How Strong Female Characters Get Undermined

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?

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14 comments

  1. This is an awesome post.

    I haven’t read the GRRM books, so I can’t comment on them specifically, but I think you make very good points and it does sound disturbing.

    Sorry I haven’t got anything more useful to offer, but I wanted to tell you how good I think your post is.

  2. Great post about the implications of rape culture. I can’t think straight today so am not able to say more than that and thankyou for sharing your reactions and thoughts

    • I can’t think straight this Wednesday myself so I hear you lol. If I get any more responses not sure my melted brain will be able to respond. :D

  3. I agree with most of what you’ve said in your post, but would argue that the cursory treatment of rape by male characters is all quite intentional and fits the overall vision of the series which is a very grim, even bleak one – as much as I admire the books, I think they make for very depressing reading, and I always need to read something light and fluffy on the side when I’m tackling one of them.
    I do not think that males really fare any better in the world Martin describes – men often come to a violent and frequently quite gruesome end in these books, and people do for the most part not seem to care much about that either. Martin shows us a world where strength and power rule abolute, with no regard for anyone weaker, and morals are an individual choice only, with no institution to uphold them.

    Obviously, such a world would be male-dominated, with everything that entails, and while in such a context I think female strength might be undermined on a general level (by being largely ineffective in the grander scheme of things – although one could argue that Cersei in particular is having quite an impact), it becomes all the more admirable on an individual level.

    • I agree that the many males in the series don’t fare a lot better, but I wanted to focus on the impressions I was getting as a result of the female characters being abused. I do see quite a lot of abuse happening to men as well, though I don’t see constant references to them being raped.

      And I agree that the overall tone is intentional but this series is touted as one full of strong female characters, ones I thought were so too, but now that some of those same female characters aren’t any more sympathetic, it was really starting to effect my reading of the book overall. Maybe not *all* of them are undermined in actuality, but it certainly makes me feel as though they are. The problem is not so much that one of the main female characters won’t affect the books in a great way, it’s that the majority of male characters will still not see her as anything better than their victim after that. And yes, this might be intentional for the story, but it’s just standing out so much more lately.

  4. Indeed, I for my part think that this is a problem with the world the books depict rather than the novels, and that one of the points the series is making is indeed that in a world where strength and power go unchecked, women are always going to get the short shrift.

    Also, I do not think that “strong” necessarily equals “sympathetic” – you yourself mentioned Cersei, who certainly is not the most likable of characters. In fact, I do not think anyone in the series (with the possible exception of Bran) is entirely sympathetic, even characters who start out that way, like Arya and Jon Snow, do not remain unaffected by the violence and brutality surrounding them.

    (On a side note, a propos of Cersei – have you ever read Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet? The villain in the second volume of that series, A Betrayal in Winter has a villain that reminded me a lot of a more convincing version of Cersei – a woman that turns to evil because that is the only road to power and influence left open to her as a female in a male-dominated society. And while she is the villain and does some atrocious things during the course of the novel, Abraham never lets the reader forget where she is coming from and why she is the way she is. Really excellent stuff and strongly recommended, like the whole series.)

    (And sorry for pestering you with repeated comments, but this subject has been on my mind a lot recently, although from a somewhat different angle.)

    • You’re not pestering me at all. I appreciate your thoughts!

      I mentioned Cersei because I admire her as a villain, actually, and appreciate that she makes no excuses or has any qualms about the choices she makes. I think she’s probably the most clear-cut female character, if that is the right descriptor given how well she plays the political arena. If any female character will rise above, it might be her due to her sheer ruthlessness, as the men are. I was always frustrated with Ned Stark because he refused to play that game, when it would have saved his family a lot of grief – or so it seemed.

      I suppose I’m just disappointed that the subject of rape is becoming stronger the more the books progress because it’s fiction and authors *could* choose to depict the female population in any other number of ways. But rape seems these easiest motivation to fall back on to develop worlds, cultures and the structure women are allowed to move within in fantasy. Of course, I know that’s a generalization, and I haven’t read everything, I’m only drawing on what I’ve chosen to read.

  5. This is not so much on the subject of Song of Ice and Fire, but more generally on the function of rape in genre fiction, but I hope it’s still somewhat on topic.
    It has been a much-discussed topic on blogs recently how rape seems to have become a convenient plot device, particularly in Urban Fantasy (every kickass heroine seems to need to have it in her curriculum vitae) but also in other genres. I’m not sure it is something all that new myself but would rather see it in the tradition of eighties Romance novels where rape of the heroine by the hero was quite a common occurrence and generally turned out to have been in the heroine’s best interest.
    While these days it’s usually not the hero but some villain who does the raping (some progress, I suppose), there still is the same concept of rape of contributing to character growth at work here.
    I think what disturbs me the most about this (and if I understood you correctly, we do seem to be of the same opinion in that regard) is how easily and quasi “naturally” women are associated with rape, almost as if it was something to be expected happening to them – and from there, it’s probably not far to the thought that when everything is said and done it is nobody’s fault but their own…

    • So sorry for dropping the convo thread! It’s been a busy, brain-drain of a week.

      *I think what disturbs me the most about this (and if I understood you correctly, we do seem to be of the same opinion in that regard) is how easily and quasi “naturally” women are associated with rape, almost as if it was something to be expected happening to them…*

      YES, yes, I am right there with you. This is definitely at the heart of things. I am practically slapping the table as I type this, that’s how much you’ve hit the proverbial nail. YES.

      It really does feel like rape is being treated as a convenient plot device and character development tool. Because, yes, as you say, it’s just expected. It’s as if it’s thought that we, as readers, already expect to see it because it’s written so often, why not just keep on keeping on with it. So. Frustrating.

  6. As someone who works with victims I cannot stand how they are treated by authors after the fact. Numerous times they hop right back in bed with the hero as if only he can heal them from this. As far as using this as a must in order to grow your character I cry fowl. There are many things in life that affect us all differently and if you truly knew your character you would be able to come up with lots of different situations that can grow your character just as easily.
    As far as fantasy is concerned a lot of fantasy takes place in a world like our history in the past this is how women were treated. You can find tons of real life examples present but, predominantly in the past were rape is used to secure power. If a woman could no longer prove that only her husband had been with her then she was no longer worthwhile due to breeding. Looking back think of how many times a king wanted a married woman or virgin would take her then marry her off or send her back to her husband so the bastard could be raised by another. The same thing happened by the noble Stark he after all slept with Jon’s mother even though he was supposedly happily married.
    Rape is the one weapon a man has against women whether in fiction or real life because at our core all women fear this event happening to them and how would they, us, I react and survive.
    Sorry if that was a lot of rambling as I said before I work with victims daily and honestly I am finding it harder and harder to read books with any kind of hint that rape has or will occur. I keep wanting to talk to the cictims ir I get angry at how they are handled. Thanks for the headsbup about this series I was interested in reading but think I might pass now.
    Thanks for a wonderful post again sorry about the rambles I am very brian dead on Friday lol

  7. *There are many things in life that affect us all differently and if you truly knew your character you would be able to come up with lots of different situations that can grow your character just as easily.*

    HIGH five. Absolutely. I very much agree.

    *As far as fantasy is concerned a lot of fantasy takes place in a world like our history in the past this is how women were treated. *

    I see what you mean and agree with that, but often wish authors would instead twist that into something else instead of steadily progressing the rape culture problem.

    And no worries, you’re not rambling, but I totally understand feeling brain-dead! I am feeling that way myself this past week.

  8. Wow yeah, finally someone says something.

    I was thinking while watching this series (I read book 1 but gave up after that) how is it that no one else is seeing what I am seeing? It’s almost enough to make me laugh with the irony of it, the way these women are frightened into submission by the mere mention of rape and rape is used as a punishment for not only them but for the men of the country.

    I’ve been increasingly interested in why this is such a trope in male fantasy. I wondered if it was because this is how it would have been in history. Therefore right now I am researching rape during war time.

    Some academics (I haven’t the source on hand at the mo but I will find it again) state that during roman times men were executed for raping women during campaigns. Also that sometimes the women who were captured had consensual sex with their captors, but it was still called rape, because they effectively “belonged” to the other nation.

    One horrible example is during WWII with the Japanese comfort women. These women’s lives were ruined, so much so that one woman had to fill every moment of her time when she was awake, not to think about what had happened. This trauma is not depicted in novels. Women also escaped with the help of other men, women also used death as an escape. Strangely this option of suicide is taken away from the women in these fantasy books, as if they’re not powerful enough even to take their own existance into their hands. (I do not wish to show this in a positive light at all).

    It’s also sad that gentle men also seem to get the brunt of this, as if not being “truly” masculine is some sort of punishment, they often end up dead as a result of their own inability to survive in such a “harsh” world. Gay characters of course have to be evil and conniving or are disgustingly effeminate and get their lovers through out of windows.

    • Your research sounds intense and not a little overwhelming – I give you props for it because I wouldn’t be able to focus on the subject for long.

      Seeing this more frequent casual treatment of rape in the series has dampened my enthusiasm for reading it. I didn’t pick the book up after writing this post for almost a week. Then when I finally did read more last night, I read yet another casual dismissal of rape by one of the characters. If this book wasn’t on my Kindle I might have thrown it at the wall.

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