It’s weighed on my mind since I read a scene in A Clash of Kings a few nights ago, the subject of strong female characters. That’s the second book in the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin in case anyone’s wondering, and it’s the book season two of HBO’s Game of Thrones series was based on this past year. If you’ve followed my blog at all you might remember that I have an admitted dismayed reaction to rape in books I’ve read, especially fantasy books in the last few years. It’s been hard at times to articulate why without giving the impression that I am calling for the vile act to never be portrayed in a book. Or that I am somehow unaware that it “happens in real life” (and therefore, I am assuming, people mean it’s only natural it should appear in books), though I can’t be sure how people would assume I don’t already realize this. Or that it could be an important message that needs to be shown in books, because writing about it generates discussion and maybe, hopefully, awareness. Or that I don’t already realize that bad things happen to good characters. Or that I feel the way it seems portrayed to me in a book is how I think the author feels about the subject.
But that’s not what I’m talking about when I talk about the effects of rape in fiction. I do know it happens in real life. I do not feel it should never be in books – though I often wish I’d never seen it as it is usually written when I do see it. I do feel it needs to be discussed. But I don’t think the way it’s written usually does anyone any favors. It didn’t do me any favors when I read a flippant treatment of it by the characters in A Clash of Kings. Of course I realize that good characters will suffer in books – it’s often a step along their road to growth. I never assume the motivations of the author and wouldn’t ever care to. What I’m looking at is how it’s all playing out from my point of view.
By the way, yes, there will obviously be spoilers. If you’re currently reading the early Song of Ice and Fire books or plan to soon, you might want to X out my blog.
The interesting thing to me is this isn’t about the rape of any prominent characters in the books so far – that has thankfully been almost nil, because hello, I do not want to read the details that are sometimes allotted for main characters who are raped. What has been increasingly bothering me about the series is how often minor female characters are raped, some so minor as to be a mere fly on the wall in the sheer scope of this epic fantasy series. And that right there – their insignificance – is the problem.
Let me preface this a bit to give my point more ground. I enjoyed the first book, A Game of Thrones, immensely. I have really been enjoying book 2 as well, once I caught my second wind with it. I had begun to feel, back as early as mid book in A Game of Thrones, that this was a series with wonderful, fleshed out, purposeful main female characters. This thing, this type of female character, it can be hard to find in fantasy fiction. I’ve asked fellow readers for their recs of good, strong female characters and I know they’re out there. But it still takes time and effort to search through other books missing them to find the real deal. And I like to find that real deal. I’m a woman who appreciates my sex being equally represented in fiction.
Know what, though? There’s nothing remotely qualifying, exemplifying, praise-worthy or any type of excuse about rape when it comes to representing female characters equally.
I had begun to feel that the main female characters in the Song of Ice and Fire series – Daenerys Targaryen, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark and yes, even Queen Bitch Cersei Lannister herself, to name a few – were rather exemplary ones because they hail from a typically male-dominated and formatted story, yet for the most part they hold their own against many of the strong men in the series. Daenerys conquers and wins the love of her barbaric horse lord husband, who clearly had zero respect for women prior. Catelyn bears the ultimate pain of losing her love, Ned Stark, but remains strong for her children despite her obvious need to come apart at the seams. Arya Stark, though only a small girl child, strikes a bargain with a Faceless Man out of Braavos to exact revenge on those within her reach. Many of the female characters in the books are afforded respect despite the extremely heavy patriarchal society found at every corner, and they treat with men on councils of war and kingdom. Hell, I will even give Cersei props because though she is a vile and evil woman – she owns it. She never once pretends to be otherwise once the question of her or her family’s survival is in question. She is, in fact, one of the best villains I have ever read in all my reading life. I am thrilled that she is therefore a female character and one who is fleshed out and not merely some cardboard throwaway.
But it’s those cardboard throwaways that are increasingly bothering me. If you’ve been watching the show, in season two, there’s a scene when Princess Marcella, Cersei’s only daughter, is shipped out of King’s Landing for her protection, because the city is becoming increasingly restless, to put it mildly, inside the city gates. If they are invaded, it’s highly likely that she would be what by the enemy, class? You got it – raped. She is shipped to safety while her immediate family and members of the royal court watch. When they go to make their way back through the city to the Red Keep, they are attacked by the mob after His Royal Assholishness, King Joffrey, demands the life of whoever slung some much-needed poo at him. A nightmare mob ensues and the royal procession tries, in vain in some cases, to get the hell out of there and behind the safety of some gates, that kind of thing. While trying to press through the hungry, desperate and angry crowd, some of the court members are trapped by the mob and cannot get to safety. Sansa Stark is one of them, as was Lady Tanda’s daughter, Lollys. While Tyrion Lannister, acting Hand of the King, demands that someone get their fucking asses back out in that mob and bring him back their captive/future queen, aka Sansa, they pretty much ignore the frantic begging of Lady Tanda to save her daughter as well. Sansa is brought back, thankfully relatively unharmed but for a gash on her head, but Lollys is not found till much later.
I don’t want to be graphic, but it goes without saying, though it will be said here, that when it comes to rape, we don’t need a lot of detail to understand how horrific an act it is. Lollys is raped and the details are a mere two or three sentences long and relatively slim in actual detail, but it was enough to turn my stomach so much that I am still thinking about it days later and typing this. One reason is that rape needs to be so prevalent at all in these books, and that it seems to actually need to happen, and happen as often as possible to very minor or barely even minor female cahracters. Lollys is not the only one, and we probably only get as much detail of her rape that we do because she was part of the royal court at that time. Let it be known, though, that it is pointedly mentioned that she is not a particularly favored courtier as she is fat and dull, and neither is her mother appreciated any more. But Lollys was a virgin, and it’s ever so sad that her maidenhead is gone, what use is she now – that kind of thing. She’s treated as more of an inconvenience, even after she’s raped if not more so.
Lollys is hardly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to minor female characters being raped. In just about any mention of battles or skirmishes with the poor smallfolk, aka the peasants, it is implied that if the character is female, she was probably raped. The references to rape only grow stronger with each chapter in A Clash of Kings and I’m about 50% into it at this point.
I am very bothered that minor female characters are pretty much there to serve as reminders that this is what happens – because it’s war, because men will be men, and they are evil men, so this is what evil men do. But wait – even the “good” side is raping. Yes, even the men fighting for those oh-so-honorable Starks are raping the smallfolk women they believe to have been helping any Lannisters or Lannister bannermen. There really, sadly, is no chivalry whatsoever in a series that uses the word a lot and if there is any, it’s drowned out by the disgusting, vile things men do to women in the books. There is no mercy whatsoever for the weak, and the women are auto-allotted that fabulous, stereotypical position of Weakest of All.
What are also undermined are those so-called Strong Female Characters I’d started to feel confident in. Daenerys is enraged in A Game of Thrones when a magi of the Lamb Men (aka the Lhazareen) who is raped repeatedly by Dothraki men, plays a hand in the demise of Kahl Drago, Daenerys’ horse lord husband. It’s easy to forget that the Lhazareen magi was raped when such a vigorous, handsome man like Kahl Drogo was reduced to a pitiful, mind-shattered shell of a man. Even at the 50% mark in the second book, Daenerys is still enraged when she thinks on the sorceress that lied and deceived her, a woman Daenerys rescued from being raped and should therefore have been grateful. Here’s the thing though – Daenerys didn’t rescue her. Yes, she stopped the Dothraki men who were doing the raping, but the crime had already been committed over and over by the time Daenerys knew what was going on. It was too late. And the sorceress was no fool. She knew that a slip of a pale girl like Daenerys couldn’t stop it from happening again. Revenge was her only outlet and I cannot say that I blame the woman in any way whatsoever for exacting that revenge on Daenerys’ husband or their unborn child. That magi was a minor character, and after her hand in the demise of a major male character, the fact that she was raped no longer mattered, not to Daenerys, who is supposed to be one of the better choices for the Iron Throne. In fact, Daenerys is quite proud that she will serve the people of the Seven Kingdoms far better than any of the men who’ve tried or want to try. I’m not convinced due to her continued rage at the magi woman. Why should rape ever not matter?
ETA: I had to come back in to edit that Daenerys herself is a rape victim. She was sold by powerful men – or men wishing they were so – to Kahl Drago, and it wasn’t her choice to submit to the man. Let’s also keep in mind that she is a young teenager, and when you look at the fact that her rape by her husband was accepted because he is handsome and an alpha, strapping muscular man that was perfectly drool worthy on the show as well, it makes her cold dismissal of the Lamb Men’s magi woman all the more bothersome (When does a female child stop being horrified by the lot of women, and why?). So far, it’s the women who are subjected and abused the most in the series that are the coldest and most callous towards other victims of rape. In the second book, Tyrion’s concubine, Shae, is disgustingly dismissive of Lollys’s rape, saying that they “only fucked her”. You’d think an admitted whore would have at least a small margin of sympathy for someone who was repeatedly raped by at lest 50 men. Shae’s situation is her choice; Lollys’, very much not. (end of edits)
The more I see minor female characters getting raped in this series, the more I feel that no female characters are that strong in it. The smallfolk women are really only there to serve as vessels for rape from marauding soldiers and angry mobs. The high-born ones are systematically handed over against there will sometimes in arranged marriages or captured to secure land rights and promises of loyalty amongst men – the ones who are so proud of their honor. Or the highborn ones fall prey to that massive mob as well, as seen in A Clash of Kings.
And no one cares.
How can a series have strong lead female characters if those same characters don’t care that these rapes are happening? Even more – to have so many minor female characters merely serve as people to be raped makes me sad for all the female characters in the entire series. In A Clash of Kings, one knight working for the Lannisters at castle Harrenhal repeatedly threatens Arya Stark with rape. She’s much younger in the books, by the way, than they show her in the HBO series (well, and so are many of the other main characters; Robb, Bran and Jon Snow to name a few). It’s problematic that the subject of rape needs to be alluded to at all with a girl in her age range. Despite it being “just how war is” or “just how life is”. That excuse cheapens rape, actually, even more than it’s already cheapened the character suffering it.
I’m starting to feel like the female characters I thought were strong, really aren’t. The casual use of rape to show how horrific a scenario is, is undermining my whole outlook on the matter of the Strong Female Character in these books. Rape undermines all of them when it’s treated so casually, even if they’re not the ones being raped. Those Strong Female Characters are a step in the right direction, but as long as rape is so easily used and glossed over, they’ll never have any real glory or strength of their own. Not like the men in the series, who, for the most part, are overshadowed with the resulting message that it’s OK to treat women like animals to be abused because in the end they will not have to answer for it. To be fair, Tyrion Lannister tries at one point to address the problem of these rapes, but he is one man and to stop something as widespread as rape is in these books takes a colossal amount of caring by the majority, and that majority is male, often actively participating in the raping and therefore in a position to care less since no one stops them. If the majority of women mentioned in these books are so easy to relegate to victim status, how long till those Strong Female Characters are as well?