Henry Farrell, in what I think is a totally fair critique of my Foreign Policy piece on international relations and A Song of Ice and Fire, points out what I think is a point that has implications for the series’ gender politics as well as its look at IR issues:
Marriages are the most potent instrument for creating alliances, even if they don’t always work as they should (the most recent book mentions a feud between two families that has gone on for centuries, despite numerous intermarriages which have mingled their blood. Numerous suitors believe that the way to control Daenerys’ dragons is through winning her hand.
But more subtly, intra-familial relationships have profound international consequences. Jealousies between brothers lead to the sundering of realms. Theon Greyjoy – one of the more unpleasant characters in the earlier books – becomes more sympathetic as we realize that his erratic nastiness is in part the result of his having been stranded between two families. Fostered and adopted as a hostage by the Starks after his father’s failed rebellion, he finds himself unable to find a place in his old family, but unable fully to become a member of his new family either. And none of this begins to touch on the political consequences of bastardry, of adultery (which, when committed by the queen, becomes high treason) &c&c. Martin doesn’t force this down our throats – it emerges only as necessary to the plot. But it really does speak to the differences between the mediaeval world and our own (he’s less successful by far at portraying non-Western societies – but that’s a whole different set of questions).
Independent of how Martin writes actual sex scenes, one thing he does very, very well is point out how forced marriages and the rights men have to sexual access to some women can lead to both emotional and physical degradation of women. Cersei Lannister is one of the most unsympathetic characters in the series, but Martin makes clear how poisoned she was by her marriage to Robert Baratheon, who threw it in her face that he was sleeping with other women and subjected her to repeated marital rape. Even if Sansa Stark thinks she wants to marry Joffrey Baratheon at one point, the marriage agreement between them subjects her to domestic abuse delivered by the Kingsguard and the perpetual threat that she’ll be raped once she loses her father’s protection. Roose Bolton’s decision to take Ramsay Bolton’s mother even though she’s already married because he thinks he has the right to have sex with her at least once leads to the birth of one of the most brutal characters in the series, who has violent and degrading sex with his wife against her will (of course, there’s the double cruelty of Jeyne Poole being married off in Arya Stark’s stead). Arranged marriage may be the “most potent instrument for creating alliances” in Martin’s universe, but every step of the way, he’s clear about the cost that women pay to ensure the stability of states.