Written By: Robin Daprato
Through exploring George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and more specifically his novella, The Princess and the Queen: The Blacks and the Greens, this essay will suggest that Martin challenges fantasy fiction’s tendency to relegate female characters as being simplistic. I will begin by providing contextual information regarding how gender is typically portrayed in medieval fantasy fiction in order to position Martin’s work within the traditional genre in the section “Popular Culture, Traditional Fantasy and Misogyny”. The next section,”George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire & Female Representation” will suggest that Martin complicates these stereotypes through creating characters that introduce and then destabilize traditional tropes inherent in the fantasy genre. The remainder of this essay will look specifically at The Princess and the Queen: The Blacks and the Greens, suggesting that Martin’s depiction of Princess Rhaenyra and her desire to access power mirrors the real life experience that Empress Matilda faced in the 12th century.Through looking at Princess Rhaenyra and her historical counterpart Matilda, I will argue that both these female characters are seen as having similar ambitions, weaknesses and characteristics as the men in their societies, however, because they are women these traits are represented as being undesirable. Ultimately, this demonstrates how George R.R.Martin represents power in society as being constructed on gender inequality.
Popular Culture, Traditional Fantasy & Misogyny
For centuries, women in both the real world and that of fiction have been faced with the challenge of accessing agency and power in a world riddled with misogyny. As a result, women have often been relegated to the “hapless victims who stand by whimpering in dread while the male hero fights the monster or clashes swords with the villain.” Joss Whedon, writer and creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, notes that this stereotyped depiction is what inspired him to create the character of Buffy as he wanted to destabilize the image of the helpless sexy blonde girl and instead “create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim” forcing viewers to reconsider the patriarchal ideology that exists behind this damsel in distress trope. In Whedon’s 2006, Equality Now Speech he notes that rather than honouring himself for empowering women, what we should really be asking is why more men are not following suit and doing the same.
One of the most notorious genres criticized for misogynistic representations of gender is fantasy as many suggest that it is inherently rooted in patriarchal ideologies. As Christian Knirsch notes, “the current master narrative in cultural studies characterizes fantastic literature in general and fantasy literature in particular as deeply conservative when it comes to the depicting of gender roles and relations” noting how J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the classic example of conservatism in fantasy as the class, gender and political dynamics are deeply routed in an “Augustinian conservative worldview.”
Medieval fantasy specifically, is notorious for a more conservative representation of gender politics, as patriarchy is often seen as a ‘staple’ to the genre. Sedlmayer and Waller note an issue of medieval fantasy is that by “allegedly recreating an “authentic” “medieval” setting, many works of sword-and-sorcery fantasy pose patriarchal gender models…as “natural” and desirable” suggesting that when fantasy is set in this period labeled as regressive, the tendency to perpetuate gender inequality is rendered excusable.
George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire & Female Representation
Bestselling author of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin, however, refuses to adhere to this tradition as he challenges fantasy fiction’s tradition of relegating female characters as being simplistic.
Martin notes that he does not write characters based on archetypes but rather ‘just writes human characters:’
Some women hate the female characters…But importantly they hate them as people, because of things that they’ve done, not because the character is underdeveloped…’Male or female, I believe in painting in shades of grey…All of the characters should be flawed; they should all have good and bad, because that’s what I see. Yes, it’s fantasy, but the characters still need to be real.
This emphasis on painting shades of grey is ultimately what renders Martin unique as a fantasy writer and is certainly a major part of the reason he has garnered such an enormous female fan base, as nearly half of the fans for the television series are female.
Caroline Spector notes that Martin’s ability to provide a harsh but realistic depiction of how women are treated in a male-dominant society, as well as his effectiveness at making these characters inherently diverse has led to the creation of a “subversively feminist tale.” Martin has explicitly identified himself as a feminist stating
“To me being a feminist is about treating men and women the same…I regard men and women as all human – yes there are differences, but many of those differences are created by the culture that we live in, whether it’s the medieval culture of Westeros, or 21st century western culture”
This suggests that for Martin, gender discrepancy is a product of culture as opposed to a fundamental, biological difference.
Perhaps the most interest way Martin achieves creating complex female characters is through dissembling tropes as he often appropriates traditional medieval fantasy through introducing classic fantasy character archetypes and then dissembles those characters so that they no longer fit into a simple category. As Spector notes, “If women are supposed to be virtuous, pure and helpless, then the reader is presented with Cersei Lannister. Indeed, while Cersei functions in some ways as the “Evil Queen,” she is more than that easy trope.” Spector suggests that Cersei is “trapped by the expectations of her society” and therefore is faced with the frustrations of being a woman who desires power in a male dominant society. As Alice G. Walton notes, similar to any “period piece” the women within this narrative are forced to use the limited resources given to them to access agency and power in a world that generally denies them of such because of their gender. As a result, Martin provides a diverse scope of women who deal with misogyny differently and although archetypes can be recognized such a “the tomboy, the bitch and the princess…females morph in various ways over time as they maneuver through the male space.” This ultimately provides readers and viewers with diverse and complex depictions of women who are trying to navigate themselves within a world that is trying to oppress them.
However, George R.R. Martin has time and time again been critiqued as being misogynistic due to the graphic and violent abuse women experience in Westeros. To expand on what I have already suggested, Hannah Craig and Rhiannon Thomas respond to this issue and suggest that this graphic representation of female oppression is due to the misogynistic circumstances of this secondary world rather than the misogyny of Martin the author.
The Princess and the Queen & Princess Rhaenyra
In a 2012 interview with George Stroumbolouopolus, George R.R. Martin states that:
“all of us have the capacity for good and all of us have the capacity for evil. The same people have the capacity for doing that on different days.”
 In A Song of Ice and Fire and Martin’s related fictions, both the male and female characters are seen as having the ability to be good and evil showing how neither corruption nor goodness is treated as being a gendered phenomenon. The history of Princess Rhaenyera and her stepmother Queen Alicent in Martin’s novella The Princess and the Queen, or, The Blacks and the Greens exemplifies how Martin renders the females in his chronicles as being equally dangerous, ruthless and capable as men. The depiction of Princess Rhaenyera and Queen Alicent demonstrates how it is the social structure of patriarchy alone prohibiting females access to power.
The Princess and the Queen, or, The Blacks and the Greens, is found in the 2013 cross-genre anthology Dangerous Women that was published in an effort to show the powerful women that exists cross-genre in the world of fiction. The Princess and the Queen, is written by the fictional Archmaester Glydayn and chronicles the infamous war that took place between 129 to 131 AC, approximately 200 years prior to the events seen in A Song of Ice and Fire, memorialized as “The Dance of the Dragons.” The Dance of the Dragons, was remembered as the ‘bloodiest’ and ‘cruelest’ war Westeros had ever seen. This war “split the Seven Kingdoms in two, as lords, knights, and smallfolk declared for one side or the other and took up arms against each other” and thousands of lives were lost including the lives of a number of dragons.
This video Westeros Lore: Dance of the Dragons, provides a well-rounded and relativity brief explanation of The Dance of Dragons.
The Dance of the Dragons is an interesting war to examine, due to the fact that it is fundamentally rooted in a power struggle between individuals rather than empires. When examining Alicent Hightower and her father Ser Otto, it becomes apparent that their sole desire, throughout their documented history, has been to increase their families power as they are willing to use every resource available to achieve such. Alicent’s ‘Green Council’ uses Rhaenyra’s gender as being the fundamental reason that she should not be Queen. The council notes how a trueborn son should always take precedence over a daughter. Further, Ser Otto states that Prince Daemon, as the husband of Rhaenyra will have the ultimate authority suggesting that, “we all know that one’s nature. Make no mistake, should Rhaenyra ever sit the Iron Throne, it will be Daemon who rules us, a king consort as cruel and unforgiving as Maegor ever was.” The way that the council is depicting Rhaenyra’s renders her incompetent due to her gender, suggesting that if she becomes Queen, she will be unable to make sound decisions and will be under the control of her husband. Although we see that is untrue throughout the rest of Princess and the Queen and her biography in A World in Ice and Fire, Alicent, Ser Otto and their council ultimately succeed in providing Aegon the support he needs.
When Rhaenyra learns what her stepmother and brother have been scheming she organizes a council of her own called the “black council.” However, despite the support Rhaenyra has gained, it is suggested that “Every visible symbol of legitimacy belonged to Aegon. He sat the Iron Throne. He lived in Red Keep. He wore the Conquerer’s crown…And he was male, which in the eyes of many made him the rightful king, his half sister the usurper.” Rhaenyra, though technically the rightful heir to the throne, is ostracized due to her gender and ultimately has few advantages in the war. It is noted in The Princess and the Queen that:
Some older lords might yet recall the oaths they had swarn when she was made Princess of Dragonstone and named her father’s heir. There had been a time when she had been well loved by highborn and commons alike, when they had cheered her as the Realm’s Delight. Many a young lord and noble knight had sought her favor then…though how many would still fight for her now that she was a woman wed, her body aged and thickened by six childbirths, was a question that none could answer.
Through painting Princess Rhaenyra in this way, it can be seen as an attempt to appeal to the inherently patriarchal social structure they are situated in. Rhaenyra, despite a valiant effort, ultimately fails to access the power and agency she set forth to attain because it is suggested that this world of politics and level of power is ultimately a man’s domain. What is interesting however, is that Alicent succeeds in her effort to crown Aegon as king. As Valerie Estelle Frankie notes, Alicent “operates behind the scenes” and manipulates those around her into seeing Rhaenyra as the villain as she continuously degrades her as a “whore,” “bitch” and other derogatory terms. Alicent’s efforts can, in many ways be seen as more successful than Rhaenyra’s because rather than trying to usurp a male-sphere, she manipulates her way within it and through such, is able to find agency without disrupting social order.
Medieval Parallel: Princess Rhaenyra & The Empress Matilda
Princess Rhaenyra has been referenced as directly paralleling the 12th century Empress Matilda. Matilda, much like Rhaenyra faced the problem of being a woman seek political agency in an inherently misogynistic society. In 1220, King Henry I of England’s, son William drowned leaving him with only his daughter Matilda. On January 1, 1127, after careful deliberation and consultation with ‘great men,’ Henry officially declared that Matilda would be his heir and had his magnates sign an oath accepting Matilda as leader and this was generally accepted irrefutably. Like Rhaenyra who was in labour in Dragonstone when Aegon captured the throne, Matilda was in Anjou ‘pregnant and ill’ when her father suddenly died.
When Henry died, his nephew Stephen of Blois took the throne claiming, “that on his deathbed he released the barons from their oath”. Stephen proceeded to reign from 1135-1154 but did not do so quietly as the dispute between Matilda and Stephen resulted in a civil war that lasted many years over who should have control over the English crown. However, as Valerie Estelle Frankel notes, “Neither Empress Matilda nor Rhaenyra actually ruled in their own name. During the dynastic struggle, the women never formally gain the thrones, though their sons do (Aegon III and Henry II of England respectively)” demonstrating how both these societies limit the level of political agency for women.
However, both these figures exemplify how the desire for power ultimately corrupts. Caroline Spector notes in relation to Westeros that it does not matter who wields power or how virtuous the cause starts out, all power inevitably corrupts those who attempt to attain it. Spector states that, “Even as the disenfranchised women of Westeros seize the autonomy they need for power, once they begin taking it, they inevitably fall prey to the same potentially corrupting influences men experience” suggesting that although women are not provided the same level of agency in both Westeros and medieval Britain, when they do attain such, it corrupts in the same way that it corrupts men. In other words, women are seen as having the same desires and tendencies as men in terms of how they deal with the corrupting nature of power.
However, since gender renders women unequal, they are seen as significantly more problematic when trying to access power since they are essentially problematizing gender expectations. Matilda, performing as an ‘alternate monarch’ to many of her followers, was criticized by her contemporaries for subverting such gender structures. Frankel notes that, “As Matilda displayed to her subjects her ability to be as ruthless and forceful as her father…[Matilda’s contemporaries” could accept imperious behaviour from a king, but not from a woman, even one taking a king’s role.” Matilda, ultimately wanted to be a king, a position that was previously occupied by men, but as Frankel notes, England was “not ready for a reigning queen.” Therefore, her behaviours. though accepted when performed by a man, are rendered as being “insufferable”. Rhaenyra, similarily gets relegated to being insufferable and as it notes in the text,
“The girl that they once cheered as the Realm’s Delight had grown into a grasping and vindictive woman, men said, a queen as cruel as any king before her. One wit banned Rhaenyra “King Meagaor with teats.”
Demonstrating how society has rendered her more monstrous as she has attempted to gain ‘male’ power .
What makes Rhaenyra such an interesting character is how her character is entirely a reflection of the cultural context she is situated in. Like Matilda, she has been given the duty to rule a Kingdom in a society that inherently discourages women to have any kind of personal or social agency. As a result, these women are forced to subvert gender roles and be relegated as cruel, evil and monstrous in their attempts to find agency.
Martin’s world is magical, beautiful and fantastical, but perhaps what renders it the most unique is the fact that it provides a complex reflection of humanity in a genre that is traditionally dependent on simplistic stereotypes. Martin creates female characters who are riddled with complexity due to the patriarchal world they are situated within. Rhaenyra is not depicted as being an extraordinarily good or bad character but rather is depicted as having the ability to be both. Like the other characters in Martin’s novel, Rhaenyra must work with the cards that she has been dealt, within a deeply patriarchal society and find liberation wherever she can. This character complexity, I would argue is what makes Martin both a fantastic writer and a feminist writer. Martin writes characters who reflect how society is not constructed by good and evil binaries with heroes, damsels, and villains but his world, like ours, is intrinsically diverse, complicated and most importantly–riddled with inequality.
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