An interesting question came up on Matt Yglesias’s recent AMA on reddit.
sexpansion: Do you think the criticism of A Song of Ice and Fire identifying it as misogynist is deserved/reasonable?
myglesias: I think a lot of the criticism I’ve read on this score is misguided—GRRM is mostly trying to depict the brutal realities of the setting. But as I got into the later books I do find the treatment of Cersei somewhat troubling.
Myself, I’m plodding through A Dance with Dragons during my off hours here in China, ever slowly becoming more and more paranoid that the whole series is going to go Wheel of Time on me, as the pages in each volume waxes on. Somehow I think a Mormon author might change the timbre of the novels a bit.
Cersei is indeed a troubling representation of female-kind, particularly in a Feast of Crows. She overtly uses her sexuality to advance herself, is emotionally unstable and uncontrolled, pushes away people who genuinely care about her, and is generally unpleasant. Yet none of these things matter so much to me as the simple fact that she fails; a stronger character earlier on, Cersei starts performing inexplicably poorly in the “game of thrones” after Joffrey’s death. So it’s not her slew of morally and personally corrupt actions that make her troublesome, because many of the other characters do horrible things, but the fact that she’s acting like a total idiot that makes me think “Whatcha trying to say here, Georgie?”
But then, failure isn’t exactly a prophecy only for the dishonorable in the series, so I’ve not let it bother me that much. And I don’t know what the rest of the series has in store for her character either, so I can’t judge (but I do hope it looks something more like this.)
But, I digress, because the real motivation for this post is to talk about the thing that annoys me most about women in the whole Song series, and it has nothing to do with empowerment, or morality, or likability. It has to do with the fact that GRR has decided to litter his monolithic series with random implausible scenes of his leading ladies having sex with various of their handmaidens. It’s something out of a short story hidden within an issue of Playboy. ”Plotting, plotting, plotting, sex with a handmaiden, plotting, plotting…” The scenes are so awkwardly written and out of the blue that it comes off a direct appeal to the nether regions of his male fandom rather than the result of artistic intent or an exploration of the complexities of female friendship and sexuality.
I’ve always found that these things can ruin a good book, no matter how brilliant the other 99.9% of the content. An alternative example of this would be Jenna Jameson’s autobiography “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star.” Most of the book is a heart-wrenching story about “a dark and chaotic world where rape, abuse, and murder were commonplace” (according to the book flap), and I have to admit to being surprised by how emotionally impactful most of the story was. However, tossed into the surprisingly lengthy monologue are a set of abrupt and random love scenes between her and various other famous porn stars of the time, obviously geared toward the reader who purchased the book more interested in Jenna’s trade than her tale. It read like the book was written by three people: Jenna, her hardworking ghostwriter, and some dunce that the publisher hired to make sure they could “fully leverage her image.”
So maybe GRR had his eye on commerce rather than art when writing those scenes. Maybe he even knew about the sweet HBO deal in the works, and started writing a story sculpted for moving image rather than text. It wouldn’t be the first time, but in most cases it ends poorly.
Despite my kvetching, the treatment of women ranks pretty low on my list of things that annoy me about the Song series— there are a host of other problems I have with the way the book is written. If I had to pick, I’m far more pissed about being forced to read 20 pages of exacting description regarding the geography of Dorne or even more pages about the marine based religion of the Iron Islands. Does Martin even have an editor? Misogyny I can forgive. Awkward sex scenes I can forgive. Boredom though, is deadlier than Valyrian steel.
Which begs the question, why am I still even bothering to read the rest of the series? Because, my friend, epic fantasy series are like bad boyfriends— once you committed a long period of of your time and energy to one, the thought of the opportunity cost alone is enough to compel you to see it to its misogynistic, sexually awkward, or just plain boring end.