Why am I still reading?

This week’s topic is something I’ve been bemoaning for some time now with my fellow Gaveller, and which I struggle to make clear in my head… So I figured I’d throw my inner turmoil out here for you all to comment upon!

It all boils down to two questions I keep asking myself;

1 – Is George R R Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series misogynistic?
2 – If so, is it ok to read it?

To be perfectly honest, I’m fairly certain the answer to the first question is yes…

Right, let’s take a bit of a step backwards. You need to know a few things about me; Firstly, I’m a fantasy fan, I tend to read fantasy, I write fantasy, I watch fantasy films and I play fantasy video games. It’s very much my genre of choice. Second fact; I don’t consider myself a feminist, in that I don’t really understand what that means; it seems to be a big ol’ umbrella term. I do consider myself to be a pragmatic equalist (which may be something I’ve made up, but it seems to fit more comfortably) in that I’m all for equality, regardless of gender, ability, race, sexuality, but without being unrealistic about it (but not without being a bit pessimistic about it, because life’s often like that.)

Anyhoo – my typical fantasy reads tend to be Robin McKinley, Mercedes Lackey, Sherwood Smith – medieval worlds, with magic, and a kick ass female lead. Robin Hobb also features highly, even without the same style of heroine-focus. They write fantasy with today’s morals and ethics in mind. When the Game of Thrones phenomenon started (and yes, we jumped on board after seeing the tv show – we’re those people) I knew I wanted to read the books, and eventually go the full set of seven and dove into the first one.

I knew what I was getting into – I’d seen the first season with its plethora of bare breasts and male-dominated society, and as much as tv sexes things up, I had an inkling it was going to be edgier than my usual fare. I was fine with that.

Before it looks like I’m bashing Martin, I have to point out the things I like about his books. I love the massive unpredictability – it feels like absolutely anything could happen; beloved characters might die, hated characters might grow a conscience. No one’s completely black and white. I love his writing style (people have said he waffles, but I don’t see that) and I love his ensemble cast – I’m all about a good ensemble cast.

I just hate what he’s doing with his female characters, and how he’s continually beating us over the head with his world’s opinions of women. I’m just at the beginning of the first volume of A Dance With Dragons, so maybe there’s a massive about turn at the end of that book. Don’t tell me if there is – I’m reading as fast as I can!

Mark Oshiro, infamous reader of- and reactor to popular books, tv shows and games, puts it quite perfectly in his review of the fourth book in the series, ‘A Feast For Crows’ (nb – DO NOT click on the link if you haven’t read the 4th book, it’s full of spoilers!!!);

Given that the bulk of this book is from the perspective of women (WHICH IS REALLY QUITE COMMENDABLE FOR HIGH FANTASY), it’s become a game of mine to see if I can go five pages in a chapter narrated by a woman and see if I can’t find a reference to rape, sexual violence, or women knowing their place.

That’s pretty much how I feel. How I’ve felt from very early on in the first book. I e-mailed Charli early on in the reading with a mostly-serious ‘Why do you like this?’, and even after discussing it with her (and finding no answer) I’m constantly asking myself the same question. These books feel so wrong; so damaging. Take Brienne’s character, for example. She is constantly berated for how ‘ugly’ she is, and almost every male she meets seems to threaten her with a good old-fashioned rape. Women are so firmly second-class citizens, and this fact is so much a part of the landscape that it feels like we, as readers, are forced to be ok with that.

I’ve read fantasy series’s before I simply couldn’t get on with because I felt so uncomfortable with their representation of the genders. Most remarkable are the Faith series by Rachel Vincent and the Kitty series by Carrie Vaughn, Both are about shapechangers; Werecats in the first and Werewolves in the second. Each book made a big deal of its lead female character being strong and independent, but never (to my mind) actively challenged the male-dominated pack/pride. With those books the writing wasn’t enough to keep me going beyond the objectionable content and I felt no qualms about putting the books aside in favour of something more palatable.

Conversely, the Twilight books were so awfully written I felt compelled to keep reading to the bitter end. (Not that it’s very fair to compare the Twilight Saga and A Song of Ice and Fire, they’re worlds apart!)

I have the same issue, to a much lesser extent, with the tv show Sons of Anarchy – if you haven’t seen it, it’s about a male-dominated society; a motorcycle club. They’re racist, they traffic guns and drugs, and they’re not the most women-friendly folk, but I can’t stop watching the show; the plotlines keep my interest piqued even despite the fact that the main characters are doing things that are so wrong. I understand it’s not real, and am well versed in the suspension of disbelief, but I really do have issues with the fact that I enjoy and support media, be it book or tv show, that normalises rape and/or murder.

No Gavel this week, just an impassioned plea for a discussion – Why are these actions acceptable in the world of fiction? How is it some writers, directors, etc can make us put aside our principles and give our support to things we would be staunchly against in reality?



18 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Charli
    Apr 12, 2013 @ 08:08:49

    Just to spoil the Faith and Kitty series; I read to the end of the former and have given up on Kitty as its a long, seemingly neverending series, but both women become leaders of their pride/packs. The journey towards that is what both series are about. I know this isn’t totally relevent to the ASoIaF discussion, I wanted to clear that up.


    • Alison
      Apr 12, 2013 @ 11:21:35

      I’m not sure that makes things better in my intentionally over-thinking head. The only way Faith could not live in a male-dominated society was to take power? (I vaguely remember her father wanted to hand it to her, so I guess it wasn’t a bloody coup…) That doesn’t sit so well with me – it’s saying there’s no democratic way of evening things out; just the rebellion/revolt/uprising/activist/terrorist (so many words for folks not in power trying to take power) method of throwing out the old and taking control for the new.
      Taking this down to a slightly more trivial version – if I wanted to change the law on banned dog breeds/dog licences, should I have to run for government and ultimately take the Prime Minister’s seat, just to get my way in changing the law? There has to be some other way to make a change than taking out the leaders and installing new leaders… Ditto in books – I know the drama is fun, but it doesn’t sit well with me that it’s always All or Nothing; instead of changing the general way of thinking (that werecat prides have to be run by menfolk) they just shove a woman at the top and expect it to run well… Perhaps I should have read the last book, just to have rounded out my argument…


      • Charli
        Apr 12, 2013 @ 11:35:07

        I guess the argument there is the drama making the story. Its designed to be an exciting story with fighting and such like, so naturally there must be some sort of overtaking of leadership. I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t remember much about those books as they weren’t great! I only mentioned it as you made a comment regarding them “never (to my mind) actively challenged the male-dominated pack/pride”. They did.

      • Alison
        Apr 12, 2013 @ 11:56:46

        I’ll Wiki the plot of the last one – just to get my mind round it, but thanks for expanding on my comment. I’m not retracting it, because I don’t know the answer to this question;
        – did they put Faith/Kitty in charge and have an equal-opportunities pack/pride leader role, or were Faith/Kitty seen as weird/other for holding that position of power? That’s what I mean by challenging the male-domination; not just by putting one woman in power, but by making it universally accepted that women CAN be in power.

  2. Charli
    Apr 12, 2013 @ 09:37:35

    I’ve been thinking about it all morning and I think that the crux is that the world of ASoIaF is the ultimate patriarchy and deeply misogynistic, the writing itself is not. GRRM is a feminist writer; he portrays ever character as a deeply complex individual and while their sex does come into it due to the world they inhabit, he does not define them by that. There are knights and good royals and bad royals and manipulative types and assassins and gentle-folk and nobles and not-so-noble-nobles and traitors and so on. However, GRRM is not a subtle writer. He’s the John Landis of the writing world (putting the “b” in subtle: one of my favourite descriptions of JL!) and this is true to the way he bashes us over the head towards the treatment of women in Westeros and across the Narrow Sea. I sometimes think that GRRM will think we’ll forget that the women have an awful time so he reminds us CONSTANTLY that they are always in danger of rape and beatings. But I think this comes from his caring about the female characters: they have a tough time and yet see how they cope and manage and sometimes rise above what the society they live want for them. There is a chapter from Cerseis POV (I can’t remember which book its in but its near the end so am going to stay vague) where she has a very rough time and it tears at my heart. If I could ask anything of GRRM it would be to lay off the constant references: we get it. Seriously dude, we get it!

    Personally I have more issue with the show than the books. The show is constantly flinging gratuitous nudity at the audience and it is certainly very male-gazey. But that’s HBO I think. So yeah, my feelings are that the world of ASoIaF is anti-women, GRRM most certainly is not. Sadly many parts of the fandom are anti-women or anti-the female characters which adds to the claim that ASoIaF is misogynistic. But I don’t think it is. I think GRRM just really wants us to understand that the trials and problems facing the women in his world are mostly due to their sex and in some cases their gender. And I think he’s written some amazing characters, some of whom happen to be female.


    • Alison
      Apr 12, 2013 @ 11:42:42

      You say the writing isn’t misogynistic, but I half-think it might be… The very fact that he insists on reminding us how very rape-able the women are is what points me to that thinking. He could have mentioned it once and left it at that. Heck – we witnessed from afar what happened to Lollys – he showed it to us. There’s no need to constantly tell us about it. Especially as he’s got men up on the Wall for the crime of rape. It’s a crime, and also an accepted act; that much is frustrating, but that it comes up SO often is, as Mark said, and as I think, distracting – and that’s the writing, not the world.
      All the women are sexually objectified at some point; even ‘ugly’ Brienne. Even Sansa, who is barely out of childhood. (Arya’s still a child, so am not counting her) – Dany holds all manner of dragony power, but still she is counselled by men who wish to possess her, through marriage, or like Jorah, who just really really fancy her. Ygritte was supposed to be this kick ass Wildling, but her only real power was getting into bed with Jon Snow. I’ve not seen much of Arianne, she lives in a very different world, but even so she seems to use sex or sexuality as a weapon, even against her father – at one point she plans to shock/annoy/disarm him by appearing before him in her most revealing outfit. And I don’t even know where to start with Cersei – even when she’s trying to be a man, it all boils down to sex with her lady friend.
      In small doses it would just be the world GRRM has created, and it would be acceptable as part of the story, but it’s relentless to the point of breaking me out of reading the story, and that I blame on him as a writer – it’s not just what happens, it’s the only way of looking at womenfolk.
      I think GRRM is an amazing fantasy writer, but as much as I enjoy the plots and twists and turns and shocks I really don’t think he’s doing women any favours.

      As for the tv show, it’s better and worse, in my view – yes the female nudity by far outweighs the male (although I have read that Dany now has a no-nudity clause in her contract, whilst Jon has the opposite) but the verbalised rape threats and the internal rape references are gone – it’s back down at typical medieval patriarchy with some sexposition to keep the viewing figures up whilst the pesky plot is being furthered, rather than relentless, more subtle woman bashing from the book. The tv show seems sleazier, but at least it’s honest about it.


      • Charli
        Apr 12, 2013 @ 12:00:04

        I disagree. As I said before I think GRRMs only failing is his lack of subtlety. I don’t think that makes him misogynistic. I think he’s overzealous in his efforts to show how hard women have it in his world and wish he would cool it, but that’s all. As I said before, I think he has written fantastic characters, some of whom happen to be women. Brienne, for example, is a knight. She is by far the most old school knight, in that she takes her duty seriously and is noble and kind and compassionate etc. She is also a woman. As such she has a harder time than any man would have because its not the done thing in the world GRRM has built. But she peserves. Strong character? Absolutely. More so because GRRM gives her problems to deal with that the male knights don’t have. Haven’t time to scan this so if iut makes no sense its only because I wrote in a rush as I’m gonna be late!

      • Alison
        Apr 12, 2013 @ 12:11:42

        It makes sense, and I wish I could agree with you. I do see what you’re saying; Brienne is an awesome character, but GRRM can’t just let her be this awesome knight who is struggling with her fealty after Renly gets ghosted and who falls into this adventure of trying to be true to her word to Cat, and then also to Jaime… But there’s one thing – she’s ugly. She’s tall and broad; things which would be absolutely fine on a man, but we’re constantly battered with how ugly she is.
        Sure there are character flaws in GRRM’s male characters… Except Robb’s only issue is he didn’t listen to his mother or honour her contract; he was still a strong, otherwise honourable, determined young man with a great head for battle. Jon Snow’s only problem was his bastardry – he fell into things and did them well. Neither of them was ugly. Even Jaime got over his issues – he’s not slain a king or shagged his sister for some time yet, and has become quite charming. Brienne will forever be handicapped by her ugliness, like some sort of trade – ‘ok Brienne, you can be one of the boys, but you have to be ugly.’ Imagine if she were the same character, but stunningly beautiful – it would be just as interesting to read, but it would give her the power that an ugly woman is not afforded. Brienne’s ugliness is another reason for her to be subdued, even if she’s doing amazing things, she’s still ugly. Cersei is desperate and relentless in her hunger for power, Cat was rash and too emotional when trying to be Robb’s advisor, even Arya’s now been pulled back when she was starting to do mannish things with swords and the like. He’s damaging his female characters a lot more than he’s damaging his menfolk. (Even Ned and Robb – they were good and honourable and trying to do the right thing and got cut down in their prime, each time by someone we already hated.)

    • Charli
      Apr 12, 2013 @ 13:08:37

      In Kittys case (as I know it a little better) she left the pack after the first book, travelled a bit and saw other packs sort of working and not working and then Ben got bitten and she nursed him through the change and they fell in love and then they both returned to her old State because her mum got cancer so she wanted to go home to see her. There the old pack were unhappy so Kitty, fighting for justice and stuff challenged the leaders and Ben said he’d help so she took over and he was her Beta/pack mate and they got married and that was all nice and stuff. But yes, it was encouraged by the other pack members that she “save” them and then lead and they were pleased with that. She had to leave and grow to become the stronger person (emotionally I mean) before she could rise to the role of leader/parent figure to the pack mates.


      • Charli
        Apr 12, 2013 @ 13:18:07

        I see what you are saying with regards to him being meaner to the female characters, but to me that’s just honest. The bad, difficult, bothersome things that happen to the women and girls are all because they are women and girls living in a place that considers them second class or lower. This is the stuff that happens in a patriarchy. Rape is used as a type of warfare against civilians (in every war ever) so it stands to reason that this is a danger in the books. Women aren’t supposed to be knights so Brienne has a horrible, difficult time. The ugly thing…see now I think Gwendoline Christie is beautiful as Brienne and as herself. In the books she is referred to as ugly from POVs of people who seek to demean her. Jamie goes on and on about it to put her down as do others. Its a method of trying to break her confidence. There is no proof that she is indeed ugly. She is only considered ugly for not conforming to the norm as expected by every man she knows. Ugly as beautiful is a matter of opinion so we get peoples views of her not looking like a “proper lady” in dresses and with nice hair and blah blah. She, more than any other woman, challenges the misogynists in the book and they are made uncomfortable by her, maybe even scared. She’s challenging the status quo. And like in real life when a woman does this, she is immidiately called ugly or mannish or other slurs. Clare Short has this problem when she took on page 3 before NMP3. Hilary Clinton has had this, even Margaret Thatcher. The ugly bashing for Brienne is totally real to me and I love that she perseveres no matter what.

      • Alison
        Apr 12, 2013 @ 13:34:43

        I don’t mean to say he’s ‘being mean’. I mean to say he gives the female characters bigger character flaws than the males. It doesn’t matter whether you think Brienne is ugly (I’m going to take Gwendoline Christy out of it as I’m really talking about the books here) – every character she comes into contact with describes her as ugly. Even Catelyn is very scathing about how Brienne looks. It’s such a big deal that even if she single handedly defeated every potential monarch’s army and put the most righteous/deserving person on the throne, everyone would still look at her and go ‘yay her, pity she’s so ugly’ it’s not something she can overthrow or twist to make a good thing. And yes, Tyrion had it too, and the Hound had a burned up face, so it’s not just the women, but it means more to the women – Tyrion could have made good if it wsan’t for Tywin. Brienne will never make good because ugly women have no place there.
        Ugliness isn’t a difficult or bothersome thing that happened to Brienne, it’s something GRRM wrote in to handicap her. With Jaime he took away his strength; his ability to fight – a knight’s most important attribute. With Brienne he took away her beauty. That’s not being mean – that’s saying that no matter what deeds a woman does, if she’s not beautiful she will never get anywhere.

      • Alison
        Apr 12, 2013 @ 13:20:03

        I wrote my question really badly… I was talking more about the universal opinion than that of the folk in the pack/pride. What did the other werewolves, them from outside the pack, think of her leadership? Was it ok from their perspective to have a female Alpha?
        All I can remember from the first book was that time-old ‘Alpha Male can pick his mate from the females in the pack, even if they’re unwilling’ and that’s why I didn’t want to read any further.

      • Charli
        Apr 12, 2013 @ 13:57:42

        Had GRRM written the books from his POV, not his characters I might agree with you, but I don’t because as I said, we are hearing from those challenged by Brienne that she is ugly. Not from the writer himself. Therefore I stand by my assertion that she is potentially not ugly at all, only slandered by everyone challenged by her decision to become a knight; unladylike so she must be ugly. And that is a very realistic battle towards any woman asserting herself in a traditionally male role.

        I’m getting really confused by these replies and where they end up!

        With regards to Kitty, yes it was deemed perfectly fine that she could lead. There were vampires lead by women so it was not totally unheard of. The old pack leader was a misogynistic arsehole taking advantage of a woman who had been raped and then turned into a werewolf. I remember the issue with the book you had; I didn’t like it either. But again I read it as very truthful, despite the supernatural elements: she had been “obviously” raped by that guy she was on a date with (in that she knew it was rape), then wound up going through further trauma with the werewolf thing and she ended up in an abusive, sort-of relationship. It sucked. But she learned, started to call the sex they had had rape as she understood it better once removed from the situation and eventually went back to confront her abuser and kick his arse. That was very satisfying. Yes the werewolf pack/abusive pack leader trope is very well used, but this did subvert it after a few books in which we watched Kitty become strong enough to assert herself.

      • Alison
        Apr 12, 2013 @ 14:45:34

        Definitely going to have to agree to disagree on the Brienne subject. I read it/the characters quite differently. I think Catelyn wouldn’t call her ugly unless she was physically unappealing, and also Jaime – he’s an arse at the beginning, no question about it, but he was charming, beneath/alongside the arse-ness, and between him and Cat and the sheer number of times George ‘Unsubtle’ Martin has called her ugly (albeit through the thoughts of his characters), that according to the levels of prettiness of his realm, she falls under the ‘not conventionally attractive’ label. It doesn’t matter what you, I or GRRM would think if we saw her in real life – he’s made her be ugly; he wrote those words (repeatedly), just as he made Jaime, and Loras and whoever else Sansa fawned over, beautiful. It’s a writing choice he made, and that’s why I hold him responsible for the actually rather poor representation of women.
        There’s not one female narrating character I would class as a good role model in the books. Whereas I’d say Jon’s a good male role model – he makes the most of every crap situation he gets thrown in (even if he’s a wee bit angsty) and Bran’s a great kid. Ned was perfect, before the whole beheading. Robb’s transgression was breaking an arranged marriage for love; which is perfectly acceptable in today’s world, and was sort of not too terrible in the books. (In that he didn’t know what the retaliation would be…)

        Re Kitty, as we’re combining topics, I might have given it points had I got to the end as it’s sounding slightly less dreadful, but to be honest, I would never have picked up the second book having read the first. I hate that trope, and its popularity and actively avoid all things werewolf simply because that trope seems to be the accepted norm, which is a shame as there must be some less distateful werewolf books out there where the trope doesn’t have to be overthrown because it’s not set up in the first place. Right?

        Maybe I’ll write one.

      • Charli
        Apr 12, 2013 @ 15:00:42

        I can assure you, re: the urban fantasy were-things trope that you are not the only one to feel this way and it is becoming much less popular! That being said I don’t read all that much urban fantasy any more as the universal strong, kick-ass heroine is generally annoying to me. Give the girl some flaws, besides a fear of commitment, please! But that’s a whole different rant!

  3. Mumsi
    Apr 12, 2013 @ 10:12:25

    Perhaps it’s just too far fetched to design female characters that far outside the box?? the readership won’t buy things that are too unrealistic?? but then dragons, time travel, liveships and such are out of this world but make for facinating reading so why not.

    There was an interesting discussion on Radio 4 this week about the Amazons, they were quite fantastic to the point of cutting off their right breasts so they were not in the way of their fighting/hunting arm.

    I think some authors must have been brave enough to have designed female characters that really break the mould, can anyone recommend any????


    • Alison
      Apr 12, 2013 @ 11:53:02

      I don’t want something dramatic and mould-breaking; I want to read a book where gender isn’t an issue; where it’s not a case of men trampling the women in their way to reach the top, and likewise isn’t a world where women are dominant, and the men have been left behind. I don’t want to read a book and think about gender representation!

      To have women treated like human beings shouldn’t be ‘outside the box’. A good fantasy book has realistic, well-rounded characters, so you can accept the weird and wonderful setting; the dragons and liveships and timetravel and unfamiliar history, because we recognise ourselves in the characters. The series I’m talking about, A Song of Ice and Fire, is about a previously fairly-settled kingdom, which becomes embroiled in massive civil war with many different people vying for the throne, there are monsters in the North threatening to break past the Wall which keeps them out, there’s an exiled Princess who wants to reclaim her throne – there’s a LOT happening, and there are a number of female characters, and a larger number of male characters (fair enough, he’s writing a patriarchy-based book, the men will be more interesting in terms of the actions they take) and all that would be perfect if it wasn’t for the author constantly reminding us that if a woman isn’t careful she’ll be raped, and it’s not a woman’s place to do anything but bear sons for her husband, and to do as she’s told.


  4. Charli
    Apr 12, 2013 @ 13:20:45

    My replies went in the wrong places! Oops!


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