Women, Fantasy and A Game of Thrones

By Jacob Klein on Apr 20, 2011 to Game of Thrones, HBO Watch Originals

With the premiere of HBO’s maiden voyage into the world of fantasy, much has been said about the female audience the show is hoping to attract.  The controversy over a woman’s taste for fantasy was sparked when the New York Times published a piece by Gina Bellafante calling Game of Thrones “…boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.”  Unfortunately, this stereotypical attitude matches what many others have expressed which is that: ‘women just aren’t into high fantasy and adventure the way most men are.’  If that were true even fifty years ago you wouldn’t know it by the responses to Bellafante’s article popping up all over the net.

Like so many other fantasy fans, HBO Watch feels that these false stereotypes and glass ceilings are only made stronger by the affirmation and subsequent parroting by articles such as the aforementioned NYT piece.  We asked our 2100 twitter followers for their thoughts on Women, Fantasy and A Game of Thrones.  Needless to say, the response was overwhelming. Women from all over the country wanted to give their opinions on the new series from a their perspective, and we were happy to oblige.  Here are the thoughts on Game of Thrones from the perspectives of real women all across the country.  After reading and reflecting, go back and skim Gina Bellafante’s article again and I challenge you to tell these women that A Song of Ice and Fire is ‘boy fiction’.

As a 38 year old woman and lover of fantasy, Lemmingfly26 had this to say:

“I find it hard to believe that women are still thought of as not enjoying fantasy/ science fiction. That is what I have ready for most of my life. The way that GRRM has written his women is very much in keeping with what conditions during the mid-evil period were. I think that as a society stuck in “PC” mode we tend to forget that war and conditions were not so nice during that period of time. GRRM has drawn form that and created a fantasy series that is wonderful even with all of the sexually related things happening to the women. For many of the women it is an integral part of the story and actually forms part of the characters development in the story, such as in the case of Daenerys.

I started reading this series after first seeing it reviewed in Entertainment Weekly. Being the nerd that I am, I always like to read the books before viewing a movie/show and so immediately order it up on my e-reader. I wasn’t able to stop until I was forced to once I got to the end of the 4th book, A Feast for Crows. The whole series is amazing and I can’t wait for the next book in July! I have actually pre-ordered it as an early birthday present for myself.

The women characters in this story are so strongly written and developed so beautifully that it is easy to relate, love/hate them and totally become attached to them. My favorite is probably Arya, who is a strong, young, female who takes her fate into her own hands.  I for one can’t wait to see how the story progresses for all the characters and guess what? After reading the books I’m still a girl who likes fantasy/ science fiction( and Kung foo and action movies that girls aren’t supposed to like either)!”

DarthBek explains that shows such as Game of Thrones have no problem connecting with women:

Game of Thrones runs the gamut of a woman’s role in the world, without ever demanding a ‘one true way’ of us. Catelyn shows us a dutiful and loving wife and mother, who becomes a mother bear when her children are threatened – by bastard or war. Cersei gives us a woman trapped in a man’s world who’s desire for equality strips her of wisdom. Daenerys is a journey in her own right – from weak pawn to strong, wise leader. Arya and Sansa are studies in polar opposites, with a depth to both that illuminate the struggle of women in their own way. Lysa Arryn is… well.. the kind of woman I strive not to be – insipid and silly. Even Brienne makes an impact as the woman uncomfortable in her own skin.

A modern woman can identify with one or all of these creatures, even if they are characters in a very different setting. Some may cry havoc at the mistreatment of Dany, but never does Dany become a victim. She inspires strength and courage in the face of adversity and takes matters into her own hands. It could be easy to dismiss the women as lackluster creatures, but this is the beauty of George R R Martin’s writing. The nuance and a critical examination of these characters shows us that they encourage the women of today to never be satisfied with the way things are, that sometimes women fail, sometimes a woman can be powerful without realizing it.

Anwesa used to feel the same way Gina (of the New York Times) did, but after reading Martin’s work, quickly saw that women can be strong, central characters as well:

“I have erred the way you have, but in the opposite direction. I used to think that fantasy was a woman’s genre when it came to books and a man’s genre when it came to games. Maybe this is because I have read so much fantasy written by women. There was Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest chronicles, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, and so much, much more. Enough to fill a bookshelf for the young female fantasy reader. But, of course, there are many fantasy books written by men as well. Since Tolkein and C.S.Lewis stand as leaders of the genre, along with important followers like Stephen King and George R. R. Martin, I can see why you would think as you do.

I have noticed, with sadness, that many of my favorite male fantasy authors either leave out strong female protagonists (like Tolkein or King) or write female protagonists that are less relateable than the men. I feel like Mr. Martin has made strides towards bringing females into the realm of epic heroes, the people we want to be. We still have a long way to go though. In this series, I think the most loveable characters are still male: Tyrion, Jon, and Bran. I can’t relate to Dany. She is too regal and otherworldly.  Too much a Helen of Troy. In this way, times haven’t changed much.   As I get into these stories, I still want to be the guy.”

Ms. Elle, a woman of substance herself, appreciates quality in her entertainment, regardless of genere:

“I’m really tired of this idea that women don’t like sci-fi and fantasy. I ALSO dislike the notion that if women like sci-fi and fantasy, that’s all they like. This is simply not true. This woman appreciates quality, regardless of genre. I don’t like all sci-fi/fantasy, although I loved Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and several Neil Gaiman books. But I also like acerbic and witty comedies. I like certain kinds of romance. I like historical novels, political dramas, non-fiction, memoirs, British literature. I love Battlestar Galactica AND Parks and Recreation. It’s possible to like all kinds of genres.

What I find disturbing is the feeling that I’m not necessarily welcome in the sci-fi/fantasy communities. They do feel very male-dominated, and some hardcore fans have some decidedly anti-feminist and misogynistic overtones. I don’t know if they mean to be, but sometimes, it’s just “the way it is,” and it’s hard to break away from it. At the same time, there have been so many strong females in these genres, and it’s nice to see that representation there.”

And finally, Mimi (NOT pictured above!), a 60 year old grandmother, ranks A Song of Ice and Fire amongst her all-time favorite novels!:

“This is a stunning revelation. Women don’t like fantasy? Where have these people been? I read lots and lots of fantasy in my 20’s and 30’s. Always thought fantasy was mostly FOR women. Most of these books had a heavy taste of romance. By the time I turned 40(ish), I was truly tired of the genre and switched to science fiction. When I found Game of Thrones at the local library in 1997, it was with a shrug that I took it home a gave it a shot. Loved it! George R. R. Martin can definitely ‘turn a phrase’ and his character development is exceptionally fine. These things plus a really unpredictable story would hook just about anyone of either gender. As an ordinary, almost 60 years old grandmother, I’m proud to say that ASoIaF is in my top five all time favorite series.”

I’d like to thank ALL of the great women who messaged us, posted on our forums and got involved with the continuing dialog about women and fantasy.  Let’s hope that Game of Thrones helps break the exclusionary stereotypes about ‘girl fiction’ and ‘boy fiction’.   Feel free to post comments below with your own thoughts on the matter!

  • Suzanne

    Though I haven’t read the books, once I heard about Game of Thrones I was pretty excited to see it. I’m not a huge fantasy fan but definitely enjoy it when it’s done well. So, I was really looking forward to checking out the first episode.

    I watched it and I’m not completely sold. For me it came off as very misogynistic. Some of the violence was a bit over the top but that didn’t really bother me as much as the way the female characters were written. While I disagree with the sentiment that fantasy doesn’t really interest women, I’m not sure how far I’ll go with this particular series. Judging from Kelsey’s comments above, the books seem to include some strong female characters. I’m just hoping that they’re not getting lost in the jump from the page to the small screen.

  • @Kelsey Great comment! Thanks for sharing. I hope you get your MaEster’s degree soon :)

    @Kathy I empathize with your position on battles and violence in literature and on screen. I find myself yawning once in a while when I’m watching a Braveheart style sequence because, yes, gore for gores sake doesn’t really appeal to me.. I’d rather just find out what happens next!

    I’ve read A Game of Thrones and *Spoiler Alert!* There is one large battle that takes place over 30 or so pages (out of 800) so as far as I know at least this series won’t be battle heavy (maybe one episode towards the end).

    I think the great things about ASoIaF is that there is something in there for everyone. If you like the sex and gore and cursing… you’ll love it! If you enjoy the tender love stories that grow and evolve over time… you’ll love it! But I would say (and correct me if I’m wrong) but at least 70% of Game of Thrones is plot-driving dialogue and political intrigue.

    The opening episode was brutal and I’m not going to lie and say that it relents any time soon but the story does progress rather briskly and even the violence tells part of the story. I hope you continue to watch!

    Thanks for commenting and come back often!


  • Kathy

    While I love fantasy, I guess it depends on what type of fantasy we’re talking about. My first impression of the series was that it was gratuitously violent and pretty misogynistic. Boobs abounded. Much of the sex was pretty brutal and it seems they all like rough doggy. The wedding and wedding night especially turned me off, as well as the beheadings, guttings, and the cliffhanger. I am not a prude by any sense, I don’t mind seeing sex depicted on television, but this in addition to all the violence was just a bit much for me.

    I didn’t read the books. Though, as I said, I like fantasy, I don’t enjoy the battle stories. I don’t want to read about or see all the violence. Cut to the chase, tell me who won and get on with the story already is my attitude.

    It’s great that millions of people men and women seem to love these books and this show. But it’s just not for me. I may tune in for the second episode, but I’m not sure. Certainly, if I do, and I just see more of the same, I won’t tune in for the third one.

  • Hear hear!

    What an excellet collection of voices on women and fantasy. As an avid fantasy reader and a young woman, I can only express my confusion at this continued link to ‘boys club’ behaviour when it comes to fantasy literature. Perhaps rabid fan behaviour on messaging boards tends to lean more towards the fanboys, but believe me, if you surf the pages of winter-is-coming.net, you’ll find hundreds of of posters are female fanatics! and I am one of them!

    I wrote part of a literacy paper on the qualitity of martin’s female characters for my master’s degree:
    George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire is not at first glance a series one would tote as positive feminist discourse. In fact, some feminist scholars might have me burnt at the stake for suggesting otherwise. A series filled with oppressed women, women who have to use their bodies to get want they want, and the utter derision of female characters that play any role besides that of wife and mother, it gave me the opportunity to observe more women like those searched for in the old folktales than the novels given to me by my mother or librarian. Characters like Brienne, a young woman, unfortunate in looks, who is a swordswoman, fighting for a just cause, and attempting to rescue a missing young woman, taught me to hold my head high, even when not being ladylike. The Stark sisters, Arya and Sansa, are young girls completely different in thought and action, yet both facing the realities around them, determined to overcome whatever they face. For Sansa, it’s losing the blindfold of chivalry and a beautiful court, to discover that her body and her father’s title mean much more than anything she has to say or anything she feels. For Arya, the reality that the proper role of young lady her mother wishes she would embrace is too much, and she rebels continually, even getting permission from her father to be trained in sword-fighting. She murders, she steals, she lies, and she loses her entire identity, to keep from being turned into a hostage against her parents’ good behaviour.
    As I write this, I can think of at least 3 or 4 more female characters in this series that face more than Elizabeth Bennet could even dream in her worst nightmare, and I cherish the lessons in strength and expression I have learnt from these books.

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