Sunday, November 25, 2012

Women of WoT: Beauty in the Eye of the Reader.

Many readers have criticized Robert Jordan's portrayal of women in his popular Wheel of Time series.  One of the main complaints that even Mr. Nerd has is that the women all have the same hang-ups about men and all seem to want to push men around, fearing that if they don't act "strong" (re: b****y) that the menfolk will get uppity and start giving themselves airs.  I don't find this as much offensive as annoying, but then again, I am not easily offended by depictions of the sexes with which I don't necessarily agree.  Even though I think it a bit harsh, this critique details most of the complaints that you could possibly have about the novels from a sexism/gender stereotype standpoint.  The purpose of this post will be looking at the physical and not the often-touched-upon emotional depiction of women.

The first thing I noticed about the women in WoT, after the smoothing of skirts and sniffing, was that nearly all of them are described as "slender," with a few "plump" and a few "stocky" girls thrown in.  It got a little silly after a while.  True, fantasy is not a genre in which plus-size female characters traditionally thrive, but do you expect us to suspend our disbelief enough to accept that 95%+ of the women are slim/slender?  This is a general complaint I have with the genre and not just this series; it irks me some, as it implies that people "fantasize" about only one size of woman, which I don't believe is true. In this vein, the only character description in WoT that actually made me upset was Graendal's.  I understand that she is supposed to be a lush and only concerned with her own comfort, but "beautiful, but somewhat fleshy"?  I'm not a fan of the term "fleshy" in the first place, but if it means what I think it does, why is there a "but"?  Could she not be both?

I appreciated, however, that no woman was actually called ugly or unattractive due to size.  Mat, one of the main male characters, is in fact often quite taken with women who are not very slim, and "plump" is frequently used as a complimentary adjective. I can find only one woman out of hundreds who has her personal appearance described in distinctly negative terms: an older Red sitter, Teslyn Baradon, who is referred to as bony and gaunt.  Perhaps I am being optimistic in my interpretation of the lack of criticism of women's looks, and Jordan simply does not have women he/his readers might consider unattractive in his universe, but with the wide variety of appearances besides the slenderness, not knocking female characters for meeting a specific ideal is admirable.  The women described as pretty and beautiful range from very pale to ebony-skinned (Lanfear/ the Sea Folk), from short to tall (Moiraine/ Aviendha), from blonde to bald (Liandrin/ Tuon), from curvy to straight-shaped (Berelain/ Tuon).  There are times when characters get jealous of another's looks, yes, but I know very few women who can honestly say they haven't been jealous of another woman at some point in their lives.

My favorite thing about the novels relating to women and body image is that the women do not strive to look like anyone but themselves.  Some, like Elayne, have an interest in revealing fashions that seems to appeal more to their vanity than their sense of expressing themselves, but there aren't really any diets or crazy exercise routines or thick coats of makeup. While Berelain and Lanfear, two of the most beautiful women in the world according to the series, do look remarkably similar, not one woman looks at either of them and says, "I ought to look like her."  They get jealous of the attentions the two receive due to their looks, but they don't actively try to look like them, which I find very refreshing living in a day and age in which plastic surgery is widespread.  Faile dislikes Berelain because she worries that Berelain will try to tempt Perrin away from her, but Faile does not then look at herself and mourn because she is not taller with a smaller nose.  Yes, I wish that the characters, and real-life women for that matter, did not get jealous over looks, but is this not still a small step in the right direction?

I am not sure that the sci-fi/fantasy world will ever truly embrace all sizes as I would wish, but WoT does a reasonably good job embracing color, shape, and individual characteristics in women's appearances.  At least it's a start.

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