Live from Wheel of Time: Sexism? In My High Fantasy?

Spoilers for the series ahead.

Let’s start this off with a simple message:

I Am Not Saying Robert Jordan Was Sexist

In fact, as I pointed out in another article, there are a lot of feminist aspects about the book that I really enjoyed. Hell, here’s one I missed: an Aes Sedai named Leane Sharif who, after she is deposed and ‘stilled’ (stripped of magic) decides that the way she’s going to find inner strength is to become a sexy femme fatale who crushes men under her heeled boot. On the surface, this doesn’t sound particularly feminist, but I think it works for three reasons:

  1. She is from Arad Doman, a kingdom where the woman dress in form fitting clothes with plunging necklines and use seduction as a weapon on the reg. The rest of the kingdoms all consider this terribly scandalous, but in Arad Doman this is just how the women roll and the men are mostly immune to it. With Leane, it means that she’s not becoming some sort of sexpot out of nowhere, she’s reaching back to find strength in her roots.
  2. Leane pointedly did not spend her time in the White Tower practicing Domani seduction techniques, so when she begins she doesn’t just become this bikini-wearing blonde who can flirt her way out of every situation. In fact, she sort of sucks at it for a while.
  3. Most of all, it works because Leane isn’t the only woman in the books. Far from it. And the women who observe Leane trying to use seduction to get what she needs all have varying opinions on it.

Robert Jordan isn’t calling all women conniving seductresses with Leane. Instead, he’s created a single character coping with a great loss of power by finding the power in her own sexuality. Suian, another Aes Sedia who goes through the same deposition and stilling, copes in an entirely different way relevant to her own experiences. Jordan isn’t making statements on women, he’s just writing women as fully realized characters. He’s not sexist.

That Being Said…

Robert Jordan was a white man who was raised in the South of the United States in the middle of the twentieth century. Actually, I can take a lot of that away.

Robert Jordan was raised in the United States. A sometimes violently patriarchal society that is only recently starting to confront itself on its toxic masculinity and its fear of both feminism and ‘non-conforming’ genders. And it’s not going well. All of us born and raised in such a society have a certain amount of sexism baked into us from birth, and it takes constant self-awareness to recognize it and root it out. I, obviously, did not know the man personally, and there isn’t much about his personal life on the internet, so I’m not going to guess on how these themes and situations ended up in the books, only point out that way or another, they did.

Saidar vs Saidin

This is the number one thing people writing about the sexist tropes in Wheel of Time write about so I’m not going to linger, but basically:

Saidar: the female half of the One Power, which is described as a river of power one must surrender to.

Saidin: The male half of the One Power, which is described as a raging torrent of power that one must dominate.

Excuse me, I’m going to find a small room and make the jerk off motion until I pass out from exhaustion.

No One Seems to Like Each Other

I already brought this up in another article, but I’m bringing it up again because in these situations where people are thrown together and get stuck in a never-ending time loop of disgust and distrust, it’s always between the women and the men. Men are constantly thinking and talking to each other about how they can’t understand women. Women are constantly calling men idiots and dismissing them out of hand, or telling them what to do and expecting the men to do it without any actual discussion. This happened so much I wanted to scream. It enforces the idea that all men are like this and women are like this.

Come to think of it, of the few relationships that actually make it to the pages of these books, I don’t buy a single one of them. Mat and Tuon are a literal self-fulfilling prophecy and she’s probably going to kill Mat eventually. Perrin and Faile are complete opposites that love each but don’t seem to like each other. Lan is fully twenty years older than Nynaeve and they meet when she’s twenty-four. I have read this exact situation on r/amitheasshole over and over and over and it never ends well.

And then you have Rand, and his three insanely hot wives. One is a tomboy who clings to his boots like a child getting dragged around the living room, another is an Aiel warrior who could crush him with her thighs, and the last is the damned Queen of Andor. But they’re all just so hopelessly in love with him they don’t mind sharing!

Excuse me, I’m going to that small room again to scream into a pillow until I my vocal cords rupture.

Everyone is Obsessed with Not Killing Women

Specifically Rand, who builds an entire mantra of listing the names of all the women he’s either directly killed or gotten killed even as that list reaches into the triple digits.

And to be clear, a lot of these women are Aiel, a society where woman are warriors. Like, it’s their whole thing. They knew what they were signing up for and they believed that dying in battle was an honor. These aren’t untrained village women who got caught in the crossfire, they’re fighters who died swinging. But Rand treats their deaths like they were baby ducklings caught under the treads of a tank. Because they’re women and delicate flowers and not capable of making their own decisions uwu pwecious babbies.

To be clear, if Rand killed hundreds of women, he killed thousands of men. And he doesn’t appear to give a shit about any of them.

This all reaches its ridiculous crescendo when Rand has a mini shitfit and then refuses to kill Semirhage. Semirhage is one of the Forsaken, the Middle Manager Baddies that roam around the books and cause general pain and suffering for everyone who crosses their paths. She’s also described as particularly psychotic, capable of great acts of torture and was apparently a sadist even before the Dark Lord turned her into something worse. She pretends to be the Seanchan’s Empress to get a meeting with Rand, gets founds out at the last minute, but still manages to kill some of his people and cast a fireball that entirely blows off his right hand.

And still Rand refuses to kill her. Because she’s a woman.

Excuse me, going back to my Sadness Room to just sigh uncontrollably until I’m dead.

Semirhage is also a mass murderer. But because she’s a female mass murderer, not only is Rand going to let it slide, he’s going to make this the hill he dies on. Or at least the hill he loses a hand on.

Mat also has weird hang-ups about killing women who are in the process of trying to get him killed. The only one who doesn’t is Perrin, who snaps another Forsaken Lanfear’s neck like it’s a walnut and doesn’t cry about it for half a dozen books.

To spell it out: women are capable of making their own decisions and living (or not) with the consequences of those decisions. By having Rand refuse to kill even the evilest of women he, and by extension Jordan, are simultaneously putting women up on a pedestal and saying that they aren’t culpable for their actions. If a woman fucking mind controls you to make you strangle your girlfriend to death, and that’s just the cherry on top of the sludgy-shit sundae that is her life, and you still don’t want to kill her solely because she’s a woman, that isn’t chivalry, that’s just a bizarre and frankly gross obsession with gender and gender roles.

The Series’ Bizarre and Frankly Gross Obsession with Gender and Gender Roles

I wouldn’t consider this obsession super-obvious, especially compared to other works. After finishing this series I began The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson and it seems like fucking everything is gendered in the most prominent society. Men can’t eat jam because that’s a ‘feminine’ food? What the what?

But there are so many little pieces that ultimately add up to a weird fucking picture. The fact that the primary magic source is gendered in the first place is sort of fucked up, and the way it’s gendered is definitely fucked up. I have deliberately not gotten into how the way the magic is split between genders makes the idea of people who are trans a muddy mess and completely ignores people who are nonbinary because a) again, he was a southern white dude writing in the eighties and the nineties and we can only expect so much, and b) I’m cis and thus can’t actually speak to how reading this stuff would effect people who are trans. But none of that changes the fact that gendering the magic system that way excludes a lot people.

Add to that stuff like:

  • Every man thinks they can’t understand women. Every man thinks women are stubborn and secretive and do things just to piss men off.
  • Every woman thinks men are stubborn and generally too stupid to function. Fun and Deadly Drinking Game: every time a woman calls a man ‘woolheaded.’ You’ll die.
  • Grown ass women get spanked. A lot. To the point where I’m thinking, are you revealing something about yourself, Robert?
  • Berelain is out here living her best life and every other woman in a five miles radius is just chanting slut slut slut under their breath as she passes by.
  • The Aes Sedai have to be naked for every important milestone. Come to think of it, so do the Aiel Wise Women. Of course the men don’t. Slanging some dong while you’re proving how manly you are in the manly art of grasping Saidin by the manly horns and showing it who’s boss is totes gay, or something.
  • With magic the men are naturally better at dealing with earth and fire elements (you know, the manly elements) and the women are better are dealing with water and air (the delicately feminine elements). So, in this already needlessly gendered magic system, there is further gendering.

All of these things add up to this beautiful intricate fantasy world on an entirely other continent that ends up sounding like The South. Wonder why.

TW: rape for the next section. It’s the last part of the article so if you need to you can take off. Otherwise, proceed past the Protection Prompto.

Not the right time for a selfie, bro

The Rape of Mat Cauthon

Mat Cauthon is one of the earliest main characters we meet, coming from the same small village as Rand. He’s characterized as a bit of a fuck-up, who likes to gamble and chase women. His women chasing is always light and never played as anything but consensual. In fact, he seems to get rejected more than he actually gets lucky (although this might be a side effect of the incredibly sterile nature of the books. There’s only a handful of sex scenes and mostly it’s just hinted at). He’s that lovable cad trope, like Han Solo. The lovable bad boy type.

In the seventh book of the series, A Crown of Swords, Mat ends up in Ebou Dar and catches the eye of Queen Tylin. At first, it’s a cat and mouse game where Mat is the mouse for once, and it’s sort of cute to watch the tables turn. Until:

“It was too much. The woman hounded him, tried to starve him; now she locked them in together like…like he did not know what…He reached her in two long strides, seized her arm, and began fumbling in her belt for the keys. “I don’t have bloody time for-” His breath froze as the sharp point of her dagger beneath his chin shut his mouth and drove him right up onto his toes.

“Remove your hand,” she said coldly. He managed to look down his nose at her face. She was not smiling now…

“What are you going to do?” he mumbled through his teeth… “Will you answer me!” That was not panic in his voice. He was not in a panic…

Tylin did not answer, only kept him tiptoeing backward, until suddenly his shoulders bumped against something that stopped him. With that flaming dagger never easing a hair, he could not move his head, but eyes that had been focused on her face darted. They were in the bedchamber, a flower-carved red bedpost hard between his shoulder blades. Why would she bring him…? His face was suddenly crimson as the bedpost. No. She could not mean to…It was not decent! It was not possible!

“You can’t do this to me,” he mumbled at her, and if his voice was a touch breathy and shrill, he surely had cause.

“Watch and learn, my kitten,” Tylin said.

A Crown of Swords, pages 595-596

This isn’t only ‘not decent.’ It’s rape. Full stop. Tylin locks him into her rooms, pulls a knife on him, and then pushes him to the bed. Imagine if the roles were reversed, and this was a fifty-ish year old king locking a twenty-year-old woman in.

Soon after this, in an unrelated event, Mat ends up breaking a leg. Tylin pounces on this weakness, having all of his things moved to her rooms, burning his clothes and replacing them with the sort of outfits she wants him to wear, and continues to have sex with him whenever she wants, never asking what Mat wants. As the fandom wiki puts it:

We have a term for ‘non-consensual activities,’ my dude.

This goes on for months in the books until Mat finally escapes Ebou Dar entirely.

I think, given the other things we’ve gone over, you won’t be surprised to find out that Robert Jordan handles this situation without any sort of emotional intelligence or tact. This was not placed in the books as a way to explore how the rape of men can happen, is reacted to, and should be reacted to. Instead, Jordan follows the playbook set up by Hollywood and popular culture:

  1. Mat was a womanizing cad, so he deserved this. Hell, he probably secretly wants it.
  2. No one has any sympathy for Mat. The women who are supposed to be his friends don’t understand what the big deal is and think it’s kind of funny. Most of the servants in Tylin’s estate think it’s funny and actively aid and abet Tylin, taking his things away and reporting to Tylin where Mat is at all times.
  3. After Mat escapes Ebou Dar, there are no lingering consequences to his repeated rapes. In fact, after Tylin is found dead shortly after he leaves, he mourns Tylin and then promptly forgets anything ever happened. It’s never brought up again.

As Jonathan McIntosh puts it in this brilliant Pop Culture Detective video:

“What makes these jokes [about the sexual assault of men] insidious, is that they present the sexual assault of men as something that is, ultimately, harmless.”

Feminism doesn’t only benefit women. Our patriarchal system and toxic masculinity can do damage to men as well, including instilling the belief that men want sex all the time so there’s no way a woman can rape a man. Robert Jordan didn’t use the rape of Mat Cauthon as a way to confront the patriarchy or the sexism lurking inside him. He used it mostly as a joke, the way popular culture has been doing for hundreds of years. Given how little other sexual encounters there are in fourteen books, it’s honestly shocking that one of the longest sexual relationships consists of repeated rape.

Again, I ultimately do not think Robert Jordan was sexist, or misogynist. I fully believe he was trying his best. For something written mostly in the eighties and nineties these books are pretty progressive. But as we march forward and (hopefully) progress further in the right direction we find that the things that were good stepping stones have ultimately not survived the test of time. This doesn’t mean that we stop reading these things, but it does mean that we have to have a critical eye on where they went wrong, so that in the future we can do it better.


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