Is Game of Thrones Sexist? Part 7: Captive Heroines Shamed Into Submission
By Alex Cranz
Due to the length of the fifth book, Dance with Dragons, this article has been split into two parts. So save you’re “BUT WHAT ABOUT THIS CHARACTER” comments for tomorrow please. While you wait feel free to read the previous six parts. They’re fabulous…that might be my bias speaking.
A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t set in our world. Or any world remotely similar to our own. It is a world more akin to the 1100s. A world where Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most powerful person in the western hemisphere but the only way she could maintain that power was through marriage. The women of this fifth book, A Dance with Dragons find themselves in the same predicament. To varying degrees they hold immense power but they cannot exercise it themselves. They must use wit and cunning and men.
Asha, the sister of Theon, has fled her own homeland, which I once compared to a particularly zealous America, after losing the Kingsmoot (even though she was the ONLY smart person there) to escape a wedding and a pair of uncles who could and would murder or enslave her. Both men are not only horrific misogynists, their misanthropes too. They use all people as chattel, but women that are their equals, such as Asha, are especially worthless to them as anything more than a uterus.
She finds respite defending a valuable piece of land in the North, but she’s cut off from everything except an old boyfriend who foolishly fled Pyke with her. You know she really likes him because they like to do a little fantasy rape when bored. It is a…troublesome aspect of her character. Rape fantasies aren’t a very common trope in literature and it is really, really difficult to write about it without coming across as a little skeezy. I don’t think George R.R. Martin is too successful with it here. The psychology of “ravishment” fantasies are just way too complicated to be thrown in as a quick bit of titillation. And it definitely comes across not as a meaningful interlude in the life of this important character, but as a little bit of porn to grab your attention at the beginning of the chapter.
But that seems to be much of what Asha is. She’s flashy and titillating but wholly lacking in substance.
Most of her story through A Dance with Dragons is less about her and more about her being our eyes into Stannis’s world. She’s a recorder of history and not a player in it…despite her own hopes to the contrary. And she takes on the role with ease and dignity. She accepts her new lot in life as a perpetual prisoner. She even accepts that one day Stannis will grow tired of carting her ass around the North and marry her off in the most politically advantageous match he can conceive.
She is a woman bent and perhaps even broken by the patriarchal world in which she lives.
And at first glance Arianne Martell seems to be in much the same predicament. Like Asha she spends much of A Feast of Crows rejecting the world she’s been forced to operate in. Like Asha she seeks to create a new, and more harmonious world where women have the same rights afforded men. Unlike Asha she gladly uses every tool at her disposal to do it. Asha begs and barters, but Arianna lies and cheats and steals and even, in the end, is complicit in murder to achieve her goals.
And it all backfires for Arianne. She and her cousins, the super awesome sounding but yet to actually be awesome Sand Vipers, end up imprisoned by her father like children whom have acted out. I think we’re meant to empathize with Arianne, but her father and the books themselves infantilize her. There is such a wonderful build up around Arianne Martell and the world of Dorne. It’s supposed to be a haven of equality where women can take up arms and become queens.
Only it is more like 19th century industrialized Europe. Where yes, women could be queens and women could take up arms and wear pants, but only if they had massive political and financial clout before hand. Arianne and her cousins aren’t cool transgressors furthering gender equality in Westeros and beyond. They’re bargaining with the patriarchy*. Giving a little to get a little in return.
And they’re eventually smacked down firmly by the patriarchy they claim to supersede. Arianne spends much of the fourth book trapped in a tower like an insolent child. In the fifth book her father releases her and tells her his plans for revenge on the Lannisters. Yes, it’s great to see Doran show backbone and earn his daughter’s respect, but it’s also frustrating that Arianne becomes little more than her father’s lackey.
At least she, as a perpetual bargainer with the patriarchy, isn’t forced to walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing. Cersei Lannister’s downfall in A Feast of Crows felt natural–organic. She had everything but was overwhelmed by grief and ennui and she descended into alcoholism. In A Dance with Dragons she’s psychologically tortured into confessing her many “sins.” As this is Cersei Lannister–the most Machiavellian queen in fantasy literature–she’s careful to only confess to the bare minimum of sins required to get her released.
The thinly veiled Westeros approximation of the Catholic Pope agrees to release her if she makes a walk of penance.
So they shave every hair off her body and force her to walk naked through King’s Landing. It’s one of the most harrowing passages in any of the books to date. Cersei is so cruel and uncaring in A Feast of Crows that the idea of seeing her made to suffer might sound pretty great. This woman is capricious, foolish, a murderer and a misogynist of the highest order. She deserves some comeuppance.
Only her walk left me less satisfied and more thrilled by the character. She becomes, in her moment of absolute social shame, heroic.
They spoke of how the woman had wept and begged, of the desperate way she clung to her garments when she was commanded to disrobe, of her futile efforts to cover her breasts and her sex with her hands as she hobbled barefoot and naked through the streets to exile. “Vain and proud she was, before,” she remembered one guard saying, “so haughty you’d think she’d forgot she come from dirt. Once we got her clothes off her, though, she was just another whore.”
If Ser Kevan and the High Sparrow thought that it would be the same with her, they were very much mistaken. Lord Tywin’s blood was in her. I am a lioness. I will not cringe for them.
The queen shrugged off her robe.
For a self-hating drunk misogynist who committed her first murder before she was a teenager Cersei, in that moment exhibits more strength of character than nearly any of the other characters in the book. She’s long been the worst one when it comes to bargaining with society. She operates in the harmful patriarchal world and verbally condemns women who seek to break out from it.
She’s like Sansa in the first book only amplified. Everything we as a society are meant to find contemptuous about women distilled into one terrifying beautiful and evil creature. Her downfall can’t be like the downfall of male villains. Where male villains are swiftly put to death in a flurry of bloody action or, in the case of Jaimie Lannister, mutilated and turned into romantic heroes, villainesses must often be shamed into death.
Like the Evil Queen of Snow White. She’s not killed for her nastiness. No, she’s put in red-hot iron shoes and forced to dance herself to death at Snow White’s wedding. Or Anne Boleyn. As nasty a villain as ever seen if you take the word of 16th century Englishmen. She was publicly humiliated with accusations of incest and “sexual deviancy” before publicly executed. Her ex-husband provided no burial and then through a party to celebrate her death.
There is this compulsive need when handling female villains to not only kill them, but utterly ruin any positive reputation they may ever have had. So when Cersei is faced with such a fate she gives the finger to society and makes her walk. When she finally falls into the arms of what is very likely a zombified Gregor Clegane she weeps. Yes she’s sad because she was just verbally and physically harassed for an hour, but more than that she’s angry. Her power has been devastated and now her climb back to the top isn’t the machinations of an evil woman, but an angry woman out for revenge.
It feels like something that separates her from Asha and Arianne. All three women have fought tooth and nail to acquire power in societies that abhor women with power. To varying degrees they’ve been successful. But all three women saw their “luck” run out in the fourth book and spent this fifth book kowtowing to the whims of more powerful men. Where Asha and Arianne seemed cowered by their brushes with the patriarchy Cersei seems almost empowered. Asha accepted her fate. Arianne became her father’s confidant. Cersei got pissed.
It’s something she has in common with Daenerys. But we’ll talk about that in the next essay.
*Shout out to Society Images and Lisa Wade for popularizing the term “patriarchal bargain.”
Artwork Source [Daenerys-Mod]