Is Game of Thrones Sexist? Part 2: Catelyn as Odysseus’s Penelope
By Alex Cranz
This is an analysis of the FIRST book. Not the series as a whole. I’m critiquing this particular novel individually and will do the same for each novel. If you complain in the comments and say I’ve ignored future books your comments will be edited with a link back to this paragraph and a picture of something gross as punishment. SO DON’T BE AN IDIOT.
If you’re a progressive feminist and you’re into science fiction, fantasy and westerns you train yourself to watch things differently. The aforementioned genres are not meant for women. We’re second class citizens and after thoughts in most science fiction, fantasy and westerns. There are exceptions. Sometimes we get an Aliens or a Buffy or a Cat Ballou, but they’re not common. So instead we look for “strong” women. The women who exist in the patriarchal society and thrive in it. The best moms and daughters and sisters. We look for women like Catelyn Tully. She can’t fight, because in patriarchal societies women don’t fight. She will never lead the troops into battle or storm a castle for her lover. She’s Penelope at her loom patiently waiting for something to happen and finding agency in the most mundane of tasks.
You like her, and are forced to empathize with her, because she’s the only choice you have.
Ten years ago Catelyn was my favorite. Arya was so thoroughly absent of gender it was difficult to root for her as a fellow lady, Sansa’s Sansa, Cersei is evil and Daenerys is…
Daenerys is thirteen. Imagine a teenage girl sitting down to read this book. She has some choices. There is Penelope, the asexual urchin who is too young to understand what’s happening around her, the insipid sister, Cersei, and this teenager who’s sold into marriage and raped. Then she falls for her much older husband, gets pregnant and forgets about her kingdom across the sea. All she wants is a healthy and happy husband and child. Those are the choices. Those are the characters you can root for.
Guys get two teenage boys who kick ass with swords. One leads an army and the other FIGHTS ZOMBIES. They get Ned, the noblest idiot to ever live, and they get Tyrion, the odd little man everyone hates but who’s secretly clever and kind. Oh and he can fight. Better than Catelyn. And even though he’s half a man he can lead soldiers into battle. Something none of the female characters will ever be able to do.
You can see how it’s difficult for a woman to find herself absorbed by these books. The characters we’re meant to live vicariously through aren’t half as awesome as the other guys.
Flash forward ten years. I’m firmly in “adult” territory and I’ve watched the first season of Game of Thrones and I’m ready to tackle these books all over again.
Cersei hasn’t aged well in the intervening years. She’s still sleeping with her brother, enabling her sociopathic son, murdering her husband, plotting Ned’s downfall and killing Lady.
In this early scene Cersei is a clearer character. She blindly trusts in her son’s actions and pushes her husband to punish. It is Cersei, above all other’s, who demands the execution of Lady, an innocent.
Ned co-opts her crime. He blames himself for failing to stop her and firmly believes that his incarceration and eventual death are a direct result of his actions on the road to King’s Landing. This affair can be interpreted two ways. On the surface it’s as Ned outlines. His failure to protect a gift from the gods leads to his own death. But Lady’s death is also emblematic of the corruption plaguing Robert’s rule. Ned fails to stop it, more importantly he fails to stop Cersei, and he pays the price.
The women in this book have been accused of lacking agency. Their actions are merely reactions to the environment. But in the first book, without the foreknowledge of later novels, Cersei posses immense agency.
Yes, she murders Robert because she despises him. She also murders him because she desires the throne. To that end her son Joffrey is a pawn. A tool she can use to implement her own power.
Only Joffrey is too unwieldy a tool and he corrupts everything she strives to create. This is reflected in Ned’s execution. At the time Cersei should be the most powerful person in King’s Landing. Her husband is dead and her son’s new Hand is miles away. She is the regent and acts with the authority of the crown.
But before the crowd there is the king, a thirteen year old boy, and she is nothing more that his mother. Note how Joffrey feminizes her in this scene. In a Westoros, where power is ascribed only to the masculine, it’s a death knell for Cersei. Her son undercuts her and when he demands Ned’s head. She is no longer the Reagent, but a mother begging for a man’s life.
“My mother bids me let Lord Eddard take the black, and Lady Sansa has begged mercy for her father.” He looked straight at Sansa then, and smiled, and for a moment Arya thought that the gods had heard her prayer, until Joffrey turned back to the crowd and said, “But they have the soft hearts of women.”
She and Sansa are just women.
Now Sansa, Sansa may be the most problematic female character in the entire book. She’s a reactive character. By their nature reactive characters are boring. She’s also incredibly petty and is portrayed in the most negative light possible. She regularly mocks her sister’s lack of femininity, supports Joffrey after it’s proven he’s a sociopath, betrays her father to Cersei because of a crush, and ultimately repeatedly rejects her own family, the Starks and heroes of the books, to align herself with the villains, Cersei and Joffrey.
Yet it’s her ties to Lady that make her such a difficult character. Time and again Martin uses the wolves as a symbols for the humans they are paired with. The wolves aren’t just plot points, they’re icons. Sansa’s wolf is killed and it can only be interpreted in two ways. Either it foreshadows Sansa’s own death or it represents her separation from the Starks (the heroes).
Either option is worrisome because Sansa is meant to also represent femininity. She is the antithesis of her tomboyish sister Arya.
With Lady’s death and Sansa’s behavior in this first book Martin makes it clear that this traditional representation of femininity will not be tolerated in his books. Moreover it cannot survive. The meek woman who spends her times singing and sewing and longing for a perfect husband has no place in Martin’s world. (Nor does the young boy who dreams of becoming a knight and hero).
Martin walks a fine line with his portrayal of Sansa. She is either an example of a type of woman Martin intensely dislikes, or she’s a product of the patriarchal ideology that pervades Westeros.
It’s not one of the brothers but Sansa’s sister that serves as a counterpoint. Arya is a girl that on the surface is easy to like. She’s a transgressor in a patriarchal world, she’s a better rider and fighter than her brother Bran, she’s clever, her parents love and support her despite her proclivities, and she’s the first to uncover just how nasty the Lannisters can be.
She’s also very aware of her difficult nature. She knows she isn’t like other young girls. And she’s kind of a…jerk. Sansa can be quite nasty, but Arya gives as good as she gets. She’s an angry child. The world is full of injustices and each one leaves an angry scar on Arya’s psyche.
The anger Arya carries is multifaceted. There are hints that she’s mad at her mother and sister for their appearance. They look similar. They’re Tullys. She’s a Stark with the dark hair and the heavy features of a northerner. But the resentment she harbors has as much to do with their femininity as their appearances. Arya generally doesn’t like women. She perceives them as weak.
In her role as a transgressor Arya is capable of seeing the world with more modern eyes, and she finds it a repulsive place. But most of her contempt isn’t for the men who enforce the patriarchy, but for the women who willingly inhabit it.
Women like Arya’s mother, Catelyn Tully. Catelyn Tully knows all the rules and follows them, but she does not follow them blindly like Sansa, or with contempt like Cersei. Catelyn is Penelope. The perfect heroine in a narrative steeped in the patriarchy. She does what is expected of her and she does it with aplomb.
A Penelope-styled heroine must wait for the action to come to her. Under no circumstances should she seek to drive the story forward herself. That’s not what a good Penelope does. When Catelyn abducts Tyrion she’s exhibiting remarkable agency, but she’s also rejecting the role society has placed her in. And when she rejects this role bad things happen. The abduction of Tyrion sparks the war between and the Starks and the Lannisters. What’s worse: nothing worthwhile comes of the abduction. Catelyn loses him to her sister.
So what does Catelyn do? She seeks out her son and returns to embracing her role as the Penelope of this story. Though she remains a main character in the novel in the history of Westeros she becomes a supporting one. Everything she does after the abduction of Tyrion is to help her son and her husband.
So why is it that I prefer Catelyn to Daenerys? Daenerys is a queen. The mother of dragons by the end of the book. She’s a natural leader and would appear to be the perfect mixture of the two types of women Martin has introduced. Like Arya she is frequently a transgressor. Like Catelyn she can easily inhabit the world she was born into and manipulate it.
But when we first meet Daenerys she is being stripped of her humanity and power. Her brother is selling her to her husband who rapes her. It is only with time that she learns to love him and regain her power.
Like Cersei, Daenerys is assaulted and must rebuild herself. Catelyn Tully never has to rebuild herself. She’s never sexually assaulted. She wasn’t forced into her marriage (though it was arranged). In this first book Catelyn Tully is never a victim.
In Game Of Thrones Martin notes that those who repeatedly battle the social mores instituted by a patriarchal society will be rewarded, and those that willingly oblige those rules will be punished. Sansa and Cersei and Catelyn are hardly successful by the end of the books. Sansa is a hostage, Cersei has lost her power to her son, and Catelyn desires have taken a backseat to her son’s. Arya and Daenerys fare a little better. The book ends with Arya “rescued” and Daenerys nursing the last three dragons in the world.
But it’s a little repugnant isn’t it? The idea that these women are punished for adhering to the rules while others are rewarded for battling them?
It isn’t a new concept. Mad Men explores a similar motif. The “good little housewife” versus “the working woman.” But Mad Men is more psychological. In Game of Thrones women are physically and verbally punished for adhering to the rules.
Is this Martin’s own misogynic ideology shining through? Or is this an instance of world building? Perhaps Martin is creating such a terrible world for women because at some point he wants to tear it all down.