george martin

you know noting Jon Snow

on George Martin, ladies of ASOIAF and being a ‘feminist writer’

This long-ass post was brought to you by me starting my latest ASOIAF reread focusing exclusively on the ladies, plus some acutely on-point tag meta by him-e  re: Martin’s approach to female characters. 

It’s an interesting phenomenon that’s by no means exclusive to the this particular fandom or even the geek community, by which famous male writers made a name for being ‘feminist’ by popular acclaim and little else. One example could be Charlie Kaufman, or pre-controversy Joss Whedon (who is currently in the middle of a controversy exactly because the public realized that he’s really nothing special in this regard). 

This kind of writers, and I’m fully lumping Martin in the group, are not feminist at all - they are simply good writers, who do well with characters, and thus end up writing well-rounded female characters. Repeat after me: if you can write, you can write women. It’s not indication of any kind of inclination for social justice. In an age of fandom activism and sub-par female representation, this is enough to get some writers raised to sainthood; it doesn’t mean they deserve it.

Martin is one of such men. He’s not out to subvert the patriarchy, as I’ve seen suggested every once in a while; he’s merely crafty enough to realize which tropes to subvert to make for interesting storytelling. (I’m also of the opinion that all this subverting was merely a smoke-screen writing device and ASOIAF will turn more stereotypically fantasy with WoW/DoS, but I guess we’ll see about that). GRRM representing a wide-range of female characters in his work doesn’t automatically have to mean that he sees these characters as anything more than a writing exercise; shouldn’t get him a feminist medal.

We talk a lot about the Bechdel test around here, which is by no means indicative of how feminist a work is, but it’s alaways interesting to do, so I decided to do some Bedcheling of my own.

The first female interaction in the books is in Arya I, when she’s arguing with Sansa. They’re talking about Joff. Scrapped. Then Septa Mordane criticizes her sewing. This one is good. Sansa I. She argues with Arya, which passes the test, but then it’s about Joff again. Arya II. There’s like half a page of her arguing with Sansa, talking about the tourney, but the underlying assumption is that Sansa is mad re: the Joffrey thing. Let’s say this is a pass. Daenerys III. She’s hanging out with her handmaidens, which is good, but it turns out all she wants is for Doreah to teach her how to ‘please’ Khal Drogo, who in that same chapter raped her repeatedly (but this is not that kind of post so let’s move on). 

I could go on in details, but I think we all remember how it goes - Sansa and Arya have a some more interactions, but only a few don’t make mention of / center about male characters. Lysa and Catelyn’s argument is more about Tyrion, Jon Arryn and Robert Arryn than it is about themselves, but must be a pass in some points. How revolutionary. There’s mention of Jeyne Poole in the Sansa chapter where she goes to Cersei, but the only dialogue they actually share is about Robert’s death, and the Sansa/Cersei conversation is obviously all about Joffrey and Ned. I think the mostly Bechdel-ish interactions of the whole book are the handful of lines between Dany and the handmaidens about Dothraki lore, but it bears noticing that Irri and the others are Dany’s slaves - they’ve been thrown together by circumstances, not choices. 

It’s interesting because, barring the above relationship, no woman on ASOIAF has friends. It’s interesting because it shows that, for all the glorification Martin gets, his female characters are yes, three-dimentional characters, but not women. They are nuanced in a way that has more to do with painting a detailed portrayal rather than going out his way to fully establish all these characters as their own people. He especially doesn’t try to establish the women of ASOIAF in a contest independent of male influence, which is what a true ‘feminist writer’ would do. Westeros is a heavily male-dominated society, true, but it’s a stretch that every woman’s character was first and foremost influenced by a man (you don’t need to search any farther than the family trees, and how everyone’s mother is dead or forgettable.)

The point I’m trying to make with the Bechdel line of reasoning is how odd it is that no woman in ASOIAF has female interactions worth of notice. This happens even when the character’s position would require it; it’s almost like Martin goes out his way to avoid writing such interactions, even when the worldbuilding suffers from it (the wife of the Warden of the North has no ladies in waiting? Cersei was alone before Taena came along? Sansa might be a hostage, but is there no woman in the KL’s court besides the queen? It’s weird but easier than writing girl talk!)

That the first instances of female ‘friendship’ we get in canon are in ASOS – mentions of Margaery’s ladies, some Sansa/Shae, Selyse and Mel, Daenerys and ten-year-old Missandei;  and that we have to wait until AFFC for a first-hand account in the form of Arianne’s flashback interactions with the Sand Snakes and Cersei’s description of Margaery’s court and her relationship with Taena. That’s a whopping 9 years after ASOIAF started to get a decent female interactions more than a page long. 

This is why Martin is not doing anything particularly extraordinary with his female characters, besides knowing how to write. This is why there shouldn’t be any kind of discussion on whether is is writing revolutionary feminist fantasy - all he’s doing is describing the world through a handful of female POVs who are all isolated or shunned from their peers, and however few mentions Margaery gets per book.

Pray notice, I’m not dissing Martin. I’m perfectly (okay, sufficiently) satisfied with what he’s accomplished, I’m just saying he shouldn’t get more praise than he’s due. Fleshing out a female character in a way that’s mostly shaped by the males in her life is not much of a feminist feat, and that if you actually pay attention to it the most genuine female relationship in the whole of ASOIAF is that between Arya and Sansa – pretty telling considering that they’re still children and not yet women.

(ETA: I absolutely forgot about Catelyn/Brienne because my brain is fried. It’s adressed here, doesn’t really change the overall argument).

Martin is a good writer, not a revolutionary. He set out to write a ‘classical fantasy epic’ (his words, not mine) and figured out that the best way to do it was though perfectly crafted twist, both of the plot and the tropes of the genre. The writing in ASOIAF is wonderful storytelling but not feminist activism; and should not be regarded as such.

“John Lennon and Paul McCartney in particular were extremely good friends; they loved one another, really. They shared a spirit of adventure, a modest little childhood ambition: they were going to go out and conquer the world. They egged each other on, and helped each other if they got stuck. When John wanted to escape suburbia, he would drive up and spend the night at Paul’s….John has an extremely low boredom threshold, at the best of times.”  - George Martin

6

Paul’s first LSD trip with John was on March, 21, 1967. During the recording of the song “Getting Better” John accidentally took LSD. After he noticed that something was wrong he let George Martin know that he wasn’t feeling well and he couldn’t concentrate. George and Paul were aware of the situation, but George Martin wasn’t. He really thought that John was just feeling ill so he took him to the roof in Abbey Road. As soon as Paul and George knew what was going on they went up to get John. That night Paul decided to take John home (Cavendish) and drop acid with him for the very first time. 

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“We stood there for a minute or two, with John swaying gently against my arm. ‘I’m feeling better,’ he announced. Then he looked up at the stars. 'Wow..’ he intoned. 'Look at that! Isn’t that amazing?“.

I followed his gaze. The stars did look good but they didn’t look that good. It was very unlike John to be over the top in that way. I stared at him. He was wired-pin-sharp and quivering, resonating away like a human tuning fork.
No sooner had John uttered his immortal words about the stars than George and Paul came bursting out on the roof. They had come tearing up from the studio as soon as they found out where we were.
They knew why John was feeling unwell. Maybe everyone else did, too - everyone except for father-figure George Martin here!
It was very simple. John was tripping on LSD. He had taken it by mistake, they said - he had meant to take an amphetamine tablet. That hardly made any difference, frankly; the fact was that John was only too likely to imagine he could fly, and launch himself off the low parapet that ran around the roof. They had been absolutely terrified that he might do so. 

I spoke to Paul about this night many years later, and he confirmed that he and George had been shaken rigid when they found out we were up on the roof. They knew John was having a what you might call a bad trip. John didn’t go back to Weybridge that night; Paul took him home to his place, in nearby Cavendish Road. They were intensely close, remember, and Paul would do almost anything for John. So, once they were safe inside, Paul took a tablet of LSD for the first time, 'So I could get with John’ as he put it- be with him in his misery and fear.

What about that for friendship?” - George Martin       

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"I thought, Maybe this is the moment where I should take a trip with him. It’s been coming for a long time. It’s often the best way, without thinking about it too much, just slip into it. John’s on it already, so I’ll sort of catch up. It was my first trip with John, or with any of the guys. We stayed up all night, sat around and hallucinated a lot. 

Me and John, we’d known each other for a long time. Along with George and Ringo, we were best mates. And we looked into each other’s eyes, the eye contact thing we used to do, which is fairly mind-boggling. You dissolve into each other. But that’s what we did, round about that time, that’s what we did a lot. And it was amazing. You’re looking into each other’s eyes and you would want to look away, but you wouldn’t, and you could see yourself in the other person. It was a very freaky experience and I was totally blown away. 

There’s something disturbing about it. You ask yourself, 'How do you come back from it? How do you then lead a normal life after that?’ And the answer is, you don’t. After that you’ve got to get trepanned or you’ve got to meditate for the rest of your life. You’ve got to make a decision which way you’re going to go. 

I would walk out into the garden - 'Oh no, I’ve got to go back in.’ It was very tiring, walking made me very tired, wasted me, always wasted me. But 'I’ve got to do it, for my well-being.’ In the meantime John had been sitting around very enigmatically and I had a big vision of him as a king, the absolute Emperor of Eternity. It was a good trip. It was great but I wanted to go to bed after a while. 

I’d just had enough after about four or five hours. John was quite amazed that it had struck me in that way. John said, 'Go to bed? You won’t sleep!’ 'I know that, I’ve still got to go to bed.’ I thought, now that’s enough fun and partying, now … It’s like with drink. That’s enough. That was a lot of fun, now I gotta go and sleep this off. But of course you don’t just sleep off an acid trip so I went to bed and hallucinated a lot in bed. I remember Mai coming up and checking that I was all right. 'Yeah, I think so.’ I mean, I could feel every inch of the house, and John seemed like some sort of emperor in control of it all. It was quite strange. Of course he was just sitting there, very inscrutably.” - Paul Mccartney