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A Song of Ice and Fire: misogynistic or feminist?

Every now and again, new articles appear criticizing George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire for being misogynistic. Sometimes, these articles raise valid, thought-provoking points. More often, however, they criticize the series because its women are often powerless, because they are often abused, and because the world they live in does not value them or their opinion. Westeros is a misogynistic society, and therefore, they conclude, the text itself is also misogynistic.

In my opinion, this analysis is seriously misguided. A series is not misogynistic simply because it presents and explores a highly misogynistic world. Far from it. In fact, although it has its issues, I would argue that A Song of Ice and Fire is a mostly feminist text, featuring fascinating, dynamic female characters in a variety of situations. The fact that these girls and women live in a deeply misogynistic world only adds to the realism of their struggles and ultimately  to the strength of their achievements.

Not Just One Worthy Type of Woman

A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the only fantasy series I’ve seen that features a wide variety of complex female characters and treats them all as though they all have equal worth. They don’t fall into easily accessible (and unrealistic) tropes, like the “tomboy,” the “warrior woman,” the “evil queen,” and the “girly girl,” although those labels could describe the vague concepts of many characters. Arya and Sansa are given equal importance and respect in the narrative, despite the fact that one is an emotionally damaged, sword-wielding rebel and one is a quietly dignified romantic dreaming lady, and their narratives even mirror one another as they continue through the books. Brienne is a mix of the two, strong and skilled with a sword, but dreaming of honor and romance as well. She moves beyond the idea of the Strong Female Character (TM) by being physically tough but emotionally gentle and naive, morally beautiful but physically ugly, hated for being too much of a woman, too much of a man, and not enough of either. Each female character in the story feels like her own person, with her own personality and her own struggles, and no single way of being, no particular personality trait or way of reacting to this harsh world is favored over other options.

The Bechdel Test

The women of A Song of Ice and Fire don’t always respect one another. Cersei sees any young woman as a threat, and spends much of her time around Sansa tormenting the girl. But she also sees parts of herself and her own fate in Sansa, and resents her for it. Their relationship is complicated, and their conversations reflect the confused mess of emotions involved. Meanwhile, Catelyn and Brienne take a traditionally male relationship, of liege and sworn vassal, and turn it into a deep bond between the two of them. The vow Brienne gives Catelyn is one of the driving moments in the plot, and the bulk of her narrative is about a connection between women of three ages: Catelyn the mother, Brienne the protector, and Sansa. Daenerys has close relationships with her handmaidens, and one of her greatest enemies is a woman. Although the women of Westeros are generally taught that women are worthless, and the more powerful among them often buy into this and dismiss “normal” women (aka women who aren’t them) as weak, and certainly not worth their attention or assistance, they still form relationships and connections (both positive and negative) that can, in good circumstances, empower them both and, in worse cases, provide insight into the mess of a world in which they live.

Rape and Violence in Westeros

A Song of Ice and Fire has been criticized for fetishizing violence, particularly violence against women, and it’s true that you can hardly go a few chapters without seeing the threat or reality of rape. But this only confirms that Westeros itself is deeply misogynistic, and that the series is dedicated to presenting female characters in that world in a realistic way. For female prisoners like Sansa, for girls traveling the landscape like Arya and Brienne, for female warriors like Brienne and Asha, for political pawns like Dany, and particularly for the common folk who are not even really seen as people by many of the highborn soldiers, rape is a realistic, ever-present threat. In a text that is as dark and bleak as A Song of Ice and Fire, it would be more dismissive and anti-feminist to brush over this fact. I don’t want to make sweeping statements when I may have forgotten some element of the plot, but as far as I remember, the only perspective character who is raped “on-screen” is Daenerys. This does not mean that the “off-screen” victimization of characters like Cersei is less relevant or horrific, or that the threat is any less terrifying, but that the narrative is not revelling in these incidents or providing them for a sick kind of entertainment. They are mentioned as realistic facts, rather than as detailed scenes. Although some murderers in the books might be seen as (relatively) “good” people, those who commit sexual violence are almost always presented as completely evil (see Gregor Clegane and Ramsey Bolton). The only counter example I can think of is Khal Drogo, and his relationship with Dany is a complicated mess of Stockholm Syndrome masquerading as love. I am not sure he would appear sympathetic from outside Dany’s brain.

Westeros is not a great place to live

One of the main themes of A Song of Ice and Fire is that medieval fantasy romance is idealized nonsense. It attempts to portray the harsh realities of a society that works this way, including characters who are almost all morally shades of grey, widespread social injustice, no clearly delineated “good” and “bad” sides, and cruelty wherever you turn. If Westeros was presented as a fantasy dreamland, the book would have major issues. But it’s not. It’s horrific, and it does not flinch away from these horrors. Most fantasy stories (or stories in general) skim over unpleasant facts, like the use of rape in war, or the fact that noble women are little more than pawns to marry off to the highest bidder. The fact that A Song of Ice and Fire does not is not a point against it. It helps add depth to its female characters, by fully exploring the nature of their lives and the fears they face every day.

Of course, the series is still occasionally problematic

While reading A Dance with Dragons, I was unsure whether we are supposed to find Tyrion sympathetic or repulsive. He seemed to switch between the two, and his misogynistic attitude is definitely not something I can cheer for. Compared to Jaime, Cersei often lacks depth to her motivations, and she was certainly denied much of the sympathetic perspective eventually given to her brother. But despite these issues, A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the best series I have read, in terms of vibrant and compelling female characters and a plot that gives them equal importance (if not equal footing) with the male characters.

Since it’s impossible to cover all the depth of character (and all the potentially problematic elements) in one blog post, I’m going to write a series of posts on the women of A Song of Ice and Fire, looking at their characters, their plots, the themes of their stories, and their relationships with each other. All the major players will get their own post, plus some of the secondary characters. I hope that, through the blog posts, I can uncover some interesting things about these characters and about the series as a whole. I’ll be starting next week… first up, Brienne of Tarth.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

17 thoughts on “A Song of Ice and Fire: misogynistic or feminist?

  1. Good article.

    I would argue that Khal Drogo did not rape Dany (in the book), based on this passage: “‘No?” he said, and she knew it was a question. She took his hand and moved it down……”Yes,” she whispered……Now, is that realistic? I don’t know. I’m not an anthropologist or a psychologist. But at least it can be said that the character, as presented, is not a rapist. Dany loved him because he was tender with her and waited for her consent; therefore, her love for him was believable. Which makes the change in the television series very disturbing. TV Drogo does not wait for consent and is not tender. TV Drogo rapes TV Dany and we are supposed to believe that she comes to genuinely love him. But I digress, as this is not a book vs. TV discussion.

    1. I think that that scene is questionable, and my thoughts on it change all the time. He does wait for her to give permission, and is gentle with her, but on the other hand, she doesn’t really have a choice either way, because she’s just been sold to him as his bride.

      However, I was mostly talking about later scenes, early in their marriage, when Dany is completely miserable.

    2. He doesn’t rape Dany the first time only.
      After being “gentle” the first time, the weeks afterwards are described as Dany being raped daily while crying and Drogo doesn’t seem to care until she starts learning Dothraki.

  2. As to Tyrion, whether we find Tyrion sympathetic or repulsive is really up to the reader. Tyrion has always been a flawed hero, and in ADwD, he wallows in self-pity and gives in to his darkest demons. You don’t have to cheer for his misogynistic attitude. You cheer for him to recover from it. Martin shows us the good and bad of our favorite charaters, warts and all. There are very few purely good characters. Tyrion is not good. He is not bad. He is what he is: shrewd, loyal, intelligent and the perfect example of the cynic with the heart of a wounded idealist. He has just been through personal hell: false accusation of kinslaying, nearly executed, actual kinslaying, and Jaime’s revelation about Tysha. He is at personal low point. But he gets better.

    Cersei has different motivations than her brother Jaime. I don’t know that her motivations lack depth. Her commitment to her children is fierce. Even her love for Joffrey is apparent, despite the monster he grew to be; probably because she knows she is partially responsible for his monstrous nature. She will do whatever it takes to defend her family. It is her methods that are extremely dodgy. I don’t find her as sympathetic as Jaime either, but I don’t find it necessary to find all characters equally sympathetic just because we get into their heads. Theon is appalling and Sansa is infuriating. Cersei is what she is: a sympathetic and complicated villain.

    1. ‘Whether we find Tyrion sympathetic or repulsive is really up to the reader.’

      I would disagree with you on this; not on principle (obviously we all get to decide who we like) but in practice. I have never met anyone who read the books who didn’t love Tyrion. I don’t know anyone who watched the TV show who doesn’t love Tyrion. I don’t think I’ve even seen anyone online say they dislike him.
      Tyrion is flawed, but wounded idealism is a lovable flaw. Romantically falling for your hooker after you’ve been burned is a lovable flaw. He’s the only half-moral character in a family of psychos. He’s the underdog who everyone loves.

      1. I think Tyrion is definitely more likeable in the TV series, but in the books (I’m thinking specifically the end of ASOS and his thoughts about Cersei in ADWD), he does some things and has certain attitudes that make me bounce between wanting to support him as the underdog and being repulsed by him.

        Like all the characters, he has some interesting psychological reasons for his attitudes. I guess the difference between finding him sympathetic and repulsive lies in whether or not you find these reasons somewhat understandable.

        1. Cersei has tortured and demeaned Tyrion since he was an infant. She tried to undermine his work as King’s Hand at every turn, then, whilst he was lying gravely injured stole much of the credit due him for saving Kings Landing. She has falsely accused him of murder, was the chief agent in condemning him in an unfair trial, and came within 24 hours of having him beheaded. When he escaped she essentially took out a murder contract on his life (“anyone who brings me the dwarf’s head with be rewarded with a lordship”). And after all this, you want to criticise him for having hateful and vengeful thoughts about her in A Dance with Dragons? Really? Gimme a break!
          Cirsei is a vile, evil character, fully as much a Gregor Clegane (her champion) or Joffrey (her bastard [in both senses] son) or Ramsey Bolton. Look again at how she manipulated the death of Ned Stark, organized the murder of her Husband, tried to destroy Margaery Tyrell, gave several innocent characters (her maid, Senelle; Lady Falyse Stokeworth) to Qyburn for Mengele-like human experiments; reread the two page description of Cersei and Qyburn torturing the Blue Bard in A Feast for Crows again, if you can stomach it.
          And you want to castigate Tyrion, one of Cersei’s victims, for thinking repulsively vengeful thoughts about her? Not taking actions, mind, thinking thoughts. Give your moral compass a shake!

      2. I have never met anyone who read the books who didn’t love Tyrion. I don’t know anyone who watched the TV show who doesn’t love Tyrion. I don’t think I’ve even seen anyone online say they dislike him.

        A pleasure to make your acquaintance. I dislike Tyrion along with many of the other principle characters in ASOIAF, eg Jon Snow and Danaerys.

  3. I agree with everything you’ve said here 100%. It’s not often that I can say that.

    It honestly annoys me when people pass over the fact that Dany is a victim of rape. They seem to see her first, (questionably) consensual sexual experience as the only one that matters, completely erasing the countless other sex acts that took place during her marriage that were clearly not consensual. (I say “questionably consensual” in regards to her wedding night as, even though she said “yes”, she still had no choice in the matter. I would also argue that she was blatantly groomed into it as Drogo led her to believe that he was gentle when, in actuality, he was anything but.) Sorry, if that was a little off-topic.

    Anyway, I’m really looking forward to seeing your posts on individual female characters!

    1. It’s definitely problematic, but it is a fictional device to make her story compelling, rather than glorification or condoning of sexual violence. I think it is a testament to the strength of Dany’s character, and to the intelligence and compassion of Drogo’s character . At the beginning of their story, he sees her as his property and walking sex-toy, and little more. As the story progresses she gradually asserts herself as a human being with rights and dignity, and he is capable of respecting that. By the end of the story, she feels empowered enough to advocate not only for herself, but other brutalized women.

  4. Just as a thought experiment, can you point out specifically what has been repulsive for you? I’m not arguing that Tyrion hasn’t been repulsive at times, but it has been about a year since I read the books and I’ve forgotten much. My take on him is that his actions have been understandable (not necessarily upstanding and good) considering what he has been through his entire life, especially the last year.

    1. MAJOR SPOILERS THROUGH A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

      The two moments that really stick out for me are when Tyrion strangles Shae with chains, and when Tyrion repeated plans to rape and kill Cersei in A Dance With Dragons. Even though there are reasons for why Tyrion ends up thinking and acting this way, I don’t consider them to be justifications, and so I was definitely repulsed by his actions and by the way he thinks of himself as a kind of hard-done-by hero in these cases.

      1. Murdering Shae was definitely a shocking moment. I think the fact that Martin chose to let the reader deduce what happened rather than describe it is an interesting choice. From what I recall, he does not seem to regret it, either. I imagine he has blocked it. I predict he will snap again before the series is over, and Cersei may be the one to feel his wrath.

  5. You know who really bothered me in ADwD? Jorah. Holy shit. What a damn hypocrite. Sells poachers into slavery, kidnaps Tyrion with the intention of taking him to Dany (and this is supposed to win him back into her good graces how?), but when the tables are turned and he becomes a slave, he becomes the biggest fraking emo that not even Jon Snow could hold a wildfire candle to. And don’t get me started on how he is this great battle-hardened warrior, but turns totally beta around teenage girls.

  6. ‘A series is not misogynistic simply because it presents and explores a highly misogynistic world.’ That is the point, to be exact.
    Besides,, an oft-thrown piece of criticism is that women in this series are incompetent as their plans always collapse. I’d like to point out that almost all the grand plans in the series fail, irrespective of the gender of the architect.
    In fact, it is a major point in the series, that things rarely go as planned and that all human beings are fallible in one capacity or the other.

  7. I hope you’ll write one for Margaery Tyrell eventually. I only know her from the TV series, and I’m curious to how she is in the books. But I’m really interesting in learning your opinion about her.

    1. Thanks, I definitely plan to! The big problem is that I’m going to need to reread the third and fourth books before I do, and although that’s been on my to do list for a long time, I haven’t got there yet. But I may write a post about her show character this season, at least. There have been some really interesting choices and changes that I’d love to think about in more depth.

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