Saturday, August 27, 2011

fantasy, feminism, and a Song of Ice and Fire

I was halfway through E.D. Kain's post defending George RR Martin and his Song of Ice and Fire against charges of sexism, when I thought I should read the post where the charges were actually presented, by Sady Doyle on the Tiger Beatdown. I found most of the arguments wanting, and I was put off by the number of cheap shots from what I thought was a willful misreading of the books. Good points brought up were drowned out by bad points. (Minor spoilers throughout.)

For example, she blows off Danaerys as a potential strong female character because she represents western domination over brown people with funny names and customs. Good point: Dany takes on a White Savior role, and that's a racist cliche. But the point is muddied (though certainly not invalidated): Yes she is white, but she never even knew Westeros. And, while Westeros doesn't have slavery, it is not exactly presented as civilised itself. If Dany ever makes it to Westeros, she's going to heartily disapprove of what she finds there as well, and her bleeding heart that I love will compel her to try to reform Westerosi civilization, to which she is thus far a stranger. Another thing, she's not exactly successful in her savior role, which may or may not mitigate the criticism. And then I'm just befuddled as to what Doyle thinks is an appropriate ethical response to slavery:
Daenerys: Oh, here we fucking go. Daenerys, you see, has discovered that the mystical, barbaric cities of the Orient have one particularly barbaric custom of which she disapproves heartily. That custom? Is slavery. And so, Daenerys must save these other cultures from themselves, by going city to city and systematically destroying them, imposing her own standards upon them all. Here’s a problem, though: We, the European and/or American readers, also know slavery to be a bad thing. And here is how we know this: White people enslaved people of color. For generations. We brutalized people of color, we institutionalized the rape of people of color, we committed genocide against people of color, we devastated the cultures of people of color. And here is how we white people rationalized that: We told ourselves that these people of color were barbaric, that they were savages, that European standards should be universal, and that we were saving these people from themselves. So, for those keeping track: The rationale behind Daenerys’s campaign to abolish slavery? IS THE RATIONALE THAT CREATED SLAVERY. Daenerys: Mystic Dragon Land’s leading producer of UGH.
A couple more examples. Catelyn is also blown off as a strong female character despite her considerable agency because she is overwhelmingly concerned about protecting her children. Is it feminist to be unconcerned about the safety of your children? Ned was also concerned about his children, and forsook his valued and annoying honor to protect them.

Very good point: Cersei is the most explicitly feminist character in the books and she is portrayed as evil and entirely unsympathetic. Not so good point: Martin is sexist because Catelyn and Cersei, female characters with strong agency, continually fail in their endeavors. But this is in the context of a story where all the characters, males included, often catastrophically fail. Jon and Dany appear especially blessed in this regard through the end of book four, where Doyle stops her analysis. But in book five it's not clear at all that even they are winning the future.

Then there was this from Doyle in the comment section,
@Trolls, people explaining why George R.R. Martin isn’t sexist. Your names, thus far, have been:

John G. [deleted for rudeness]
John D.
E.D., who runs a blog on “Gentlemen” [deleted for blog spam]
Jake [deleted for starting off with "Sady=cunt"]

I’m noticing a theme here, but what can I say? I am but a young girl who knows little of blog war. And tends to think women are in a better position to explain What Is Sexist than men are.
This is undoubtedly true (she does after all write on a well-trafficked feminist blog and, as a woman, can grok  patriarchal biases better than I ever possibly could). But this is a shortcut that shuts down the conversation. I certainly didn't feel welcome commenting after that. If a male is intrinsically incapable of contributing valid criticism of a feminist critique, then what is the point of a male trying to understand the critique at all? And does this not also invalidate the contribution of males who concurred with the feminist critique? Yes, I recognize that I am inviting ridicule here. "Aw, the privileged white male feels invalidated!" And to be fair, I checked back later and there was a pretty reasonable discussion going on in the comment thread, with men and women on both sides of the issue. The fact that she has to deal with real trolls hurling epithets casts a dark cloud over this whole conversation.

This is all sad because I think a feminist critique of GRRM's books is perfectly warranted. Here are some thoughts after reading a couple other posts found by googling "feminist critique song of ice and fire".

As mentioned, I think Cersei is a really strong female character. But she's painted as completely unsympathetic. This would be fine, indeed it would count as a net plus to have a strong female villain, if there was another explicitly feminist character who was more sympathetic. She still appears to be evolving somewhat in the series, so maybe this will all change.

Martin missed an opportunity with Asha's sex scene in book five. SPOILER The scene is early on portrayed as rape, but it turns out he is her boyfriend, so it's "okay". My complaint is that if he wanted to write an attempted rape scene, why not allow her to fight off an actual and uncontroversial villain? Better yet, why not take the opportunity to show a strong female character engaging in and enjoying transparently consensual sex? She is a pretty strong female character over all, as a woman captain in a man's world, complete with men who seem to really respect her.

The lesbianism in the series is bullshit. First, Dany and her servant girl get in on occasionally, so she's bisexual, which is just fine. But she clearly is most attracted to men. This is all well and good, as bona fide bisexuals absolutely exist in the real world. But this falls flat if there is no example of bona fide lesbians in a story that spans several thousand pages. This is probably said better by Prickly Woman:
Two lesbian interactions. Dany and her handmaid...for Dany it was portrayed as happening because she needed a man but didn't have one. Lesbianism as temporary, not serious, to be replaced by heterosexual interactions. Cersei and Taena was all about Cersei wishing she were a man. Lesbianism again as poor substitute for someone who just really wants a penis, whether to possess it or to be penetrated by it. Not cool, my man.
The male homosexuality is at least apparent, though not as developed as it could be, between Renly and the Knight of Flowers. And of course, the Red Viper, my very favorite character, was a bisexual male.

That's all I've got for now, but I am very interested in reading more feminist (and other literary) critiques of Martin's books.


  1. The problem with deconstructivist literature is that it's hard to tell when it's going along with misguided nostalgia and when it's criticizing it. It's also hard to tell when a character is being painted unsympathetically and when you, as a reader, are just being unsympathetic because you're used to reading a character with trait X as bad.

    For example, I'm surprised how universally hated Sansa is among the fanbase. I don't think her chapters were written unsympathetically (though the TV portrayal of her was less forgiving); I think that geek culture is just primed to hate all things girly. The knee-jerk fan reaction to Sansa is "Ew, pink cooties", and that's what Doyle's post picked up on about her. Doyle thought that the book was saying, "See, THIS is what happens when you act like a girl." But I thought the book was saying, "Westeros' fucked up society conditioned this child to be a victim" much like it said "In Westeros, honorable people like Ned Stark get their heads chopped off." I don't think we're meant to approve of Sansa's exploitation any more than we're meant to approve of Ned losing his head.

    I felt sympathetic to Sansa when I was reading her chapters, even in the first book. I found her character as aggravating as I'd find any middle-school-aged kid, but I related to being 13 and romantic and a crazy people-pleaser. I thought it was obvious that she was heavily conditioned into being prissy and romantic: she was educated with bullshit songs, constantly compared to her mother, encouraged in her girly pursuits, and told that the most important thing she could do is attract and marry a rich and powerful man. Of course she's going to get some stupid crush on Joffrey: all the songs would suggest he's perfect, even the grown-ups sucked up to him, and 13 year olds all get stupid crushes that have little to do with reality. And of course she's going to get conned into doing whatever Cersei says; nobody ever gave her any reason to question authority.

    I think part of what keeps readers from being sympathetic to Sansa is that she's set up as a foil to Arya, who by being the only kind of heroine geeks are used to seeing these days and the one who doesn't "fit in", readers are already primed to like. And because the sibling rivalry is portrayed so strongly that you aren't allowed to like both girls, Sansa doesn't have a chance with readers, no matter how sympathetically her POV chapters are written.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mary! Good points. An author like Martin really walks a razor's edge.

    I confess when I first started reading the series when I was like, fourteen, I really loathed Sansa. I'm glad I came 'round, but unfortunately we can't count on all Martin's (especially young) readers to do the same.

    Very good point about the conditioning of What is the Appropriate Heroine.

  3. Mary, Paul,
    Perspective is a hard thing in this series. Many people like Arya because she gets to do "cool stuff" (who really thinks needlework is cool? oh, wait...), is kinda persecuted (like most geeks), etc.
    On second read, you get that Sansa is 12. Aka, Arya may see her as "bestest, properest big sis" but Sansa is really "boybandcrushing lil girl." And as someone else said... "sansa never really tries to hurt people"

    Martin tries to get people to take Arya's side, too. Just look at the death of Lady...

  4. Just a quick comment on your points on homosexuality in the series:

    Even though Taena Merryweather isn't a POV character, she seems to be a genuine non-transitory lesbian, even if her feelings for Cersei are not reciprocated (it seemed implied to me that her husband is also gay). Jon Connington also seems to be a gay man who was in love with Rhaegar Targaryen.

  5. Jon Connington is very much a gay man and very much in love with his Silver Prince. Poor guy. Xaro Xoan Daxos is also gay, and one of the most powerful merchant princes of Qarth.

  6. And to add to that, Lyn Corbray of the Vale is the deadliest duelist in the area and is very much gay. Brynden Tully, the Blackfish, refused to marry and is often mentioned as possibly gay by readers, but there's no textual confirmation that I know of. There's plenty of gay and lesbian characters in ASOIAF, it's just that their sexuality is generally below the radar because Westeros is not a very nice place if you're non-heteronormative.

  7. I won't disagree with any of that, although I have a pretty faulty gaydar, even in literature.

  8. I have two problems with the way gayness is portrayed in the books. One, as everyone in the world has stated, lesbian sex is used as titilation and for the POV characters it's just penis replacement sex. If we're going to have lesbian sex it should be with, umm, actual lesbians, not creepy male gaze tastic ladies who lingeringly describe other women's bodies but really wish they could have some dick instead.

    Gay men have the inverse problem. Renly/Loras at least had a what seems to be a loving relationship. Loras is even out to his family, which is saying something in Westeros. There are several other explicitely and implicitly gay characters not to mention male whores of unknown sexuality. However only one of them is a POV character and none have ever been portrayed as having sex.

    So what we end up with are (for all intents and purposes)sexless gay me and faux lesbians who really just want a man.

  9. In case you're interested, Alyssa Rosenberg put up a sort of follow-up questionnaire about gender and fiction, and it would be great if you participated.

    The questions and my thoughts are here:

  10. I've noticed a lot of people, bloggers commentators etc. coming back to the subject of the "lesbian" sex scenes. It seems to be a commonly voiced frustration that no real lesbians were used in these scenes, that only possibly bisexual girls who really wanted men but had to settle for women engaged in them. But how do we know that that's actually the case? All the readers know is that none of the point-of-view characters happen to be lesbians. For all we know, both of Dany's handmaidens could be lesbians, complete 100% homosexual.

    Despite George R.R. Martin having a gigantic cast of characters, the world he created contains many many millions of people. The series primarily focuses on people from Westeros, a society modeled after medieval Europe. In that society, homosexuality was not something that was out in the open. Despite this, GRRM does hint at its existence i.e. Renly and Loras. Granted, this particular subplot was a bit underdeveloped, mostly because Renly and Loras are not primary characters despite have large impacts on the world.

    When the story branches out to include more of the continent of Essos (where Dany is), societies modeled after ancient Greece and various Asian and Eurasian countries, homosexuality becomes much more apparent in day to day life. It is not considered uncommon for a rich man to buy himself a male bed-slave, in fact, they are offered to practically every man who seems to set foot on that continent (I'm exaggerating obviously). On that continent, and the so far unseen continent of Sothoros (based on Africa, there have to be a lot of countries that we have not encountered, societies that we have not had the chance to read about.

    Dany seems to be mildly bisexual, leaning more heavily towards men. She's also around 14-15 years old. I doubt she really knows completely who she is yet. Honestly, can you really tell me that you've never heard of a self-identified heterosexual woman, or man for that matter, experimenting? I know I have, but maybe it's just because I live in San Francisco. Dany is thinking about men during these encounters because she likes men, and her handmaiden offered her a service. Irri (I think it was Irri but maybe it was the other one) basically offered herself up to her Queen as a human dildo. This offer came after Irri noticed that Dany was already aroused. Dany was always meant to be thinking about whoever excited her in the first place. When Cersei engages in forced sex with another female, it's not about sex or attraction, it's about violence and power like with all sexual abuser. And that's what Cersei is, a sexual abuser. This is of course just one aspect of her personality, as she is a very complicated character.

    Take that as you will.

  11. A small 'well, actually', in ADwD there's a part where the two handmaids were arguing about which of their body types a particular pit fighter would like, so I'd say that they are at least bisexual.

  12. Any woman who writes: "And tends to think women are in a better position to explain What Is Sexist than men are." is not only spewing self-righteous bullshit, it's sexist bullshit.

    Sexism is not sex-specific. Sexism includes 'women are bad just because they're not men". Sexism also includes 'men are bad just because they're not women'.

    Women who support the denigration of men as a class are hypocrites on an epic scale.

  13. All feminists have a distorted view on reality. It's a simple fact that human beings by nature are patriarchal. Feminists should count their blessings every night and be thankful that they were born into such a unique time and place in history. It represents a very, very small window of time. At no other time in the history of humanity, have women enjoyed such an equal status. It is human nature for men to lead and be the powers of society. Think about it, if women were actually equal or stronger than men than they would have dominated men somewhere in the past, but they are weaker in every way. Most likely at some point in the future it will go back to the way it's supposed to be. So enjoy it while u can.

    1. @blackman
      "a simple fact that human beings by nature are patriarchal"

      "At no other time in the history of humanity, have women enjoyed such an equal status."

      ORLY? Well what about the examples of non-patriarchal societies that have existed through out history? The Minoan civilisation on Crete was probably not patriarchal, the Hopi indians are not patriarchal, the Iroquois Confederacy was not patriarchal, the Trobriand islanders are not patriarchal.

      In all these societies, and more, women are on equal footing with males. If we look at the archaeological record we also see that women rank pretty highly in many societies.
      Even in the medieval period we have examples of women who were successful in their own right. For example we know of women who were traders in medieval Scandinavia. That's right. Female Vikings.

      Get it up ye :P

  14. Generally agree, but I strongly disagree with your interpretation of Asha's sex scene.
    1) I saw it as being clearly rape role-playing, NOT AT ALL the same thing as being raped by her boyfriend; not even close.
    2) When you talk about the lack of strong female characters seeking and enjoying consensual sex: Asha is probably one of the most sex-positive characters in ASOIF. In her inner monologues she bemoans the caution of some of her past suitors, and she openly brags about her promiscuity, loudly and often, including at the King's Moot as part of her justification for why she should sit the Seastone Chair. Apart from her, you have Catlyn, Igrid, Cercie, Danerys, Osha, etcetera, etcetera, (who are all undoubtedly strong characters) who all take clear pleasure in sex for it's own sake.

    As an aside, I think Arya is one of the best-formed female characters I have ever seen in fiction. I friend of mine has said that if she had daughters 12 or older she would not only allow but encourage them to watch GoT or read the books, purely for the role models of Arya and Brianne.

    1. Erm, not sure I would call a murderous little girl a role model.

      And why isn't she all for Cat, Sansa, or Myrcella as role models too? Are they "too girly"?

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