written as being very immature and foolish.  Heck, to my memory her biggest piece of character development in the later half of the series is the moment wherein she becomes pregnant.  She is told by a soothsayer that the twins she carries will “come out fine.”  This has resulted in her becoming even more headstrong and willing to rush into danger (despite now being a full-fledged queen) because she believes that her pregnancy protects her.  This is a badly written character ladies and gentlemen and a bizarrely written one at that.
The thing is, I’m not sure if any of this misogyny is intentional or if it’s just the byproduct of the world that Robert Jordan has created.  I’ve heard WoT called many things both by fans and by haters, but misogynistic has never been one of them.  These themes that I’ve been highlighting are buried pretty deep in the story and it’s all very subtle.  Or maybe it’s all my imagination.  Am I the only one who sees these really disdainful points in this otherwise excellent cycle of books? I’m asking honestly because once again, there are aspects of this series that I really liked.  This is the series that gave us Matrim Cauthon and the Band of the Red Hand, not to mention Thom Merrilin, gleeman extraordinaire.  But this underlying tone of distaste for women really does taint what is a truly excellent fantasy series.  I haven’t read through the entire series yet but I’ll probably finish it up once all of the books are out, I hate to leave things unfinished like that.  Regardless, all of this negative writing has left a bad taste in my mouth.  Next time, I’ll come up with something really fun to write about.

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