“In the songs all knights are gallant, all maids are beautiful, and the sun is always shining.”
[Here Be Dragons and Spoilers]
Although George R. R. Martin’s series is titled “A Song of Ice and Fire,” it’s plot certainly never falls into the romanticized ideas as presented in the quote above. Life in the world of the books is brutal and difficult for nearly all of the characters in one way or another. While I understand that many people would be discomfited by the books, I believe that they have the potential to generate many discussions on gender relevant to our society. To be clear, I believe in equality based on sex and gender. I don’t think that women or men should have more power or privileges, and it is important to consider how other categories like race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, among others, impact inequality. How should feminists feel about Martin’s work? Is it feminist or not? Or is it simultaneously feminist and antifeminist? Does it depend on the wave of feminism that we are viewing the story through?
Of course, this issue has already been debated repeatedly, as exemplified in this piece critiquing another reviewer by Alyssa Rosenberg. I suspect that several things may be going on in relation to gender in Martin’s work. While I was more uncomfortable with the violence and sexuality when I read the first three books in my early twenties, I actually think that Martin’s depictions can actually be applied (sometimes in an exaggerated way) to our world. For example, women in war torn regions of the world continue to be victims of rape as if they are spoils of war, merely objects rather than people. And our society in the U.S., continues to perpetuate rape culture and many other forms of gender inequality. There are many situations in which women are physically, verbally, emotionally, and sexually abused due to their gender. Therefore, a book like Martin’s opens up discussions about many of these topics that people are often silent about.
To give a specific example, some people in our culture continue to believe that people cannot be sexually assaulted by their own spouses. While Cersei Lannister commits heinous acts, her acts are more understandable, if not ethical, when you realize her motivations. She wants to protect herself and her children, and she has been the victim of rape by her husband for years, which we find out later on in the series. At one point, Cersei has an exchange with young Sansa, who is a romantic idealist and unexperienced in the workings of the society. (Sansa’s beliefs early in the series are similar to the quote I opened with.) Cersei states to Sansa in “Clash of Kings” as a battle is occurring near them,
“‘But if Maegor’s Holdfast should fall before Stannis can come up, why then, most of my guests are in for a bit of rape, I’d say. And you should never rule out mutilation, torture, and murder at times like these.’”
Sansa was horrified. “These are women, unarmed and gently born.”
“Their birth protects them,” Cersei admitted, “though not as much as you’d think. Each one’s worth a good ransom, but after the madness of battle, soldiers often seem to want flesh more than coin. Even so, a golden shield is better than none. Out in the streets, the women won’t be treated nearly as tenderly. Nor will our servants.” (Martin 846).
This interchange does a good job of illustrating the violence that all women face; however, intersectionality occurs, too. Depending on your place in the hierarchy, you may be more or less protected. Women’s experiences are not all the same. The knights that Sansa romanticizes are often brutal, especially during war. The women (and some of the men) in the series are under constant threat of rape and murder. What does this constant stress do to individuals and their decision making? Another discussion point about Cersei is that she practices sexism towards other women throughout the series. In our culture, many women discriminate against other women.
I do understand why the amount of sexual violence in the books would make many people uncomfortable to the point of putting the series down, and I respect people’s decisions in this regard. Whenever I read about violence, especially sexualized violence, in our culture, I always wonder if the piece of work is adding to the problems in our violent culture. I wonder if an antifeminist would read the books as a justification for their own attitudes and violence towards women. Although this is a risk, I personally think that the books could be a good tool for nuanced discussion of gender inequality in our culture.
I do not get the sense that Martin is writing the sexualized violence in a pornographic way. If anything, I feel like he thinks that we should be revolted by what these characters are going through and views all of the characters as people, not as objects. Yet, this view is not true for all of his characters. And if we realistically look at our own society, many organizations, institutions, and individuals treat others as objects every day. In some ways, “A Song of Ice and Fire” allows for us to more openly discuss these topics in our society. My next post will explore gender and characterization in “A Song of Ice and Fire.”