How Can I Be a Feminist And Love George R.R. Martin’s Books?

cersei, game of thrones
Queen Cersei, played by Lena Headey, in HBO's TV show.

Some of you may have heard about the newest controversy concerning George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, recently adapted for the screen on HBO under the first book’s title: A Game of Thrones.

If not, you may read the original post on Tiger Beatdown, where writer Sady Doyle accuses Martin of being “creepy, sexist and racist”. The comments are worth reading, too, since they are often more polite and nuanced that one would have expected.

You may also read some of the rebuttals, like Alyssa Rosenberg’s on ThinkProgress, or Sean T. Collins’ “A Song of Ice and Feminism”.

They’re great. I feel exactly like them, since I really love A Song of Ice and Fire. However, Sady Doyle isn’t as easy to dismiss as was Ginia Bellafante’s post on HBO’s pilot.

I had almost the same argument with a (male) friend of mine who recently read the series and complained about the roles assigned to female characters. I disagree. But if many people think that way, there’s probably a reason to it and we have to think, as impartially as we can, before dismissing them.

And beware, readers, but I’ll need to include spoilers in the following post. I repeat: spoilers ahead, including all five published books. So if you’ve only watched the TV show, you should probably stop reading here. Also, that’s not a post suitable for children.

Of course, one cannot deny Sady Doyle’s points. Yes, female characters endure lots of suffering, harassing and rape threats. Yes, they’re often seen as wives or mothers. Yes again, young girls of thirteen are considered fit for (arranged or forced) weddings. The character of Cersei is a problem, obviously, as explained by Alex Cranz on FemPop.

Does that make the books misogynic? I still think not.

1. While Sady Doyle lists only female characters’ storylines, male characters are harassed as well.

Eddard Stark is betrayed, jailed and beheaded. Jaime Lannister, the best knight of the realm, loses his sword hand. And that’s a perfectly deliberate act performed by a mad and cruel torturer.

But they’re grown men, aren’t they? Well, Joffrey Baratheon, the boy king, aged thirteen, dies in horrible pain caused by poison. But Joffrey’s evil, isn’t it? Well, Bran Stark, aged seven, a nice, loveable, boy who enjoys climbing above all, becomes permanently crippled.

But they’re not humiliated like women are, are they? Okay, stop kidding here. The most tortured and humiliated character in the entire series is obviously Theon Greyjoy. I don’t think anyone having read A Dance With Dragons can deny it. He was physically and psychologically tortured by the cruelest character in the series, Ramsay Bolton. Theon is tortured to the point where he forgets his name and renounces all dignity. But he isn’t sexually tortured? Yes, he is. Believe me. Don’t ask.

Even the “forced wedding” matter is a problem for male characters as well as female. Robb Stark, a strong, positive, male character, is booned to marry some girl for political reasons. He weds another one. And you know what? He’s murdered for it. He is, not the girl.

2. Despite the fantasy genre, Martin tries to tell a realistic story in a believable world.

We, female history geeks, like to think that some women were allowed roles of power, even in the Middle Ages. They were, sometimes, as Cersei and Daenerys are in A Song of Ice and Fire. But they were still submitted to gender prejudices, they still had to fight them, and often lost. Take Eleanor of Aquitaine. She’s an iconic ruling lady of the Middle Ages: Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, then Queen of France, divorced and remarried to the young and handsome King Henry of England, influent on both politics and culture. I love Eleanor. But don’t forget she was married at fifteen, not by her own choice, and she was later imprisoned by her beloved Henry for sixteen years, while her husband had love affairs. How feministic is that?

The world isn’t as feminist as we’d like it to be. And I’m not speaking about Middle Ages here. Rapes, gang rapes, war rapes are still horribly real and actual things for many women in many parts of the world, especially in war zones. Women are not treated like men. Neither in Martin’s books not in the real world. And I would even say their fate is worse in the real world than in Martin’s Westeros.

 

I consider myself a feminist. I’m often pissed-off by gender stereotypes, in everyday life, advertisements, movies that will never pass the Bechdel Test, toys catalogs, and so on.

Could Martin have written a more feminist book? Of course. Feminist fantasy does exist, including some matriarchal utopias, and that’s an important thing, since the genre was so male-dominated for so long.

But he gives me what I really like in fantasy book, as a female reader: strong female characters with whom I can identify.

Daenerys, Catelyn, Brienne. They’re not perfect, and that’s what great with them. They’re not asexual, either, and that’s great too. Daenerys sometimes struggles against her girlish crushes: we all do. Catelyn makes some terrible mistakes trying to protect her children: I’m sure I would, too. Brienne is a warrior and ugly-looking, but that doesn’t prevent her from falling in love: I’m glad she does.

Isn’t it the most important? The stronger lesson for us and our daughters? That was hard being a woman in times and lands not so far from us. That’s still hard from us, sometimes. But they all try to manage it. Even “evil queen” Cersei who’s unfortunately not the man of her family, and pays for it. Even young and girly Sansa, who finds the world isn’t a fairytale after all. And Brienne.

I’m very fond of Brienne. It’s not so frequent to read about female knights who are bad-looking, honorable and full of emotions, and struggle between their conflicted feelings in the world that want to reject them. It’s not easy, being Brienne. Perhaps it will be, some day. But not today.

 

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