This is my first year assigning a book challenge on GoodReads.com. I picked a conservative 30 but I’m already halfway through. Of the 15 books I’ve read this year:
This might come as a surprise to some of you but I generally have a feminist agenda; shocking, I know. While I am not as educated as say, a women’s study major or political science major I keep myself pretty current on feminist issues. Sometimes my default reading analysis is from the feminist perspective. I am no stranger to the concept of changing media and entertainment to have more egalitarian representations of gender and I understand how very important changing those concepts are to establishing an egalitarian society. That being said, I’m kind of tired of the noise I’ve been reading/hearing when it comes to A Song of Ice & Fire and how it is anti-woman.
To boil down the arguments I’ve been eye-rolling at is essentially this:
Paraphrased Quotation of Nonsense:
The female characters in A Song of Ice & Fire aka A Game of Thrones are treated really poorly. None of the women have any agency and are all controlled by the desires of their male associates/husbands/lovers/sons/men in power. I get that it’s set in a medieval archetype and that women were marginalized even worse and that women of power didn’t exist but do you know what else didn’t exist? Dragons. There are dragons in George R.R. Martin’s world but they don’t exist so why can’t he write a typical feminist utopia where no one ever notices that men and women have different secondary sexual organs and women rule just as justly/ruthlessly/blah blah blah? It doesn’t fit my perfect idea of female portrayal and that makes me a sad bitchy narwhal.
Another handful of criticisms seemed to be based on the portrayal of women in the HBO series as well, of which I’ve only watched a few episodes. I will concede that so far in that interpretation there is a lot of blatant “BOOBS! BOOBS! BOOBS! Look at all the whores in King’s Landing! BOOOOOOBS!” But I expect that to be balanced out in the future once all the subplots really get rolling (I’m up to episode 3 of season 2 so maybe they are already rolling, who knows?).
I think we all find it refreshing when there are female characters who break out of the typical roles they are generally assigned. Sure, it would be cool if all the women started out with self-realized ambition and authority but it’s pretty boring if your character starts that way and stays that way. I find it much more challenging though to write from a place of struggle and see how these characters evolve and adapt to their situations. I think it is valuable to see how women, who are coming from a place of marginalization, build and fight against that in their own way.
While I think there is value in writing an ideal world where all shades of gender are equal there is also value in writing from a non-ideal perspective. It is easier to reflect current societal issues and challenge them when they are also in a fantasy world. It also makes the characters easier to sympathize with and relate to. For example: If Brienne of Tarth was completely accepted in her desire to be a knight, to reject traditional femininity and just went out there and kicked ass unchallenged in her choices that would be pretty badass. However, I as a reader do not relate to that. I am not the woman who wants to break into the boy’s club of (American) football or anything like that so I would shrug my shoulders and say “Eh, good for her I guess.” But Brienne isn’t accepted in her choice; she is put down, told to stay in her place and is threatened a lot over it which gives me a point to relate to. While I may not be interested in her desire to be a knight I can relate to being prejudiced against by my gender in various ways. I can relate to how the knights in Renly’s court make fun of her and have bets about who can bed her. THAT I can relate to and THAT would not occur in feminist utopia fantasy land. In addition the people who are telling her to go put a dress on and judging her value on her less than ideal looks are not presented as being in the right. Brienne is brave and even has a part in the changing Dungeons & Dragons type alliance of Jaime Lannister. He meets her with a misogynistic view of her, mocks her and belittles her but then comes to respect and trust her and value her as a PERSON! Not as a woman, but as a PERSON!
There is a lot of value placed on the role of motherhood, I will not deny it. However, there can be feminist values in motherhood as well. Some people will disagree with me but generally I think saying that women who choose to be stay at home mom’s and such are not any less feminist than the woman who is busting through that glass ceiling at a Fortune 500. It is all in how and why she chose that role.
So let’s take Catelyn Stark. She is the quintessential mother at the beginning of the series. She is the wife of Eddard Stark (our initial protagonist) and mother of Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran and Rickon. Through much of her story arc she is counseling her son Robb in a war and grieving over her scattered children and deceased husband. She has a mind for diplomacy which Robb regularly ignores. When it becomes clear that her son is too ambitious to work at her primary goal, rescuing her daughters from the capitol, she takes matters into her own hands, releasing Jaime and striking a deal with him. I feel like a lot of people only see Catelyn as the mother who was crying over her family but she is very proactive. While she adores all of her children she values her daughters equal to her sons.
Dany is the other major mother figure, but she largely chose that role for herself as a Mother of Dragons and the people she has liberated. She sees it as her job to protect and provide for her people. Dany is interesting and complex. She is both a bit of a feminist dream and nightmare. She starts out as a young girl with no self-esteem or dreams other than what her older brother wants. She is sold as a child bride essentially and has a bit of Stockholm syndrome for her forced husband. There is a lot of sexual imagery that shows her changing role of subservient wife to equal partner. The tribe she lives with are very sexist and when her husband dies she should have gone to a special place for widows but she defies that and manages to maintain a handful of her previous tribe. She is a conqueror and uses other people’s false perception of her (“I am but a young girl”) in her manipulation. She does some dumb stuff, like putting too much emphasis on men she has romantic interests in, but she’s also 15 so cut her a break.
In short, many of the women may begin with male motivations but move outside of them as they see that what those men want does not align with their own beliefs.
I think the fact that there are some people who think there is only one acceptable way to portray a feminist need to take a step back and really think. Saying the only way to be a feminist is to cast off anything that may be traditionally feminine is just as sexist as saying all women should stay in the kitchen. I think a big point to note is that we don’t have these discussions about male characters. When I see the outrage over “Man, that Robb Stark is such a negative portrayal of male ambition. Why can’t he be more complex?” then I’ll back off some. We allow the male characters to be varied. No one cries out that “Boo! The men are too traditionally masculine and I’m going to ignore every single counterpoint.”
There are many different roads to feminism, just because they don’t fit your androgynous vision doesn’t mean they don’t count.
4. A book that is your guilty pleasure.
Video Game Plot Based Books
I had to think about this for a while since I’m not really shy or embarrassed about anything I’ve read. I didn’t like Twilight and I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey and I can’t think of anything else I would be embarrassed to admit I enjoyed.
I think the closest thing I would consider a “guilty pleasure” would be books based on video game plots. I don’t have many of these. I do have a few of the Halo books which I acquired from an ex-boyfriend and am reading the first BioShock book, Rapture by John Shirley, which I am borrowing from my current boyfriend.
The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund
Rapture by John Shirley
The only console I own is a PlayStation 2 and when I do get to play a lot of the new generation consoles it’s at someone else’s house, which usually means playing online random matches. I don’t get the chance to play the campaign or storyline modes so these books flesh out the skeleton that online play gives me. I did get to play a portion of the Halo campaign mode before but I did feel like the books really made the world more interesting to me, and therefor made the game itself more interesting even when I have all the game storyline available.
While I am trying to accomplish getting through the available Song of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin I was entertaining the thought of doing some light reading in between, perhaps re-reading one of the many books I read in Middle and High School.
Lately Francesca Lia Block has been on my mind but part of me is afraid that reading these through adult eyes will ruin my fond memories of them. That what was inspirational and lovely to a 13 year old who had a special place in her heart for fairies, angst, and magic will seem silly, overwrought, and juvenile.