Or what we can learn from screentime and speaking time about the balance between men and women in the first season of the Wheel of Time.
This article contains spoilers for the first season of the Wheel of Time TV Show.
Back in early February, Twitter user @MatsPips shared an interesting analysis of IMDb reviews for the Wheel of Time TV show. After going through the 886 1-star reviews that had a text attached, Pips found out that 29% of them were mentioning racial diversity, feminism, or LGBTQ+ representation in a negative way. Unrealistic diversity, lack of men, and woke feminism were among those critics.
As you know, I have spent quite some time in the past few months doing some stats about character screentime in the Wheel of Time TV show. What you may not know is that I’ve also been looking into speaking time, slowly compiling how often characters are talking, for how long, about what, and to who. While I still have plenty to discover in the data I’ve collected, I have been very interested in one specific topic that I’d like to bring out today, and that is gender balance.
I am far from the first person to be interested in this. A few years ago was published a statistical analysis of the Wheel of Time books [note: the article shared contains severe spoilers for the whole series, do not read it if you haven’t finished A Memory of Light], which included a gender distribution of point of views and word counts. Overall, it showed a certain balance between men and women in most of the books, The Eye of the World being a big exception among them all.
So, how does The Wheel of Time on Prime hold up to this in terms of screentime and speaking time? Was there indeed a clear imbalance between men and women in the TV show?
The first season of WoT contained 55 named characters, which includes 24 women and 31 men. Not all of those characters had an opportunity to talk, leaving us with 51 named and speaking characters (23 women and 28 men).
The slight gender imbalance towards men stays when considering “in-scene” screentime, which is the screentime where a character is physically present and conscious. However, the difference is reduced by a few percent. As a result, named women had on average 2m48s more screentime than named men (25m41s compared to 22m53s). Part of it (but not all of it) is due to Mat’s absence after Ep6: 30m more screentime for Mat this season would have increased the average screentime for named men to 23m51s.
Of course, not every character had that much screentime. In fact, a majority of our named characters had less than 10m of in-scene screentime: only 13 men and 11 women had more than that. Overall, the larger the screentime, the less a difference between men and women can be observed. Four characters had more than 2h of screentime: Rand, Moiraine, Egwene, and Lan.
Considering speaking time turned out to be much more complex to me than looking at screentime. It is easy to know at which second a character enters or leaves a scene, and a second often weighs little compared to the length of the scene itself. But characters rarely speak more than a few seconds without a break, and the accumulation of a second of imprecision per intervention can quickly get overwhelming over the length of a discussion. Since I was watching the episodes on Prime Video, I also could not get a precision better than a second, and thus a single word answer could be worth as much in time as the four words question that preceded it.
As a result, I had to go through the episodes a few times, to ensure my note-taking would be consistent all along. For example, one or two seconds of silence used to be counted as speaking time if it was in between two sentences of a single character, and then I decided not to count those silence, to more accurately note when characters were indeed speaking. In the end, I decided to also look at the total number of words spoken by each character. By combining the two, I could then get the average number of words spoken per second, per character, and per episode, which helped me find a few mistakes or correct some differences between episodes.
Overall, most characters spoke between 2.25 and 3.25 words per second, with an average of 2.80 words per second for all of our characters. For comparison, the average rate for English speakers in the US is about 150 words per minute (2.50 words per second). Note that this is a rate when considering a talk or a conversation as a whole, which probably means that silences are not removed. While the speaking time I computed may be slightly underestimated, the difference is probably smaller than 10% on average.
We do have a few outliers among our characters, but most of them are characters that only spoke a few seconds or less than a few dozens of words. When only considering characters who spoke more than a minute, the distribution of the average number of words spoken per second is much tighter.
Back to our gender distribution, we can then find that women had in fact more speaking time and spoken words than men, a reversal from the gender distribution of the number of named and speaking characters. Women spoke 1 415 more words than men, for about 5m18s more. This gives an average of 2m38s of speaking time and 433 words per man, compared to 3m26s of speaking time and 588 words per woman.
Side note: N/A corresponds to all the unnamed speaking characters (men and women) and to Machin Shin. There is no gender in Machin Shin.
However, the imbalance is entirely due to Moiraine. She was the mentor of the group, and the main character through which the viewer and the folks from the Two Rivers discovered the world. By herself, she got 27m48s of speaking time (17.9% of the total speaking time) and 4 963 words (19.0% of the total word count). Funnily, her largest speaking time and word count was for Ep2, then she got tired of carrying the show so she passed out for a quarter of Ep2 and all of Ep3. I respect that.
Almost half of our named and speaking characters had less than a minute of speaking time. Among the 10 characters than had more than 5min of speaking time, half were men and half were women. Only three characters had more than 10m of speaking time: Moiraine, Rand, and Egwene.
Similarly, almost half of our named and speaking characters had less than 200 words spoken. Only two characters had more than 2 000 words: Moiraine and Rand. Seven characters had more than 1 000 words, but they are not our usual main seven characters: Perrin was short of reaching the thousand, stopping at 963 words, while Siuan slightly passed that threshold with 1 002 words.
We can also look at the gender distribution per episode. Ep1 was the only episode almost fully balanced in terms of screentime, while Ep6 was the only episode where women had more screentime than men. And yes, women had a lot more screentime than men in this episode, but the first season would have probably felt a lot less balanced in terms of screentime without Ep6.
There are several differences between the breakdowns for screentime and speaking time/words spoken. Ep2 and Ep4 for example are a lot more balanced in terms of speaking time than in terms of screentime. Ep2 was carried by Moiraine: she was the main character to interact with the people the group encountered on the road (Master Hightower and the Whitecloack), she had that conversation with Egwene about the Three Oaths and the One Power, and of course, there was the Manetheren speech. That compensates for the low number of women in this episode. Meanwhile, Ep4 was teamwork: 12 characters had more than a minute of speaking time in it, 6 men and 6 women.
Overall, Ep6 is the only reason why women ended up with more speaking time and words spoken than men in this first season. Women spoke 2 966 words in this episode, compared to 680 for men. The difference mostly comes from two characters: Moiraine had 1 136 words, while Siuan spoke for 1 002 words. Between the two, they had 72% of the words spoken by women in Ep6, and that makes my little gay heart very happy for them.
14 of our 55 named characters died during this season, which corresponds to 25% of the named characters. Note that, due to some Season 2 rumors, there are some uncertainties about whether Lord Agelmar indeed died in this battle, and we know neither Uno nor Loial died in that scene with Padan Fain, so I did not count them among the dead characters of this season.
We can also look at the time spent asleep, unconscious, or dead on our screen for men and women. Perrin spent a significant amount of time asleep in Ep6, tilting this screentime towards the men. Meanwhile, Moiraine is our main contributor to the unconscious category due to her 13m13s of unconsciousness in Ep2 and Ep3. She’s followed by Egwene, whose fake version in Rand’s dream had 3m59s of frozen time in Ep8. Moiraine was also counted as dead for 2m34s in Ep8, after being stabbed by the Dark One in a dream. Removing those two fake unconsciousness/death still leaves women with a larger unconscious and dead time, but the numbers are close enough that it’s definitely too early to say whether the show tends to linger more on dead women rather than dead men.
So, what did those numbers tell us?
Among named characters, we have a few more men than women, and similarly among named and speaking characters. However, this comes from smaller or background characters: the difference between men and women mostly disappears when considering only characters with more than 10m of screentime or more than 1m of speaking time.
The difference between men and women in terms of screentime or speaking time is only a few percent. Both screentime and speaking time would have been more favorable to men without Ep6, which allowed women to catch up in terms of screentime and to take the lead regarding speaking time.
There isn’t a significant difference regarding death based on gender.
Overall, this does not indicate a particular imbalance that would be favorable to women over men or vice versa. And yes, I know, screentime and speaking time are just numbers, and of course, it depends on how those times were used. But the world itself did not feel particularly imbalanced. Ghealdan had a King, Fal Dara a Lord. The White Tower is an organization of women that even Moiraine warns us against, and their Whitecloacks opponents seem particularly efficient against them. Even in the episodes where our main characters were among Aes Sedai, the focus was not solely on the women channelers. In particular, Ep4 and Ep5 gave more depth to Warders than most of the WoT books ever did. And yes, we did not meet the Village Council of the Two Rivers, but the Women Circle itself only played a role in a non-political coming-of-age ceremony.
So why do so many critics of the show mention the role of women as a negative point?
Traditionally, Fantasy is not well balanced about gender. The Lord of The Rings, the big reference of the genre, only has 3 speaking women characters. Those women are absolutely amazing, and I will never stop loving those great, complex, and well-written characters, but they are only 3 and never interact with each other.
Meanwhile, Games of Thrones, which showed us there was a potential for Fantasy on the smaller screen, also received many valid criticisms regarding its handling of women. Women’s voices were underrepresented on the show, only getting 25% of the speaking time. At the same time, their bodies were very visible, with the overuse of nudity leading to the term “sexposition”, coined by critic Myles McNutt. That nudity showed large disparities between the male and female cast, enough that folks made graphs on how many boobs were shown per episode (40 boobs in the first season only!). For comparison, the first season of the Wheel of Time had one Lan butt and, what, 7 boobs in the background during the bath scene of Ep6? I almost did not notice them on my first watch.
Coming from those franchises, the number and diversity of women in the Wheel of Time may feel surprising. I’ve been working in STEM for several years, a field where women are few: it is always a surprise to see a meeting with almost as many women as men (and it doesn’t happen often). The documented listener bias, in which people tend to overestimate how much women talk in a mixed-discussion, probably does not help either.
But different is not a synonym for bad. The first season of the Wheel of Time was fairly well-balanced between genders. This is a rarity in mainstream Fantasy, but Balance is an important theme of the world Robert Jordan built. It only feels appropriate for the show to follow his steps, even with an idea of balance in this decade that may differ from the one RJ had in the early 90s.