Sexist Tropes in A Song of Fire and Ice

Lord Snow

Arya Stark and her "dancing" teacher, Syrio

Currently, I am hunting down the first two novellas of the Dunk and Egg series which are “prequels” in a sense to George R.R. Martin‘s hugely popular series, A Song of Fire and Ice, better known to non-readers as The Game of Thrones. Once they are read, I will known all there  is  to be known (because Martin is a Scrooge about back story) about the fictional fantasy world of Westeros and the characters who inhabit it. And while I am enjoying this brief foray back into my fantasy reading roots of yore, I can’t help but notice that Martin, like many a male author, can’t write from the female point of view without veering slightly to insultingly into stereotype that is sometimes amusing but more often maddening.

My husband, Rob, who is also reading the series, has noted this too.

“What is the matter with Cersei,” he asked after reading her first POV (point of view) chapter in the fourth book, The Feast of Crows. “She’s stupid, arrogant and vain.”

I sighed.

“That’s how men often write female power characters,” I said. “Women who hunger for power have to be more shallow than a man and far less clever while thinking they are players of renown. Martin writes Cersei with all the ham-fisted finesses that most male authors employ when they think they can think like women better than women do.”

Here is the problem with Cersei. The novel is fantasy, so the author is free to invent as he pleases but it’s set in a medieval type of world that borrows heavily from our actual medieval history where women were essentially chattel. They lived brutally repressed and often very short lives at the whimsy of the males who fathered before being bartered away to live equally suppressed lives with the men who their fathers sold them to in marriage. With this sort of foundation, a writer’s already limited his female characters by a long mile.

Cersei’s character has the added burden of being born into a wealthy and noble family. She’s educated, after a fashion, and been exposed to the machinations of her powerful father, whose use of her hasn’t gone unnoticed by her. Being a bolder by half than her two rather emo younger brothers, she resents that her femaleness is all that stands in the way of her being a powerful figure like her dad.

Penis envy. Can a male writer create a strong female character who isn’t a Freudian text-book case?

And this brings to mind two things. First, Freud’s penis envy theory has been long debunked, so two, why then do male writers persist in its use as a character device where strong female characters who seek a foothold in a man’s world are concerned?

Arya and Brienne follow along the Cersei path in this need to reject the penis-less female existence. Both aspire to be warriors. In order to be a warrior, according to the author, a girl must don male clothing, cut their hair and disavow any female emotional trappings  or aspirations. It’s not possible to have a relationship or children and be a warrior (this in spite of the fact that Martin creates a very minor set of characters – the Mormonts – whose women are both female and warriors.)

Indeed, it goes so far with Martin to set apart females who wish to compete in the male arena that he basically strips them sense and sometimes rationality. Cersei and Arya are borderline sociopathic. Brienne, who is a freaking knighted warrior no less, is about as worldly as an 11-year-old girl who’s been raised in a nunnery.

And she’s ugly.

I hate that more than anything where strong female characters are concerned. Even more than when they are supernaturally beautiful and use sex as a means to gain control, wealth and power (as Cersei and Danerys Targaryen do). The able capable woman who is as good or better than any male character she is put up against is often – as in the case of Brienne – ugly. Butt ugly. Masculine of build. Always tall. Why tall? What is it about “tall” and “female” that equates with the anti-feminine?

“His writing reminds me of that line ‘How do you write women so well?’,” Rob remarked.

I think of a man and then I take away reason and accountability.

That’s the bulk of the main female characters in A Song of Fire and Ice. Accept for the accountability part. Women are held accountable all over the place via rape, physical and emotional abuse and brutal suppression.

Oh and maiming.

Granted, Martin has a fetish for maiming or disfigurement in some way. The more fond he is of a character, the more physically hideous you can expect them to become over the course of the story. He makes use of emotional upheaval and tragedy in a similar manner. But nearly all the main females are subject to some sort of outward appearance downgrade in some respect.

Brienne starts off in the hole with freakish height, a face like a horse, muscles, breasts the size of half-dollars and no curves. She’s blessed later in the series with facial disfigurement when half of her cheek is bitten off in a melee.

Catelyn Stark is emotionally beat down on with a crippled son, a beheaded husband, a murdered son(s), and dead father before Martin has her rent her own face and has her throat cut. And as if these aren’t lessons enough for learning her place, she is then raised from the dead to live a half-mad existence as a somewhat ripe-ish pseudo-zombie.

Arya begins as the stereotypical tomboy. Favored by her father and brothers and despaired of by her mother, sister and septa (governess), she is soon enough clad only in boy’s clothing, which leads to her be repeatedly mistaken for a girl (despite the fact that in the HBO version of the series, she clearly has breasts) and eventually ends up shorn of hair and training to be an assassin who must frequently disguise herself as anything but who she is. Herself is beside the point and it is only by rejecting herself that she finds a place in life. By the end of the fifth book, she is clearly unhinged and can disassociate at will, spending her days learning to murder and her nights embodying her wolf and leading its pack on a killing spree.

Cersei, who I began this observation with, is the most insulting to women of all. She is presented as an example of what happens to talented girls who aren’t trained properly. Smart, ambitious and thwarted, when she finally gets an opportunity to play a man’s game of power – she fucks it up with mistakes that no one with half a brain would have made. Even her brother, Tyrion, whom no one has bothered to train in the “art of the game” plays it better than his sister, who’s spent most of her life living in the thick of a political hub. She commits every rank amateur mistake that Martin can think for her to make and then he throws in a little gratuitous lesbianism because – of course – in order to play at being a man, a woman has to take a female to bed and “use” her.*

While I can accept the idea that when one uses medieval Europe and Asia as a setting for a fantasy piece there are certain realities about women that needs be  respected, I am at a loss as to why – when one has the opportunity to create a world from the ground up – one doesn’t take the opportunity to banish things like rape and sexist stereotyping.

*He actually does the same thing with Danerys, who works off her widowed sex deprivation with a servant girl. Pseudo-lesbianism is an annoying male fetish. In the HBO series, the writers make up scene that has Littlefinger ranting about the cruel way the world has mistreated him while two of the prostitutes in the brothel he owns have sex for him. It’s not a scene you will find in the book, but apparently, it was necessary for the television version because of all the characters in Game of Thrones, only Tyrion seems to have sex on a regular basis and HBO has a reputation to maintain.

10 responses to “Sexist Tropes in A Song of Fire and Ice

  1. Brienne fights in full armor. Full Plate Armor. You need to be big and burly to fight like that.

    Asha, you’ll note, is pretty. And Fights. And is frankly awesome.
    You’re missing Ygritte too.

    I think Martin did something odd with Cersei… but Catelyn’s quite frankly a damn decent character making good decisions.

    I think we tend to forget that Everyone Does The Stupid in this series. Theon particularly. It’s not just cersei.

    • Asha ends up lamed in book five and a prisoner, who like Brienne before her, lives under the constant threat of rape.

      I don’t disagree that anyone in full plate needs to be physically strong. The Mormont women are also big strong women. I object to the tall/stong = ugly and that being a more masculine female in terms of your career/life choices somehow equates to be “unwomanly”.

      Catelyn, like need, reinforces the trope that decent, honorable people will be the victims of the less moral and ambitious regardless. They make their decisions based on the thinking that do the right thing is rewarded or that even if it isn’t and tragedy results, they are still good people. I know that Martin set out to be the anti-Tolkein. He wanted beauty to stand in for evil and bad to come out on top b/c so often in fantasy, appearance dictates the character’s intentions and morality. But, he writes Catelyn as a good woman whose emotions rule when push comes to shove. It’s her overreacting in the moment that sends Ned to King’s Landing. It’s her jumping to conclusions that sends her after him and she doesn’t heed Ned’s obvious distrust of Littlefinger b/c she lets her emotions override his caution. Her impulsive kidnapping of Tryion leads to Ned’s death and the start of the war, which leads to Robb’s death. After her resurrection, she lets emotion stand in for reason with Brienne. I grew weary of her acting first and doing damage control after, and like Sansa, she never seems to learn the lessons.

      Cersei is just badly written. She has a great start in book one but Martin doesn’t seem to know how to build on it so he falls back on the “women can’t handle power/authority” thing.

      I am not missing Ygritte. I left her out b/c she isn’t a main character. Like Val and the Mormont women and a few others here and there, Martin does well enough with the minor female roles. Indeed, he fleshes out the minor characters admirably. He just doesn’t seem to have any interest in giving the same attention to his major characters. They are shorted in favor of easy trope and cliche. It might be just the vast scope of the story – there are far too many big characters – or it may be that he is just a pantser and has no real ending in mind yet and so his main characters meander accordingly. Regardless. It would be nice to see Cersei or Danaerys have the same inner mettle as Val for instance.

      Theon? He is Martin’s Gollum. Character rules don’t apply.

      • rofl. considering Gollum seemed to be going on a Christ-redemption route until Tolkien lost the thread.

        Catelyn’s tragic flaw is trusting Littlefinger implicitly — I don’t think we really should ask Cat to trust Ned’s judgement on a boy she grew up with (and who had a crush on her — sure Ned knows that).

        Catelyn’s deeds and outcomes have far less to do with Emotion than Robb’s do. He’s canny and clever, but also Impulsive — and bound and determined to not have a Jon Snow from his loins.

        Is it really overreacting to send Ned down there? And didn’t Catelyn want to send him anyway — as a means to tie her children closer to the Kings? (and Teach Arya some Manners, natch)

        I’m not sure what Martin is doing with the ugly Brienne trope — he may be really playing on the “thinks she’s ugly, but isn’t really that bad” trope, or he may be trying to assert that anyone (erm, most) with other options goes the “sexy, pretty” route rather than the warrior route.

        • To me, Brienne is typical of the idea that a woman cannot be “man-like” (tall, strong, career oriented outside the traditional) without being unattractive. It’s not inconceivable that a woman can be competent and not look like a troll. After all men can be (and often are in fantasy) pretty and great kings/warriors/wizards or whatever.

          But yes, Catelyn overreacted. If either she (or Ned for that matter) had taken more than two seconds (and I will toss some blame at Maester Luwin too), it would have made no sense for Ned to basically put himself in physical danger when Lysa and Robin were no longer in danger (they were safe in the Vale). Ned could have easily told Robert his suspicions and let the chips start falling. Why go to KL’s with a minimum of men plus you two daughters to play a political cat/mouse game when you (Ned) know that you aren’t up to it. Nothing would have been lost by alerting Robert right then. Robert loved Ned. And trusted Ned more than he did his wife or her family.

          And the accusations that the Lannisters were plotting to gain the throne is absurd when they basically already had the throne. Joff was the heir and Tywin held the crown’s purse strings. The Lannisters had already won.

          In the matter of Cat trusting Ned over Littlefinger. That’s a no brainer. Your husband comes before some boy you haven’t seen since he was a child. I don’t know too many grown women who wouldn’t be more vary of a long ago spurned love interest where their husband and children’s best interests are at stake.

          Robb suffers (and so does Jon Snow really) from the same “honour” problem that Ned does and it costs them – and others big.

          In the HBO version there is an interesting exchange btwn Ned and Varys in the black cell. Varys is explaining the Star Trek of reality to Ned “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one or the few” and Ned doesn’t get it at all until Varys breaks it down in terms of Ned’s children. It’s only then that Ned realizes that his daughters lives should have meant more than this honour all along and had he thought of it that way, things would have turned out differently. His “confession” is an attempt to save Sansa and possibly mitigate the damage done by Robb’s march, but it comes too late b/c the snowball is already rolling down the hill.

          But Catelyn’s tragic flaw is tunnel vision. The more she tries to protect her family; the more damage she does because unlike say Littlefinger or Varys, she (and Ned) can’t seem to focus on the bigger picture.

  2. This is why I think you would really enjoy the official forum devoted to discussions of all aspects of ASoIaF. There are countless threads devoted to the uneven treatment of female versus male characters, and what many perceive as an almost inherent misgynism in GRRM’s writing. Most outstanding from the Cersei standpoint, it has not escaped reader notice that while Cersei begins the series as a relatively intelligent, multi-layered character with some acuity at playing the Game (for the first three books), once AFFC comes along amd we actually get Cersei POVs, somehow her IQ has dropped about 50 points. Also, her levels of paranoia and grandiose confidence in herself as superior to all others have reached thoroughly uncreditable and offensive proportions.

    Although the forum is, of course, mostly made up of die-hard fans of the series, the fandom has in no way blinded the readers to the sexism, occasional gratuitousness, and male-biased writing of many of the characters. While Dany began the series as a huge fan favorite, she is now disliked thoroughly by a large percentage for her lack of growth and stereotypical behavior. Cersei will always be one of those villains many people love to hate (although she definitely has her diehard proponents too), but even those who roundly hate her are still rooting for a return to the normal, intelligent, sane Cersei in TWOW.

    I think you would really enjoy the forum a great deal. There are some amazingly intelligent and insightful posters there, and much intelligent, well informed debate and discussion about the consistencies, inconsistencies and dimensions contained within the books.

    • I have read in the forums and the discussions range from intriguing to huh? With the latter, I often wonder if I read the same books (for example: where does the ZombieBrienne theory come from? Or even the idea that Cat is a zombie?)

      But it’s not surprise to me that Cersei suffered when Martin finally got around to POVing her. He’s an old man and she is a young 30 something mother of three. What the hell would George know about that? He writes women like most men write women. He writes what he thinks we think/feel if he were a female, and he is hampered by the fact that he is not only male but white, fatally flawed perspective is all that can result.

      Dany’s lack of growth is no more surprising than Sansa’s. They are teenaged girls for a start and how many easy stereotypes about them abound for male writers to use? But the trouble with Dany is that she is hamstring by the same lack of information that readers are. She knows no more about dragons or Targaryen history than we do. By the end of book five she has no idea how the dragons can be trained or even what binds dragons to their riders. Tyrion is the only character who has even a half-assed knowledged of dragonlore and his is maddeningly lacking b/c nearly all the pertinent literature in Westeros has apparently been destroyed (though my guess is that the book Tryion wishes he had is in The Citidal waiting for Sam to discover it.) Martin keeps Tryion from Dany for the entire length of book five and surrounds her with useless characters who we all know have no future in Westeros (save the Dothraki), which is where Dany should have been heading books ago.

      Sansa’s inertia is even worse. Martin’s stubborn clinging to the idea that Sansa is mired in fairy tale (b/c she is a girl, a teenage one and pretty) has led him to direct her to shun not one but two possible avenues of escape and by having her betray her father, he made her the least winning of the Stark brood by a mile. He lost me when Sansa blamed her father and sister for Lady’s death instead of Joffery and had her lie for that like psychopath. She’s gone steadily to hell since.

      My biggest beef is with Brienne. Being a tall woman of sturdy build myself, I am disinclined to cut slack to the beyound tired idea that tall, muscular and small of breast equals she-man. That he made her ugly on top of it is like pissing on the whole thing for good measure and I am not mollified by his attempts to undo this with Jaime’s increasing attraction to her. He had to maim Jaime in order to justify this and then ugly her up some more with a bit of facial disfigurement, and in the end, they will both die anyway.

      The HBO series has gone a bit of a ways towards remedying the Cersei issue by giving her a different backstory with Robert and making her a battered wife for good measure. I preferred her in book one when she was just nakedly ambitious and by all accounts, intelligence.

      Catelyn can’t be saved. She makes one dumb move after another until she’s dead (for awhile). Arya is on her way to Born Killer status. The tv version looks like it’s going to flesh out Margaery a bit, but I dislike that she has to lure Renly from Loras, so the HBO crowd can get its “Anne Boleyn nekkid” fix. I prefer Renly completely gay and Loras’s b/c that’s true to his character.

      Book Five reminded me of Moby Dick in that you only need to read the first 100 or so pages and the last 200 and the middle is pointless.

      • I think people just call her ZombieCat or UnCat to distinguish from the Cat she was before she was killed and brought back. If it makes you feel any better, this new habit GRRM has of killing people off (either on or off screen) and then going, “psyche! They are still around after all!” drives even his staunchest fans insane.

        Some of my favorite debates on there have centered around Cersei’s character, and how she is an example of what happens when a woman is “bad” (has the gall to refuse to play the well behaved brood mare role) versus the “good” women like Dany and Cat, who are basically sold into marriage as well, but do what a good little woman should and learn to like it. I started off really disliking Cersei (as we are meant to) but now she is one of my faves, in a love-to-hate-her way. My deepest cherished hope is that she springs back in TWOW and becomes the evil but intelligent player that was hinted at in the first three books.

        And that Tyrion becomes an amuse-buche for Drogon.

        • I liked Cersei too until book she went down hill in book four. I just don’t buy that a woman raised as she was and surrounded by power players her whole life could make the idiot moves that she does.

          There are so many undead now that I am losing track: Melisandre, Cat, Cold Hands, The Three-Eyed Crow, wights and The Others and, of course, Ser Robert Strong (gods only know whose head he got). This zombie thing of Martin’s muddies the waters, which though intentional, the water was muddy enough with his continually dropping of half-clues.

          I think Martin is what we writers call a “pantser”, He has a general idea of story but lets the characters, or any wild hair, lead him. He doesn’t know how he is going to end it yet and thus, the ever expanding text and the wandering in literary weeds. If you are going to ask your readers to plow through thousands of pages of text, you should respect their time and effort and take the story forward more than you circle back and start over.

    • I don’t think so. He’s just appears to be like most men who try to write female characters. His “guyness” gets in the way.

      I didn’t even mention his most irritating creation “Sanas Stark” to say that Martin has zero idea of what it’s like to a 13 year old girl would be understating it by quite a bit.

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