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Feminism in Epic Fantasy: Robert Jordan vs. George R.R. Martin

Rioters Jenn and Preeti are revisiting the Wheel of Time series. Follow their What the WoT adventures here.

Warning: This post contains both spoilers and brief discussion of sexual violence.

It’s that time, friends — time to talk about feminism in epic fantasy! Which, yes, means we are also going to talk about A Song of Ice and Fire, because apparently I really want to have a fight with the Internet about this.

A couple of years ago I was having drinks with some fellow fantasy readers, and we got into an argument (as you do) over which series was less offensive to feminist sensibilities: A Song of Ice and Fire, or the Wheel of Time. They voted for ASoIaF, based mostly on bad-ass-ness of Daenerys and Arya, but I felt very sure even then, having only read a few chapters of Game of Thrones at that point, that Wheel of Time was the definite winner. Aes Sedai! They basically rule the world at the start of the series! And Faile, always and forever Faile. “But Jenn,” they said, “come on: ‘She crossed her arms beneath her breasts.’ That sentence shows up on practically Every Page of WoT.”

And it’s true; I can’t argue with that. I’ve moved on from recaps to The Gathering Storm, and lord, is there a lot of arm-crossing. And not just arm-crossing, but breast-specific arm-crossing. Do we need to mention these ladies’ breasts? We don’t, actually, because they are cis-ladies who therefore have breasts in the normal area. We get it. Ladies have breasts. They also have arms that they can cross in the general vicinity of said breasts. You can stop reminding us! And let’s not even get into the Sea Folk and their scandalous public nudity (I think it’s a safe bet that Jordan was a boob man).

Ok, point to my opponents. But! I am not ready to give up the cause and once you start digging a little further, it’s not even a fair fight. Let’s start with a personal favorite, the Bechdel test: Is there more than one woman? If so, do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

The Wheel of Time passes with flying colors. While plenty of conversations revolve around relationships with men (and let’s face it, almost every conversation in the book is to some extent about Rand al’Thor, because he is the Dragon Reborn), there are just as many conversations between women that have nothing to do with the guys. Learn a new weave yet? The Forsaken are loose! This political situation has got to be resolved. And there are so many women having conversations: Aes Sedai all over the place! Even Wikipedia noted the effect that lots of magic-wielding women had on the structure of society:

“The human race has clawed its way back to a level of technology and culture roughly comparable to that of our 1450 to 1600 (although without the sciences, formalized learning, or the military use of gunpowder), with the difference that women enjoy full equality with men in most societies, and are superior in some. One likely explanation for this is the power and influence of the female-only Aes Sedai spilling over into everyday life.” (Emphasis mine.)

A Song of Ice and Fire: Not so much. There are a few powerful women, but they’re primarily powerful based on their relationship to the men in the story (i.e., either gave birth to them or are married to them or may some day soon be married to them) and they have very few conversations with each other about anything other than “How do I make this guy like me and/or not kill me?”

Not convinced? Let’s talk about sexual assault, of which there is very little. Commenters have correctly pointed out that my original claim of a lack of sexual assault is incorrect, but it remains true that while violence is rampant in the series, it’s not often sexually-specific violence. In contrast, practically every woman gets assaulted in ASoIaF, multiple times. And it’s awful. Sady Doyle calculated the odds (as reflected in the first four books) over on Tiger Beatdown:

“If you are an unmarried woman, it is 100% certain that you will be raped or experience attempted rape … If you are married or engaged, there is a 75% chance that your husband or fiancée will beat or sexually assault you.”

That’s not to say that WoT doesn’t have its own problems. The men are constantly baffled at how crazy women are while simultaneously putting them on the highest pedestals they can find; the women cannot get over how idiotic the men are, and in the meantime their looks are overdescribed to the point of absurdity. But gender politics don’t get in the way when push comes to shove, and the women are just as prone to heroism (and to pitfalls) as the men. So while Mat grumbles about how women are like goats who think they are horses, and Min, Elayne, and Aviendha have some serious work to do in figuring out the structure of their relationships with Rand, and poor Berelain is just constantly barking up the wrong tree, women in WoT stand squarely next to the men, not behind (or under) them. Gareth Bryne believes so strongly in the rightness of the rebel White Tower’s cause that he’s put an entire army at their disposal, and Faile assassinates the insane madman trying to kill her husband. You can show me women fighting the power structure in ASoIaF, but you can’t show me men who believe in their right to do so and support them in their struggles. If you can imagine dragons and zombies, you should be able to imagine equality — and Robert Jordan did.

Note: this post was updated on December 3, 2014, to reflect corrections.