If you’re completely unfamiliar with high fantasy literature (in which case, I apologize in advance for the Red Wedding), The Wheel of Time is a series of books first written by Robert Jordan and later finished by Brandon Sanderson after Mr. Jordan passed away. It consists of 14 main books, a prequel novel, some comic books, and a handful of video games. The story spans years, and has had dedicated fans since the first book was published in 1990.
The WoT setting is incredibly rich and complex. Almost everything has a series specific name attached to it rather than relying on existing fantasy archetypes. Magic users are called channelers, female channelers make up an organization called the Aes Sedai, and magic itself is referred to as the One Power. The setting is also extremely sexist.
1. Magic Comes Bundled With Gender Roles
The magic system in the Wheel of Time is incredibly complicated, but the short version is that the One Power is divided into two halves, a male half and a female half. Men use one, women use the other. This might sound like an unnecessary distinction, but the books are very quick to tell you that there are inherent differences between man magic and woman magic.
The first noted difference is that men are better with earth and fire magic, while women are better with air and water. I suppose burning rocks are manly? The second, and far more profound difference is in how the magic is used. Men must seize control of their power. They must dominate and control it, wield it like a weapon. Women must submit to their power, providing gentle guidance.
WoT’s magic system forces men to behave one way and women another. Who they are, the essential nature of their character, is supplanted by the type of plumbing they were born with. If you’re a man like me who’s never felt particularly like dominating or controlling anyone, you’ll be a terrible channeler.
Our real life society is full of gender roles that prescribe men and women to act a certain way, but those are almost entirely social in nature. In WoT, those gender roles are written into the very fabric of the universe. Men must act in one way and women in another. In real life, this is the kind of thinking that leads to men being relentlessly bullied for wanting to wear pink and women being told their place is in the kitchen.
These conceits don’t even work within the context of the story. For example, take Moiraine Damodred, one of the best characters in the series. She is a channeler who, for the early books at least, works almost entirely with earth and fire. This makes complete sense for her character. She is absolutely unflappable; stoic in the face of terrors that would drive lesser characters mad. However, if you ever do manage to anger her, she will destroy you utterly and completely.
Sounds in line with earth and fire, right? That’s too bad for Moiraine, because by her own words she’s better with water and air – just by nature of being a woman. At that point it starts to strain believably. If she’s not as good with earth and fire, why does she keep using them?
Moiraine’s dominating nature is also one of the most defining things about her. She will take no guff from anyone, and she does not suffer fools. There’s nothing submissive about her, and yet supposedly she channels her power by submitting to it.
2. Man Magic Is Stronger Than Woman Magic
WoT characters love to talk about the complementary nature of masculine and feminine, that the two are inherently different yet both are required to do great things. That’s an admirable thought, but it’s somewhat undermined by the fact that male channelers are straight up more powerful on average than their female counterparts. This is described as being similar to the way that men are, on average, physically stronger than women.
In exchange, women have the ability to link their powers together, because, I suppose, women are just better at having friends than men (remember, gender roles FTW!). Unfortunately, this ability is shown to be of little practical use beyond a few major plot points, because linking the powers of multiple women together doesn’t result in their strength being directly combined. Instead, the leader gets a bonus to her power, at the cost of the other women in the link not being able to do anything.
To put it in gaming terms: four women can each cast a 5d6 fireball. Linking them together will result in a single 10d6 fireball. The problem is not hard to spot.
To be 100% fair, WoT also makes the claim that women are more “deft” or “dexterous” with their power, but after reading nine books, I could never figure out exactly what that meant. Whatever the author’s intent, it’s demonstrated over and over again that all other factors being equal, it will take multiple female channelers to match a single male. Any advantage women are supposed to have does not come across.
I’m not sure I even need to explain the problem here, but I will anyway. Magic in a fantasy story like WoT is a direct representation of how much a character can affect the world around them through an expression of their will. It goes beyond what is physical and reaches directly into the soul. Tying a character’s magical ability directly to their gender in this manner is delivering one message: women are less important than men.
While it’s true that WoT does have women who are stronger channelers than some of the men around them, it’s made very clear that these are exceptions to the rule. In a twisted sort of fairness, this is also harmful to men. No man, no matter how good he is with people, no matter how much sense it would make for his character, can link his magic without a woman there to help. Ever.
There’s no defense for this double dose of sexism. Not only does it continue the trend of gender roles behind enforced by WoT’s very laws of physics, but it puts women firmly in a secondary role to men. This is a real problem that women face in many places here on Earth, and celebrating it as the natural way of things is just wrong. Interestingly enough, when Wizards of the Coast adapted WoT as a roleplaying game, they left out the idea that men were stronger channelers than women. I wonder why?
3. Women Are Portrayed as Evil for Doing an Important Job
After that last one, it might seem like things couldn’t get any worse, but there is more to come. First, a little background on the setting, spoiler free! At the start of the WoT books, the male half of the One Power has been tainted by the Dark One, a being who is basically the devil. This means that any male channeler will, sooner rather than later, go insane and kill everyone around them. Usually they leave a crater.
The Red Ajah are the group of Aes Sedai – female channelers – tasked with dealing with this terrible situation. Rather than initiating a kill-on-sight policy or something equally draconian, these women go to great pains to capture any male channeler they can find. They then use their own power to remove the man’s ability, leaving him alive and no longer in danger of going insane.
This might sound like the best possible solution to a terrible problem, but no one else in the series, including the author, seems to think so. The Red Ajah are portrayed as a bunch of man hating she-demons whose only real purpose in life is to make males miserable. They hate and distrust all men, even the Warders who are trained exclusively to aid and protect Aes Sedai. Oh, and a lot of them are lesbians, because of course they are.
Imagine a story set in the real world, in which the FBI is America’s only defense against a group of incredibly wealthy robber barons whose financial schemes will leave the entire country in ruins. Now imagine that every FBI agent in the story is a villainous caricature with an irrational hatred for anyone making more than $100,000 a year. They hound the main character mercilessly for no reason other than that his new job has given him a pay raise. Starting to see the problem?
The Red Ajah perform an essential service, yet they are treated almost universally as evil. How dare they raise a hand against the dangerous madmen that are male channelers! Sometimes the story paints them to be as bad or worse than the Dark One. It would be one thing if a few of their members had gotten overly zealous over the long years, but almost the entire group is portrayed this way. They hound and persecute the main character when all he wants to do is save the world, except these mean women won’t let him!
The man-hating element is so over the top that it would be funny if WoT wasn’t playing it so seriously. The idea that powerful women are all out to oppress and victimize men is something that our own society has yet to shake off; seeing it writ large in this series is just painful. Choosing to make a large portion of them gay takes the whole affair into the realm of homophobia as well. Everyone knows that lesbianism and man hating go hand in hand, right? No? Oh.
4. Men Can’t Handle Powerful Women
As WoT is a world in which any male channeler will go crazy and die, the only channelers walking around openly are female. The Aes Sedai have a pretty important role in society: advising rulers, hunting down spawn of the Dark One, and wielding considerable political power of their own. They are also, almost to a woman, unmarried.
Is this because their careers make it difficult to balance a family, or because of some ancient tradition shrouded in mysticism? No. It’s because, at least according to the main characters, most men can’t handle being married to a woman more powerful than they are. This trend is continued in other areas as well. Men are almost universally freaked out by Aes Sedai, and not just because the One Power itself is scary.
Don’t get me wrong, a lot of men in real life are clearly afraid of powerful women. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have such wonderful gems as the men’s rights movement. It is both realistic and interesting to have a certain amount of that in a fantasy setting. However, the extreme to which WoT takes it is just silly. Magic has been an all-female profession for centuries by the time the first book starts. Society has had plenty of time to adjust, and yet the books expect you to believe that no men have figured out the potential benefits of having a magical wife.
Take a look at a list of powerful and/or wealthy women in the real world, and then see how many of them are unmarried. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, wealthy author JK Rowling, Chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen: all of them have husbands. At the very least, there should be hordes of men trying to court Aes Sedai for the political benefit alone.
The larger context of men being continually freaked out by these same women makes even less sense. Supposedly, the high levels of distrust and sometimes outright hatred all stem from an event more than 3,000 years in the past when channelers went crazy and caused widespread destruction. Except those were male channelers, and their female counterparts were the only ones around to stop them. As the books go forward, it is revealed that the forces of evil acted secretly to make people distrust Aes Sedai, but the ratios are just way off. The message that gets sent is that men can’t handle the idea of powerful women, which I find to be both insulting and untrue.
Reading the Wheel of Time, it’s clear that Robert Jordan didn’t have the intention of writing a sexist story. The books have a large representation of female characters, and some of them are really good. I maintain that Moiraine is the best character in the series, but that’s just me. The underlying issues are just that, hidden below the surface. It’s easy to miss them, but they go right on reinforcing harmful perceptions of both men and women nonetheless. WoT can still be an enjoyable series, but it’s important to be aware of what the books are actually saying.
P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.