Gender, Ambivalence & the Women of WesterosMay 23rd, 2013 at 8:05
I’m not feeling the entitled outrage that GRRM hasn’t finished writing them yet, but I’m sure it’s gonna kick in any day now.
I’m still digesting it all, but wanted to start processing some of my thoughts about this series, its incredible popularity and acclaim (even before the TV series started, but way more now) and its role at the centre of so many discussions about what’s right and wrong with the fantasy genre when it comes to the representation of women, gender issues, and sexuality.
What intrigued me most, to tell you the truth, is that whenever the big discussion about female characters in epic fantasy fiction starts up again, ASOIAF (Game of Thrones is SUCH a better series title, just saying) is frequently cited on both sides of the argument – that is, as an example of a male writer writing a variety of female characters in a rich, nuanced and substantial way, AND a male author writing female characters in an extremely problematic way.
Looking at the books from the other side, I have to say – well, yep. Both those things are true.
ASOIAF is full of women, and does actively engage with issues to do with gender roles in sexist historical-ish societies. There is a lot more of this in the text than I had expected, and it happens across a variety of characters – we see, for instance, how vulnerable many women are from a legal standpoint in a patriarchal society, how little control they have as to some of the major decisions in their lives (like whom they get to marry) and the power they get to wield often depends a lot on how controlling the men in their lives choose to be. The widows can generally take the most freedom for granted, and get away with doing what they want compared to the daughters and wives – though the ones who do best at these are the ones who have the best manipulation skills, and/or luck in their male relatives.
All of this does reflect a general historical default, which was often true in many pre-industrial eras.
At the same time, the books also show many female characters rising above, challenging and railing against the limitations that the society of Westeros in particular (but some other cultures too, such as the Dothraki) place upon their women. Some of these characters succeed, and some fail. Just as some of the women who stay within their more traditional gender roles suffer for it, others thrive by making themselves exceptions – and some have more mixed results.
Almost as if women are real people. I know, right?
[If you don’t want to be spoiled ALL the Game of Thrones books up to & including the end of A Dance With Dragons, plus occasional mentions of the TV series up to recent episodes, then please don’t continue reading. Just be aware before you run away that there’s a big fat BUT coming, & this isn’t a puff piece about what an awesome feminist text this is. Truly not.
Also while I’m at it, MASSIVE TRIGGER WARNING for discussions of rape, body horror & torture. Which really should be taken as read with these books, but I don’t want to surprise anyone.]
Add to this the fact that by Books 4 and 5, the female cast has expanded substantially, with more and more key female characters getting either regular or occasional point of view chapters. I’ve heard Book 4, Feast of Crows, disappointed many because the Tyrion and Daenerys storylines didn’t show up at all but OMG that book is wall to wall women – not only do Cersei and my beloved ugly knight Brienne become proper point of view characters, but let me introduce you to the freaking SAND SNAKES, a bunch of alarmingly dangerous bastard-born princesses in Dorne who win my vote for characters most in need of a spin off TV series when Game of Thrones has to pause for GRRM to catch up with his writing.
And as watchers of the TV show have undoubtedly also enjoyed, we also have the cutting, observing wit of the glorious I’m-elderly-and-have-nothing-to-lose Olenna Tyrell, the Queen of Thorns, who is every bit as marvellous in the books as she is in the TV show, though that could possibly be because I knew Diana Rigg was playing her when I got to that bit, and so read all the lovely snarky lines in her voice. Still, to have a character like this – an old, smart woman who has seen it all and has no respect for the dignity of the pompous men of younger generations – in an epic fantasy novel is extraordinary, as old women are often portrayed as invisible or petty/annoying if they look their age, and only get much play at all if they still look young and beautiful thanks to magic AKA Polgara the Sorceress – meanwhile, the decrepit, funny and wise old man is an epic fantasy staple.
Ahem. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Despite the many, many awesome things about this ridiculously readable million+ page fantasy epic by Mr Martin (I have fallen and I can’t get out), the books are also seriously problematic in many ways, especially from a gender standpoint.
There’s the creepy, sadistic violence, performed mostly against men when we’re talking about main characters, and mostly against women when it’s walk on, supporting characters or ‘extras.’ (though our female main characters are under almost constant threat of creepy, sadistic violence, or forced to witness the above which brings its own issues along to the party) There’s the psychological torture and familial abuse. There’s the distressing fact that one of the most otherwise likeable male characters in the story (Tyrion, a dwarf who allows the author to explore some fascinating issues to do with disability, power and ableism in a medieval world) is revealed retrospectively to have taken part in a violent gang rape against his first wife, after being manipulated by his father into thinking she was a prostitute who had faked her love for him, and that HE ONLY FEELS ESPECIALLY GUILTY ABOUT THIS AS ANYTHING OTHER THAN HIS OWN PERSONAL TRAGEDY after it’s revealed that this was in fact, another lie and she was “innocent.”
Yep, that’s Tyrion, our fan favourite character. Ouch.
Add to this the fact that, in response to learning about his brother’s betrayal and the “innocence” of his wife (inverted comments for this one because of the narrative’s general presumption that a woman being gang-raped is automatically less vile/horrific if she is a professional prostitute), Tyrion then goes to confront his father, discovers his recent former mistress in his father’s bed, strangles her with a gold chain, then murders his admittedly vile father.
Book 3 is, in case anyone is wondering, the most depressing book of the series, and I really don’t know how they’re going to depict that part in the TV series.
Oh and for those following along at home with my Galactic Suburbia updates – we ALMOST got to the end of the 5 book run without getting a rape scene from the point of view of either party, but then there was this utterly charming interlude in which Asha Greyjoy is raped by one of her military allies, only for it to be later revealed in the narrative that haha, tricked you, that was actually consensual sex as part of an ongoing relationship. So, yeah. There was that.
I do actually worry that the extreme rapeyness of these books (honestly, it’s wall to wall in some scenes) has actually desensitised me to the concept. As noted in a recent review of the TV series, you do get to the point where you find yourself thinking kindly of completely morally bankrupt characters for NOT taking the opportunity to rape young girls, which is… a really gross way of thinking about the world. For the most part, the use of rape as wallpaper to show what a harsh world this is for women becomes a kind of white noise in the soundtrack of the books.
And yes, main characters who are women are threatened with rape on a near-constant basis, while men almost never are – there are a few instances, but such a tiny number in comparison to the massive weight of female rape & rape threats that they are statistically insignificant. Physical humiliation and degradation are heaped on male characters, don’t get me wrong, but like most literature ever, A Song of Ice and Fire exists in a reality bubble where no one is willing to acknowledge how common male-male rape is in situations involving war, slavery and well, history.
[at this point, because I was thinking about double standards, I wrote a very long section about the gendered use of nudity in HBO's Game of Thrones, then cut it out to be a post on its own - so look out for that soon!]
The most unpleasant scene from a gender point of view that I came across in my reading of the books is the Submission of Cersei in A Dance With Dragons. Of all the ASOIAF things I could be outraged about, this is the one that has left me with the greatest feeling of discomfort and the one I am least looking forward to seeing depicted on screen.
Which is odd, and possibly unfair. Because it follows the pattern established in this series which is a) almost everyone is morally grey as a default and gets more and more morally bankrupt as time goes on, b) the really horrible and or extremely annoying characters (plus a few random likeable ones, heh tricked you) either die in quite satisfyingly horrible ways, or go through such a prolongued period of suffering that you start to quite like them in what feels like a form of literary Stockholm Syndrome.
Exhibit A: Jaime Lannister, an utterly entitled prick who doesn’t love anyone but his sister (whom he loves so much they had three children together) and his ability to be the Best Swordsman Evah, imprisoned for a year, has his sword hand cut off, dragged through hell and back, actually starts to become a better person because of it, actually he’s kind of adorable now I SHIP HIM AND BRIENNE SO MUCH. Sure, he doesn’t love his children, and he tried to murder that 8 year old that time, but he’s witty and clever and AAAARGH THIS BOOK.
Exhibit B: Theon, an appallingly vicious little sod who betrays the family who raised him in the hopes of appeasing his own vile father (lot of vile fathers in this show), murders a couple of kids in order to convince people he’s killed the boys he thought of as brothers, and treats women like disposable rags. Is then tortured, mentally broken and (it is implied) castrated off screen, has become so miserable and degraded when we see him again that it’s hard to connect him to the previous character. So when he does something even vaguely heroic, frankly it’s like seeing a monster write a lovely poem about daisies.
Cersei, on the other hand, starts out utterly evil and malicious but gradually has her power base and reputation peeled away and peeled away, mostly by the men in her life letting her down. I love her as a villain early on in the story, because she’s freaking terrifying, and she’s probably the most outspoken feminist in the story. She gets softened, though – almost all the horrible things she is thought to have done in the first two books, turns out she only did some of them. I can’t hate her the way I hate, say, her evil son Joffrey, or her evil father Tywin, or a whole bunch of the random evil dudes in this story who are mostly played by Noah Taylor.
Cersei’s downfall comes due to Margaery Tyrell, the sweetness and light princess who marries each of her sons, and starts to dig away at Cersei’s power over them – not that, to be fair, she had nearly enough power over Joffrey. Finally, when Cersei puts the plan into place to frame Margaery for treasonous sexytimes (with a list of fake lovers stolen so blatantly from the Anne Boleyn playbook that the casting of Natalie Dormer in the TV show becomes hilariously extra awesome than it already was) Cersei is unexpectedly hoist on her own petard, and brought down to humbling depths by the religious order she herself empowered in the hopes they would be her own weapon.
Imprisoned and at the mercy of others, she faces the loss of everything she has worked towards, and the betrayal of some pretty low-tier male characters who now decide to take over everything in her absence. Her only way to get back to her home and her son is to confess to a few saucy crimes, hope she gets away with being terribly sorry… and, oh, making a deeply raw, soul-damaging pilgrimage through the streets of her own city, stripped naked and penitent, in a long and painful scene that shows every stumble, every embarrassment and moment of rage, every vegetable thrown, every leering look. It’s grotesque in its fine detail, and while Cersei’s downfall was a) her own doing and b) largely orchestrated and implemented by other women, it feels distressingly gendered.
Jaime Lannister loses his hand and has to cope with being vulnerable in a way he has never been before, but his degradation does not feel as lovingly, cruelly dwelled upon as this. Theon’s degradation happened largely between his appearances in the books (and many, many viewers have railed against being shown this torture on the screen through Season 3 which goes to show that, you know, it’s not fun to watch people suffer at length).
Cersei suffers, I felt, at gratuitous length. And if the book had ended with a moment of triumph for her, I would have felt better – but instead, there is only one muted triumph, the revelation that a Certain Someone (gotta be a Clegane brother, right? Never saw either of their bodies) is still alive and therefore she is likely to survive her trial of arms. The second triumph, that is, the surprising double murder of the two men who have taken Cersei’s power in her absence, Sir Kevan Lannister and Old Julian Glover’s Beard, is satisfying if like me you felt Cersei was due a win, but actually…
No. The murder was done by the surprisingly returned Varys, still supporting a king who hasn’t quite turned up yet, and it was done not out of CERSEI’S RIGHTEOUS VENGEANCE but because the duo of Lannister and Gloverbeard was annoyingly competent, and he wanted to go back to the days when Cersei and her family were slowly destroying the kingdom to make it easier for his boy to stroll in and win.
UM. UM. UMMMMM.
So, yeah. I’m glad Cersei is in one piece heading into the Future Books, and that we get her POV scenes now, because she’s fascinating, but I am quite disappointed in her legacy apparently being an incompetent political leader because I loved the earlier narrative about how she was surpassing both her brothers in being her father’s true heir, and her father was an idiot for not seeing her strengths.
But maybe since everyone else is getting redemptive arcs, she’ll get one too? MAYBE?
In the mean time – ASOIAF is hugely problematic in many, many ways, and yet it’s so damned readable, and it provides such rich and complicated female characters. I’m disappointed with the Cersei arc, and to some extent with the Retrospective Descent of Tyrion (note: his suffering quest, following the revelation about what he did to his wife, and the double murder of his father and mistress, involves having to sail around a lot, nearly dying a few times, and being enslaved as a comedy dwarf, but never ACTUALLY having to do anything more humiliating than riding a pig under a false name), but in the mean time we have Daenerys learning to be a queen and to ride dragons, Arya training as a sinister assassin, Margaery and her wicked aunt laughing at everyone, Brienne being the Best and MOST NOBLE and risking death because she’s too honourable to even pretend she will murder Jaime Lannister no matter who asks her, and DID I MENTION SAND SNAKES, and I have not yet given up hope that Sansa Freaking Stark is not going to tear out of her hiding place at the moment we least expect and get herself some Serious Vengeance!
So, I’m conflicted. I think I’m now officially a fan of these books, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see the problems and failings in them – admittedly for me, the journey in teasing out these problematic aspects was a major enjoyment factor in reading the book, and ditto for watching the TV series – which I came to after a whole year of reading feminist commentary on all the yuck factors.
I’m really glad I read these books, not only because it gives me a more layered perspective on the TV show (I am crazy fascinated with the adaptation process of things generally, and whatever else Game of Thrones is, it’s an extraordinary achievement in adaptation) and because I enjoyed the hell out of reading them (except for the sitting up miserable watching miserable things happen to miserable people and oh my heart still breaks for Arya never being reunited with her mother, oh Catelyn Catelyn I knew you were doomed but not that you’d never know your sons had survived you!) but also because it is some pretty ferocious fuel for Thinking About Epic Fantasy which is something I want to devote a lot of time to this year.
And you know, I feel bad about liking the books so much. There’s a part of me that suspects I’ve lost feminist brownie points, even if I was the only one in charge of said points. Not for a long time have I accepted the charge of Guilty Pleasure so comprehensively.
So here is my redemptive arc, my pilgrimage of atonement – which I am certain will be far more constructive than the one GRRM inflicted on Cersei Lannister! I am going to spend a large portion of this year’s reading energy on more, more, more epic fantasy, but for the rest of 2013 I’m going to stick to epic fantasy written by women. I have Kate Elliott and NK Jemisin ready to go on my Kindle, I want to do a book-by-book reread of the Tamora Pierce Tortall series, and I plan to be hunting down some new-to-me writers, too. If this is the year of me re-embracing and re-immersing myself in a genre that has always meant a lot to me, let’s get some serious perspective on the matter, and start writing more analysis about the women in fantasy novels BY WOMEN.
Recommendations of epic fantasy would be greatly appreciated, though don’t think that I don’t already have a list as long as my arm.