Much has been written about the feminism (or lack thereof) of George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. Set in the pseudo-medieval land of Westeros, the series chronicles the intrigue and warfare surrounding the iron throne, the key to controlling the seven kingdoms. On the surface, the story bears all the markers of typical epic fantasy: there are knights, dragons, princesses, and their ilk. The story spans years and includes a sprawling cast of characters spread out over multiple continents. If you stopped your analysis there, the series wouldn’t seem much different from the countless other genre works that deal with similar themes.
And Westeros is a brutal, unfeminist world, that much is certain. Only rich, titled men able to hold a sword hold any real power, violence and rape are threatened daily, and no one, least of all main characters, are safe from harm. This is not a world in which gender equality will be achieved in any meaningful, institutional way.
But what sets the series apart—and, in my opinion, lends it its feminist cred—is how the world is portrayed. There are over thirty point-of-view characters through which we get to see this world, and almost all are in some way disenfranchised. Some are women in a land where they are treated as little better than chattel, some are illegitimate or grew up in abject poverty (and are therefore lacking in the class capital that enables easy movement through the nobility), some have disabilities or deviate from the accepted norm in some other way. The world of Westeros may not feminist, but it never goes uncriticized. We see these characters punished by this world, we see them struggle and fight against it, or see them find clever ways of circumventing its oppressive nature. It is these struggles that make the reading worthwhile, and give rise to a stunning number of characters the likes of which are rarely seen in the genre.
For their part, whether you love to hate them, or hate to love them (because they will undoubtedly be sacrificed in the next chapter), the women of ASOIAF are wonderful, fully fleshed-out characters, each with her own skills, desires, and motivations. Each is compelling in her own unique way, and instead of writing an ode to every character individually, I thought I’d wax poetic about the collective greatness all in one sitting (or two).
(Note: It goes without saying that spoilers will abound, so make sure you’re up to date.)
“Every pain is a lesson, and every lesson makes you better.”
As much as crowd-pleaser Arya is one of my personal favourites, her character could have very easily fallen into the Strong Female Character trap. Little, tough, and unfeminine, it was clear from very early on that Arya was never going to be the modest and well-bred lady. Very quickly, she had to learn how to survive outside of a castle’s walls, passing as a boy in order to move more freely through the countryside. She’s one of the more wish-fulfilling characters in the series, but thankfully, Arya has her limitations. As much as she’d love to be a no-holds-barred, sword-swinging force of nature, she’s nine years old, has had little combat experience, and is physically very small. When she gambles, she loses as often as she wins, and her growth as a character is the richer for it.
Arya shows the consequences of being on the front lines of so much death and bloodshed. Even as she flees to the free city of Braavos, her experiences change her. Though she makes the best of it, it takes a certain kind of damaged human being to begin training as a Faceless Man, a religious order of assassins with the ability to change their appearance. She begins to sublimate her entire identity (an identity that the violence of Westeros has forced her to reinvent more than once) to become a honed killer. Arya is the tomboy, but without the innocence that makes tomboys seem unthreatening. The little lady she was taught to be would not have survived, so Arya became someone different, someone who, with a little more training, will be very fearsome indeed.
“My skin has turned to porcelain, to ivory, to steel.”
“Their dreams were full of songs and stories, the way hers had been before Joffrey cut her father’s head off. Sansa pitied them. Sansa envied them.”
Sansa Stark begins the series as a naïve, spoiled brat who lies and aligns herself with Monster King Joffrey in a vain attempt at a fairytale ending. At the start, she’s untrustworthy and unsympathetic, but that doesn’t last for long.
How do you know Sansa’s a badass? She’s still alive. What eleven-year-old realistically has the self-possession to navigate the Lannister minefield of King’s Landing? One who’s clever, intuitive, and can sense threats better than most adults. Sansa is magnificent, but because her weapons of choice are kindness and courtesy, her strength is so often overlooked.
She’s grown up listening to tales of brave, virtuous men who would take care of her, of tournaments and beauty and courtly love. She drank the misogynistic Kool-Aid in a big way (as a child is wont to do) and, after the death of her father, her awakening is understandably rude. But she so very quickly learns to manage, to survive, to fend for herself in an environment that is just as perilous as the one her sister Arya is facing, and she does it much more successfully than her father ever did. So yes, Sansa is a girl. She’s even a girly girl. She loves dresses and lemon cakes and sweet smelling things. But who exactly decided that was a bad thing, a weak thing?
“You have courage. Not battle courage perhaps but… I don’t know… a kind of woman’s courage.”
Clear-headed and intelligent, Catelyn stands out as the character who is most consistently aware of the political clime in which she operates. Whether counselling her husband or her son, she offers solid advice based on her experience and resourcefulness, advice that, due to her very conservative roles of wife and mother, often go unheeded. Her son Robb’s dealings with both Theon Greyjoy and Walder Frey would have been vastly different if he lived in a world that hadn’t taught him to consider taking his mother’s advice a sign of weakness. Eddard Stark could very well still be among the living if he’d spent a little more time considering his wife’s point of view.
Despite knowing what the repercussions of her actions will be, she is fiercely committed to the safety of her children, and that in itself is bravery. Time and time again she displays a single-mindedness that, once she is brought back to life and adopts the mantle of Lady Stoneheart, becomes obsessive and potentially destructive. But it is Catelyn’s imperfections that make her so human. Being a devoted mother doesn’t immediately sweep away whatever pettiness and prejudice she may have (and nowhere is that more clear than in her treatment of John Snow). And wanting the best for her children, not to mention vengeance when she believes them all lost to her, blinds her otherwise good judgement. In a perfect world, Catelyn would have been able to protect her brood, but even an undead leader of a band of outlaws can’t anticipate how cruel and unyielding Westeros can be.
“Tears, the woman’s weapon, my lady mother used to call them. The man’s weapon is a sword. And that tells us all you need to know, doesn’t it?”
“She had played the dutiful daughter, the blushing bride, the pliant wife… all the while promising herself that one day it would be her turn.”
Let’s be real, Cersei Lannister is fun to hate. Selfish and greedy, perhaps her only redeeming quality is the loyalty she feels for her family. When grasping ambition is coupled with a complete disregard for the welfare of others, you’ve got the makings of a spectacular villain.
For Cersei’s whole life, she’s been taught that her value lies in her youth and beauty, and it’s telling that its in her middle age that she begins to push for something more tangible. She’s fearless, she’s bold, she’s recalcitrant. She’s been denied the true power she thinks she deserves (and she’s right to say she’s her father’s most suitable heir) and it’s made her bitter, resentful, and reckless. And not being able to command true respect has made her unable to know when enough is enough. She’s totally unprepared for the demands of the throne. Coupled with her grief over her family dropping like flies and her growing alcoholism, once she gets her hands on the Iron Throne she becomes a paranoid, ruthless monarch who’s going to alienate the very allies she needs. When, invariably, her kingdoms do fall into ruin, Cersei’s comeuppance is sweet.
True to ASOIAF fashion, Cersei only becomes a point-of view-character once she is no longer the perfect, golden queen, once she has been thoroughly defeated (or so her enemies think). But even time in jail, a naked-and-shorn walk of shame through the city streets, and an impending trial-by-combat can’t cow the lioness.
“All these kings would do a deal better if they put down their swords and listened to their mothers.”
“‘Grandmother, why do they call you the Queen of Thorns?’ The old woman patted her on the cheek. ‘My dear girl,’ she said, ‘what else is left after the roses fall?'”
Though definitely not a primary character, Olenna Tyrell steals every scene the minute she crops up in A Storm of Swords. Clever, sarcastic, and utterly unafraid, it doesn’t take long for the Tyrell matriarch to establish herself as the character to beat when it comes to political machinations or verbal sparring. You aren’t just given “the Queen of Thorns” as a nickname. You have to earn it.
Her family is powerful, wealthy, and has consistently backed the Lannisters into a corner, a fact of which Olenna is perfectly aware. In the later books, there isn’t one King’s Landing plot that, seemingly, doesn’t involve the Tyrells, and under the guidance of Olenna, the family isn’t shy about exerting its considerable influence.
The Tyrells also stand apart for their network of female relationships. Headed by Olenna, there always seem to be several Tyrell nieces and friends there for solidarity. It’s one of the loveliest support systems in the series, and one that is in place due to the respect commanded by the Queen of Thorns. Olenna is too old to waste time and equivocate, and for her no-nonsense attitude, she’s perhaps the most enjoyable character in all the seven kingdoms. (Plus, she is potentially Joffrey’s killer, and that in itself is enough to earn her my undying devotion.)