Sunday, August 3, 2014

ASoIaF: An Aside about Women (Spoilers)

An Aside about Women

It's impossible to read Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire as a female reader and not have Opinions on this topic. My opinions so far are mixed.


 I commented on metafilter:
I'm reading GoT right now and one thing I have noticed, so far, is that the overdescribing of (non-consensual) sex tends to be like "and oooooooh it felt so good, sexy characteristics, etc." while the overdescribing of stabbings is like "and his overdescribed ropey guts fell on the muddy ground" and not like "Lord Stabbington felt SOOOOOOO GOOD as his dagger pierced the other guy's guts and gently probed around his insides."

The books have actually so far struck me as somewhat less sexist than I thought they might be, but they are definitely interested in the titillating nature of sexual assaults, while deaths are treated with more horror. The non-consensual sex scenes are frequently described in lushly sensual ways (that is, appealing to the senses), while the murder scenes are frequently described in stark terms that lay bare its horror.

Also, when Catelyn Stark first describes her sister she remembers her as a "slim, high-breasted girl" and no grown woman thinks about her sister in those terms. I mean srsly. I laughed out loud. Everybody in this book spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about boobs.

Also, all these men are deeply embedded in profoundly intertwined networks of relationships, but the women are just adjunct to the web of men and their relationships are defined through the men. Which is all fine and fair in terms of medieval public life, but where the hell is the women's web that runs through private life? Where are Catelyn's serving women? Where are the loyal laundresses? Where is the web of interconnecting women's palace gossip and betrayal and support? It's seriously like he left half the story out. I keep wondering, why does Westeros have such a monstrously unbalanced birth rate that there are like six men for every woman? I have generally found when he writes an individual woman she is interesting and relatively 3-dimensional (with occasional clunkers and howlers, but that's fine, characters are hard), but women as a group are largely ignored by the text, and absent from the world in a way that feel strange to me.
I think that's where my current, ambivalent stand remains: Women as a group are treated in sexist and dismissive and lazy trope and non-Bechtel ways; Individual female characters are often interesting, strong, and three-dimensional. So on the one hand when I read these books, I get annoyed at the sexual objectification of women and their diminution in the narrative. On the other hand, there are strong, admirable, complex female characters that women do not get to see a lot of in fantasy fiction. For example, fantasy fiction rarely includes interesting mothers. That's partly because fantasy fiction is archetypically about a quest, and mythic quest narratives very frequently involve a young man going forth to seek his fortune and become an adult and make himself worthy of love. There are now lots of female analogues to these quest narratives (Tamora Pierce, represent!) that are about young women coming of age, and those are wonderful. I love bildungsromans. But now that I'm a mother of two young children, I notice how rarely women are foregrounded in fantasy once they're mothers. Ned Stark as a father is not a new sort of character; men with children who go off adventuring in service of honor, country, and children are common to fantasy fiction. But Catelyn Stark? She's new.

One of the things I discovered when I had children is that motherhood makes you fucking fierce. I was a brave and headstrong teenager, but that was nothing -- nothing -- compared to how fiercely courageous having children made me. You discover you can do all kinds of things that didn't seem possible before, from the mundane (exercising) to the somewhat mind-boggling (running for office). Catelyn Stark and Cersei Lannister are fucking fierce, and they seem like they are the women they were before (Catelyn devoted to family, Cersei ambitious), become fierce and amplified in service of their children. Young Catelyn didn't ride to war with her husband; Mom Catelyn is at her son's side and serving as an emissary and kicking ass and taking names. (And, I predict, will eventually become supernatural to kick more asses on behalf of her children.) We don't know a lot about young Cersei (yet?), but we know she will do anything -- anything -- on behalf of her children. She isn't always right about what's best for them. She's a pretty terrible mother. But she will destroy entire kingdoms for them if she has to.

GRRM's women in general seem a bit Madonna/whore-ish, as is so often the case in fantasy fiction, but the women he foregrounds are interesting and complex enough for me to want to keep reading, and he creates women that we haven't seen very often before in the genre. I think there's a lot to talk about in terms of the problems with how he writes women, largely because these are problems that are endemic in the genre (and in a lot of other literature, and other narrative art) and that helps to silence women's voices and to diminish and marginalize women's stories and experiences and lives. Novels that ignore or get wrong half of humanity are much the poorer for it, and readers -- men and women alike -- are poorer for it too. Female readers are usually aware of this marginalization but used to reading around it; male readers (and writers) too often don't even notice it. It's important to notice it, and talk about it.

That said, I like Arya and Sansa and Danerys and Catelyn and Cersei as characters (not necessarily as people!). They are rounded and grounded, have internal motivations and personalities that are theirs, not entirely dependent upon the men around them. And, oh, there are mighty women in this world, and I like it.

(I will return to this post and update as I get further into the novels if I have further thoughts. This was written after I read GoT and CoK.)

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