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.”
“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.