Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Uncomfortable Sexism in Robert Jordan's Work

When most people think of Robert Jordan, they think of his Wheel of Time series. While I read the first ten books of that series (I drew the line at a character whinging for a third of an entire novel about how his wife had been kidnapped by a relatively small number of desert warriors, rather than sending a messenger to the demigod that was his childhood friend and summoning every wolf on the continent to go get her back), my first exposure to Robert Jordan as an author was actually his contribution to the Conan mythos.

This was the book, in case you were wondering.
I found The Conan Chronicles at my local library when I was in 7th or 8th grade, and when I was done chewing through that volume I grabbed the sequel, The Further Chronicles of Conan. Each of these tomes had several novels in them, all of them penned by Robert Jordan. From slaying bandits and outwitting sorcerers, to toppling thrones and splitting skulls, these books hit all the high points I was looking for as someone who was already a fan of the character, and who had read several of the classic pulp stories by other authors. I even remember thinking at the time that Jordan's stories managed to deal much more even-handedly on the very problematic depictions of race that was endemic to the era when Conan first raged onto the pulp fiction scene.

However, the me who had such a fondness for those books was a teenager who wasn't old enough to drive yet. I recently found a copy of The Further Chronicles of Conan at a convention, and out of nostalgia bought it. The more I re-read those old tales, the more I realized something... as a writer, Jordan's depictions of female characters is really problematic.

And, since I have you here, I figured I'd do an autopsy on it so we can see what we can learn.

Welcome to the Party (Better Late Than Never)

I'm aware that I'm far from the first person to have this revelation about Jordan's works. In fact, one could argue that a basic reading of the gendered magic system in the Wheel of Time setting should have been the first gigantic red flag. However, I'm willing to go a step further on this.

I often found Jordan's depictions of female characters more sexist than Robert E. Howard's were.

Damn bold thing of you to say.
Now, to be clear, Howard is still extremely problematic when it comes to many of his female characters, especially those who exist in stories alongside his most famous barbarian. His stories are replete with heaving bosoms, great sighs, and women being slaughtered for no reason other than to drive Conan into a killing frenzy. The body of work's got bugs. However, Howard's female characters often have drives, goals, motivations, and at the very least gave their consent before being ravished by the titular Cimmerian.

I can't say the same for Jordan's stories.

Jordan makes a big deal in practically every one of the six novels in those two collections that Conan will never take a woman against her will. That's spelled out to the audience repeatedly in the text in his own dialogue or inner thoughts... but immediately following that sentence we have our hulking protagonist crushing some woman to his obscenely muscled chest, and kissing her as she tries to push him away, or strike at his head.

This phrase, I do not think it means what you think it means.

That's bad enough, however, Jordan's works also take the "traditional" fantasy outfits worn by many female characters (that is to say fetishized fantasy gear for the male gaze that sold magazines back in the day), and cranked it up to 11. Howard's stories often had the serving women in diaphanous garments, or made it a point to mention the temple's maids wore revealing robes, but Jordan's stories repeatedly draw the reader's gaze back to it. Not only that, but it goes into greater, and at times almost obscene details about how tight a certain noblewoman's breeches are, or about how a certain robe clings to a character's body. Points for absurdity goes to the character of Karela the Red Hawk for dressing in what amounts to a literal chainmail bikini, while supposedly being one of the deadliest and most feared bandit leaders in this part of Turan.

Speaking of The Red Hawk...

While absurd and overly sexualized, Karela as a character (since she recurs in more than half the novels in these collections) is also ground zero for another of Jordan's bizarre habits when it comes to female characters. In short, they get instantly (and occasionally violently) wishy-washy as soon as they're in the presence of a man.

You're already thinking of character names, aren't you?
The most obvious example in his own series was the character of Nynaeve, and how whenever she was in the presence of the dark-haired warrior Lan she was immediately torn between being a strong independent woman who don't need no man, and wanting to simper and pout at him to get his attention. We also see it with the character of Min, who is a street-running, knife-throwing punk rock tomboy, but as soon as she's in a dress near a boy she likes starts arguing with herself about whether or not she should be more feminine to catch his eye.

And so on, and so forth.

It's also one of the defining features of the character of Karela, the Red Hawk. For those who haven't come across these books, The Red Hawk is the most feared bandit leader in all of Turan. There's a huge purse of gold on her head, and her men are brutal, savage, and they follow her like a pack of dogs. Also, since this is a Conan story, she is of course a beautiful red-headed woman in literal boob plate (held in place by fine chains constantly strained to their limits by the fullness of her chest, Jordan points out several times). That's par for the course in the Hyborean setting. However, as soon as Karela is manhandled by Conan (grabbed and kissed against her will as she tries to stab him which then, somehow, turns into passionate sex in a gorge) she instantly becomes two different characters. One is the hard-edged, in-control, Powerful Woman... and the other is a moony-eyed wench who just wants to let go of who she is, and submit herself entirely to this Powerful Man.

This is not a momentary crisis of character; this is Karela's constant state over multiple books. The same state of attempting to be sexless and aggressive (while often still being beautiful to observers), versus being completely submissive to the will of a strong man that so many of Jordan's female characters struggle with.

Now, let's contrast Karela with another character from one of Howard's later short stories; the pirate captain Belit.

Appearing in the short story Queen of The Black Coast back in 1934, Belit is described as a beautiful, northern blonde dressed in the loose, flowing garments of a Black Coast pirate. Her crew attacks a ship Conan is a passenger on, and he kills many of the pirates rather than surrender. Conan is about to die when Belit demands her crew stop. She struts right up to him, looks him up and down, and the two of them instantly recognize the savage and barbaric instincts in the other. More importantly, Belit demands, in words, that Conan come to her, take her as his queen and lover, and the two of them will make the Black Coast tremble at their feet.

While that's a little melodramatic, and more than a little camp, at no point in time does Belit put up resistance that Conan (or any other strong male character) needs to overcome through force. She says what she wants, and becoming Conan's lover doesn't change her essential nature in any meaningful way. She is still fierce, proud, dangerous, and one night she grabs Conan by the back of his neck, looks him right in his blue, northern eyes, and tells him in no uncertain terms that if she were dead and he still fighting that hell itself would not keep her from his side.

If that sounds familiar to the speech given in the film Conan the Barbarian, that's because it was essentially lifted from this short story.

Belit is far from the only lover Conan has throughout Howard's works, and they've come in all shapes, sizes, and nationalities. From blushing maids who asked him to be their first, to jaded mercenaries, to witch women with uncertain motives, but these characters were all unique in their own way. More importantly, none of them suddenly had a crisis of self when they admit they are attracted to Conan, or when they go further and are intimate with him. There were plenty of other problems in the text (especially when they came from non-Caucasian ethnicities), but this specific pitfall was one the older stories managed to avoid.

Hot Take: Make Your Characters Individuals With Agency

I've been turning this over in my head for months trying to figure out what lesson I would suggest other writers take away from this. In comparing and contrasting the two sources, my advice to anyone is to make your characters individuals, who have their own wants, goals, and agency. Because while their relationships with other characters should be important, even intimate relationships shouldn't completely define who an individual character is. And if a night of rough sex had after questionable consent turns someone into an obsessive, violent stalker, that shouldn't be written of as, "Women, am I right?"

Also, since this might still need to be said, if you want your audience to know your protagonist respects people's consent, have them use their words. If you don't, it's sort of sending the exact opposite message you're trying for.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

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