Women in A Game of Thrones

One of the strengths of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, is its gritty realism. His writing doesn’t pull its punches. Among other things, that sensibility extends to his society-level worldbuilding. Today we’re looking at his treatment of women through that lens.

(Note: I’ve read the first two books, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, and haven’t yet watched the HBO series. There will be spoilers for both books. If you’d like to chime in, you’re most welcome, but please limit your discussion to the first two books/seasons.)

Cersei Lannister

Cersei Lannister. Image credit: http://www.hbocanada.com/gameofthrones/

Martin’s world is a classic medieval fantasy world, based on a feudal society where women are bargaining chips and their possible futures are severely limited. Many fantasy writers working in similar worlds take some liberties here to allow their female characters more autonomy and a greater range of options. Martin has chosen to stick with historical realism. This isn’t a bad thing in itself — science fiction and fantasy author Lois McMaster Bujold wrote an extremely strong noblewoman in Paladin of Souls under the same constraints. Let’s look at how well Martin does.

Arya Stark. Here’s the one example of a conventional character. Arya fits the trope of a highborn daughter who rejects the path of marriage and femininity for the relative freedom of swordfighting and often (as here) a male disguise. But, Martin being Martin, he doesn’t give her an easy time of it. When Arya is rescued by Yoren of the Night’s Watch at the end of A Game of Thrones, we expect her to promptly arrive on the Wall to distinguish herself as a member of the Black Brothers because that’s how these tropes go…but Martin has other plans that show her to be even stronger.

Brienne of Tarth and Asha Greyjoy (Yara Greyjoy in the TV series). Like Arya, these two reject femininity altogether. There’s no middle ground or shading of gender in this world: if you’re not following the marriage track (or the religious track, like Septa Mordane), you’re not a woman, and you’re treated as such. To emphasize the point, Brienne is described as ugly, and Asha isn’t pretty either. I can only imagine the strength it must have taken for both of them to get to where they are.

Catelyn Stark. For the most part, Catelyn is a noblewoman at the top of her game. Her point-of-view (POV) chapters are full of her calculating dangers and alliances, paying close attention to all the banners she sees in passing so she knows who’s around, trying to get the men in her life — first Eddard and then Robb — to analyze the world the way she does. Obviously she can’t ride out with a sword, but she can influence events from backstage. Her one arguable moment of weakness is kidnapping Tyrion and taking him to Lysa Arryn, her sister. That isn’t the smartest thing to do, as it turns out, but is it written as a fatal womanly flaw? I didn’t feel that way in context, but others disagree.

Cersei Baratheon (Lannister) and Lysa Arryn. I’m lumping these two together because they both exhibit a trait that I felt overstepped. Namely, they’re both too controlling of / doting on their sons (Joffrey, er, Baratheon and Robert Arryn respectively), which has resulted in two immature, spoilt boys. One I could have excused, but two looks uncomfortably like a pattern, a statement on Martin’s part. Other than that, like Catelyn, they both play the game well given the limitations they’re under.

Daenerys Targaryen. Dany is in a category of her own, largely because she isn’t operating in the same society as everyone else, but partly because, well, nobody messes with Dany and lives to tell the tale. She’s not as far off the deep end as her doomed brother Viserys, but one can definitely see the family resemblance (and I say this even though I’m very fond of her). One problematic point in Dany’s plotline is the consummation of her marriage to Khal Drogo. I understand that the TV series shows this as a “girl falls in love with her rapist” moment. In the book, Drogo is a little more sensitive, trying to soothe her fears even while he does what everyone expects of him. That includes Dany — she knew she was destined for a political marriage. But she didn’t expect where the consequences would lead, and she does an excellent job of rising to the occasion.

Sansa Stark. I have to admit that Sansa annoys me — probably in part because early on she’s set in counterpoint to Arya, and I’m used to identifying with characters like Arya. She’s the only one who doesn’t have any kind of autonomy or self-determination for most of the first two books, plus her plot arc doesn’t advance much in A Clash of Kings, so she comes across as weak and whiny. If you disagree, do chime in below!

Aside from specific characters, Martin does a couple of things that rub me the wrong way. First, he does the “exotic women have a more open way of thinking about sex” thing with the brothel that Tyrion visits as a cover for seeing Shae. The head of the brothel offers Tyrion her very young teenage daughter, and it’s insinuated that she’s already experienced in the ways of men.

Second, he uses mistreatment of women as a shortcut for “bad guy”. Arya sees and hears about a lot of this while she’s at Harrenhal — the nastier the villain, the more brutal he is to women. Sure, it might be true to the period, but it’s unpleasant to read, even though Martin clearly isn’t sympathetic to the villains’ actions. Similarly, Theon Greyjoy displays casually misogynistic behaviour, and since we’re in his head, we get to listen intimately to these thoughts.

Generally, I think Martin does a pretty good job at handling a society in which women are clearly second-class while still giving us characters who are strong and autonomous in their own way. He does make some disappointing missteps, but I’m willing to forgive him that for giving us Arya and Catelyn and Daenerys.

What do you think about Martin’s treatment of women in the first two books/seasons of the series? Which female character is your favourite?

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy If You Liked… A Game of Thrones.

17 responses to “Women in A Game of Thrones

  1. I’ve read the 5 books and in the last two are hints of a more interesting story marked out for Sansa, though he hasn’t written it yet and she might yet get the same treatment as other Starks have suffered. It would be cool for her to get a strong story to counterpoint Arya’s, though I wonder how much of her innocence she’ll lose in the process.

  2. Vividhunter, that’s my worry too. Glad to know her storyline picks up a bit later on!

  3. I admit Sansa was rather annoying at first, but in the real world here and now, there are plenty of people equally obtuse. And when it comes down to it, Sansa would be the norm of her era. If anything, it’s unreasonable to have so many strong female characters in that environment. Without Sansa we have no basis for comparison. That said, she is a Stark, and presumably has a brain, albeit misplaced. So sooner or later it ought to engage….

    Rape is one of those crimes that is defined by the system of laws. In today’s world we have gradations; not so in medieval society where women were property. Property has no right to object. Which means that
    Dany wasn’t raped, she was doing her duty.

    Something interesting is that the very strong women characters in this series generally don’t get what they want, even though they often deserve to. That said, I still want Arya (my favourite) to end up ruling the world, Sadly, I suspect that’s not to be.

    The stated intention was for seven books, but Martin has said that Books four and five together were the original book four. So does that leave us with two more books or three? I’ve heard that the tv version diverges rather badly from the text.

  4. Up front, I’m not a big fan of the books — I’ve never gotten past the first one. However, one of the things Martin does admirably is that he does have lots of women in the story. I’ve read a lot of books where there’s a female protagonist, and she’s still the only woman in the entire book.

  5. Laurel, good points about Sansa and Dany. I agree that Dany’s rape was expected in a world like that (and by all the characters involved, including her), but that doesn’t make it any more comfortable — sometimes I wish GRRM were just a little less true to the era. From what I’ve read so far, it seems like most of the characters who “deserve” to get what they want end up going down in flames, so women are no exception there!

    Linda, yes! That’s one of the things I really appreciate about the books, however much I might argue with the execution. Thanks for chiming in even though you’re not a fan. 🙂

  6. Arya is definitely my favorite female character, Tyrion my favorite male character, but that’s a different subject, isn’t it? 🙂 Sansa was irritating to me at first, but she grew on me in books 3 and 4….
    I am so torn about these books…on the one hand, I find them sort of engrossing and the characters are interesting, and I enjoy the different points of view. On the other hand…there is seriously mention of rape on just about every other page, and that kind of wears on me….

    Interesting post, Siri!

  7. Tyrion is hands down my favourite male character too (I’m a sucker for the mouthy ones). You make a good point that it’s possible to like a book a lot and find it problematic at the same time. Here’s a thought-provoking link about exactly that: http://www.socialjusticeleague.net/2011/09/how-to-be-a-fan-of-problematic-things/ Thanks for the comment!

  8. I’ve actually been happier with the progression of the female characters in the series than the books (though granted, I’ve only read through book three).

    Catelyn Stark in the books is someone who grossly disappointed me. In the beginning she was portrayed as someone with a deep sense and mind for the politicking of the day and a voice of reason, but I actually did feel her abduction of Tyrion was a huge and uncharacteristic departure from her formerly logical development. I found it difficult to believe that someone with such a mind for the way things worked in her own world would be so cavalier to make a decision that not only threatened her political standing as a prominent lady married to the Hand of the King but also directly threatened the lives and safety of her family. I felt then (and still do now) that it was sloppy writing and rather misogynistic — I don’t think Martin would have written such a radical departure from rationality into one of his male characters. Not everyone will agree with me on that point.

    I love Dany and Arya, and Asha Greyjoy is fascinating. There are many women in the books who interest me, and I need to read further to hash out what I really think of his treatment of women.

    Really great post, Siri. I never really thought about the parallels between Cersei and Lysa before, and that’s given me something to mull over.

  9. Emmie, glad you liked the post so much — that means a lot! I attributed Catelyn’s kidnapping of Tyrion to the same kind of shortsightedness that Eddard exhibits — she’s worried about her family and really thinks this is the best way to get them out — plus GRRM’s tendency to send the plot in the worst possible direction. But you’re right, she’s normally far more savvy than that (as I said myself in the post!). I also noticed that despite her smarts, she’s not very effective in whatever she’s trying to accomplish, at least through the end of book two. Food for thought….

    Unrelated thought: I just realized that I namedropped something like 20 characters or places in my post, even though it’s been months since I was reading the books. I did have to look up a few, but only a few. Now that’s writing that really sticks in your head!

  10. I’ve only part-read the first book (years ago – it didn’t grab me) and seen season one of the TV series, so I’m a bit in the dark as to forthcoming story arcs, but I enjoyed this post. I guess within the context of that terribly unequal society, there are some great female characters, but I do find it hard to accept that society.

  11. Ellen, it’s definitely not a society I’d want to live in, despite all the wonderful castles and suits of armour and dresses and…okay, maybe a little bit. 😉

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  14. I really liked your post – I’ve linked to it in my most recent post about the series. I agree with your assessment of all the characters. I really dislike Sansa as well, but I think having a character like her who is a weak woman balances out the strong female characters in a way that makes the characters looked at as a whole more well rounded. I think there are aspects to Catelyn Stark that provide that as well and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think Martin writes women much better than many of the male writers in the fantasy genre and I certainly appreciated how many female characters there are.

    I also really respect Martin’s willingness to depict things in a historically accurate way, even if it makes the reader uncomfortable. In context, I think there is a place for it, though I agree with the other commenter that maybe we don’t need quite so many references to rape. I think he’s trying to paint a picture of a very chaotic and dysfunctional world and his use of war atrocities certainly help do that, but it is a bit intense. A lot of scenes made me wince, though it didn’t stop me from reading.

    By the way, Tyrion is also my favorite male character. I’m dreading the day that Martin kills him off (I just suspect it, because he seems to kill off all the characters I like).

  15. Bahia, thanks for the thoughtful comment and the linkage! Good point about the well-roundedness of the female characters as a whole — I hadn’t thought of it that way. And yes to the historically accurate writing. There can be a fine line between being accurate and allowing gratuitous violence/misogyny, but Martin treads it well for the most part.

  16. …I need to read this series. I’m wary, because a friend said she had to stop reading as there was too much rape and assault in it.

  17. There is a lot of that, yes. The other thing that turns off a lot of people (including my significant other) is that it gets pretty grim for the protagonists. I like the series, but it’s definitely not for everyone.

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