Daniel Mendelsohn is one of my favorite critics, and as someone who had the great pleasure of catching up on George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire at the recommendation of readers, it’s a treat to watch him connect Martin’s opus to both classical tropes and Martin’s larger intellectual concerns. But in his reading of A Song Of Ice And Fire as a feminist text–a reading with which I wholly concern, and about which I’ve written at length–I wonder if Mendelsohn is over-simplifying Martin’s feminist analysis
Cersei is a portrait of a tragic pre-feminist queen—someone out of Greek drama, a Clytemnestra-like figure who perpetrates evil because her idea of empowerment rises no higher than mimicking the worst in the men around her. (She ruefully remarks at one point that she “lacked the cock.”) By contrast, Dany Targaryen can be seen as a model of a new feminist heroine. Apart from the Starks, it is she who commands our attention from book to book, learning, growing, evolving into a real leader. We first see her as a timid bride, sold by her whiny brother Viserys, the Targaryen pretender, to a savage nomadic warlord whose men and horses the brother wants to secure for his own claim. But eventually Dany edges her brother aside, wins the respect of both the warlord and his macho captains, and grows into an impressive political canniness herself.
This evolution is pointed: whereas Viserys feels entitled to the throne, what wins Dany her power is her empathy, her fellow feeling for the oppressed: she, too, has been a refugee, an exile. As she makes her way across the Eastern lands at the head of an increasingly powerful army, she goes out of her way to free slaves and succor the sick, who acclaim her as their “mother.” She doesn’t seize power, she earns it. What’s interesting is that we’re told she can’t bear children: like Elizabeth I, she has substituted political for biological motherhood. Unlike the frustrated Cersei, Daenerys sees her femininity as a means, rather than an impediment, to power.
But the choices are never as simple as an embrace of femininity v. a rebellious rejection of it. Cersei Lannister rises considerably in the leadership of the Seven Kingdoms on the strength of her intellect and her ruthlessness before she’s surpassed by another woman, Margaery Tyrell. Margaery is no gender rebel–if anything, she’s even more seamlessly committed than Cersei to rising through marriage alliances and using her femininity as a tool for building loyalty based on love rather than on repression, and as shield for her true motivations and ambitions. Margaery’s grandmother, the Queen of Thorns, has built an entire fiefdom of young women who act as a moat and give her exceptional latitude to devote the years of her widowhood to become a powerful political operator. And Sansa Stark, whose naive embrace of the chivalric fairytale initially leads her to betray her family and pursue a marriage to a man who views her as a sexual plaything, has, over the course of five novels, started to recognize that she has value and power, and to consider how she might use it.
And the women who rebel against Westeros’ gender norms are hardly unencumbered by some of the same concerns. Brienne of Tarth, a female knight, has her chivalry called into question because of her obvious love for Renly Baratheon, the gay younger brother of the late king of Westeros, and is repeatedly threatened with vicious sexual assaults. Dany may earn the loyalty of the people who join her khalasar after the death of her husband. But she’s young enough, and inexperienced enough at governance to allow herself to be distracted by a passionate sexual affair that leads her to neglect matters of state in ways that prove disastrous. Ygritte, the wildling woman with whom Jon Snow starts a passionate affair North of the Wall, faces doubt from other wildlings for taking up with him, and their suspicions are proven to be correct when Jon returns to his Brothers. Even Arya, Sansa’s tomboyish little sister, is threatened with rape even though she’s a child: age doesn’t protect her.
In other words, there’s no clear path out of gender trouble, whichever approach to being a woman in Westeros Martin’s characters choose to take. The same is true for men–show mercy, like Ned Stark, and you might lose your head, or become entirely hard, like the swordsman Sandor Clegane, and exclude yourself from emotional connection, in addition to polite society–though there are more options for them if they become drunk, mired in penury, or break the laws and customs of the society in which they live. But embracing femininity and rejecting it both carry advantages and peril. Martin’s as clear-eyed about the persistence of sexism as he is about its medieval nuances. He knows there’s no old model that will be replaced by some new golden age of equality, just women making difficult decisions over and over again.