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.)
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.