As you are probably aware, George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire is very popular. The books are New York Times best sellers. The HBO show is a beloved international pastime. You would be hard-pressed to find somebody familiar with pop culture who has never heard of it. As a huge fan of the books and the HBO series, I’m thrilled by this. As a feminist, I’m ecstatic. One thing Martin’s world does incredibly well is open the door for much-needed real-life conversations. The Cersei Lannister rape scene of season four, for example, ignited a flurry of Internet commentary and a general outcry about unnecessary TV violence against women. We absolutely need to be talking about issues like this, and a phenomenon like Game of Thrones is a fantastic way to draw a lot of people into these discussions.
Although the conversation-starting power of Game of Thrones is definitely impressive, what truly makes this series such a standout in my mind is the way the female characters are written. This aspect of Game of Thrones is often underappreciated, but has been paramount to its success. Westeros and the surrounding areas are incredibly complex and the writing is gorgeous, but the women are the series’s true treasures.
A lot of people think the pace of the latest two books in the series (A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons) makes them boring. I disagree. While I do think that the editing could have been tighter, I enjoy spending time with excellently written women, which A Song of Ice and Fire has in spades. The slower pace gives readers an opportunity to connect with the characters, and with the addition of point-of view chapters from Cersei, Brienne, Arianne Martell, Melisandre, and Asha Greyjoy (on top of chapters from the perspectives of Arya Stark, Sansa Stark, and Daenerys Targaryen), these books are a delight. Martin is good at portraying women for one very simple reason: instead of writing them as “women,” he writes them as people.
One realistic aspect that stands out sharply in this series is the women’s love lives. The female characters carry heavy burdens that have nothing to do with their romantic relationships, but they also carry burdens that are direct consequences of those relationships. In personality, they range from neurotically dependent (Lysa Arryn, for example) to fiercely self-supporting (Ygritte and Asha Greyjoy). Martin demonstrates that diversity of personality and personal history is possible even in the fantasy genre, where it is especially impressive. Most of the women in this series have some kind of romantic subplot, but they are not fundamentally changed or diminished by them. Instead of dangling on the arms of fantasy heroes like Jon Snow, the ladies of Westeros and beyond prove that while relationships with men are a part of their lives, they are not defined by them. The important quality here is that these relationships with the men in their lives (whether their fathers, brothers, husbands, lovers, etc.) are not the only things we know about them and not the only lens through which we see them. Without such intimate perspectives, whole character arcs would have been tremendously diminished, which would have been a terrible disservice to this series’s courageous and powerful women.
After reading all of the books and watching the entire show (so far), I continue to be impressed by the way this incredibly popular series has consistently managed to not shortchange its female characters. I tip my hat to a writer so determined to break away from the traditional gender roles of a genre so heavily populated with stereotypes and condescension. Although the enormous popularity of a series with actively interesting women is promising, we still have a long way to go. Maybe someday I won’t have to be so impressed with writers like George R.R. Martin. After all, nobody writes articles congratulating writers about their three-dimensional male characters, do they?