Found this article on the “feminist” nature of Game of Thrones through chiusse’s succinct takedown. I’m not even sure how to define feminism anymore, but I think I understand Daniel Mendelsohn’s definition of feminism, which is “hey, there’s a chick with a sword in this!” All righty then, I think beautiful women with swords are hot, too, but I’m not sure how they relate to any sort of movement or ideal.
However, reading Mendelsohn’s piece reminds me of an issue I have with Martin’s books that goes beyond gender —that is, how goddamn lonely and painful his world is. According to Mendelsohn, Martin’s characters have “human dilemmas,” whatever that means, but all those problems end badly, usually in violence. There aren’t any decent ways to connect with other human beings or even with something abstract, like an ideal. Westeros is basically Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature, where any sort of bond between people is weak and easily broken in self-interest, only with added misanthropy.
Even “natural units,” like the family, are only sources of misery, where the strong prey upon the weak for no particular reason except that they can. Viserys abuses Daenarys, Robert abuses Cersei, Tywin humiliates the brilliant but crippled Tyrion, Asha and that stupid Iron King Whatever-his-face (Balon?)* denigrate Theon simply because he was unlucky enough to grow up as a hostage. Lysa’s jealousy leads her to try to throw her niece Sansa off a mountain.
Martin’s miserable nature shines through in his treatment of life events. The happiest weddings merely involve an unwilling partner. Usually they involve at least one murder. Same thing goes for childbirth–children, if they’re unlucky enough to be born alive, end up as destined sacrifices to one god or another. Any human occasion that would normally be a source of joy immediately becomes a trigger for slaughter.
Well, not everyone likes their family, you might say. What about chosen families? It turns out that relations outside the bounds of family—friends and workmates and lovers—produce precious little joy, either. Robert Baratheon’s friendship with Ned Stark enriches neither man but instead leads to their deaths and the dissolution of the kingdom. The Watch is made up of a ragtag bunch of oathbreakers who end up turning on Jon, Daenarys is surrounded by backstabbing vipers, the brotherhood of chivalry is a sham. Jaime and Cersei’s relationship, while loving, is a perverted one** that Jaime must relinquish to redeem himself (as the female half of the perverted pair, Cersei is damned upon arrival). The other sexual relationships seem to exist to produce manpain, so Jon kills Ygritte and Tyrion kills Shae. Note that the men don’t leave their love interests, they’re not separated from them, the love interests don’t just die of whatever many nasty diseases there must be in medieval times, I mean Medyeval Times. The men actually have to kill the women, because you can’t have any pussyass emotional bonding diluting the pure grimdark realness.
In Westeros, any sort of emotional or familial bond is at best a source of pain, and at worst a literal risk to your life. The only way to “win” the Game of Thrones to give up the childish desire for friendship or romantic love or any sort of emotional bond, or, failing that, even a devotion to an ideal. The winners need to “grow up,” which means devoting yourself full-time to becoming the top exploiter. Arya, who has no purpose in her life but revenge, is a “strong” character, as opposed to dopey Sansa, who desperately wants a romantic or familial relationship and therefore goes through all sort of hell as a “weak” character.
What really scares me about the Mendelsohn’s article is that he seems to think that Martin’s description of a shitty, hellish existence is somehow more “authentic” and “literary” than, say, Tolkien or even another “grimdark” author like Joe Abercrombie (who is Flaubert compared to Martin, because he has relationships in his books that end in a tiny amount of character development, not stabbings). These books are more complex because they don’t involve anything “childish,” like, you know, friendship or love. They’re “real.”
You know what, medieval times were not like our times or like Medyeval Tymes, but I really doubt that every single day of medieval life was full of whupping, rape, and other abuse. Medieval people probably had friends! They enjoyed certain people’s company! Some of them had happy marriages! Moments of joy and contentment didn’t exist merely as lead-ups to extremely bloody violence!
But we can’t have that, because that would destroy the real fantasy—that the world is utter shit and connection with human beings and ideals is actively dangerous. Therefore. we are supposed to stab people all the time. That’s where the fantasy comes in. Enjoy it, folks.
* OH GOD, THE IRON ISLANDS, MORE LIKE THE WASTE OF PAPER ISLANDS
** Martin left a gap in his worldbuilding here—the people of Westeros tolerated a royal family that practiced brother-sister marriage for centuries. Why can’t Jaime and Cersei marry and rule? Or if the incest taboo is really that strong, why does anyone want the Targaryens back? All their violet-eyed, white-haired, sparkly Aryan-ness wouldn’t make their subjects-to-be forget that the Targaryens are gigantic perverts.