"Poorly Written Female Characters" in the Wheel of Time
Exploring the question of whether the female characters in the Wheel of Time are poorly written or not.
Recently, Time Magazine released a list – “The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time”. And while the list itself was not without some controversy, I along with most Wheel of Time fans, was quite happy to see Eye of the World on that list. As someone who has mostly read these books in isolation, I am always happy to see this series get some publicity. More people reading it means more people talking about these books and more people who can share this wonderful obsession with me.
However, amongst this accolade was an all too familiar criticism of the series. Each book on the list came with a brief write up, and the write up for Wheel of Time included some “issues” that often get brought up when talking about these books, and one of these issues was Wheel of Time’s “poorly written” female characters. This is an extremely sensitive point for Wheel of Time fans. In the brief time since I became aware of the online fandom (and man, do I wish I’d known about it sooner, I knew these books were bestsellers, and yet I could never find anyone to talk to about them!), I have seen multiple critiques of this nature posted in various formats and witnessed the rage that erupts in response. This response, to me, is counterproductive. I think that if the same criticism is levied against the series over and over again (and a very rudimentary google search will show that this is true), then perhaps it would be a good idea to just try and understand where people are coming from. My own experience with these books has, as I mentioned, been quite solitary. I, like many fans, have tried to get my friends to read it, so they can share in my obsession, and I’ve been successful a few times, but not once has it stuck. And with the two female friends, I gave the books to, both times it was because they found the characterization of the female characters to be frustrating. One of them, in fact, told me that she couldn’t understand how I liked these books because “whoever wrote them obviously hates women”. That friend stopped somewhere in the middle of The Dragon Reborn. And my personal experience with the female characters has changed as well. I initially read (and re-read) physical copies of these books back in the 90s and early 2000s. But later on, I discovered the audiobooks, and I also discovered something about myself that I hadn’t realized. Apparently, I skim details that I think are not important. It was not something I ever did intentionally, but I think my brain would just see that, for example, a specific batch of writing is giving me a physical description and I guess I must just subconsciously not think physical descriptions are important so I would skim over them. But you can’t skim an audiobook, or at least I can’t. It was a shock to me to find out that Nynaeve was a brunette and not a red-head as I had envisioned her. Oh, it changed absolutely nothing about her story, but well, almost all of the characters got mental makeovers for me when I started listening. But physical appearances were not the only things that changed for me when I was listening to the books. I also, apparently, didn’t find the sniping and “cattiness” of the ‘supergirls’ towards each other to be important and overlooked it when reading physical copies. I also skimmed past all the women progressively dressing sexier as the books went on, women saying ‘no’ when they meant ‘yes’, women enjoying being objectified and harassed by men, women being tamed by marriage, women just doing and saying things that were not realistic and fall into some rather tired and uncomfortable stereotypes… these are all things I remember noticing for the first time when listening to the audiobooks. And they shocked me and made me understand where my friends were coming from. Does this mean that I think the female characters in Wheel of Time are ‘poorly written’? No, it doesn’t. In fact, I personally think that the female characters in the books are more complex and nuanced than the male characters. Those of you who know my YouTube channel may have noticed that (as of writing this article) all of the character deep dives I have done have been about female characters. This, honestly, is because to me the women are just more interesting than the men. They have more personality (for the most part), more growth, more exciting storylines. When I think about these books, the men are not what come to mind for me.
But if you ask me if the portrayal of female characters is perfect, I’m also going to have to say no. From the frustrating level of snippiness they have towards each other when traveling together (that you do not see among the men in similar circumstances) – and that apparently is only resolved literally by the male gaze (seriously, it’s canon… the women stop fighting each other because a man keeps watching them), to the frankly bizarre amount of times women are stripped naked… it can be hard to swallow. But I do because I know that if I just look past these flaws, there is Nynaeve, my favorite character, who goes on such a tremendous journey in these books, and I cheer for her every step of the way. There is Egwene, a woman with such a strong and defined character that the WoT fandom is divided almost exactly down the middle between fans who stan her and fans who despise her. There’s Moiraine, a woman whose wisdom and serenity hides a depth of passion that has guided her on a 20-year quest, and there’s Tuon, and Siuan, and Elayne, and Faile, and Verin, and Aviendha, and Elaida, and Min, and… the list of complex, fully fleshed out, nuanced, female characters goes on and on.
But this criticism remains, and continually rears its ugly head. And fans of the series will protest “But The Wheel of Time is a product of its time!”, and yes, of course, it is. The thing that this rebuttal seems to forget is that so are the people reading it and making these criticisms. We are all products of our time, and it is silly to tell someone that when they read or take in any media from the past, they must not take any of themselves that has been shaped by our current time with them into that story. Everything we read, we read through the dual lenses of the context in which it was written and the context in which it is currently being read. We don’t read Mark Twain uncritically, we don’t read Ernest Hemmingway uncritically, and I see no reason why Robert Jordan should be an exception. It is not a dig at them to say that these authors are products of their time. It is simply being mindful of the passage of time. It is also, frankly, a very weak argument to say that you cannot critique things in the past based on current standards. That is part of what critiquing is, and it is one way that we actually measure our progress – not just as a society, but as individuals. I know I can look back on things I said and did in the past and I can see things I did wrong. I can know that I did them because I didn’t know any better, but also know that those things were wrong. Those two things can exist side by side. The past is not exempt from criticism because it is the past. Another rebuttal that I see often is that Robert Jordan clearly wanted to break the mold, so to speak. To fill his world with strong, female characters instead of damsels in distress being saved by manly men. Shouldn’t we respect and acknowledge his intent? And to this, I say absolutely! I know that there are those who may be surprised to hear this, based on some of the comments on my videos, but I always assume good intent with Robert Jordan. And that may be my bias because I love these books so much, but when something bothers me about the characterization of women (or lesbians, or trans people) in the books, I chalk it up to ‘a mistake’, ‘a misunderstanding’, or ‘a lack of information’, rather than assuming he was a sexist or – as my friend said – that he hated women. But good intentions don’t mean you’re going to get everything right.
I do not think that acknowledging flaws in any way takes away from the books or means that we are not ‘real fans’. In fact, I kind of think the opposite. I think it is a sign that someone has read the books critically, and with intention (not that I expect everyone to see the same flaws that I do). I think that if you can you love something while acknowledging that it isn’t perfect, it means that you were paying attention to it. It also, to me, means that the good parts must be that much better if they are enough to make it worth enduring and/or ignoring the flaws. Which, when it comes to Wheel of Time, to me is very much the case.
So, rather than rail against this criticism, I would personally just say “yeah, the female characterization is not perfect, but if you can look past the flaws, you will find the women in Wheel of Time to be some of the most well-realized characters in fantasy today.”
Lezbi Nerdy is a video content creator on YouTube and a regular contributor to the Wheel of Time. You can find her YouTube channel here.