This is what I’m doing today »« A lesson in botany

Feminist Fantasy

I’ve just finished reading Game of Thrones, the first book of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series. I really enjoyed the HBO series, but I didn’t feel like waiting years to learn the rest of the plot. The same thing happened with Lord of the Rings – I saw the first movie, then quickly gobbled up the trilogy, the Hobbit, and even the Silmarillion. And I’m pretty sure I don’t have to point out that I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. I enjoy fantasy novels.

But it’s always a little weird reading fantasy as a feminist. I know other feminists lament the lack of strong female characters in traditional fantasy novels. I mean, does Arwen serve any purpose other than marrying Aragorn? Eowyn is badass as she slays the Lord of the Nazgul, but then she loses all her fighting spirit to marry Faramir and have babies.

Harry Potter left me similarly disappointed in the end. Hermione was such a strong female character throughout the series, but ultimately the end is all about getting married and having babies. ¬†Rowling discusses her accomplishments in the Ministry in interviews, but in the book her future is represented only as a mother. And really, when you think about the series, it’s all about dudes. Harry, Voldemort, Dumbledore, Snape. I love Hermione, but sometimes I can’t help but see her as a useful plot device, the clever one who will serendipitously figure out all the puzzles and advances the plot.

So far, I’m enjoying Game of Thrones. There are many strong female characters. But more importantly to me, they’re not The Strong Female Character. I hate when a book or movie is so obviously trying to introduce a strong woman to the plot, that she ends up a flat caricature without flaws or weaknesses. It makes the viewer feel like there really are no such thing as strong women in the real world – otherwise why would they be so hard to write?

And that’s why I like this series (so far, at least). The strong women still aren’t perfect. Daenerys takes a terrible situation (which is an understatement) and uses it to grow into a powerful, confident woman. I think she’s one of the most compassionate characters in the series, yet that compassion is also her undoing. Cersei Lannister is powerful and recognizes how unfair it is that her power is curtailed by her bad luck of being born female – but she’s also tremendously evil. Catelyn Stark takes matters into her own hands when her family is threatened, but the same emotions that drive her also cause her to make mistakes. And do I even have to say anything about Arya? She’s stubborn and hot headed, but she’s as much as a feminist as I’ve ever seen.

But I also like the series because there are some terrible women. Lysa Arryn is… a little off her rocker. Sansa fills me with a rage that’s only surpassed by how much I hate Joffrey (or as I like to call him, Malfoy 2.0). If there are supremely flawed male characters, I want supremely flawed female ones. Women aren’t perfect.

I’ve heard some argue that the series isn’t feminist because the women, in their culture, are basically seen as second class citizens. But when you have a series that’s basically medieval Europe placed on an imaginary map, I’m not sure what you expect. It’s inspired by history, where woman were treated that poorly. I find it refreshing that the plot doesn’t accept that (like in Lord of the Rings), but rather multiple woman try to overcome it.

But I see the point. How many more fantasy novels do we need that perfectly mirror medieval Europe, with women having the roles of wives and nothing more? If it’s fiction, why not make them equal? Or why not make them the ones in charge? It would be refreshing to see that occasionally.

I’m sure it’s out there, but I’m not as prolific of a reader. What fantasy novels do you think have feminist ideals? Who are your favorite strong female characters? What do you think about the women of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones? Does one do a better job than the others? Am I totally full of it with my opinions of these characters?