Sady Doyle’s review of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire — whose first volume, Game of Thrones, was recently adapted for television by HBO — is a classic example of literary criticism done badly: i.e., it says little about the work being reviewed and much about the reviewer.
Doyle’s thrust is that Martin is a raging sexist whose female characters are imprisoned by male conceptions of the proper role for women while being under the constant threat of gang rape, all for our entertainment; in short, J.R.R. Tolkien with Joe Francis’s aesthetics. Martin’s fans (male) fans devour the misogyny and mayhem with neither examination nor scruple.
To be sure, the people of Martin’s Westeros do have traditional gender roles for women. These women are, moreover, the victims of a nearly endless series physical and sexual assaults, which Doyle summarizes at length. The summaries are – in fairness to Doyle – quite funny in how they undercut Martin’s penchant for melodrama. For instance, her summary of Lady Catelyn Stark, a very serious and important character in the series, begins:
Meet Catelyn! She’s a dutiful, obedient wife and mother. Also, her husband is the hero. She will, therefore, be a sympathetic figure. Catelyn’s an all-around swell gal, and seems pretty sharp and competent, too, except when she is (a) getting all hysterical and non-functional because [of] HER CHILDREN, (b) stupidly kidnapping members of the royal family on a whim because HER CHILDREN, and (c) being a total bitchface to Ned’s illegitimate son because he is not HER CHILDREN.
Taken out of context like this, one can make a seemingly-persuasive case that Martin has issues with women. But as Alyssa Rosenberg argues at ThinkProgress, this analysis fails because it assumes 1) that Martin’s description of such a society is an implicit endorsement of it, 2) that his readers are incapable of rudimentary moral examination, and 3) that there is no literary value for writing about characters struggling against (or within) their society’s expectations, to say nothing of their own identities.
It fails for another reason as well, one Rosenberg either missed or left out entirely: that any society with strict gender roles for women is fated to have reciprocally restrictive ones for men. Indeed, armed with a perspective equally myopic to Doyle’s, male characters fare no better than the women (spoilers ahead):
Meet Ned! He’s the Nice Guy hero. He’s chivalric. He’s noble. He’s just. He cares for his family and has a good marriage. But you know what happens to him when he’s separated from his wife for the first time in sixteen years? He starts acting like a complete numbskull and gets his head chopped off!
Meet Drogo! He’s a barbarian. A manly barbarian. A man’s barbarian, if you will. He lives in a manly culture whose manly pastime is rape, you know, that’s what men do when they’re manly. It never once occurs to him to even consider the morality of his actions until a plucky 13-year-old lady comes along to point out the blatantly obvious in a way even his man-brain can fathom.
Meet Jaime! He’s handsomer than the good guys, which means he’s also evil.
Meet Tyrion! Yeah, he’s lecherous, but we can like him because he’s not sexually threatening to the female characters we like.
Meet Bran! Also likable because a) not sexually threatening and b) got shoved out a window.
Meet Joffrey! He’s such a mean, sadistic, and misogynist little bastard that even Joss Whedon would be embarrassed to use him as a filler episode’s villain of-the-week. If only Danerys were there to show him the wickedness of his ways!
Meet Jon! He’s actually pretty likable, but he’s also obsessed with exceeding his father’s expectations and proving his step mom wrong. That’s what being a 16-year-old dude is all about.
Meet Robert! He’s good for killing, drinking, and wenching, but not much else (mostly because he doesn’t listen to his wife).
Meet Gregore Clegane, the Brave Companions, and the Iron Men! Gaaaaah, if only Danerys where there to tell them — as only a girl can, because men are incapable of independent moral reasoning — that rape is bad.
George R. R. Martin doesn’t have a low opinion of women; he has one of people in general, though also a deep and incitement sympathy for them. That may make him a misanthrope, but certainly no sexist.