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

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

  1. I love the books exactly BECAUSE nothing is sacred. Any character, no matter how beloved, can die at any time. Male or female.

    But at the same time, both the men and women are strong and emotional, it’s not the men who are the only strong ones and women are the only emotional ones. There are so many complex characters and plot lines (which is why the books are taking so damn long to get written).

    This is the kind of book women should be praising because for once they’re being treated as equals in it, as both heroes and villains. There is no putting the delicate women on a pedestal waiting for rescue. There are women doing the rescuing and men needing the rescue just as often.

  2. The thing most people forget about writers is that you can’t assume their works say anything about them — except whether they’re good writers or bad writers. The fact that this tempest in a teapot is happening shows what a really, *really* good writer George R. R. Martin is.

  3. I agree. Cersei is one of the characters that I hate most in the book and works great as a villain. But Martin doesn’t just show one side of her – he also shows the side that cares about her children and tries to do the right thing for them. It also shows her, ahem, “love” for her brother. But Martin’s books are rather realistic and show’s the struggles that Cersei goes through because she’s a woman. Great reading!

    1. I also appreciated the part of Cersei in HBO’s show.
      The character was clearly improved, both by Lena Headey’s play and by the added scenes (the one where she’s talking with Catelyn about the death of her firstborn and the wonderful scene of Cersei and Robert laughing together.)

  4. I really really like Brienne, in part because of her ethical code, but also because she’s homely. SO SO many ‘lady knights’ are also pretty as a princess. Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter (found in Sheepfarmer’s Daughter & subsequent books) was another woman warrior who wasn’t ALSO lovely to behold. Brienne’s ugliness makes her believable, and a character to whom I can relate.

    And I think Mr. Martin’s world is grim, and serves to remind fantasy fans that Oldyn Tymes are a heck of a lot worse than your local Renn Fayre makes them seem.

      1. Always found Brienne Handsome, not homely. Someone who might, in a different time and place, be considered strikingly beautiful — but who never gets a chance to feel that way.

    1. IMO, it’s harder for me to believe a beautiful woman in this type society could become a warrior or accomplished with a sword. A girl who believed herself to be pretty, whom others believed to be passing good looking, even, would be groomed very thoroughly to become a “lady” and would inevitably find benefit in that identity. It’s the outliers that take up an outlier identity: therefore the very tall, “mannish”, un-pretty girl seeks satisfaction and purpose in pursuits and hobbies that are not usually compatible with the “pretty girl” identity. And Sady is not acknowledging that within the logic of this universe, these various portrayals of women are not only varied but logically consistent.

  5. It’s nice of you to consider that tigerbeatdown post with respect but I personally thought it was stupid because it was grossly inaccurate.

    As just one example, Sansa. Sansa doesn’t suck because she likes boys and parties. She sucks because she’s a liar and she betrayed her family in service of getting what she wanted for herself. Also she was too stupid to see reality, and moreover, willfully didn’t want to see reality.

    I could pull each thing she says apart piece by piece but it just isn’t worth it.

    1. if I can be forgiven for commenting on my own comment, I didn’t mean to imply that talking about the feminist implication of ASOIF isn’t worthwhile. I think it totally is, and I’ve read a lot of thought-provoking comments on this subject including yours. I just meant that the specific Sady Doyle rant isn’t interesting to me as that kind of discussion because it is so inaccurate. thanks!

    2. Kathleen,
      someone did a little reality check there, on Sansa — “Sansa never means to hurt anyone.” Which is true. Just like Ned, she’s not trying to be an evil little witch. She may not want to say “Joffrey is lying” but neither does she say “my sister is a liar”

      1. And Sansa grows better from book to book. I mean: stronger, and less naive.
        Many people adore Arya and despite Sansa. I think the latter could surprise us in the end. And surprise Arya, if the sisters ever meet each other again.

        1. The more I read other people loving sansa, the more I like her. I’m much more an Arya, myself, and an only child. (and practically every man over at http://ordinary-gentlemen.com/ was hoping for something fantastic out of Sansa.).

          This is a series that really teaches us perspective. It’s so easy to hate on Catelyn for grabbing Tyrion and being unreasonable. But she doesn’t go out of her way to grab Tyrion, and she’s certainly -more- entitled to her hatred of Jon than Jon thinks she is. Jon’s a good kid, and has been raised well — but if Jon had acted like Theon, hell, Catelyn would have been right to have hated him from the getgo

        2. I think part of the Sansa dislike is twofold. One, she’s a poor judge of character, believing Joffrey over Ned in the first book, and then not recognizing that Tyrion is kind and would make a good ally against Joffrey.

          She’s growing but she doesn’t see people as clearly as, say, Arya, who seems to see right through them in her way.

          She seems to be gaining a clue, though.

          1. I agree about Sansa, not about Arya being a good judge of character and seeing right through them.
            Actually, I spent entire Arya’s chapters wondering when she’d figure out things the reader understood ages ago.
            I don’t blame her (she’s just a child, after all) but I wouldn’t say she’s a good judge of character.

  6. I also thought it very telling that Ms Doyle very deliberately omitted strong female characters such as Olenna and Margaery Tyrell and the entire Mormont clan, who would have invalidated many of her hysterically made points.

    1. You’re right, Elfy! I intended to write about the Mormont women but forgot it, so I’m glad you mentioned them.
      And Olenna Tyrell is amazing, too. I hope we see more of her in the last books.

  7. re: tigerbeatdown post:

    Sady-the-troll (she’s boasting about how she got more traffic by busting on Martin. classic trollery) makes Tyrion a rapist, complicit in his own sexual abuse by his father. This is saying that the victim-did-it-himself, and willingly to boot.

    That’s not feminist talk — that’s rape-is-good talk, and I don’t like it coming out of the mouth of someone who pretends to be feminist.

    Since I am a female who disagrees with her, Sady won’t let me comment on her site, so I’m doing it on yours. Thanks for giving me a voice!

      1. Well…..Tyrion is complicated. I won’t say he dislikes or hates women but he does a couple of things in the books that is problematic.

        One, he keeps paying whores and expects them to love him. (See Shae.) and when they act like who they are, people who are paid to have sex with him, he’s surprised. He’s much less angry with Bronn, who acts like, well, somebody paid to do his job as well.

        He has issues w/Cersei as well. But then, she’s trying her best to kill him and murdering some innocent people in the process.

        Tyrion is certainly no shining knight. He’s a fun character, very true, and definitely is great to read but he’s far darker and more twisted than some readers credit. He’s not some innocent acted on any longer–he’s committed crimes of his own. His murder of Shae is just that—murder. She likely did what she had to do to save her own life.

  8. “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.”

    Sounds like the history of the world, especially during the Middle Ages, which Martin obviously uses as a starting point. Yeah, not so much misogyny as harsh realism.

  9. The Doyle piece is lacking in the seriousness its subject matter deserves. It fails to cite accurately and completely. And it is an ad hominem attack on Martin and his painstakingly created work. In short, it’s the kind of lazy crap fantasy authors have had to endure as criticism for ages, putting Martin in great company. One of the things ASOIAF impressed upon me was how unsentimental and raw it was about its violence, sexual and otherwise, and how well-drawn its female characters were, how realistically they dealt with power and sexual politics. Doyle instead makes the tired old argument that depiction equals condoning. Wonder what she thinks of the scores of diverse women in all walks of life who love these books? That would be an ugly thing to know, I’d wager.

    1. You say that depicting something isn’t condoning it. Let’s play with this idea.

      Michelle Bachman said publicly that Hurricane Irene and the recent earthquake were messages from God to Congress.

      Her publicist said it was obviously a joke and not to be taken seriously. Yet – I know people who see it as reinforcement of their own beliefs. People really believe that God is punishing the US with an Earthquake and Hurricane.

      Now let’s look at the impact GRRM’s book has had on fans, desired or not. Are people using GRRM’s book to justify beliefs our society abhors?

      On fan forms, we see people discussing which characters “deserve to be raped”. We see people who find Drogo’s rape of Dany “romantic.” We see people say that various situations in the book “are not really rape” or “don’t count as rape.” Very clearly, there are fans that feel the violence against women is justified by the books.

      While we can say “oh the author didn’t mean that..” but we can’t ignore the impact it has. Five books into the series and we don’t have a clear message from the author in the series itself. That lack of message from the author leaves the book open to any interpretation.

      This ties into Rape culture. We know from many studies with rapists that they have the false notion that “every guy rapes” or that “every guy thinks rape is acceptable”. They take comments like “that women deserves to be raped” as comments that PROVE other men are cool with raping women, or rape themselves. This is “rape culture” and it’s worth fighting against.

      People aren’t walking away with the message that torture or violence are condoned. People ARE walking away with the message that rape is “sometimes ok” or even “deserved” by the characters for “being annoying bitches.” This feeds back into the rapist-justification cycle.

      1. QOG’s posts bring up several very good points. I agree that parts of the fandom make me uncomfortable, particularly the view of Khal Drogo’s abuse of Dany as “romantic”. Personally, what other people get from the text doesn’t really affect my opinion of the author, because I never got the impression Drogo was a romantic or that Dany’s rape was supposed to be somehow acceptable, even though he does come to love her and she him. I think it highlights what’s problematic about medieval views of relationships between men and women, and it’s meant to.

        Although I do agree that it’s an interesting discussion to have, since Martin very much writes in the realm of moral grayness. Is it problematic to sympathize with someone who does problematic things, even if you don’t agree with them? We have to question to what extent we are supposed to sympathize. A good example is Tyrion, who is the favorite of many fans and admittedly the author, but who has done some terrible things to women. To me, it’s clear that you aren’t supposed to think that it’s okay for him to kill Shae, for example, but the author does, I think, want you to sympathize with him at least to a degree, and I do think it’s valuable to talk about whether that is problematic. Can we like a character while recognizing that the things they do aren’t good?

        I also agree that “what about the men?” comments can be used to dismiss violence against women. However, Sady’s blaming of Tyrion for being forced to rape Tysha is something I find troubling because while I’m certainly not trying to downplay the victimization of Tysha, Tyrion was also clearly a victim of his father in this same situation, and I don’t think you can talk about Tysha as a victim of sexual violence without talking about Tyrion as one, too.

  10. I looked at Martins’ characterization of women as kind of a credible alternate reality (or recreation of Middle Ages culture). It is a brutal world he creates, that is part of what makes the books so fascinating…but to say that he is misogynistic is to tremendously oversimplify and misrepresent his perspective.

    The culture is different from ours but the humanity of the characters is identical–that’s what comes shining through for me. If we had to pare away the trappings, at our core, what does the shared human experience entail? What does it mean to be human?

    The willingness to fight for something greater than ourselves (our children, our ideals, our leaders and government); the desire to know and be with other people; the desire to be loved–those are the things that I see valued by these characters.

    War, rape, sexism, disability, mental illness, poverty, jealousy–are some of the foils used to block the characters from fulfilling their human potential..but I don’t think that they are at any point in the book glorified. Rather, they are acknowledged for what they are: frightening truths in the human experience, sometimes even opportunities for growth.

  11. You’ve fallen into two problems with this critique that come up whenever women’s issues are being discussed: 1. “What about the men?” 2. Other people have it worse, so this isn’t worth talking about.

    FAQ: What’s wrong with saying that things happen to men, too? http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2007/10/18/phmt-argument/
    Nothing in and of itself. The problem occurs when conversations about women can’t happen on unmoderated blogs without someone showing up and saying, “but [x] happens to men, too!” When this happens, it becomes disruptive of the discussion that’s trying to happen, and has the effect (intended or otherwise) of silencing women’s voices on important issues such as rape and reproductive rights.

    FAQ: Why are you concentrating on X when Y is so much more important? http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2007/04/12/faq-why-are-you-concentrating-on-x-when-y-is-so-much-more-important/
    People talk about subjects that interest them and that they are passionate about because these tend to be the areas in which they have the most experience. Choosing to concentrate on one thing does not mean that the person thinks that it is the most important subject, or that it’s the only subject that they ever focus on. Not every discussion can, or should, include disclaimers that list all the “more important” topics that the author deals with elsewhere, because persuading others and planning productively means that there are times when it’s necessary to concentrate selectively on a certain subject.

    Sady also answered the question listed here, can you like problematic entertainment?: There’s no shame in liking problematic entertainment. Most entertainment is problematic. The only shame is when your identity becomes so bound up in an entertainment or a subculture that you literally cannot let yourself acknowledge it might have problems… or talk about how you are being persecuted for liking them.

  12. You’ve fallen into two problems with this critique that come up whenever women’s issues are being discussed: 1. “What about the men?” 2. Other people have it worse, so this isn’t worth talking about.

    FAQ: What’s wrong with saying that things happen to men, too?
    Nothing in and of itself. The problem occurs when conversations about women can’t happen on unmoderated blogs without someone showing up and saying, “but [x] happens to men, too!” When this happens, it becomes disruptive of the discussion that’s trying to happen, and has the effect (intended or otherwise) of silencing women’s voices on important issues such as rape and reproductive rights.

    FAQ: Why are you concentrating on X when Y is so much more important?
    People talk about subjects that interest them and that they are passionate about because these tend to be the areas in which they have the most experience. Choosing to concentrate on one thing does not mean that the person thinks that it is the most important subject, or that it’s the only subject that they ever focus on. Not every discussion can, or should, include disclaimers that list all the “more important” topics that the author deals with elsewhere, because persuading others and planning productively means that there are times when it’s necessary to concentrate selectively on a certain subject.

    Sady also answered the question listed here when asked, can you like problematic entertainment?: There’s no shame in liking problematic entertainment. Most entertainment is problematic. The only shame is when your identity becomes so bound up in an entertainment or a subculture that you literally cannot let yourself acknowledge it might have problems… or talk about how you are being persecuted for liking them.

    1. QOG,
      When Sady portrays sexual violence committed against a man as something that man willingly did — inflicting more violence on another character, she’s gone straight into The-Victim-Did-It-To-Himself–And-WillinglyToo rape-loving behavior.

      I can agree in principle to having “safe” places — however, I believe that men are more shamed about being raped than women (particularly when its a woman who does the deed). And I think there should be safe places for them, as well.

      I’d credit Sady with a bit more balance, if she didn’t delete my posts wholesale, and then boast about the men whose posts she deleted. This serves two purposes — implying that the only people who don’t get her posts are MEN, and that I do not exist.

      I gave her about four posts, some of which were pages long, and quite well reasoned. Those got deleted. She seems to suffer from a persecution complex that she instigates, via silencing other women.

      I’ll continue to call her out as long as people keep referencing her. A troll’s a troll, and not worth the time of day.

  13. I have been a fan of George R. R. Martins books for a very long time. And I can never read “Ice and Fire” without remembering what he wrote in a tattered old paperback from the 70s.

    “All my writing is about the seek-and-destroy mission reality has for romance.” That is from memory, but it is all about the clash of reality and romance. Not the man-and-woman romance so much as the magics and the unknowns in life. It was in his comments for “With morning comes mistfall” I think.

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