This is a defence of Game of Thrones against the claims that its treatment of women is blatantly sexist. I should warn you, I’m talking about George R.R. Martin’s novels as much as the TV series, so there will be spoilers if you haven’t read the books. (I’m halfway through the last book, so don’t spoil the ending for me!)
I started thinking about Game of Thrones from a feminist point of view after I read Laurie Penny’s article in New Statesman.
Penny has some good points, like the staggering number of prostitutes and rapes, but I don’t think her reading of the series is completely fair. I’m a fan of Laurie Penny and as a feminist I abhor sexism. But I don’t think Game of Thrones is sexist. Much.
But here’s the core of Penny’s argument on the sexism in the series:
Well, yes, 14th century Europe wasn’t a lot of fun if you were a woman, but nor did it have, for example, dragons, or magical shape-changing witchy-woo assassins. Westeros does, because Westeros is a fantasy world. If the creator of a fantasy series can dream up an army of self-resurrecting zombie immortals he can damn well dream up equal marriage rights, and if he chooses not to do so then that choice is meaningful, as is our assumption that the default setting for any generically legendary epic must involve really rather a lot of rape.
Perhaps Martin’s choice to not dream up equal marriage rights is meaningful – but his motives are not necessarily sexist. There’s no use denying that Game of Thrones is quite obviously a male fantasy and most of the female characters are portrayed in a way that is basically fan service, but the female characters are not as stereotyped and hollow as Penny makes them out to be. There are strong female characters in the series, like Lady Mormont and her daughter, both seasoned warriors. The men who fight beside the Mormont women seem to accept them as equals, and Lady Mormont attends war councils along with the knights and the lords.
Then there’s Brienne of Tarth, the warrior maiden. She is described large, ugly and freakish, more manly than feminine. The word transgendered is not used but it is implied in the way Brienne feels more comfortable dressed as a man, doing manly things. Brienne gets bullied a lot on account of her manly activities and appearance. Men and women alike keep telling her that she should be wearing a dress instead of armour and holding a needle or a baby instead of a sword. As far as I have seen, the Mormont warrior women have not faced such bullying or the cruel jokes Brienne has had to endure.
The reason for the different attitudes towards the Mormonts and Brienne could be that the Mormonts hail from the North where women possibly have more leeway in their traditional roles. Another explanation is that the characters in Martin’s medieval fantasy sense that Brienne is different on some deeper and more significant level than her taste in clothes and pastimes, and they react to her difference by mocking her. The least palatable explanation for the difference in the treatment of the Mormonts and Brienne is that the Mormont women are beautiful, and though tall and athletic, they are still graceful and feminine. Brienne is anything but. She is described as abnormally large and exceptionally ugly. It is uncomfortable to think that perhaps she gets bullied not because she’s different but because she’s not pretty like the other characters think a woman should be.
However, to the feminist readers’ vast relief, Brienne stays true to herself despite all the bullying and proves to the haters that she’s as good a warrior as most men, and much better than some. Besides, she is one of the most likeable characters in the series due to her honesty, loyalty and resourcefulness, traits that win the readers’ sympathies. There are even some characters who see beyond Brienne’s “freakishness” and appreciate her for her for what she is.
Another interesting female character in Game of Thrones is Danaerys Targaryen who, despite Penny’s claim, has other merits besides her very very fair hair. It is true that the character was most abominably abused in the beginning, when she was sold to a savage horse lord at the age of thirteen. Human trafficking, pedophilia, rape… ugh! No girl deserves such a fate, even though the consummation of Drogo and Dany’s marriage wasn’t a straightforward rape in the book, exactly, despite of what is shown on TV. In the book, the “savage” horse lord actually seduces his young bride rather than just assaulting her from behind. Still, you can’t explain away the pedophilia, which is, thankfully, not so obvious in the TV version because the actress looks older than thirteen.
However, as dismal as the character’s situation is, it’s quite impressive the way the she turns things to her advantage. The savage horse lord makes Danaerys the queen of the tribe and when the horse lord dies, Dany sets out to conquer the world.
She starts out as a frightened little girl but wait till four books into the series, and she has turned into a pretty capable character: a fierce mother of dragons, a liberator of slaves and a shrewd strategist who is well on her way to becoming a serious player in the game of thrones. And most gratifyingly for feminist readers, Danaerys is blatantly feminine but that does not prevent her from being a strong and respected ruler. She has male advisors but ultimately her decisions are her own and she doesn’t suffer anyone, man or woman, to question her rule.
Any list of powerful female characters in Game of Thrones should also include little Arya Stark. In the beginning of the series she is a nine-year-old girl who would rather be practicing swordsmanship with her brothers than embroidery with her sisters. She resists the idea of finding purpose in life by way of good marriage and a bunch of kids. Instead, she dreams of becoming a knight. She becomes a skillful sword… girl… and when things go wrong, she proves capable of taking care of herself. As she is travelling with a group of boys, disguised as a boy, she fares better than her companions though she is the smallest of the bunch, and a girl besides.
Then we have Cercei Lannister, the power-hungry and powerful queen of Westeros, admired for her unearthly beauty and feared for her psychotic cruelty (by those who know better). She may not be a lovable female character but she is undeniably a strong one. Outwardly she is the very picture of the medieval princess cliché with her long golden hair and her flowing silk dresses – but inside she is greedy, ruthless, dangerous and paranoid, and unfortunately not very smart. Not a flattering picture of a woman, no, but at least you can’t say Martin’s female characters are one-dimensional!
I could parade a few more strong female characters but I think I have made my point. Though the characters are often sexualised, I wouldn’t say their portrayal is sexist. If anything, George R.R. Martin seems to be operating under the idea that many women do not fit into the traditional stereotypic roles. He could have dreamed up a fantasy world with gender equality but had he done so, he would have missed the chance to create all these strong and interesting female characters who challenge the patriarchy, each in their own way. The first struggles of a gender revolution is bound to make for interesting fiction.
I’m not saying that a fictive society with equal marriage rights couldn’t be an interesting setting for epic stories. I’m just pointing out that it would be pretty boring if all stories were politically and morally correct, so I don’t think it’s necessarily meaningful to criticise a book for not being PC. In the end, it’s a question of what you believe literature, as an art form, should be like. What is the purpose of literature? If your answer is “to educate and to uphold morals,” then it makes sense to criticise books for their non-PC views. But I for one expect something else from literature.
Besides, often the portrayal of disturbing things can serve as food for thought. When reading Game of Thrones, we are faced with such questions as, “Is it right that Brienne gets ridiculed for being different? Why shouldn’t she be free to pursue her own interests?” That is, we will think about these things if we are mindful readers as opposed to mindless readers who simply absorb everything without so much as a hiccup. Granted, a portion of readers will not have the ability to think critically but that’s the reader’s problem, not the author’s. Literature stays interesting when writers write whatever pleases them without concerning themselves too much with what is correct and proper.
Having said all that, it’s a good thing that there are critical readers who not only think critically but also voice their thoughts and raise their objections. Writers can write whatever they like but once a text is finished, readers decide how they want to read it. We can then talk about whether some text is sexist or not, and what difference does it make anyway.