Fantasy is one of my all time favourite genres and the series A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIF) by George RR Martin summed up why in so many ways: an all encompassing new reality, magic, awesome characters, plot twists and, most importantly, dragons. What ASOIF also has is strong female characters who boldly take on traditional ‘male’ traits – they scheme, they plot, they lead armies and they fight. And yet, not 100 pages goes by without a rape scene, a reference to a rape, a character using rape as a threat, you see where I’m going here. For me, personally, these elements do not enhance the book and are usually not even plot devices. Throw away comments more like, and graphic to boot. The question I can’t help but ask is, why? Why do these things need to be written into this epic story. Do they make it better? To be clear again, I enjoyed these books a lot and lost hours to them. But then, I have also developed, through years of reading, a knack of skipping over unpleasant sections and blocking them out. Something I employed a lot in my ASOIF journey.
Martin has created a whole new world. A scary, violent, dangerous, aggressive world. The violence is a whole other topic, happening to men and women, but the portrayal of women as sex objects who are treated appallingly is almost totally one-sided. I say again, Martin created a whole new world, could he not have written about it without reference to these abuses of women. Would a more interesting challenge not have been to create this warring world with death round every corner, this edge-of-seat reading without direct, graphic and upsetting content.
The main female characters are also often worlds away from the side female characters. And I appreciate those characters Catelyn’s determination, Dany’s ferocity, even Cersei’s fighting talk. But do women have to be one or the other? We’re either ruling the roost, breaking the rules and taking what’s ours, or we’re raped, mutilated and left for dust.
I understand that what Martin writes is up to him, and what I read up to me. But should I have to miss out on these epic stories, in worlds I love because I can’t bear to read another reference to a woman’s body as a hole and nothing else. Other fantasy series have made be feel similar things, if not worse when there are no strong female characters. The content might be different but there’s often the same sense of edging towards misogyny. Then other writers (Robin Hobb for example) can write epic, intriguing fantasy without that content. I nearly mentioned J.R.R Tolkien as an example then, but realised that would hardly back-up my argument when female characters barely even feature in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (which, side-note I also love). The way it feels to me though is that, while such violently sexualised content persists in fantasy, women may always feel slightly on the outside.
I’m opening a can of worms here, even as I write I know it’s not simple – why pick fantasy over say, crime novels which can be just as bad. All I’m doing here is writing about how I feel – and to be honest that is confused. How can I take a stand against, for example, violence towards women in video games, when I will happily sit and read something just as bad. I want to read these stories, it is the best reading experience to be drawn away from your every day world, to be swept along in the twists and turns of a world like Westeros. But is that worth the disgust and shame I feel when reading some of these scenes? Women are made to feel shameful about so much in our lives already, that there is something disheartening about still having to feel that in a fantasy world.
I think this is an important topic, with no right or wrong answers so please do let me know what you think in the comments.