Game of Thrones and Its Women

December 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

With my distaste for the emphasis on Manly Man Stuff in fantasy books established, perhaps I should have started with an author other than George R.R. Martin. Martin is known as a fantasy author who includes more sex than most (although I don’t find it to be gratuitous, perhaps because my last foray into genre fiction was that of romance novels). His books take place in a sexist medieval-esque society where the threat of rape seems omnipresent, and like with most male writers, I can never quite tell where he’s going with that. Most of the time, of course, he makes it obvious that the modern reader should find it repulsive, but occasionally the undertones hint that maybe he’s intellectually getting off on having free reign to write a society where the male characters (including the ones the audience is most supposed to identify with) can essentially do whatever they want. I had the same issue with Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy–though ostensibly he was writing about how horrible it was that so many men treat women so badly, the fact that his books were blatant wish fulfillment cast a weird pall over the moralizing. It’s like the preacher who can’t stop talking about how sinful something is because it gives him an excuse to think about something he’s not supposed to think about. No one can ever quite trust the man who writes multiple graphic rape scenes just to convince you of how terrible rape is.

Still, watching a couple episodes of the Game of Thrones television show sold me on the fact that Martin was able to write compelling female characters, so I decided to give it a go. Now, after finishing the second book, my thoughts are decidedly mixed.

When discussing strong female characters, the obvious choices are Daenerys, Arya, and Catelyn. Cersei is “strong” in a Hollywood sense, in that she’s tough and pulls a fair portion of the plot strings, but she isn’t particularly compelling yet. (I have a feeling that if she doesn’t end up dead by the end of the next book, that might change–there’s only so much you can do with the kind of one-note villainess she’s played up to this point.) Sansa probably isn’t compelling to the average reader because she’s so damn passive, but that’s exactly what makes her so interesting to me: because, contrary to what we’d love to think, that’s exactly how 99 percent of us would react to the situation she finds herself in. But Dany, Arya and Catelyn are the biggies, and that’s why it’s so frustrating that characters with so much promise end the first book so static.

To be fair, I love Dany. She gets the “hero’s journey” storyline of the first book, from terrified puppet to independent woman, and it is awesome. But she’s the only female character who has any kind of self-actualized journey at all. But the rest of the women remain archetypes rather than individuals: Catelyn the Mama Bear, Arya the Warrior Princess, Sansa the Innocent Maiden, Cersei cut from the Evil Stepmother cloth despite not actually being a stepmother. I’m holding out on passing judgement on this precisely because of it lot of it seems to stem from Martin’s writing style. His pace is plodding, and characters develop slowly. When you have 1000 characters name-dropped in the series, most of them will remain cardboard cutouts at best–the fortunate flip side of this being that when you have 7000 pages to flesh out the series, quite a few of them won’t. As I got into the meat of the second book, previously passive characters started to move. Arya is getting the foreshadowing of a pretty epic revenge plot, while Catelyn’s character is getting subtle gradations that weren’t present in the first book. Daenerys is still getting the most interesting storyline of the entire series. New female characters continue to be introduced, and a couple of them seem as though they may end up transcending their current stock characterizations.

Martin’s world is so vast that I’m beginning to think that the series is better graded as a whole, rather than by its parts. Characters that appear to be one thing in one book often end up being another by the next. Still, even as a serious reader, it’s hard for me to maintain the patience required to watch this whole thing play out. Asking your readers to wait 3000 pages before your characters see some interesting development–let alone 5000 or 6000 pages before you get to the core of your story–is pretty ballsy. I’m dreaming about an alternate universe where Martin had a perceptive but vicious editor who cut out the endless nonsense the author spends pages waxing about which sigil belongs to which house. These books could have been reduced to 600 pages max without losing any of the story whatsoever, and they should have been. Although I guess we also would have lost some of that Manly Man stuff where Martin describes every single move a character makes in a battle. God forbid.

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