I recently completed a breakneck, obsessive read of George RR Martin’s “A Song of Ice & Fire” series (aka “the Game of Thrones series”, as HBO has made it known). My brother, a devoted fantasy fan, has been attempting to get me to read the books for well over a decade; other friends have chimed in over the years, and after I saw a couple episodes of the show and my brother explained to me the insanely badass fate of Viserys, I finally gave it a go. And it was awesome.
As I told my brother while reading, if he wanted to get me to read the series sooner, he really should have focused less on selling its ambiguous morality and more on its plethora of great, diverse female characters. Mainstream fantasy usually fails pretty miserably on the lady-scorecard, and although I know there is an entire offshoot of feminist fantasy lit – much of it written by female authors – I’m not enough of a fantasy fan to dive that deep quite yet. But if mainline fantasy is now supporting characters like Arya, Sansa, Cersei, Brienne, Asha, Catelyn, Arianne, the Sand Snakes, Danaerys, Ygritte, and the rest of ASoIaF’s distaff cast, well – we’ve come a long way since Tolkien, y’all!
I was initially intending an epic post describing in great detail the many ways in which each female character is awesome and expansive of feminism even within the strict patriarchy of Westeros (partly in response to this insane thing Sady Doyle wrote, which drips with contempt and condescension) – but then I discovered that the wonderful Alyssa Rosenberg already did that, and very well, and has gone into even greater depth about Westerosian feminism time and time again. Most notably and articulately, she joins up with some superfans for this excellent podcast (the sound quality is a little sub-par, but the intellectual quality is top-notch). Seriously. Click on that link and listen to it. Right now. I’ll wait.
Finished yet? OK. The one nit I have to pick with Rosenberg – and, more egregiously, with Sady Doyle – is their characterization of Cersei as feminist. Cersei is not even a little bit feminist! She is ambitious and sexual, and our culture frequently likes to mistake those attributes for feminism. But Cersei is downright contemptuous of other women throughout the novels, and actual feminism isn’t about one’s own position in the patriarchy but the position of all women. (Cersei’s loathing has one lone exception – her own daughter – which prompts her single feminist moment in the entire series: the declaration that Myrcella would not be sold off into marriage, as she was. But other than that, Cersei Lannister don’t give a fuck, y’all!) Cersei’s downfall in the fourth book is frequently viewed as demonstrative of the limits of feminism in Westeros: she slept around too much, got too much power, and needed to be cut down. But this is not what happens at all – it is very clear that Cersei’s overreach was not in her sexuality or her power, but her attempt to bring down another woman (Margaery Tyrell) for those very same sins. Cersei is a very clear example of a woman who has achieved power in a patriarchal culture through what’s known as a “patriarchal bargain” – she has played by the rules of the game and been rewarded, but her reward is conditional on maintaining those same rules. Cersei’s mistake is to think she has risen above the patriarchy, but Westeros is a deeply and fundamentally patriarchal culture: there are no exceptions, not even for the (ostensibly) most powerful person in the Seven Kingdoms.
Also, Brienne is one of my favorite things to ever happen in fiction. But that’s a whole ‘nother story…