The independent news organization of Duke University

A song of ice and women

Most female fans of fantasy and sci-fi will eventually find themselves alienated by the limited options the genre provides for women. Such options include: the sweet, virginal (usually white and blonde) feminine lead awarded to the male lead, the evil seductress who uses her body to get what she wants, the wise old crone who gives enigmatic advice and the warrior princess who is basically a man with shapely breasts.

It has been suggested that it is not realistic to write fantasy worlds where gender roles do not exist. A world filled with dragons and elves, it seems, is more likely than a society where strong women are given respect.

So when I found George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” televised as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series, I was immediately pleased by the diverse constellation of female characters. The GoT universe is undoubtedly misogynistic, but women are able to rise to prominence and influence the game, rather than merely being buffeted around by the actions of the men around them.

People often complain that writing female characters is difficult because making women into villains is misogynistic and making them attractive is stereotypical; a sidekick is too subservient and a hero is a male fantasy. It’s clear that these writers do not think women can actually fill any of these roles.

The obvious solution is to include more female characters. Women can be evil, yes, but not necessarily in the jealous, beauty-obsessed manner of Disney villains. Melisandre and Cersei Lannister are clearly both on the wrong side of things, but they aren’t unsympathetic. As Tyrion Lannister observed of Cersei, “You love your children—it’s your one redeeming quality. That and your cheekbones.” Cersei’s internalized misogyny runs deep—she wishes that she had been born the man and mocks the weakness of the women who mill about her at court. Her power hungry machinations contrast sharply with Sansa Stark, an innocent and idealistic girl doing her best to stay afloat amidst a game she doesn’t understand. Some might criticize Sansa for initially liking the despicable King Joffrey, but feminism does not insist that female characters always be flawless and worldly.

It’s gratifying to see a positive sex role model in the exiled queen, Daenerys Targaryen. The show depicts her marriage to Khal Drogo as initially characterized by rape, but in the book the activities of their wedding night are consensual. She learns from her handmaids the ways of lovemaking (“Are you a slave, Khaleesi? Then don’t make love like a slave.”), and in the books she is not shy about pleasuring herself either.

Arya, the young tomboy, is criticized as a poor feminist character because her willingness to act violently ostensibly makes her a man in woman’s clothing. Like Mattie from “True Grit,” her strength seemingly comes from her masculine behavior and lack of empathy. There is logic to this argument, but I think Arya is characterized not by masculinity, but by her ability to adapt. Unlike her sister, she is not attached to romantic ideals of fairy tales. She senses that physical ability is power, and she seeks it out.

“Game of Thrones” essentially is a series about power and its sources—title, money, religion and brute strength. The women of Westeros deal in all of these currencies, whether they are subtle and graceful like Margaery Tyrell, or wild and sensual like Ygritte. When characters rise, fall and sometimes die, they are men and women alike, strong and weak, loved and hated. The game goes on ruthlessly, crowning monarchs and making casualties. There is no time to dwell on the limitations and consequences of gender. The object of the game is to survive.

An interviewer asked Joss Whedon why he wrote strong female characters, and he answered, “Because you’re still asking me that question.” In comedy, politics, academia and a variety of other fields, when a woman becomes prominent, she remains a prominent woman. You never hear about male actors or artists being asked, “How does being a man affect your work? How does your work reflect on other men? Are you a good male role model?” Men are still the unmarked, the default. Whenever a woman does something, it is marked indelibly with her femininity, and her success or failure is taken as representative of the rest of her gender.

The important thing is to escape this binary of equating masculinity with strength and courage and femininity with a demure self-effacing beauty. Women are not either good or evil, weak or strong. Their deaths do not occur in order to further the development of a male character or give motive for revenge. As Brienne of Tarth told Catelyn Stark, “You have courage. Not battle courage perhaps, but, I don’t know, a woman’s kind of courage.” Hopefully future producers will follow Martin and HBO’s example and continue to create women of strength.

Danica Liu is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Monday.


Share and discuss “A song of ice and women” on social media.