Themes in Fiction #10 – Female Roles and Feminism

 

Picture by Morning Theft

Picture by Morning Theft

 “I am too intelligent, too demanding, and too resourceful for anyone to be able to take charge of me entirely. No one knows me or loves me completely. I have only myself.” ~ Simone de Beauvoir

About

I actually have a bit of a difficult relationship with feminism. I have a few acquaintances whose idea of what feminism is deviates wildly from my own. One of them – no joke – said feminism wasn’t about bringing women equal to men, it was about bringing men down. This shouty, angry kind of feminism I really have no time for – and there seems to be a lot of it going round at the moment. But I do think there are valuable and correct ideals within feminism – and those ideals are often explored to great effect in literature.

There are plenty of great female role models in literature. These are the feminist icons that educated me as a young woman – girls doing what they wanted, not being confined to societal constraints or perceived gender boundaries. These sorts of characters helped me as a developing human being to want to be something on my own, as well as something in conjunction with a boyfriend or husband.

Examples

The Northern Lights by Philip Pullmanpullman-northern_lights-uk

Lyra Belacqua was my icon as a child. She was smart, tough, stubborn and such a tomboy. She did everything you’d expect a male protagonist to do, and some. But there’s that wonderful sequence where she starts to experiment with her mother’s makeup, demonstrating that she doesn’t have to eschew all girlyness in order to be a strong character.

Pullman also addresses the whole ‘IT’S WOMAN’S FAULT’ bible issue with the story of Adam and Eve. The overall story of the trilogy is that Lyra is Eve reborn – but her bringing of ‘sin’ into the world is actually the bringing of love, knowledge and ‘life’ in the sense of the vitality and spirit that makes us human. If Lyra hadn’t ‘fallen’, life would have been empty and boring and without love and connection. I loved this concept as a child, and I still love the books now, many years later. Lyra remains one of my favourite female characters.

607gracelingGraceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling features a protagonist who is a girl, but also a warrior. Born into a world of old fashioned values – where women aren’t traditionally within male gender roles, Katsa stands out right off the bat. Through the course of the novel, she meets and falls in love with a prince, but unlike most other girls in this situation, getting married is not what she wants to do.

Katsa lives in fear that marriage will take away her freedom – her right to be her own person, and not be someone else’s property. In short, she wants the sort of marriage that most women in England can expect to have today – a partnership, where you are connected to, but not owned by, your husband. But that’s not really a thing in Katsa’s time or land, and so she fights her affection for her prince every step of the way. Then, in one of the most unusual and romantic ‘getting together’ scenes in YA literature, Katsa and Po agree to have a relationship where Katsa calls the shots. Such is Po’s love for Katsa, he defies traditions and expectations – anything to be with her in whatever way he can. He accepts that it will be difficult and that it will make him unhappy at times, but he loves her so much that he’s prepared to make sacrifices and meet her as an equal. He is prepared to give up the ‘tradition’ of marriage, which makes her willing to take the risk and be with him.

In a market place flooded with books about girls doing whatever they can to ‘keep’ their boyfriends, particularly in the fantasy genres that I like to read, finding a book where the main couple both make sacrifices for each other to sustain a love they both share without compromising who they are – that was magic to me as a teenager.

Game of Thrones: Sexist or Not?

I’ve heard more than a few people say they won’t watch/read Game of Thrones because of it’s content, particularly taking offence to the degree of violence faced by the female characters, and – particular to the show – the quantity of female nudity.

I think there is a real grey area in fiction when you look at the difference between misogynistic writing and misogynistic characters. Game of Thrones is set in a time when women were perceived as second class to men – property to be married off to a convenient ally, to produce male heirs, or to be enjoyed and little else. But the fact that a large number of the characters are misogynistic, or have misogynistic moments doesn’t necessarily mean the writing is sexist over all.

For starters, addressing the violence against women – the world is violent, and there is plenty of violence against both genders. Sexual violence too. Just look at what happened to Varys, or Theon. People are killed senselessly, and abused for no real reason, and I think the indiscriminate nature of the violence shows that there is no particular agenda against either gender.

And looking at the female characters, they are great. For mould breaking, gender role defying heroines there’s Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth, and the Mother of Dragons herself. Dany is an interesting one, because to start with she is defined as a woman and her womanly roles – sister, wife, mother to be. But when her husband dies of manliness, she sacrifices her child, and with it her ability to have further children, to try and save him. And when that doesn’t work, she steps up to be the leader. She’s soft and caring in some ways, but a fighter in others. Mother of Dragons is the perfect moniker for her, portraying both her sides.

And one of my favourite moments is when Cersei lets Sansa know during Stannis’ attack on King’s Landing that she’s perfectly prepared to kill her own children in order to save them from the sacking of the city that would follow if Stannis is victorious. She’s a woman trapped in her role as queen, limited in her power, despite her position, because of her gender. But she’s not foolish enough to think she’ll be treated kindly, and she has the inner strength to do a terrible thing to save her children – and herself – from something worse.

So, Game of Thrones – certainly featuring many sexist characters and the sexist societal constraints of the time period it mimics. But I definitely wouldn’t class it as sexist overall. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it upholds the theme of female roles and feminism within the historical constraints that limit it.

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