A Song of Ice and Fire: misogynistic or feminist?

Every now and again, new articles appear criticizing George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire for being misogynistic. Sometimes, these articles raise valid, thought-provoking points. More often, however, they criticize the series because its women are often powerless, because they are often abused, and because the world they live in does not value them or their opinion. Westeros is a misogynistic society, and therefore, they conclude, the text itself is also misogynistic. In my opinion, this analysis is seriously misguided. A series is not misogynistic simply because it presents and explores a highly misogynistic world. Far from it. In fact, although it has its issues, I would argue that A Song of Ice and Fire is a mostly feminist text, featuring fascinating, dynamic female characters in a variety of situations. The fact that these girls and women live in a deeply misogynistic world only adds to the realism of their struggles and ultimately  to the strength of their achievements.

Not Just One Worthy Type of Woman

A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the only fantasy series I've seen that features a wide variety of complex female characters and treats them all as though they all have equal worth. They don't fall into easily accessible (and unrealistic) tropes, like the "tomboy," the "warrior woman," the "evil queen," and the "girly girl," although those labels could describe the vague concepts of many characters. Arya and Sansa are given equal importance and respect in the narrative, despite the fact that one is an emotionally damaged, sword-wielding rebel and one is a quietly dignified romantic dreaming lady, and their narratives even mirror one another as they continue through the books. Brienne is a mix of the two, strong and skilled with a sword, but dreaming of honor and romance as well. She moves beyond the idea of the Strong Female Character (TM) by being physically tough but emotionally gentle and naive, morally beautiful but physically ugly, hated for being too much of a woman, too much of a man, and not enough of either. Each female character in the story feels like her own person, with her own personality and her own struggles, and no single way of being, no particular personality trait or way of reacting to this harsh world is favored over other options.

The Bechdel Test

The women of A Song of Ice and Fire don't always respect one another. Cersei sees any young woman as a threat, and spends much of her time around Sansa tormenting the girl. But she also sees parts of herself and her own fate in Sansa, and resents her for it. Their relationship is complicated, and their conversations reflect the confused mess of emotions involved. Meanwhile, Catelyn and Brienne take a traditionally male relationship, of liege and sworn vassal, and turn it into a deep bond between the two of them. The vow Brienne gives Catelyn is one of the driving moments in the plot, and the bulk of her narrative is about a connection between women of three ages: Catelyn the mother, Brienne the protector, and Sansa. Daenerys has close relationships with her handmaidens, and one of her greatest enemies is a woman. Although the women of Westeros are generally taught that women are worthless, and the more powerful among them often buy into this and dismiss "normal" women (aka women who aren't them) as weak, and certainly not worth their attention or assistance, they still form relationships and connections (both positive and negative) that can, in good circumstances, empower them both and, in worse cases, provide insight into the mess of a world in which they live.

Rape and Violence in Westeros

A Song of Ice and Fire has been criticized for fetishizing violence, particularly violence against women, and it's true that you can hardly go a few chapters without seeing the threat or reality of rape. But this only confirms that Westeros itself is deeply misogynistic, and that the series is dedicated to presenting female characters in that world in a realistic way. For female prisoners like Sansa, for girls traveling the landscape like Arya and Brienne, for female warriors like Brienne and Asha, for political pawns like Dany, and particularly for the common folk who are not even really seen as people by many of the highborn soldiers, rape is a realistic, ever-present threat. In a text that is as dark and bleak as A Song of Ice and Fire, it would be more dismissive and anti-feminist to brush over this fact. I don't want to make sweeping statements when I may have forgotten some element of the plot, but as far as I remember, the only perspective character who is raped "on-screen" is Daenerys. This does not mean that the "off-screen" victimization of characters like Cersei is less relevant or horrific, or that the threat is any less terrifying, but that the narrative is not revelling in these incidents or providing them for a sick kind of entertainment. They are mentioned as realistic facts, rather than as detailed scenes. Although some murderers in the books might be seen as (relatively) "good" people, those who commit sexual violence are almost always presented as completely evil (see Gregor Clegane and Ramsey Bolton). The only counter example I can think of is Khal Drogo, and his relationship with Dany is a complicated mess of Stockholm Syndrome masquerading as love. I am not sure he would appear sympathetic from outside Dany's brain.

Westeros is not a great place to live

One of the main themes of A Song of Ice and Fire is that medieval fantasy romance is idealized nonsense. It attempts to portray the harsh realities of a society that works this way, including characters who are almost all morally shades of grey, widespread social injustice, no clearly delineated "good" and "bad" sides, and cruelty wherever you turn. If Westeros was presented as a fantasy dreamland, the book would have major issues. But it's not. It's horrific, and it does not flinch away from these horrors. Most fantasy stories (or stories in general) skim over unpleasant facts, like the use of rape in war, or the fact that noble women are little more than pawns to marry off to the highest bidder. The fact that A Song of Ice and Fire does not is not a point against it. It helps add depth to its female characters, by fully exploring the nature of their lives and the fears they face every day.

Of course, the series is still occasionally problematic

While reading A Dance with Dragons, I was unsure whether we are supposed to find Tyrion sympathetic or repulsive. He seemed to switch between the two, and his misogynistic attitude is definitely not something I can cheer for. Compared to Jaime, Cersei often lacks depth to her motivations, and she was certainly denied much of the sympathetic perspective eventually given to her brother. But despite these issues, A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the best series I have read, in terms of vibrant and compelling female characters and a plot that gives them equal importance (if not equal footing) with the male characters.

Since it's impossible to cover all the depth of character (and all the potentially problematic elements) in one blog post, I'm going to write a series of posts on the women of A Song of Ice and Fire, looking at their characters, their plots, the themes of their stories, and their relationships with each other. All the major players will get their own post, plus some of the secondary characters. I hope that, through the blog posts, I can uncover some interesting things about these characters and about the series as a whole. I'll be starting next week... first up, Brienne of Tarth.