What’s Really Wrong with ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’

~by Ryan B.

Lots of spoilers for the whole series, up to and including A Dance with Dragons. Reader beware.

KhalDrogo

Now that we’re past our contretemps of the last few days, maybe it’s time to talk about things that are actually are kind of problematic in A Song of Ice and Fire. Sean T. Collins over at All Leather Must Be Boiled kicks it off:

The main problem with Martin’s depiction of the Dothraki and the other Eastern cultures isn’t that they’re shown to be inherently barbaric or decadent as opposed to the Seven Kingdoms.

I’m not sure if this misses the mark or not. To some extent, the Dothraki are shown to be barbaric in a way the Westerosi aren’t. Rape and pillage are tolerated to some extent in Westeros as the wages of war, but they are never quite sanctioned from above, as they say. In the first book, Ned Stark considers the antics of Gregor Clegane monstrous enough to declare him a traitor and sentence him to death. On the other side of the Narrow Sea, the only person who even bothers to make note that raping the conquered isn’t kosher is Dany, the white lady.

This goes for slavery as well. Jorah Mormont goes into exile rather than die for the crime of enslaving others (a sentence declared, again, by Ned Stark, which raises the possibility that the major difference between Westeros and Essos is… Ned). Again, the only person in Essos who is ever particularly troubled by the existence of slavery is… Dany (notice a pattern?).

Beyond that, Drogo is a pretty quintessential Noble Savage. Of all his people, he is the one who seems to want consent before sex (in the book, at least; the TV show doesn’t even bother). He is the one who accedes to Dany’s demand that Mirri Maz Duur be spared from her rapists. And so on.

Collins addresses two more points quickly at the end of his post as well:

1) I think Dany’s experiences in Slaver’s Bay are riddled with enough mistakes and bad acts that she’s at least as much destroyer as savior; 2) It’s okay to root for a villain now and then, especially one whose villainy is complicated by her obvious, realistically portrayed mental illness.

It’s somewhat difficult for me to put my finger on exactly what is wrong with Dany’s character, but it’s a gigantic thing nonetheless. She is sort of a white savior, as noted above, but she’s also an idiot, in that everything she touches blows up in her face (Mirri Maz Duur, the freeing of the slaves, sticking around in Meereen instead of pushing through to Westeros). There’s nothing wrong with being an idiot, either (in the sense that a lot of characters – *cough* Ned * cough* – are idiots), but she never suffers much for it. Sure, some friends die, but she more or less comes out of it okay, dragons intact, etc. And the entire Daario subplot throughout A Dance with Dragons is just plain squicky. Again, I’m not sure exactly what the issue is, but a feminist icon she ain’t.

Finally, speaking of feminist icons, one of Martin’s biggest misses has to be Cersei. She is quite possibly the only viewpoint character who is completely unsympathetic. Jaime, the Kingslayer, is transformed into a kind of anti-hero, but Cersei – who is pretty well-placed to become an actual feminist icon in the story – is just thoroughly rotten. She claims to love her kids, but she never does much to demonstrate it. She claims to love Jaime, but she clearly doesn’t. She is awful to her other brother, paranoid in the extreme, and clinically insane to boot. I don’t know if it says more about Martin or me that her shaming in ADWD left me completely cold. That would have been wrenching if it were any other female character, but for Cersei? She tried to use the staggeringly unjust law that says a queen can’t be unfaithful to a king, while his infidelity goes completely unpunished, against another woman and was punished when the entire plan blew up in her face. The law and its consequences may be horrible, but the wronged party here is much more Margaery than it is Cersei.

The Problem of Cersei is actually the thing that bothers me the most. Having watched the TV show, I see the ways in which she can be made a real character. Robert was a thoroughgoing bastard, she was essentially forced to marry someone who didn’t love her and didn’t even give her a chance to love him, she is always second fiddle to the men around her, and so on. But this is not necessarily the case in the books. We can infer that her relationship with Robert embittered her, but it’s not clear that she ever made an effort either. We are told repeatedly in her POV chapters that she wouldn’t have as much trouble if she were a man, but it’s never clear how much trouble she has as a woman. She rules the realm for substantial portions of the series, gets her way pretty much all the time, and the subplot with the church is largely her own fault.

These books are great. They hold up a mirror to our own world and invite discussion of its faults. But they aren’t perfect. They also suffer from the faults they are often trying to expose. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we’re willing to talk about it. I’m hopeful that there are civil ways for us to do this.

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55 thoughts on “What’s Really Wrong with ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’

  1. Drogo, and the Dothraki fit under:
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ProudWarriorRaceGuy
    remember, drogo thinks that rape is “fun timez” and that stealing from the lambkin is a good thing.

    I don’t think that rape is quite as prevalent among the Dothraki as a people (raping other villages is one thing, but raping your own is improbable, as it would lead to way too many babies to take care of.)

    Yes, Ned and Dany seem to be our two touchstones for a version of morality… that nobody else seems to share.

    I hate Dany’s storylines, because she is so blasted isolated. Tyrion INTERACTS, so does Sansa, so does Theon, for goodness sakes! Jon interacts, even when he’s *spoiler* *spoiler*.

    Cersei in the book isn’t someone you’re supposed to like. However, I think it is apparent the ways that she doesn’t have power, that if she was a man she would.
    1) If she was a man, she could speak and everyone would obey (they did robert, mind).
    2) If she was a man, she wouldn’t have to hide behind her sons, and get them to do her will. (that she’s good at that is rather immaterial)
    3) If she was a man, she could kill people herself, not have them poisoned or need to rely on champions.

    A man is self sufficient in that society (look at The Blackfish), and a woman is not (normally, Mormont and Brienne the exception that proves the rule)

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  2. A question: has it ever been made clear in anything Martin has commented, supplemental writings or even readings of the book that I haven’t thought of how Mirri Maz Duur was involved in Drogo dying? I mean I know he had a wound, it festered and he would have died from it. My question is did she try to heal it and fail, simply not try to heal it while saying she was trying or try to make it worse and succeed?

    As for Daeny, it bears remembering that she was/is a very young woman. I actually kind of liked the Daario subplot in that it showed her consciously choosing bedmates for herself and claiming some agency in her relationships.

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    • I’m not sure if Mirri takes credit for killing Drogo specifically, but she certainly takes credit for effing up Dany’s life. She gives that awesome little speech about how the rape wasn’t exactly the worst part of having your people wiped out or enslaved, and then raped.

      The Daario thing strikes me as particularly grody because she’s so submissive. She won’t make decisions without him, she is constantly moping about him, etc. It’s not that she chooses him so much as it’s that she can’t function without him.

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      • Well Daario and Daeny strike me as being somewhat stereotypical of a normal teenage girl thing. He’s her first chosen boyfriend and her behavior about him is kindof stereotypically typical of a teenage girl with her first crush.

        As for Mirri I agree she certainly takes credit for unleashing her revenge on her tormenters. I’d submit that Dany’s life being effed up was more an incidental side effect than a goal of Mirri’s actions.

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  3. I’m not really sure about the implications of Cersei for feminist thought. It’s as if Martin has gone out of his way to show us a character who clearly believes that her “problems” are because she’s a woman. But despite the fact that this is a rather uncomfortably probable belief given the setting, it’s also completely wrong. Cersei’s “problems,” to the extent that they’re real at all, have far more to do with her own incompetence and paranoia than they do with her gender. Yes, people resist her commands, but that’s because the vast majority of the time they’re idiotic. This isn’t that different from what happens to men in similar positions of authority. Hell, Aerys II was overthrown basically for being nuts, gender be damned.

    But then we get to Asha, a character who really does seem to get the short end of the gender stick, but who is nonetheless almost entirely admirable. It’s almost as if Martin is saying that yes, this world really does give women a raw deal, but that this is not a sufficient condition to explain their situations on an individual level. The only reason Cersei didn’t fulfill her ambitions is because she was a fool, not because she was a woman, and despite the fact that Asha’s gender probably will prevent her from fulfilling her ambitions, she remains an important character with the potential for greatness.

    A story that unflinchingly depicts a world where women are socially oppressed yet still recognizes their agency? What are the feminists complaining about?

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    • I saw a few feminists turning off the show with teh comment “too much rape” (first ep. their perogative. it’s not for everyone).
      Then I saw ten million (yes, exaggeration) “I love this new feminist show!” posts.
      Then there was Sady Doyle, who appears to be having a “but there was no knife” argument about Tyrion (social psychology: referencing how much time someone thought a kniferobber ought to get in prison being directly related to how long they thought the knife was. The lenght of the knife not being mentioned in story).
      And then there’s the fifteen people after her, saying “I like this story, lets talk about problems!”

      FWIW, the TV show has been so over the top in it’s sexposition that everyone seems sick of it. And taht includes the people who found it hot.

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      • “FWIW, the TV show has been so over the top in it’s sexposition that everyone seems sick of it. And taht includes the people who found it hot.”

        Umm, no. Did you see Rome? Deadwood? Spartacus? Not to sound like a perv, but I don’t think it’s over the top. Just my opinion.

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  4. Again, the only person in Essos who is ever particularly troubled by the existence of slavery is… Dany (notice a pattern?).

    That’s not true. Braavos (the richest and most powerful of the Free Cities) is explicitly anti-slavery, having been founded by escaped slaves from the Valyrian Empire. That comes up several times in A Dance with Dragons:

    1. Braavosi merchants won’t stop in Slavers’ Bay.

    2. When a ship carrying slaves drifts into Braavos following a storm, all the slaves are liberated and the captain is executed IIRC.

    3. Braavos forced Pentos to give up slavery as part of a peace treaty 100 years earlier (Pentos hasn’t been entirely honest in its compliance).

    She is sort of a white savior, as noted above, but she’s also an idiot, in that everything she touches blows up in her face (Mirri Maz Duur, the freeing of the slaves, sticking around in Meereen instead of pushing through to Westeros).

    These are all very understandable decisions on her part, though (and it’s important to remember that she’s 16, and had basically no experience or training to rule before ending up as Drogo’s wife). It wasn’t all bad, either – she has an army of former Unsullied who will pretty much follow her to hell and back.

    I disagree about Cersei, too. I think she’s entirely understandable . . . even if you think she’s a vile, evil person. She does love Tommen, but it’s tainted by the protectiveness and paranoia that she has developed due to her first son being murdered right in front of her (a murder that Margaery had her part in, no doubt).

    But this is not necessarily the case in the books. We can infer that her relationship with Robert embittered her, but it’s not clear that she ever made an effort either.

    Part of that is true (I don’t think Cersei ever loved Robert, and she was never faithful to him), but it’s not as if Robert was ever really faithful or kind to her. He ignored her most of the time, and then more or less tried to drunkenly rape her on occasion.

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  5. [Dany] never suffers much for it

    Other than losing her husband and child, becoming sterile, and losing her position as Khalesi to become a refugee, you mean?

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  6. I don’t know if it says more about Martin or me that her shaming in ADWD left me completely cold.

    What struck me is that the worst part of the shaming for Cersei is that people realized that she’s starting to look middle-aged. I hadn’t realized before how much of her hatred of Margery is not wanting to be supplanted by a younger woman as the beautiful queen.

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    • I thought that was pretty clear. She’s been obsessed with that fortune teller’s prediction for at least half her life at this point, the key line of which was “Queen you shall be . . . until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear.”

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  7. Just read your post, which I think is interesting, but I have a couple criticisms.

    A. I thought Dany’s objection to slavery had more to do with personal experience of essentially being sold by her brother than being “white” or westerosi. Notably both Viserys and Jorah enthusiastically participate in slavery and they are significantly more westerosi than she is.

    B. To a certain extent the dothraki are more “barbaric” than westeros, but by the same extent Qarth and Braavos are shown to be more advanced. Further the dothraki have certain customs that seem preferable to westerosi ones, the idea that the khal is chosen by merit, unlike kings and lords who are chosen by birth. That a culture can have more raping and pillaging then westeros isn’t necessarily wrong, no more than that other essos cultures seemed to have less.

    I totally agree with what you said about cersei however. I enjoyed the character in the first book, but found her portrayal especially in book 4 to be really weak.

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  8. I think that’s what missing in this discussion is the extent to which Martin’s treatment of women is part and parcel of his overall approach, which is to subvert the reader’s expectations & the conventions of the genre. He has been prasied for this, and also (rightly, IMO) criticized for doing these things almost gratutitiously. But the depections of women would, I think, be more objectionable in an otherwise more conventional fantasy novel.

    Along the same lines, the whole series represents a pretty cynical take on humanity & human nature generally. Women simply aren’t exempted from that vision.

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