In many of the fantasy books that I’ve been reading since my teens, I often feel that women are either absent entirely as characters, or they fit into very stereotypical gender roles. This is a fairly common complaint about the genre in general, although there certainly are exceptions. Personally, I have put down more than one fantasy series after noticing the sexist portrayal of women, and sometimes men, in the first book. I began reading “A Song of Ice and Fire” hoping for a portrayal of women as people instead of stereotypes.
I feel that Martin, unlike many fantasy writers, depicts women of many motivations and ability levels. The women feel like real people with both virtues and vices, similar to the men in the series. He does not treat women as if we all come off an assembly line with preprogrammed views and reactions to situations. Even sisters, Arya and Sansa Stark have different personalities and interests. In the first book, I was a bit concerned about this portrayal of the sisters as “opposites”, which I mentioned to a friend. One sister is the “tomboy” who likes to be outdoors and play with swords while the other sister is an extremely feminine girl that closely follows the norms expected of her. As the books progress, both of these characters become much more complex in ways that I find believable. Their talents and interests allow them to develop different strategies for dealing with the tragedies and unsafe situations that they find themselves in.
The norms for gender roles are different in the various regions of the world. When Jon travels among the Wildings beyond the wall, he discovers the gender roles are different for them when compared with his own culture. He experiences culture shock to a certain degree. And on Bear Island, the women learn to fight due to incursions by the Ironborn. While this series of posts is about culture in “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the inequality relating to gender is embedded in the structures of the societies, too. Returning to my original point, this series portrays women’s roles in different societies. In some, women have more power than in others. One of the most sociologically interesting ideas to me is that one conflict that emerges is over whether a woman should be in line for the throne or not. Should her younger brother take the throne before her? There are different thoughts on succession based on the history of the societies in the books.
Martin does not ignore gender roles in the societies, but he does have women and men grapple with them. Sam Tarley, is considered “craven” due to the fact that he enjoys more feminine pursuits to the masculine ones that his father expects. I know that I hope that there will continue to be an opening of gender roles in our society so that individuals may follow their passions when it comes to work and other pursuits instead of ones prescribed to them based on the sex they happened to be born. And hopefully, characters in Martin’s world will continued to push the boundaries of what is expected of them based on gender.