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In Defense of Catelyn Stark

Catelyn Stark is one of the few voices of reason in A Song of Ice and Fire, but she is repeatedly ignored, because she is a mother, and because she is a woman. Although, like every other character in the series, she is fallible (trusting Littlefinger, for example), her advice is generally sound. She has lived through one bloody war and lost people she cared about as a result. She does not want to live through another one and lose all her family. And so she alone, out of all the main characters, speaks out against war and vengeance. She understands that further death and destruction will not bring back the people they have lost. More than anything, she wants peace. She warns Renly that his men are the “knights of summer,” playing at war with no understanding of its reality. She combines experience with wisdom, and many of the terrible situations in the books could have been avoided if people listened to warnings.

But they don’t. Because she is a woman, and because she is a mother. Because, as a mother, she is dismissed as too soft-hearted, too concerned with protecting her children to understand the true nature of war. Because, as Robb‘s mother, heeding her words would be seen as weakness.

 And I think many readers have a similar reaction to her. Catelyn Stark, like everyone else in the series, is imperfect. Unlike any other “good” character, however, she is an imperfect mother, and it is this flaw that inspires so much vitriol against her. Catelyn is too much of a stereotypical mother, putting the welfare of her children above other concerns. Yet she is also not enough of a stereotypical mother figure, as she has her own prejudices and weakness. She is not always nurturing and accepting of others, and she chooses to involve herself in the war instead of waiting at home with her youngest children. And that, it seems, is unacceptable.

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Power is Power: Cersei Lannister

This post contains spoilers through A Dance with Dragons.

There’s no getting around it: Cersei Lannister is a horrible person. Although, thanks to the extreme cruelty of some of the series’ villains, she isn’t the worst character in A Song of Ice and Fire, she is ruthless and petty and cruel, and she appears willing to sacrifice anything (except her children) to bolster her own power.

Cersei is also the only “villain” character in A Song of Ice and Fire who  gets chapters from her point of view but isn’t redeemed or made likeable in any way. Although readers may have different reactions to Jaime in A Storm of Swords and Theon in A Dance with Dragons, the books certainly attempt to make them into compelling, sympathetic characters, but Cersei’s chapters in A Feast for Crows only confirm the idea that she is an unhinged, vindictive, selfish, and spiteful woman.

Yet Cersei is also one of the most intricate and interesting (if also detestable) characters in the series. We just have to dig deeper into her motivations to find the compelling details underneath.

Cersei is far from a feminist character. However, she is a fascinating character to examine from a feminist perspective, because her entire life (and much of her personality) is a reflection of the misogynistic nature of Westerosi society. She’s an ambitious woman who has had to fight against limitations her whole life, and who has been made hard, cruel and bitter as a result.

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Daenerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons

I am the blood of dragonsIf they are monsters, so am I.

Daenerys Targaryen’s story is one of the difficult lines between selfishness and selflessness, liberation and enslavement, kindness and cruelty. She is the “mother of dragons” and the “daughter of death”: feminine, caring and protective, but also destructive, willing to burn the world to the ground to take what is owed to her.

She is also a character who (at least initially) sees herself as purely good. She is the rightful heir to the throne of Westeros and the protector of her people. She will use her strength, and her dragons, to liberate both literal slaves in the East and the people forced to live under the Usurper’s rule in the West, and she arguably would (and does) make a good queen. She agonizes over decisions that would harm any of her people, even if they seem to be for the greater good, and she fiercely opposes slavery and injustice. She is willing to sacrifice her happiness for the good of her people, and she is very intelligent, using her femininity to trick her enemies into underestimating her and then manipulating or destroying them when they drop their guard.

But “destroy” is always the key word in Daenerys’ story, whether she recognizes it or not. In order to become a conqueror and take back her throne, Daenerys must kill many innocent people, destroy many more lives, and, as she says, rain “fire and blood” down on the world. She does not flinch from this reality. In fact, she embraces it, and her greatest character flaw is the fact that she cannot see, as others see, that many of her “children” will not welcome this destruction. She still sees herself as the kind and caring mother, without noticing that a mother of dragons must, inevitably, also be the mother of death.

This post contains major spoilers through to the end of A Dance with Dragons.

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Arya Stark: To Bend or to Break?

Arya Stark is one of the most popular characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. She’s certainly one of my favorites. Brave, quick-witted, fierce and determined, Arya survives in a world that kills many older and more experienced players using courage, adaptability, intelligence, and, of course, a whole lot of luck.

But she’s also, in a way, naive. She’s naive about how she can treat Prince Joffrey without receiving severe punishment in return. She’s naive about the future she can expect for herself, and naive about the cost of her rebelliousness. Although she rejects every romantic fiction that Sansa adores, Arya loves stories of women warriors, and she invents her own tales of individualism that place her into a similarly perilous position. Readers love her for this naivety, because it pushes against expectations and allows her to treat Joffrey exactly as everyone would like him to be treated. However, escaping the  oppressive nature of Westerosi expectations is not as easy as simply deciding not to listen, as the struggles of other “untraditional” women and Arya’s own unfolding plot demonstrate. The women of Westeros must either bend to expectations, at least superficially, or find themselves broken.

This post contains spoilers through A Dance with Dragons.

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There are No True Knights: Brienne of Tarth

There are true knights, Sansa Stark thinks, as she flees from the Hound. All the stories can’t be lies.

And Sansa might be right. She has one true knight searching for her, on the old story quest to rescue the fair maid and return her to her family. Brienne of Tarth is the only living character who values honor above all else, who is determined to keep all her vows, who respects life and wants to protect the weak.

She is also, of course, an unattractive woman, despised and mocked by almost everyone she encounters. She is not technically a knight. She has all the inner qualities of the storybook hero and none of the external qualities, in a world where appearances and superficialities are all that seem to count. She is a woman who does not seem to fit anywhere in her world.

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In Defense of Sansa Stark

Sansa Stark must be one of the most hated characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. The vitriol levelled against her is often frightening in its intensity, surpassing that for actually horrific characters like Joffrey and Ramsey Bolton. Her crime? The unforgivable fact that she is a pre-teen girl.

As a massive fan of Sansa, even I must admit that she is difficult to like at first. She’s spoilt and a bit bratty. She fights with her fan-favorite sister and trusts characters who the reader knows are completely untrustworthy. She is hopelessly naive and lost in dreams of pretty princes and dashing knights. She acts, for all intents and purposes, like the eleven year old girl that she is. Most of us were pretty darn unbearable to older people at that age (and that’s fine, because they were also pretty unbearable to us). Robb and Jon, although older than Sansa, are similarly misguided and bratty, with Jon’s constant “poor me, I deserve so much more” attitude at the Wall, and Robb’s clumsy attempts at being the Lord of Winterfell. But these mistakes are only reprehensible to readers when they come from a girl, interested in girly things and making girly mistakes. Because viewers have been taught that “girly” is automatically bad.

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