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A Week of Fire and Ice: Day 2

Because to discuss any part of A Song of Fire and Ice in any detail is to spoil everything, because in this world, everything is important, analysis is below the jump. Today’s subject? Women who ride like men.One of my favorite parts of A Song of Fire and Ice is the rise of women to power in all sorts of ways. Whether it’s Daenerys Targaryen finding a love she didn’t expect in marriage, and a strength she never could have anticipated in that marriage’s untimely end; Catelyn Tully Stark overcoming her husband’s death to become her son’s best counselor, and her own death to become a force for justice (or revenge); Cersei Lannister may be vile, but she’s undeniably a survivor, someone who rises to power through persistence, even if she’s denied opportunities to prove herself and gain advantage the way men do; that Arya Stark survives at all is a miracle, but she survives circumstances worse than those faced by almost any other character, and becomes a killer and adventuress along the way; Sansa Stark, the most passive of the major female characters, finds the strength to flee a bad marriage and certain persecution in the fairy stories that initially were her downfall. This isn’t to say that the novels are necessarily feminist. When I first started talking about reading this series, for example, one of my readers warned me that the depictions of sex in the novels turned her off so much that she stopped reading about eighty pages in. My experience of the books has been that while they definitely include rape, incestuous sex, and sex at ages that we’d find worrisome today, the decisions to portray some sex that way is a reflection of the times and mores in which the characters live rather than a reflection of some misogyny on Martin’s part. And there are also characters who have good, loving, liberated sex: Dany and Drogo, Jon and Ygritte, Catelyn and Ned.There are absolutely female characters who live outside of conventional female roles, but there are just as many who operate completely from within them, and both achieve varying degrees of success. Arya, with her father’s blessing, is trained as a water dancer, and under the training of Sandor Clegane, learns to be a merciful killer — and learns to define mercy. Brienne of Tarth is perhaps the most accomplished soldier in King Renly’s army, but she lives at war with her own gender, perhaps in a foreshadowing of the challenges Arya may face if and when she grows up, without the challenges of being an ugly woman. Ellaria Sand and Ygritte both live by their own sexual codes, without needing to become any man’s wife. On the other hand, Cersei Lannister and Lysa Tully both take refuge in their femininity, playing off the promise of future marriage to various suitors, but both have only varying degrees of success in maintaining their independence, their power, and their lives. Cersei becomes poisonous and paranoid, Lysa ruins her son’s character, leaves her sister undefended, and falls prey to a delusional love. Sansa Stark holds close to the oft-repeated motto that courage is a lady’s armor. It’s a code that keeps her alive, but doesn’t save her beatings, humiliation, an unhappy marriage, and various unwanted sexual advances.The overall portrait of the world is one in which gender performance matters, but only situationally. Being a lady doesn’t make you safe, whether physically, sexually, or spiritually. Rejecting norms of female gender performance only frees you if you genuinely don’t care what other people think. There are no rules, only chance and how you respond to it: with dragons, with the strength to kill a man, or even with resurrection.

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