There are many reasons why ‘feminism’ is a dirty word, not the least of which is when certain people who personify feminism’s opposition call themselves feminists (e.g. racist Camille Paglia, victim-blaming Naomi Wolf, etc.) Now George R.R. Martin, author of the wildly popular Song of Fire and Ice medieval fantasy books-turned-HBO-series, joins the ranks of pop feminists. He kindly defines for us what his feminism is:
“To me being a feminist is about treating men and women the same,” Martin is quoted as saying in this Telegraph article. “I regard men and women as all human – yes there are differences, but many of those differences are created by the culture that we live in, whether it’s the medieval culture of Westeros, or 21st century western culture.”
Of course, I am dissatisfied by so many definitions of feminism nowadays, so I shouldn’t be too harsh. But by his own definition, Martin’s literary works are surely not feminist.
While Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice female characters are arguably more three-dimensional than most other fantasy of the same ilk, I find their stereotyped natures tiring. Cersei is the seductive slut; Arya is the tomboy; Catelyn Stark is the steadfast mother and wife; Sansa is the sweet and innocent princess in need of rescue; blah blah blah. Predictable, and therefore reliable. To some degree this can’t be avoided, right? Fiction, especially fantasy, functions at least partially on the familiar, shared assumptions (read: stereotypes) about kinds of people to anchor us while guiding us through a fantastic and impossible story. Besides, not all of Martin’s female characters have been created from drab stereotypes (Brienne of Tarth, for example).
No, what truly bothers me about Martin’s comment about feminism, and the serious slack cut him by supposedly feminist bloggers, is his constant depiction of rape, domestic violence, and other forms of sexual violence as attractive, arousing, enjoyable. This is where Martin gives himself away: a feminist does not depict rape as sexy and enjoyable.
Why stop at sexual violence. Martin glorifies battle and the taking of lives throughout the series, a huge portion of which is devoted to high-def, graphic scenes of beheadings, disembowelments, torture, and other “glorious” aspects of war and the violent societies in which the story takes place. The content is patriarchal, and is consumed largely by a patriarchal audience (men and women alike). War is cool, rape is sexy, same old, same old. To his credit (?), Martin makes half-hearted attempts to suggest that war isn’t all cool: look, you could get your sword hand cut off, and then no one will want to fuck you– least of all your sister. Wow, is that the best he can do? Can we drop the feminist act now?
And besides, there is a whole realm of racism in A Song of Fire and Ice that we haven’t even touched on yet. Highly illuminating read on that topic here!
Whatever the case, I (mostly) enjoyed reading these books. I even (mostly) enjoyed the one or two episodes of the HBO series I’ve seen. I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying works of fiction that are inherently racist, sexist, classist, and so on (unless it’s for those aspects that we enjoy it, of course)– but that we like or enjoy something should not stop us from critiquing it. Or from calling out its makers when they say shit like, “Ima feminist LOL.”
Fantasy doesn’t have to show rape as sexy, or war and killing as glorious. It doesn’t have to paint all the people white or all the heroes male, though it is true that you will sell more novels if you do these things. But if you choose to do so, as an author, then you have forfeited the right to call yourself feminist. As readers, we have the right to read what we enjoy, but I think we also have a responsibility to question that literature, even literature we praise. When useful criticism like this happens, valuable conversations can take place about issues that matter IRL (that’s IN REAL LIFE for you non-nerds out there, though sometimes I think nerds forget IRL exists).
Let’s also not forget that there is really great fantasy and science fiction out there which questions, analyzes, deconstructs, and parodies gender, race, class, age, ability, and so on, and dreams up whole new ways of conceptualizing these things. A Song of Fire and Ice is not the end-all, be-all of fantasy literature, and even if it were, that shouldn’t stop us from questioning it, taking it apart, and assessing it from different points of view.
Now I’d better get a head start on the Martin fans; I hear them trying to break down the door as I write!