Of all the things I’ve seen anybody praise the Wheel of Time for, the one that always confuses me the most is praise for the way Jordan writes women. They point to how many strong female characters are in the story, and in one sense they’re not wrong. Egwene, Elayne, Faile, Nynaeve, Aviendha, Moraine, Siuan, Min, Tuon, plenty of women are in positions of authority, involved in the major plot points, all that good stuff.
But…it’s not just doing impressive things or holding a powerful position that makes a character well designed, and it’s very easy to make characters that are vital to the plot, strong-willed, important, and still portray them in very problematic and gross ways.
This article is going to examine a number of the problematic tropes that are found all throughout The Wheel of Time, and Jordan’s portrayal of women in the story. And we will start, as Jordan so often does when introducing women into the story, with bosom.
The Bosom of Time
Bosom is a weird word. It feels extremely old-fashioned, like something a Victorian dowager aunt would use when describing where a seamstress should place the embroidery on a gown. Robert Jordan was 42 years old when he embarked on a journey to include the word bosom in his novels more than anybody ever had and hopefully, ever will again. Now, the time period of the books appears vaguely late medieval/early renaissance, so maybe he simply thought it was better world design to focus on bosom? But that certainly didn’t stop him from ALSO talking about breasts a lot.
I’ve done a count of the entire series (1-14, didn’t include New Spring) and took the time to look for the context around each use. I eliminated any reference to ‘bosom’ in the sense of the part of clothing that covers the chest, the metaphorical sense of one’s close companions or dear family, or references to the general area of the body in the sense that a mother holds a child to her bosom. Only uses that are explicitly referring to breasts. Likewise, with ‘breast’ I didn’t count any use of it meaning chest, or heart, or saluting with fist to breast etc. Only the anatomical part.
Across 14 books, the word bosom appears a staggering 175 times, along with breast making an appearance 134 times, all explicitly referring to the organs present on the chests of his women characters (no men get this treatment, and no characters are ever even implied to be trans or non-binary, everybody is cis throughout). That’s some tits 22 times per book. I posted these results in one of my discords, and somebody proposed the need for a control group to tell how much of an outlier this is. The best I could do at the time was to search 20 random books also on my Kobo that together were a similar page count to Jordan’s 14, and they turned up a total of six uses of bosom, three of which were using it in the figurative or metaphorical sense. Jordan used the word ‘bosom’ nearly 50 times as often as my control group of other fantasy novels.
And he doesn’t just love to describe women by their bosom, oh no. It’s important we know particulars about their bosom. The most bosomy book is book 11, Knife of Dreams, with a tremendous 42 instances of bosom. Here is some context around their use. Running down the list we have: full bosom, formidable bosom, considerable bosom, memorable bosom, impressive bosom, emphasizing her bosom, more than ample bosom, tender bosom, fit snugly over her bosom, so slender that her bosom seemed immense, the bosomy pale-haired aes sedai, formidable bosom again, impressive bosom again. And it’s all like this. It’s vitally important to Jordan that we know that not only are there just breasts everywhere, but they are almost uniformly BIG breasts. The few characters of note who have small breasts (thinking primarily of Min and Tuon here) are frequently described as boy-like, child-like, and get mistaken for boys or children often.
So this is just the meme criticism. Lol, Jordan has a thing for women with large breasts and can’t resist putting them all over his story. But as a baseline portrayal, women are introduced to us often first by their breasts, and that includes whether the person looking at them is male, female, or nobody. And yes, there are a number of cases where men are admired or described by the broadness of their shoulders, or the well-turned nature of their calves, and one or two women even make comments about a man’s ‘bottom’ an event that is universally treated as mortifyingly embarrassing for the man involved, and often the other women around are shocked by it as well.
Starting from this position of rampant sexualising, and reducing even the ‘strong female characters’ to a description of their breasts and hair colour and not much else might just seem like general bad writing, but it sets the stage for all the other tacit assumptions Jordan seems to make about women, and wants us to also make about the women in his world.
Strong Women Until They Aren’t
I gave a list earlier of a number of the women in the story who are held up as examples of good strong female character writing and pointed out that there are many ways to put women in positions of authority, power and influence and still write women poorly, and the glaring flaw in all of these strong women is that they universally turn to mush as soon as a man they like is within 20 feet.
Even without a few of the more stark examples, the books are replete with scenes of the number of swoonings and blushes that they basically all get when the man of their dreams is in their vicinity. One thing that is interesting is how many times this happens while they are the pov character and it’s essentially suggested that they are aware of the fact that they’re being silly but just…can’t help it? These are supposed to be our strong-willed powerful plot-vital women! They rise to positions of ultimate authority, but as soon as Rand, or Gawyn or Lan are around, they just internally shrug as if to say ‘well, nothing to be done about it, the man is here.’
This is expressed most obviously any time the women are in the world of dreams. Their appearance changes and shifts based on what they’re thinking about and how they feel. Sometimes this is played for laughs, like when Nynaeve is startled and is suddenly wearing a full suit of armour, but by God, the number of times somebody thinks of their man, and the neckline of their dress plunges, or their dress turns into one of those Domani dresses, you know, from the country where everybody from somewhere else thinks the women are sluts? Yeah totally normal society you’ve got there.
There’s even a fan theory you can find in various places suggesting that Egwene’s relationship with Gawyn is essentially the result of inadvertent mind control. It’s known that things can happen in the World of Dreams that have physical effects in the waking world, and one of the dangers of being pulled into somebody else’s dreams where they have control is that they can do things which will have effects that carry over.
There is a scene where Egwene gets pulled into Gawyn’s dream because of how strong his infatuation with her is, and in that dream, she is a damsel in distress that he rescues from Rand and then professes his love to her. She repeatedly resists, and turns him down, and from her pov we see that she’s struggling to not accept the reality of the dream, and escape. Eventually after multiple attempts to escape, she gives in and is pulled fully into the dream where she loves him back. After that…she loves him back.
Now, there’s enough implication that she was at least attracted to Gawyn, even though she mostly only ever saw him alongside Galad and seemed more taken with Galad (more on him shortly) but there’s definitely an interpretation of that dream event that she wasn’t in love with him until she was unable to pull herself out of his dream where they loved each other, and then loved him after that, suggesting that her mind was actually altered by the experience. Pretty creepy stuff to even be able to reasonably theorize about.
The Most Beautiful Man in the World
Ah Galad, Sir Galahad, who just traipses through the world making basically every woman swoon without any effort, regardless of their age, experience, or authority. He’s just the perfect man, and only the few women who explicitly don’t like attractive men seem immune to the charm he isn’t even trying to wield, so beautiful is he. Not much undercuts the strength of the younger women in the story than the way nobody seemed to even be able to think straight around Galad.
When you consider the context around what kind of person Galad is, it becomes even more of a condemnation of the women in the story. He’s presented as ‘always doing the right thing, no matter who it hurts’ which is like…well as long as what he thinks is the right thing is the same thing YOU think is the right thing, you’re alright. But moral absolutists are…not good people. Especially in the context of his moral code seeming to align with the paramilitary terrorist organization the Children of the Light, regardless of the fact that he does do a bunch of ‘good’ things over the run of the series doesn’t make him any less dangerous of a person, especially one to end up in a relationship with.
Which brings us to Berelain, the First of Mayene whose entire political life has been dedicated towards preserving her tiny nation from being absorbed by the larger countries on her borders. She spends basically the whole series chasing Perrin, despite his marriage to Faile, because she identified Rand as being the most powerful possible ally for Mayene, and if she couldn’t have him, she’d go after Perrin as somebody very close to him. She’s explicit about this later in the series, that while he’s attractive enough, her goal is to secure her country through a political marriage.
These plans come to a grinding halt the moment she sees Galad. She is portrayed in the books as having pretty much completely lost it over him, she’s immediately taken by how beautiful he is, and pretty much abandons all of her plans for a valuable state marriage because he’s just so dang good looking.
Of course, she starts rationalizing that the Whitecloaks would in fact, make a good ally for her to secure her borders but that is extremely not the case. Consider the state of the world here. The Last Battle is nigh, and if they lose, nothing matters anyway since the world basically ends, so her choices have to be based around what happens if they win. And what happens if they win is that the taint is cleansed, so men can safely channel. The Kin come into the open, bringing thousands of women who can channel into prominence. The Dragon’s Peace is securing all the national borders where they are. This is very much not the time to decide to ally yourself with zealots who think channeling is evil and all channellers should be killed.
And sure, Galad seems more enlightened as Lord Captain Commander than his predecessors, but the situation remains that a woman who has spent her whole life mastering political subtlety and working always to preserve her nation just throws everything completely out the window because a man is too handsome to resist.
But Really Everything is the Women’s Fault
While watching the Amazon series of Wheel of Time, I made several remarks about how they’d seemed to go far out of their way to have many of the women constantly pointing out how men were basically responsible for every bad thing in the world. It’s funny how this ends up being one of the larger deviations from the existing text even compared to things like leaving out whole major cities and pov characters.
When you look at the underlying history of the world, Jordan really puts a lot of blame on women, whether he specifically says so or not. The original discovery of the True Power was made by a woman. Lews Therin’s plan to seal the bore required men and women to work together, and it was a woman who mobilized all the other women against his plan. Their counter plan was basically One Power Nukes. So leaving Lews Therin to try and deal with the bore with only the Hundred Companions directly resulted in the breaking, the taint on saidin that essentially sentenced all future male channelers to death and insanity, and led to the fact that the seals on the Dark One’s prison could be weakened in the first place.
Following the breaking, the Red Ajah essentially bred strength in channeling out of the population by just gentling or killing every male channeller they could find.
Basically every major faction in the world was run by women except they almost without exception are shown as having bungled the path to the Last Battle in some way, and as all feeling entitled to be the ones ‘in charge of’ Rand. Between the Wise Ones of the Aiel, the Seanchan Empress, the Mistress of the Ships of the Sea Folk and the Amyrlin Seat of the Aes Sedai, everywhere Rand turns there are women trying to control him, which he hates, and which is often shown, in hindsight, to have been them being wrong, misguided, misled, or manipulated.
Egwene as Amyrlin even nearly causes the same disaster that her Age of Legends equivalent did when Rand has the (correct, it turns out) plan to destroy the seals on the Dark One’s prison, to wipe away the previous patch over the bore to make something stronger. She immediately decides he’s wrong, possibly insane, and goes far out of her way to bring together every leader she can to unite against him and tell him how wrong he is.
She doesn’t really get a chance to change her mind, since she loses the leverage of holding the seals when they’re discovered to be fake. Rand then basically takes it upon himself to get his plan done with the help of Nyneave and Moirane, bringing the unity that was needed the first time around to make a more enduring solution.
This All Feels a Little Personal
I really get the impression that there’s something personal here in Jordan’s portrayal of women. That at some point in his life, a woman with a large bosom and a position of authority meddled in his life in a way he really didn’t like, and so he decided that was just how women were.
Between the both subtle and overt portrayal of women as meddlers who are often wrong, the extreme focus on describing large-bosomed women, the portrayal of women as fools for their men, who think they know better than everybody, who are even internally self-aware of the way he’s portrayed them and just sort of seem to accept that it makes sense that royalty, leaders, warriors, they all secretly have no idea what to do unless a man is around to tell them, it just all feels sort of scuzzy.
Obviously we have no way to know whether any of this was intentional, or simply the result of his biases, and poorly written women are certainly not rare when it comes to fantasy written by older white men. But even at the time as a teenager, and definitely re-reading the novels now as I approach the age Jordan was when Eye of the World was published, it really is problematic on many levels.
It’s made worse by the surface portrayal of women in the story as being very positive. Multiple nations are run by Queens, the Amyrlin is powerful and respected. The Aiel, the Sea Folk, the Seanchan, all led by women. There are multiple pov and protagonist women who have strong impacts on the story and the world around them. You really could look at plot summaries or basic character descriptions and think “Oh, this is actually really good, good for him!” and it’s not until you really get into the story that you start to pick up on all the ways he then directly undercuts those women, turning them into meddlesome harridans or distracting bosomy sweethearts who tend to do nothing but make the male characters angry and get in the way of what needs to be done.
I honestly could continue on even longer with whole other ways in which the portrayal of women in the Wheel of Time is gross, or scummy, or offensive. Faile’s struggle to teach Perrin to be abusive to show he loves her, Elayne becoming kingdom-threateningly useless the whole time she’s pregnant, women being universally weaker with the One Power than men, the female forsaken including shadowy manipulator, sultry seductress and excessive hedonist while the powerful male forsaken are generals, philosophers and artists. It really does go on and on.
This is not the ending of articles about women in the Wheel of Time. There are no endings to the gross portrayal of women in the Wheel of time. But it is an ending.
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