In the lore of The Wheel of Time, the fabric of reality has gender.
I wasn't convinced this was actually true in the lore during my own reads of the series. I always thought that the male and female labels ascribed to the One Power, for instance, were just attempts by human beings to categorize something well beyond human understanding.
I thought the use of these terms was an arbitrary manmade one, not a true metaphysical one.
But having read interviews with Jordan about souls and reincarnation in his world, it's pretty clear that his intentions were to make a metaphysically gendered world. Souls, and the One Power both have some kind of cosmic sense of gender, male and female.
To paraphrase his words: in the lore of the books, Lews Therin Telamon - the Dragon - could never be reborn in a woman's body. His soul is male and he will be born again as a male. That's not to say the Pattern will never call forth a female hero to save the world, just that the Dragon Reborn could never be a woman.
Important to note: His very soul has gender. It's not only that this soul is born into male bodies. There is some male or female attribute to the soul itself.
I want to be very clear before I go on: This post is not a commentary on Robert Jordan as a person. I never knew the man. This post is a commentary on his work, a work that I like and think has substantial merit despite its flaws.
It is a work that criticizes many sexist attitudes, while still embracing the same basic principle that justifies sexism. That does not invalidate its commentary on the issue, but invites some real and worthwhile critique.
To be clear, I do believe that there are differences between men and women. One difference that Jordan acknowledges, critiques, and evaluates quite well is our general tendencies to process emotion in different ways. I can touch on that in another post, but I offer this now to clarify the extent of my disagreement with Jordan's coverage of the topic.
What's wrong with a gendered universe?
In short: To say that men and women are different biologically or physically is reasonable. To have them occupy different roles, professions, and places in a fictional society due to cultural and historical reasons, is a valid and interesting world-building choice! But to elevate differences in gender to the cosmic or universal leans into a sexist ideology.
To skip to my conclusion and avoid a deep dive into how exactly the lore fits into this, click here.
Before we dive into the full implications of this gendered universe, let's discuss some key terms and definitions:
What is a soul in The Wheel of Time?
In the series, a soul is a thread in the Pattern, the very fabric of reality spun out by the Wheel of Time. These threads are what give the universe their shape, forming the fabric of the Age Lace, the stories that define an Age.
A soul, a thread, is a person's story, their history, stretching not just through their life but through every life they've ever led. A soul is essentially a character's archetype, the core conceptual essence of who they are.
What is gender in The Wheel of Time?
Gender in the series is biological as there are men and women in this world. Gender is also innate/metaphysical as souls possess gender.
In addition, gender carries thematic weight in the story. I'm sure most readers would agree that a critical theme of the narrative is the idea that men and women have fundamentally different strengths and weaknesses and support one another with them. The symbolism of the One Power - opposing gendered forces working in harmony to power the wheel -, most relationships in the story, and Jordan's own commentary would support this.
Gender without a body?
A soul without a body in this world is a consciousness that has experienced multiple lifetimes. Take for example, the Heroes of the Horn, who wait in The World of Dreams between their incarnations.
Since souls have gender, there are male souls and female souls. There are male consciousnesses and female consciousnesses, even without those consciousnesses being in bodies. Because one is male and the other female, we must presume there is some meaningful quality that distinguishes them.
What makes one consciousness different from another?
One might argue that the difference between male souls and female souls is just whether they lived lives always as men, or always as women. The fact that this soul is male and that soul is female is just part of the Pattern, and there's nothing more to it. But if that is so, then this part of the narrative has no thematic weight.
Considering that a major element of the narrative is that there are intrinsic non-physical differences between men and women, I'm more inclined to read this part of the lore as a way of emphasizing or symbolizing the innate differences between men and women.
This lore is definitively saying that in this story there are inherent differences between a male consciousness and a female consciousness.
What makes two consciousnesses different? Differences in values, differences in behavior, differences in perspectives, differences in those most essential qualities that make us who we are.
And in The Wheel of Time these essential qualities are determined in some essential way by gender.
Gender essentialism is a school of thought that states there are certain unique, often ineffable, qualities about men and women that make their behavior different. Some proponents of the theory argue that this is true from biological or psychological grounds. Some proponents argue that it is true from cosmological grounds: that our very souls or some other aspect of our essence gives us certain innate characteristics on the basis of gender.
That last aspect is exactly what the idea of a gendered soul is. That segment of the lore demands gender essentialism.
Gender Essentialism and The Wheel of Time
The Wheel of Time takes a gender essentialist view of humanity. One of its core themes is that despite their similarities, in many important respects, men and women are fundamentally different (Read: mentally and psychologically different) on the basis of gender.
The story argues that this is generally a good thing. Men and women are able to make up for one another's shortcomings precisely because of these differences. This is a common take in the essentialist view. Essentialists will agree that there are strengths that are shared between genders. But there are also explicitly male and female strengths, some ineffable qualities that are uniquely beautiful and beautifully unique about each gender. It's an often romanticized, or in the case of The Wheel of Time, spiritualized concept.
What if this were race?
If someone told you that white people and black people were intrinsically different not because of the ways they'd been treated in society, but because there was something spiritually, metaphysically different about them, you'd be appalled.
If a story said that there were white souls and black souls with this cosmic divide between them, and then romanticized said divide, you'd have some serious questions.
Gender essentialism is a collectivist philosophy like any other. It takes an attribute that has nothing to do with our minds, our core identities, and claims that it in fact has a profound influence on them. Just like racial essentialism, it presumes deep commonalities between all members of a group that have certain physiological traits. It treats people as fundamentally similar members of a collective instead of individuals unto themselves.
It's the underlying premise of all sexism. That it doesn't claim one sex is inferior or superior makes it better than your run of the mill misogyny or misandry, but that makes it no less sexist.
Although I will say that when you divide traits amongst the sexes, usually one gender rather conspicuously ends up with the less valued ones. Separate is seldom equal.
How Real Are Gender Differences?
I am not disputing the existence of real biological differences between men and women.
But the most evidence that I have seen from essentialists of their larger behavioral/value claims are psychological/neurological studies that indicate at most moderate preferences between certain subsets of men and women for certain kinds of problem-solving/environments (that are themselves in dispute within the scientific community), and anecdotal summaries like: "well, surely you would agree that on average women are more compassionate than men?"
Anecdotes are not proof, especially when you consider the possibility that men and women act differently because we treat them so differently. Essentialism is a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy in this way. And none of the scientific evidence is so sweeping or unanimous that one can make truly meaningful generalizations about the way men or women think and act purely on the basis of gender.
Most critically, the above evidence does not justify the immorality of making assumptions about people's beliefs, wants, or virtues on the basis of sex.
The Moral Problem
I won't speak in too much detail on why collectivizing a group of people is wrong. I'd prefer to get back to how this affects the series, and my adaptation of it, and leave deeper exploration of this moral issue to your own reading.
Simply put: every human being possesses a brain and a will of their own. While gender might have some statistical impact on the ways those brains develop, our values and our thinking are ultimately under our control. In the most meaningful ways, those that exist beyond the purely biological, we decide who we are. We are individuals first, and members of a collective second, if at all. To say otherwise is to denigrate free will and the individual in favor of some arbitrary notion of what men and women ought to be.
Exploration or Acceptance?
There's nothing wrong with a work of fiction presenting prejudiced attitudes if it is trying to critically examine them, or in the case of real world fiction, present reality as it was. And to the series' credit, it does call out sexism by both men and women.
However, it is ultimately limited in its ability to critique sexism because it accepts the gender essentialist framework on a very deep level.
While the series offers some suggestions for dealing with prejudiced attitudes - a worthwhile endeavor - it does not seriously call into question the attitudes themselves. Instead, as a result of its essentialist tendencies, it often leans into sexist notions of gender conflict and experiences, as well as sometimes shallow depictions of women.
This is of course a more complicated topic than I can properly explore here, particularly when considering Sanderson's contributions to the last three novels. I hope to expand on what precisely I mean here in a follow-up post.
I want to be clear. This is not me damning the narrative or the author as vanguards of the patriarchy. But I would be remiss in my role as a critical reader if I ignored these problems. Which leads us to this next point.
Should an adaptation of this work reflect its attitudes around gender? If you agree with the above sections, then you would agree that this premise in the lore - of meaningful cosmic or mental differences between men and women - has morally flawed conclusions. And if you believe that something is morally wrong about a work of fiction, do you have an obligation to reflect that same immorality in your adaptation of it?
I am not suggesting that reprints of The Wheel of Time should be altered in some way to reflect this. Original works ought to be shown as they were to invite all relevant critique and praise. I am asking if new works - incarnations to borrow some imagery from the series - should embrace even the flaws of their source material?
I do not believe that this lore is truly pivotal to the story or its themes. A world's society can be sexist even if the world itself is not. Those same tensions and questions can be addressed without gendering souls.
And in fact, a great deal more can be explored about them if the story does not commit itself from the beginning to this flawed premise.