Sexism in Fantasy

Spoilers for the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire below. A few noted, minor spoilers for the last two.

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Sady Doyle apparently wants female characters in George R. R. Martin’s books (and fantasy in general) to not face any struggles that women in our own real-world have to face. Her very lengthy screed focuses almost entirely on how much crap the female characters have to put up with, including rape and sexism and social norms that are obviously unfair, and how many things the women characters screw up.

Reading A Song of Ice and Fire it’s almost impossible not to be very sympathetic to the plight of the female characters.  Daenerys, who is sold into marriage to a Dothraki warlord; or Sansa, after Ned’s death especially, left to the whims of Joffrey; Arya facing trial after trial trying to reach Winterfell, and surviving on her wits. Catelyn does her best to save her children, but can’t no matter how hard she tries. She often makes matters worse. Even Cersei evokes quite a bit of sympathy in spite of her own cruelty.

The fact that women in the books make things worse, and face lots of struggles, Sady attributes to sexism.

This is a remarkably shallow reading, and probably more a reflection of Sady’s general antipathy toward fantasy literature than anything reflected in the text. After all, the men in Martin’s work tend to screw things up just as badly if not more so than the women. Really, the entire Stark family just screws one thing up after another, with Ned being the all-time front runner in the screw-up department. The Baratheon brothers aren’t any better. And even a pretty vile character like Cersei is given more and more humanity as the story progresses – certainly a great deal more than Roose or Ramsay Bolton. (Dance spoiler: Ramsay was conceived when Roose raped his mother.)

Nor are scenes of violence toward women portrayed as somehow good or desirable. These are not glamorized moments, but rather deeply troubling ones. I won’t spoil, but this violence only gets more disturbing in Dance with Dragons.

Remember, there are no heroes in Martin’s books, not really. There is no chivalry once the wars begin. Sady thinks that because there are dragons and zombies, Martin should be able to stretch the truth and make women equal to men, free from domestic abuse and rape and the other horrors women have always faced.

Would this be a service to women, a victory for feminism?

I don’t think so. Ignoring sexual abuse and pretending violence toward women doesn’t exist does not serve women at all. Quite the contrary. One of the greatest flaws in a lot of fantasy is that women are portrayed as basically sexy warriors. Feudal systems with men and women with equal rights, where all women are just as tough as men and never face any sort of sexism or unwanted sexual advances really is a fantasy, but not one that accurately reflects the world as it is. And that’s what fantasy, for all its dragons and werewolves, is meant to do. Good fantasy creates a world that reflects our own, warts and all.

Sady also claims that Martin glorifies his rapists:

But those rapists and abusers are all villains, right? Joffrey, Littlefinger, Daenerys’s child-molester brother, etc; these are bad guys. Ah, but not so fast! King Robert, lovable but ineffectual ruler whose death kicks off the series, beats his wife. The Night’s Watch, an honorable band of brothers devoted to defending the world against zombies, is largely comprised of convicted rapists. The Dothraki are portrayed as an entire civilization of dedicated, enthusiastic rapists, because racism; Khal Drogo, Daenerys’ beloved husband, gives a speech about it. The Ironmen, Viking equivalents, are another entire civilization of gang-rapists.Victarion Greyjoy, a heroic old Ironman, beat his ex-wife to death for cheating. Sandor Clegane,who planned to rape Sansa, gets a late-stage character redemption. And then, we have Tyrion Lannister. Hero Tyrion Lannister. Fan favorite Tyrion Lannister. Author favorite Tyrion Lannister. Who has, to date, participated in the gang-rape of his first wife, gotten boners for his 13-year-old second wife, and strangled his favorite prostitute for bad behavior.

This is wildly untrue to the point of being a fiction in and of itself.

The Night’s Watch is never presented as honorable. A few of the sworn brothers are, but most of them are presented as rapists and thieves. Few are loyal, fewer still can be trusted. In Dance (minor spoiler) Jon spends a great deal of time thinking about how to protect women from rape at the hands of his sworn brothers.

King Robert is hardly loveable either. The more we learn, the less honorable he comes across, and Ned’s loyalty to him seems more and more ill-placed. He’s a drunk, a slob, a fool, a womanizer. He ruins the kingdom, brings it to bankruptcy. Even his rebellion is called into question. Even his love for Lyanna Stark.

Meanwhile we admire someone like Ned or Jon Snow precisely because they aren’t horrible to women.

Dany fiercely opposes the rapes carried out by the Dothraki (though, admittedly, Martin’s handling of other races/cultures is a bit on the clumsy side, though I would not go so far as to call it racism). Khal Drogo is a complicated character. Yes, Dany does end up loving him. Yes, that does make me uncomfortable. But again, we’re dealing with a culture here that is very different from our own, and Drogo acts as a protective figure for Dany. In many ways the relationship reveals just how vulnerable she is, and underscores her emergence as a strong, principled leader when she emerges from the fire, reborn, mother of dragons.

Nor are the Ironmen presented as somehow good or honorable, except for Asha Greyjoy who is admirable in her own right (and a woman!). Victarion is cruel and his sexism and brutality only help to illustrate just how awful it would be if he did take Daenerys as his wife (which he plans to do by force).

Sandor Glegane is a complicated character, but I have absolutely no recollection of him “planning to rape Sansa” at all. He was one of the few people who, in some small way, actually tried to protect her.

And then there’s Tyrion. Fan and author favorite. He’s forced to watch as his father orders all his guards to rape his first wife. He’s then forced by his father to join in the rape as well. If anything his father is sexually assaulting his own son. Maybe he should have fought back. But I’m pretty sure this is more of a reflection on the wickedness of Tywin than it is a glorification of rape at the hands of Tyrion.

Yes, Tyrion turns to whores for comfort – for love. He laughs and jokes about it, but it isn’t presented as very funny. It’s actually really sad.

Most importantly, Tyrion does not inherit his father’s cruelty any more than he inherits his stature. Sady leave out entirely that he doesn’t rape Sansa. Ignoring this entirely, she points out that he “gets a boner” for her. In a world where thirteen year olds are married off all the time, I think it says more about Tyrion’s character that he doesn’t rape her than any boner he may have had (his arousal made him uncomfortable). He is forced to marry Sansa and by all rights in the brutal, chauvinistic society that they live in, he is required to rape her by law and custom. And yet he doesn’t, and we admire him all the more for it, despite his many flaws. Tyrion isn’t presented as a glorified rapist – but rather the exact opposite. You have to be willfully misreading these books to draw the conclusions Sady draws.

Sady thinks that fantasy fans dislike people smearing fantasy’s good name because “when you criticize beloved nerd entertainments: You can try to be nuanced. You can try to be thoughtful. You can lay out your arguments in careful, extravagant, obsessive detail. And at the end of the day, here is what the people in the “fandom” are going to take away: You don’t like my toys? I hate you!

Well, she’s perfectly entitled to this opinion, though she has neither tried to be nuanced or thoughtful so far as I can tell. She shouts a lot, though.

I don’t really care if people like fantasy or not. People not liking fantasy no more demeans fantasy than gays getting married demeans the sanctity of heterosexual marriages. I just want people who do so obviously hate fantasy, if they’re going to read it and then write about it, to read it with more care. To get the facts right. To try to understand what they’re reading before they start spewing out a bunch of nonsense. That’s just common courtesy to any genre.

Common courtesy aside, Sady’s analysis, or whatever you want to call it, is just deeply, deeply flawed.

You see, Sady Doyle wants fantasy to be actually sexist, to present a world in which women are magically free from all the social constraints and domestic violence that women, even in our oh-so-enlightened times, really do face.

Frankly, that’s a lot creepier to me than anything George R. R. Martin has written.

P.S. None of this is to say that there aren’t any legitimate critiques of sexism in Martin’s work. There are some gratuitous sex scenes and sex is not always handled very well in the books. Sady, and other critics of Martin’s work, would do better to focus on these moments rather than write the whole thing off as horribly sexist beyond redemption.

[Update]

I tried to post a comment at Sady’s digs alerting her to this post so that she would have a chance to respond and her readers could, if they wanted, come over here to yell at me. This is Sady’s response (my comment did not appear):

NOTE: We don’t typically publish read-my-blog spam here in the comment section. That includes “read my response to your blog, on my blog!” spam. Yes, I hear you like George R.R. Martin and think I am THE REAL SEXIST for having opinions about these novels. Good for you! If your blog post about that is good, people will read it. You don’t need to hijack the comment section here to promote it.

This is, to me at least, an entirely alien way to think about blogging and comments and so forth. I try to link back when people respond to my posts. I welcome any non-actual-spam posts including whatever links you may have for me. If you write a response to one of my posts, please please do link to it in the comments or email me. I will always at least try to respond. The internet can be about having a conversation or it can be about shouting in ALL CAPS. I suppose it takes all types.

Oh, and by the way, Spencer Ackerman has a very good response up to Sady’s post. He’s kind enough to link to me, though he persuasively argues: “E.D. Kain writes a more text-based critique. I don’t see the point. If someone doesn’t think that it’s desirable for art to depict ugliness, the argument’s at a standstill.”

Point. Taken.

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