Is Game of Thrones Sexist? Part 4: Fairy Tales Subverted
By Alex Cranz
An eight part series examining sexism, misogyny and feminism in A Song of Ice and Fire. Due to the length of A Storm of Swords the examination of the book has been divided into two parts. In this first part we examine the fairy tales George R.R. Martin tells in A Storm of Swords.
Narratively A Storm of Swords is gargantuan. There’s enough happening in this novel to cover three books. Significant, world altering events seem to happen every chapter and the break neck pace doesn’t let up until the final page.
In A Game of Thrones the narrative is largely focused on Ned Stark. Others share the spotlight but he’s clearly the central character. Tyrion Lannister takes the reigns in A Clash of Kings, again sharing the story, but largely being the central character.
But A Storm of Swords is so expansive that no one character stands out as the central one. At some points it seems like it might be Jaimie, at others it could be Sansa or Catelyn or Daenerys but things move quickly and the story never settles. What does stand out is the devotion to romance. In the past stories the romance, the genuine, swoon worthy affair, has been almost entirely absent. Ned and Catelyn had their courtly romance and Daenerys had her romance novel moments, but these were small things and limited to the background for the most part.
In A Storm of Swords a fairytale style romance unfolds. It’s a riff on Beauty and the Beast, but it’s sweet and in A Song of Ice and Fire sweetness is enough to make it noteworthy. It’s also chooses to subvert the trope and reverse the gender roles to an extent.
Jaimie Lannister is beautiful. He’s so beautiful that even other heterosexual males comment on his looks. He’s the dreamboat of Westeros. A dashing knight with good looks, a great title and enough money to buy the nation a few times over. But though Jaimie is physically a Beauty he’s also quite the Beast. He murdered a king, attempted to kill a child, slept with his sister, and in A Storm of Swords he unleashes a vicious and cruel tongue. Jaimie isn’t nice or kind at the beginning of the book. It’s only as the story unfolds and his chaste romance develops that Jaimie warms.
The physical Beast of the romance is Brienne of Tarth. As mentioned previously, Brienne is unattractive. Her appearance is so ugly that Catelyn Tully, the kindest and most affable character in the books, is horrified by her. Brienne is a step away from requiring a paper bag for a hat. Martin gleefully rips into her appearance at every opportunity, bemoaning her lack of curves, and her masculine shoulders and her limp hair. While he describes Jaimie as an Adonis he makes Brienne out to be sort of gorgon.
And then Martin makes her one of the kindest characters in the book and one of the best fighters. Brienne may be unattractive physically but she makes up for it in kindness and genuineness and cleverness. And as she travels with Jaimie affection unfolds between them. They’re kindred spirits as they’re both outsiders. She because of her appearance and he because of his past deeds. Each senses something good in the other even as they battle their own revulsion.
Their relationship culminates in one of the most romantic moments at any point in the series. Brienne has been left in the “care” of nasty mercenaries and Jaimie has been given his freedom and allowed to return to his family. Only then he has a dream and races back to save Brienne, who’s being forced to fight a bear with a wooden sword. Jaimie leaps into the bear pit and forces Brienne’s captors to kill the bear, effectively rescuing Brienne. When she asks why he’d do such a thing he says simply, “I dreamed of you.”
Brienne is meant, in many ways, to embody the Maid, the winsome young virgin who men fight for and women envy, and is in perpetual need of a rescue. She’s young, a virgin, and Jaimie bravely rescues her. But Brienne is also a subversion of the stereotype. She’s not physically attractive, she often times plays the role of the “knight” (see her relationship with Renly and Catelyn) and she rescues Jaimie as often as he rescues her. Like Beauty, she saves her Beast spiritually. Jaimie’s time spent with Brienne profoundly changes him (this is made explicit in the next book), but she goes a step further then Beauty and actually physically saves him as well.
It’s a manipulation of a familiar tale and it so warps one of the most classic fairy tales that even Sansa, the series’ expert on fairy tales, would be horrified for how things veer.
But Sansa is busy being a puppet at King’s Landing and trying to survive the viper’s nest she’s found herself in. She’s also losing the very last bit of innocence she maintained. Throughout the series Sansa has been the whipping girl. The way her life is systematically deconstructed makes it seem as though George R.R. Martin has a vendetta against naive teenage girls.
In A Storm of Swords Sansa assumes she’s found an honest to goodness knight and savior in the form of a drunk old man. They take on the names of a famous pair of lovers and have secret rendezvous so they can plan Sansa’s escape from the lion’s den. She’s also, seemingly, found respite in the company of the new queen and her many beautiful followers.
Sansa allows herself to dream a little. To hope that all these new “friends” might actually rescue her. Though she often reminds herself to trust no one, she inevitably trusts everyone. That innate Sansa optimism rears its head and two thirds of the way through the book Littlefinger thoroughly crushes it.
Until this point Sansa has been a horror. She’s a fairy tale princess thrust into a world of grit and death. She’s the other side of the “Maid” coin that Brienne occupies. Brienne is the only kind of Maid that can exist successfully in Martin’s world. Sansa is the traditional Maid and in A Storm of Swords her existence is destroyed.
But when is the exact moment it occurs? Is it when her drunken knight ruthlessly delivers her to Littlefinger? Or when Littlefinger explains his plot and admits to starting the war that’s consumed Westeros? Or perhaps it’s when she witnesses the “rise” and fall of her aunt. By the end of the book every bit of optimism Sansa still possessed has been turned to cynicism and wariness.
Oddly enough the only character to note, and even mourn, her descent into cynicism is Tyrion Lannister, her new husband.
Their marriage is…difficult. Because in many ways it’s the marriage Ned Stark often promised his daughter. A good-hearted and successful man who could protect her. But Tyrion is also extremely unattractive (crossing my fingers he and Brienne eventually have an ugly off) and something of a murderer.
Like Jaimie and Brienne, Tyrion and Sansa are framed as a story of Beauty and the Beast–though their version of the story is much more traditional. Tyrion is immediately enchanted by his new wife, but she is repulsed by him. Unlike Jaimie and Brienne, feelings are in no way mutual, and when Sansa escapes King’s Landing her escape from Tyrion is one of the only things she’s happy about.
It makes sense though. The Maid trope that Sansa embodies has no place in Martin’s world, and any happy story she might inhabit can, therefore, not exist in that world either.
So while she and Brienne are very much the same, Sansa will always be dominated by cynicism and Brienne will always be allowed to maintain her optimism. The commonalities they share don’t feel like an accident. Rather it feels like Martin is “condemning” the pretty and the shallow and exalting the shy and unattractive. This seems fair enough until you realize that Jaimie and Tyrion are sides of the same coin as well. They are both the “Knight” but both subverted. But where Jaimie, the pretty but evil knight is allowed redemption, Sansa, the vain and vapid Maid is not. In fact by the end of the book Jaimie has suffered and paid his dues and sees a new day dawning. Sansa, also sees a new day, but its made clear that her suffering will not end any time soon. It’s a blatant bit of inequality.