When I first read the Song of Ice and Fire books by George RR Martin, I was pretty much entranced by them. I was unemployed at the time, and had nothing to do every day but send out job applications, play Red Dead Redemption, and read books– so I ended up reading every book in the entire series in two weeks flat, finishing just two days before the most recent entry in the series– A Dance With Dragons– came out. So I read that right away, too. For just under three weeks, I spent about 75% of my waking hours in Westeros. I had entered one of those weird fiction-induced flow states where nothing in the real world seems quite real, and your imagination seems more physically powerful than any of your actual muscles.
About a week after I finished the books, the glow wore off, and I started having serious misgivings about what I’d read. Namely, the fact that practically every female character in every one of those books is raped or at the very least threatened with sexual violence, like, all the goddamn time! When you look back and see exactly how often rape is brought up in those books– how often it is used as a weapon against people of both sexes, but far more often against women– it gets really disturbing. It really began to wear me down, no matter how hard I tried to focus on the book’s good parts.
So I started reading up on critical responses to the ASOIAF books to see if anyone else had picked up on this, and was gratified to see that a lot of people, actually, had. This humorous article covered my misgivings most comprehensively, pointing out the books’s sheer, overpowering amount of rape, the amount of slut-shaming, the stereotype-riddled characterization of most of the major women, and the similar bizarre stereotyping of the (rare) plucky lady adventuress heroes.
This article spoke so clearly to my growing misgivings that I simply had to share it on Facebook, which I did, only to discover that this made at least one of my Facebook acquaintances nuclearly angry that I would dare criticize a “medieval” story which has “gritty realism,” because GRRM is only trying to be “authentic”.
Now, I studied medieval and early modern Europe for four years in college, culminating in a focus on cultural history (history as it is expressed by the cultural productions of the era, including plays, church records, bible translations, pamphlets, newspapers, etc), so I am very familiar with how women were treated and thought of at that time. Yes, it was bad, but women were not actually getting raped every minute. Some of them even managed to defeat the restrictive bounds of their patriarchal cultures and wield actual power and get serious respect. Sometimes they subverted their patriarchal culture in exciting ways which I wish were better-known and more-admired. I don’t know if it’s bizarre enlightened foolishness which makes us think that the past was an uninterrupted orgy of violence and oppression, but it wasn’t. When you take a step back and look at the great diversity of world cultures, the past wasn’t even consistently sexist or homophobic. And though those moments were rare, we should seek them out and celebrate them and hold them up for everyone to see. Pretending that the past has always been completely bad sometimes ends up working to the disadvantage of progress, by subtly validating modern oppression. I’ve seen that kind of thing happen a lot with regards to the areas of my own study. I’ve seen people sighing that the past was bad, so we shouldn’t be too disappointed by a lack of progress in the present. I’ve seen people using their imaginary vision of the past to justify fucked-up fantasy worlds in the present. And when those fantasy worlds get as popular as GRRM’s have, it’s a problem. Medieval European culture in particular wasn’t the torrent of abhorrent violence you’d believe it was if you took GRRM’s books for actual commentary about the past.
Because they’re not, really. They’re superficially medieval political dramas, and the past has practically nothing to do with the plots and characters in the story. 100% of the stuff in the book is the pure creative creation of GRRM himself. As Tiger Beatdown put it in the article linked above,
A Song of Ice and Fire is known for being “gritty” and “authentic,” so really, aren’t I just objecting to the realism? Reader, here are the things that George R. R. Martin changed about Ye Olde Medieval Europe, when he set out to write A Song of Ice and Fire: Religion. Geography. History. Politics. Zombies. Werewolves. Dragons. At one point, when asked why his characters were taller, healthier, and longer-lived than actual Medieval people, George R. R. Martin explained that human genetics and biology do not work the same way in Westeros as they do in the real world. So George R. R. Martin considered that he could change all of that while maintaining “authenticity.” Here’s what he left in, however: Institutionalized pedophilia.
Everything in those books was put there deliberately by a man who is clearly very experienced at his craft. So it’s not accidental: GRRM wanted to write a story in a world where rape and the oppression of women and female children are common, everyday things. That’s the kind of imaginary world he cooked up in his head. And there’s nothing ‘authentic to the past’ about it. So what the fuck, I ask you, is going on in his head?
I feel that the only reason to have a story set in a world where rape normalized is if you’re going to make some kind of point about how rape is actually bad. Like, the only excuse I can see for ASOIAF’s rapeyness is if in the very last book, all the female characters get up and announce “all y’all rapey men SUCK, do you hear,” and then they take over the world and put all the rapists in jail. Because if this isn’t some long game on GRRM’s part to tell a slow parable about how terrible rape and patriarchy are, there is really no excuse for this shit in a story written in and told to the modern world.
I am totally serious about this. If we are committed to changing bad cultural shit in our own time, we have to express that stuff in our stories. The future lives partially in our inventions. Gene Roddenberry’s idealism in Star Trek is a great example of this: his stories broke the taboos of their age, changed television standards, and so inspired the world that they resulted in the creation of an actual spaceship named Enterprise. If you can’t imagine a just world for your fantasies, are you committed to bringing about justice in the real world? I’d say: no. You are not. You are basically celebrating bad stuff, actually. Unless you are telling, as I said, a long parable, and one of the punchlines is “oppression is bad!”
I bring this all up now because I’ve had the joy of reading a couple of fantastic fantasy books set in a world where gender equality is normal, homophobia is absolutely nonexistent, the only time (that I can remember) that rape is mentioned is when someone says you can’t do that, and half the important characters are complex women with real goals and skills and (about 99% of the time) actual personalities. The books? The Gentleman Bastards series by Scott Lynch.
These two (soon to be three) stories are superficially based on medieval/early modern Italian city-states– just as superficially as GRRM’s magical land is based on England. They center around a group of con men who have crazy caper-y adventures stealing loads of gold from rich people in years-long cons full of false identities, magical traps, crazy contraptions, sneaky plots, and last-minute game-changing reveals. They’re pretty much excellent– excellently written, excellently imagined– and they’re even more excellent because they’re full of so much goddamn JUSTICE, particularly when it comes to gender equality and LGBT rights.
The first book in the series features: a mafioso’s clever daughter who is expected to grow up to be chief of thieves herself, a pair of female gladiators with a secret, a noblewoman who is basically the family moneymaker due to her crazy alchemy/botany skills, and one extremely powerful and important politician woman who I can’t talk about without revealing secrets about the story. The book is filled with mentions of female guards walking around with spears and swords. It includes female thieves, lots and lots of gladiators who are women, and more. Wherever Lynch has a chance to point out yes, both genders can accomplish this thing, both genders are accomplishing that thing, right there in front of your face. There are also a number of sidelong references to the fact that in this universe, homosexuality is just dandy, and celebrated right alongside heterosexuality.
The second book takes it up a notch. We learn, early on, that sailors in this universe believe it is an unforgivable sin to go to sea without many many women on your ship. If you are not on sea with women, the god of the sea will get so pissed at you that he will fucking destroy you! So, naturally, there are tons of women on every ship, many in leadership positions, and everyone is cool with them reaching great heights of power and influence. One of the most important characters in the story is a woman who is a pirate and a mother and whose three-year-old kids are on the ship with her. In some scenes, she goes straight from stabbing people to feeding her kids dinner, and everyone takes this in stride. She is part of a pirate’s council where most of the captains are women. Also in this story: lady soldiers, politically powerful lady naval officers, a disabled lady ex-soldier who is a casino security master who replaced her injured hand with a fucking robo-arm that she fights people with, a lady pirate captain who is a lesbian, various bisexual and gay pirates, and on and on and on: just loads and loads of rock-solid idealistic fantasy flying around.
Now, it is possible to read books like the Gentleman Bastards series and say “well, okay, but all the main characters are still men, so this isn’t idealistic enough for me.” But I’m willing to take this victory and enjoy the show. It’s also possible to say “well, if you want us to imagine idealistic universes, why are you stopping with gender and sexuality? Why aren’t you pissed off that there are poor people in this story, or cruel dictators, or torture?” But again, I’m willing to say that this thing, right now, is pretty great, and we shouldn’t knock it. Every story will need to have challenges for its protagonists to overcome, so there’s no point in writing a story set in a perfectly idealistic world. But there is a point in helping us imagine ways in which cruelty and oppression can be overcome by showing it in the story. And when it comes to gender and sexuality, a great way to show that is to simply show a universe where most people, to be frank, are better and kinder than we are.
If GRRM doesn’t have the strength, conviction, or vision to imagine such a world, whatever. Fuck that guy. I’ll be reading The Gentleman Bastards instead.