the arya problem

In my last post, I went on and on about Sansa from Song of Ice and Fire. Now I have to turn to the other sister. People love the character of Arya. I know why—it’s the fantasy of being a stone-cold killer, with nothing that you have to care for but revenge. This would suck in real life, but in fantasy it’s an awesome story arc.

Arya’s storyline really kicks off when after her father’s death, she’s disguised as a boy and taken by one of her father’s allies on the journey to the Wall, the big old Alcatraz of the snowy North. It’s made very clear that Arya has to maintain her gender disguise, or otherwise Bad Things Will Happen. Since she succeeds, she’s protected.

OK, this is awesome. I want Arya to succeed, I want her to make it wherever she is going and to kick ass and take names. But I have to ask the grimdark gods: Is this realistic?These are a bunch of convicted criminals who are on a long voyage up to a gigantic prison made of ice. Arya is all of ten or eleven years old at this point in the story, much smaller and less physically powerful than almost anyone around her (yes, I know she has special ninja powers; no, none of these men would know that). Yet as long as they keep thinking Arya is a boy, nobody will lay a finger on her. This keeps working as a gambit—Arya ends up in what’s basically Sadist Castle, and yet none of the men come after her, because she’s not a her and therefore sexual violence is suddenly right out. As long as Arya’s a “boy,” perverts and creeps stay away.

Eventually Arya is “revealed” as a girl, but she’s not sexualized. “Yeah, but she’s like twelve!” Yeah, but this is the grimdark universe of George R.R. Martin, where girls get married off at twelve and we get to read all about it. Women go through puberty, and then they become rape targets. Arya does not, and gets to remain Arya. Sexual characteristics and sexual threat go together. You can either be a “boy,” and somehow a bunch of rapists will leave you alone no matter how “dark” and “depraved” they are, or you can be a “girl,” which is defined as “a thing with tits (that we describe all the time)” and you can be a rape object.

(Remember Brienne? Massive woman, described mostly in terms of her appearance, but still massive as all hell and with the advantage of years of weapons training? Which character almost gets raped? Question: which character’s rape threat can conveniently make her seem less powerful and redeem a male character’s reputation? Obvious answer, then.)

Let’s move on to Name of the Wind, because I want to examine a different series and to a male character, and because I could bag on Patrick Rothfuss all day and I have a minute here so I’ll let some of it out. Our hero, Kvothe, lives on the streets. Things happen to him, things that are grim and dark, we assume. He’s cold, he’s hungry, his violin or guitar or magical lute or whatever that damn thing was gets busted. Somebody gets murdered. However, he’s never threatened sexually. Even though he’s the lowest of society’s low, nobody ever makes a come-on, or uses sex as a punishment or a way to show dominance. He’s a boy, and things like that don’t happen to creatures without enlarged mammary glands and vaginas.

Why not? These are realistic works, right? And in the real world, bad things happen, right? Super grim, bloody, awful things! That we can conveniently feel good about because we would never do a thing like that and oh, no, isn’t the world a terrible place full of rapists whose deeds can be described in lurid detail?

But knowing men can be raped? Boys can be raped? Anyone can be raped, and none of this has to do with how conventionally attractive or unattractive women are, and it doesn’t happen as a convenient way for men to prove themselves as white knights?

That’s fucking scary, man.

(Addendum: This is not a plea for genre fiction to promote gender equality in its shittily written rape scenes. There is no need for a 50/50 split for edgy sexual violence. It is an invitation for the next author who wants to write about rape or rape threats because they want to “be realistic” to stop and think.)


One Comment

  1. Isn’t “gritty, realistic fantasy” an oxymoron anyway? If you want to write gritty realism, just do it about the real world! Isn’t the fun of fantasy making things different? But hey, this is the genre populated by idiots who apparently can’t conceive of an alternative world without elves and dwarves ripped straight from Tolkien, so…


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