Does A GAME OF THRONES Hate Women?

The Women of Game of Thrones

I’m a fan of George R.R. Martin, and I’m a fan of A Game of Thrones, both in its original literary and its more recent filmic iterations. And not only do I consider Martin’s epic work to be some of the best fiction I’ve ever read, I’ve been on board longer than most because, through unlikely fortune, I got an early copy of the first book in hardback, signed, well before it went on sale…

signed copy

And yeah, I’m showing off my library…forgive me.

Of course, I’m not alone in my love for this series. But such love is far from universal, and some folks downright hate it. Some hate it because it’s brutal and dark and filled with not-happy endings. Some hate it because it’s loaded with sex and nakedness, and if you’re uncomfortable with the human body and the things people choose to do with it, that can be a turnoff. (If I seem dismissive of people’s discomfort with nudity and sex, that’s only because I am; there is plenty of entertainment available for more chaste tastes, and not everything needs to be appropriate for eleven year olds.) I will say this: the series should show more naked men, both because it would be more fair and because it would head off some of the arguments of misogyny.

Some people’s hatred of this series, though, is starkly political, pardon the pun. I see frequent attacks on it as being misogynistic, or, in an oddly more flippant term, “rapey.”  Of course, “rapey” is a word that seems to cover everything from actual rape porn to fictional rapes in a story to pictures of pretty models in swimsuits, and, at its most zealously inhuman, includes under its umbrella men’s simple desire for women (they are inflicters of the terrible “Male Gaze”), and women’s desire to be attractive to men (it’s not that they actually want to be attractive, it’s that they’re naive and brainwashed by the patriarchy into thinking they want to be…because nothing gives a woman agency like telling her she’s too stupid to decide how she really thinks about such things because she doesn’t play by your rules).

The world of Thrones is a brutal world for everyone in it, yet I’ve seen people say that Martin should basically make the choice to be nicer to the women, and have the setting be more enlightened than our own medieval past, in order to reflect modern attitudes. “Its not historical,” they say, “and he has the freedom of making his world less misogynistic, so the fact that he doesn’t is, itself, misogynistic.” Or rapey. So, horrifically brutal primitive culture, fine, just as long as the women are treated with respect and care.

As a writer, a reader, and a grownup, I know that depiction is not the same thing as endorsement. There is misogyny in Thrones without a doubt, but it is the misogyny of the cultures and the characters. The books depict it, but they in no way glamorize it, and are not, in themselves, misogynistic. Nor do I think their author is. I know that people who think that depiction is, itself, unacceptable may disagree. C’est la vie. I don’t think all fiction should be written to soothe and reinforce people’s favored notions of the world-as-it-should-be.

Also, the female characters in the books and show are very well developed, and cope with the horrors of the world they exist in in complex and varying ways. Most of them are very strong and admirable women, self-defining and full of agency. Two of my favorite characters are female, Arya Stark and Daenerys Targaryen. Do bad things happen to them? Sure, just like to pretty much everyone in the stories. Are some of those bad things really not nice things that people in an enlightened society wouldn’t do to each other? Of course. This world is far from an enlightened, nurturing, or friendly place. Expecting the author to treat the women with kid gloves while otherwise inflicting horror and torment on his characters (or, I guess, just on the men) is ridiculous.

Not everyone will enjoy the darkness, or the violence, or other aspects of the series, which is fine. Harsh dark medieval realism isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. And frankly, though I see Martin accused of filling the stories with actual rape, he really doesn’t. Also, whenever there is violence, sexual or otherwise, it isn’t depicted in any sort of appealing way; only someone already off in psycho land could read the brutalities in these tales and think, “Yeah, that sounds nice.”

Just to be clear: I’m not in any way unsympathetic to, or dismissive of, concerns about “rape culture” or misogyny in media or even people’s feelings on such matters. I definitely recognize that there are problems to be addressed (for some reason, recent decisions by DC Comics spring to mind, as does the day-to-day news out of the GOP).  I just think some of the more stringent arguments about such things have a tendency to spill beyond reasonable boundaries and focus on things that really don’t qualify for such attack. And I think that these particular criticisms of A Game of Thrones are like that.

Of course, I’m a guy, so to some my opinion, input, and viewpoint-of-privilege are instantly to be dismissed, unless I wholeheartedly embrace the arguments at hand. Fortunately, there are women saying the same sort of things that I’m saying…

This may be the Year of the Sitcom Woman, but the biggest, most vibrant group of women on TV today can be found in a brutal, self-serious war drama set in a made-up medieval world — just the kind of story, it so happens, that’s often assumed to be the sole dominion of dudes.

For George R.R. Martin, the novelist who created this world in his “Song of Ice and Fire” series, the medium is the message. The things that make the story so daunting and so off-putting to some — its sheer massiveness and its huge cast of characters — are part of what makes it so thrilling to me, as a woman who likes to see other women on-screen. It’s not just that the women in “Game” are strong — and the primary females are, in both figurative and literal senses — but that there are so goddamn many of them, each one fighting to exercise power over the world and her own life. They’re far from a sisterhood (one of the main themes of the show is that trusting others is a rube’s game) but as a collective, they make an unavoidably huge impression.

Fantasy stories, like all genre narratives, are built on archetypes, and “Game of Thrones” seems to leave no trope of feminine power unexplored. There are mothers, like the noblewomen Catelyn Stark and Cersei Baratheon, who are driven by their fierce, lioness-like love for their children. There are a wide variety of warrior princesses and any number of women who use their sexuality to get ahead. There are at least two witchy women (mysticism being a kind of power reliably granted to female and minority characters): Mirri Maz Duur, the Lhazareen who uses “blood magic” to destroy her people’s conquerors, and Melisandre, the priestess who brings a fiery new religion to Westeros and becomes the force behind a fearsome army in the process. These women don’t always win the games they’re playing — they get slapped down as brutally and as often as the male characters do — but they sure know how to fight, week after week… (TV’s Best Show About Women” by Nina Shen Rastogi, Salon)

And (major spoilers in this, if you’re not up to date with the TV show or corresponding events in the third novel):

Of course, as Rowan Kaiser argues in The American Prospect, one really cool aspect of the Stark family’s downfall is that it also functions as a sharp critique of the patriarchy….from a male point of view.

The metaphorical potential of a speculative setting helps—Game of Thrones, with its lords and kings battling for supremacy, is inarguably patriarchal. It uses an agnatic-cognatic primogeniture system where only men can inherit titles unless only a woman is the sole successor. This is obviously bad for women, who are used as political pawns and very rarely wield institutional power on their own. But what Game of Thrones manages to do is demonstrate how it damages men as well.

That is why Robb Stark is dead. In the world of Westeros, Robb’s innate goodness was at odds with his job title. As heir to Winterfell, and then as King IN The North, he had obligations that had to be fulfilled, which included marrying for strategic gain—obligations that he didn’t keep. Marrying Talisa Maegyr instead of Roslyn Frey wasn’t his only shirked responsibility. His inability to maintain relations among his vassals led directly to his death as well, in large part because he was unable to punish his mother after she worked against him. So Robb didn’t just die because he’d married for love; he also died because he’d been kind to his mother. Both of those actions seem like they should be no-brainers, but because of the world he was in, they combined to ruin the hero.

I couldn’t agree more with Rowan. I’ve found “Game of Thrones” to be a fascinating deconstruction of the romanticization of medieval patriarchy, a romanticization that is used as a rhetorical weapon to this day in order to prop up modern patriarchy. (For instance, it’s common for sexists to defend unfair treatment of women by citing “chivalry” as a value, but as “Game of Thrones” brilliantly and correctly posits, chivalry is just a series of futile, meaningless gestures to pretty up systems that treat women like disposable objects.) I will tweak his point a little, however. While I agree completely that “Game of Thrones” shows how patriarchy hurts men, too, it also shows what makes patriarchy so attractive that many men will defend it, often with their own lives. (Game of Thrones Offers A Complex, Nuanced Critique of Patriarchy” by Amanda Marcotte, The Raw Story)

Both women’s articles are good reads. Marcotte’s story is particularly insightful. (Avoid the comments sections, though, if you’re concerned about spoilers for future episodes/books). Of course, some might dismiss these smart women, and say they’re brainwashed and speaking as agents of the patriarchy and defending rape culture and such. In that case, who is actually hurting women here, George R.R. Martin for writing books that include fictional depictions of abuse of women, in a very human and thoughtful manner? Or those who would deny a woman her own opinion because it clashes with their political ideas?

6 comments on “Does A GAME OF THRONES Hate Women?

  1. I never understand this critique of Song of Ice and Fire. It’s one of the most heavily-feminist works of popular fiction I’ve ever seen. The whole world is an antagonistic canvas which places its female characters in an underdog position, and then stands back to watch them overcome. The only reason Daenarys’s ascent to conquering warrior-queen has any resonance at all is because she starts the first book as a child-bride. The only reason Catelyn Stark stands out as a font of wisdom and strong will is because we get to see her struggle to hold things together in the absurd world which would make her 15-year-old son her superior.

    To put it another way: the only reason we care about Tyrion is because, in this world, dwarfs take a lot of shit.

    Criticizing Song of Ice and Fire for the attitude of Westeros toward women is like criticizing a period slave drama because everyone is being really mean to all the black people. It’s like, duh, of course they are! That’s what makes the black characters the heroes in this story, and why we care about them at all! It’s called “the struggle against adversity”. That requires the presence of adversity!

  2. Grace says:

    Martin uses “rapey” plot lines to show that his female characters are capable of overcoming adversity. Look at Daenerys–she goes from being raped doggy style after her brother basically sold her to being the mother of dragons. That’s a pretty big turnaround, and the fact that she had such a rough past made her an even stronger character and leader. (I’m going to conveniently ignore the fact that her storyline gets boring and that she doesn’t do much other than wander the desert after that).

    Then again, my opinion might not be representative, because I tend to enjoy pulpy and/or rapey SF/F anyway.

  3. nydiacarioca says:

    I already enjoy the series, but now that I started reading the books, I really love him as a storyteller! The world would be a very boring place if writers didn’t have the freedom to create whatever universe they desire. As I always say, a writers’s mind is sacred land. You basically expressed my own opinion on this topic, way better than I would, so I really don’t have much to add. ;)

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