First of all, the teaser trailer for the second season of Game of Thrones:
If you haven’t read the books or seen the show, then you should get on that. Game of Thrones is some terribly good storytelling. It’s also kind of hard to summarize other than to say that winter is coming.
Sorry, sorry. Game of Thrones is set in a gritty fantasy world where the seasons can last for years, and where winters are especially harsh; the action centers on a family of nobles in the North called the Starks and their often tense relationship with a fellow noble family called the Lannisters.
I’ve read most of the books and watched all of the show – and I have to say that one of my favorite parts is the handling of the female characters.
This is a somewhat controversial thing to say, as A Song of Ice and Fire (the television show is Game of Thrones, while the book series is titled A Song of Ice and Fire) has sometimes drawn criticism for what are seen as sexist portrayals and/or portrayals of violence against women, namely in a piece written Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown. I do not agree with these criticisms, not at all; in fact, for the most part, they are the exact opposite of how I read the text. Alyssa Rosenberg already gave a point by point response that I agree with wholeheartedly, and this was all a thing some months ago, so I don’t want to dredge up old crud or beat a dead horse.
No, today I want to talk about my undying love for the sisters Arya and Sansa Stark.
These lovely ladies
Graphics art by saltspray
Confession: when I was a kid, I wanted to be a tomboy.
Basically, I wanted to be Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird; later on, I wanted to be Lyra from His Dark Materials.
And if I’d read ASoIaF around this same time? You better believe that I would have been foaming at the mouth to be Arya Stark.
Like Scout and Lyra, Arya is just freaking badass.
Westeros (the continent where most of the action unfolds) is…not a progressive society. Society is divided along class and gender lines. As a female of a noble family, Arya can expect a life better than most, but her primary role is still to marry and produce children. Unfortunately, this does not gel with her vision of her life, and so Arya constantly experiences friction with the narrow roles set to her by her society, a conflict perhaps best exemplified by the following exchange with her father Ned:
Arya: Can I be lord of a holdfast?
Ned: You will marry a high lord and rule his castle, and your sons shall be knights, and princes, and lords.
Arya: No. That’s not me.
I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Arya does break away from this future in some big ways, kicking ass and taking names (oh boy, quite literally taking names) along the way. Her arc is gritty and dark but ultimately empowering, because this waif of a girl transforms herself from someone that everybody underestimates into a legitimate force to be reckoned with.
Fanart by Sue Ann Williams
In many ways, Arya’s character is reminiscent of the trope of the rebellious princess.
Literature is abound with spunky females who give up their higher station in life in order to pursue paths that are a better fit for them, by which I mean paths full of danger and intrigue and scandal. A large part of why these stories are attractive is because they function as a gigantic, collective middle finger to restrictive gender roles.
Why hello there, awesome rebellious princess movie that I cannot WAIT to see!
But what about those princesses who don’t run away? What about the characters who are fine with the gender roles set by their society?
Ladies and gentlemen – meet Sansa Stark.
Sansa is the opposite to her sister Arya in almost every possible way. This girl has a game plan. She will marry a prince – she has the particular one all picked out – and sonnets will be composed of their undying love. Of course, this is a dark dark dark story, chockfull of High Octane Nightmare Fuel, so that’s not quite how things work out.
Sansa is one of those characters much maligned by the fandom. Many people do not like her. Many people passionately do not like her.
I am not here to tell people who they should or should not like. Personally, I love Sansa. I want to have her over for tea to discuss boys and compare pretty dresses. But I understand where the dislike comes from. She spends a large part of the story being helplessly moony, completely oblivious to the fact that her favorite prince is the most unlikable character in the whole story – maybe the most unlikable character ever, period.
Which is why this scene is so satisfying to watch; also, Peter Dinklage
If the rebellious princess is a common trope, then so is the snobbish princess; they often co-exist in the same story, usually to show the rebellious princess what she could become and how she must avoid this at all costs. The snobbish princess is often the metaphorical hand of society, trying to hold down the rebellious princess as she seeks her own path in life.
And this is exactly why I love how George R.R. Martin handled these characters. Because he writes Sansa Stark as so much more than that.
To me, the narrative makes it abundantly clear that while Sansa has no interest in picking up a sword, that does not mean that she is not brave or smart or strong. I don’t want to spoil anyone, but in particular I’m thinking of a moment after Sansa has seen something horrible and she’s given a chance to push someone off a bridge, and she contemplates it very seriously. In addition, it is Sansa, more than anyone else, who comes perilously close to rectifying the entire situation at the end of the first book – something that Arya, while awesome, would never have been able to accomplish with her particularly blunt way of doing things.
Fanart by Sue Ann Williams
Remember how I said I wanted to be a tomboy?
I wanted it so bad that I’d convinced myself I was one – at least until the day that I informed my family of this fact, and they promptly laughed in my face. This is partially because my family is a collection of hapless ingrates, but also because I’m not a tomboy.
Here are a list of things I hated back then (and still do now): a) bugs, b) being outside, c) running around, d) getting dirty, e) touching worms (which I hated so much that when my father took me fishing, I coped by spearing the worm delicately with my fishing hook so that my fingers would not have to touch something so slimy and hideously gross). I’ve always been an effeminate person – it’s just part of how I walk, how I talk, something as ingrained as the color of my eyes. It’s not the right way to be, nor is it the wrong way, it simply is.
But when I was a kid? I’d internalized that being traditionally feminine was not a powerful way of being. I wanted to be Arya, but I was actually Sansa.
Which is why I love ASoIaF: because with Arya and Sansa, the narrative offers two polar-opposite ways of expressing female identity – yet ultimately, both girls are shown as strong and courageous, each in their own way.
I think that’s pretty amazing.
Also, Peter Dinklage.
If you’ve been reading this blog in any semblance of consistency, then you might have learned that I love aliens. Because aliens are cool.
But you know what might be even cooler than aliens?
(Image from striatic)
I’m a big believer in the idea that certain science fiction and/or fantasy staples tend to represent the same thing over and over. Dragons embody uncontrollable forces that we try to defeat, to essentially gain control over (even though they are, uh, uncontrollable). Aliens represent deviations from the “norm”, and stories that talk about aliens also talk about themes of isolation and alienation. Similarly, fantasy stories featuring princesses often grapple with issues such as gender expectations and female autonomy. Why do you think princesses are running away all the time? Hint: it’s not because they couldn’t stand all the cake.
I’m not saying these are iron-clad rules, but yes, I think they’re common enough that you should keep them in mind when you’re reading stories featuring said staples.
And this is why I love robots. Because robots seriously have the coolest intellectual dilemmas. Robots are used to contemplate issues of consciousness and individuality – what makes humans “human”? Every writer answers that question differently, which means that robots are infinitely interesting.
That’s one of the reasons I seriously love I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, because the story really gets down to the gritty, basic questions surrounding robots and consciousness.
But the other reason I love I, Robot?
Why, Susan Calvin! Of course.
Now please be patient with me, because it’s been a long-ass time since I read I, Robot. But here’s what I remember: I, Robot is essentially a series of short stories with Susan Calvin as the common thread. In every story, a robot inevitably starts acting divergent, and Susan Calvin shows up to fix things. Susan Calvin is a robot doctor, which I must admit, is probably the coolest science fiction profession ever.
Susan Calvin is cold, and humorless, and extremely misanthropic.
She is not the snarky chick from that movie with Will Smith, not by a long shot.
Also known as that two hour commercial for converses
Susan Calvin also offers some interesting conversations surrounding female representation in fiction. Isaac Asimov has been criticized for his lack of female representation, and Asimov himself admitted that his initial track record with female characters wasn’t so great. And if you follow the previous link, he offers an early example of one female character that he did right: Susan Calvin.
For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to agree.
Your perception of Susan Calvin as a feminist character will largely rest on your expectations of female characters. If you look for role models and heroes always, then Susan Calvin will likely disappoint. If you look for female characters that you can identify with, then Susan Calvin will most likely infuriate.
Susan Calvin is no hero. If anything, she’s the closest thing I, Robot has to a villain. She does care about the robots, insomuch as she cares about anything, but she’s also there as an obstacle. You might be inclined to read her portrayal as flat and lifeless and shallow in that respect, because her characterization is basically she is cold she is cold she is cold. I know many people see her as a stereotype of a spinster.
But I also think that misses some of the point. Susan Calvin is cartoonishly cold because she is seriously the perfect foil for the robots in the story. The robots are essentially struggling to grasp humanity and autonomy, while Calvin rejects everything about humanity. I’ve always felt that the robots in the story are more human than Calvin, and I’ve always felt that this was intentional. But of course, Calvin is the actual human human! So what does that say about my personal definitions of humanity?
Hmm, interesting point, Asimov. I see what you did there.
These are the kind of thinky thoughts that I, Robot wants you to think, and I think it was brave of Asimov to use a female character to depict that cold side of humanity, especially when prevalent societal conceptualizations of femininity revolve around women taking warm and nurturing roles. Weirdly, Susan Calvin is somehow three-dimensional through being one-dimensional, because she highlights a part of humanity that is not off-limits to the female gender.
Also? Like many Asimov protagonists, Susan Calvin is always the smartest person in the room. That’s valuable, too.
I don’t begrudge the movie with Will Smith. As mindless action flicks go, it was fine. There were even a few scenes that communicated to me that the writers were trying to preserve some of those thinky thoughts. But it’s pretty apparent when you watch it that someone sold the writers on the idea that Susan Calvin was this one-note stereotype that had to be improved. Even though Susan Calvin, just as much as the robots, is the point. Her horribleness is kind of the point.
Or maybe nobody thought they could sell a thinky science fiction movie with a female lead. Just a thought I was thinking.
This post was for the Superheroes of Science blogfest! I answered the question: Who is the most memorable scientist character to you? What’s so special about him? Check out the other awesome entries! They are awesome.
Sorry this post is a day late. I meant to write it last night, but fell asleep at nine. Who does that?
- As I sit here to type this, I find myself surprisingly wordless about the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. I just don’t know what to say, other than I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. And that you should go read Meg Cabot’s essay about what it was like to be blocks away from the tragedy while it was happening, because she has better words than I do.
- Sommer Leigh has already featured on my Sunday Link Love, but maybe she should stop being so awesome then. This week, her post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (a group I’m currently not in, despite the fact that I certainly qualify for the criteria) had me smiling. Again, all writer-types should see this, insecure or not.
- Two years ago, a new best friend introduced me to the wonders of X-Files, which I had previously only recognized as “that weird show whose opening credits traumatized me as a kid”. Something that immediately hooked me about X-Files was how it felt like getting great, stand-alone mini-movies in every episode, and like Doctor Who, they could reinvent themselves all they wanted and come back as a completely different show every week. If you’re interested in X-Files, here’s a great list of episodes to get you started.
- I’m excited for this movie, even though I might be the only person in the universe who didn’t like Juno that much.
- More Alyssa Rosenberg, because she’s also awesome, but also because I think this is an important conversation. Honestly? In a sexist world, we need some of our female characters to function as role models, but that doesn’t mean that all writers have that responsibility. I don’t write role models. Sometimes I even depict females who are incompetent, not because they’re female, but because individual variation among gender is a true thing. And because I happen to love reading and writing stories that turn horrible, horrible people into sympathetic characters.
- Stole this from Ari Susu-Mago – Get Out of There Cat! Wherein cats forget that they’re cats and that they should not be wherever they are.
- Oh man, I discovered Elana Johnson’s blog this week, and I’m in heaven. I love finding good blogs that go back a few years so that I can archive trawl. And I thought that this post, about what people should blog about, was particularly good.
- I got 2 parakeets yesterday! I am so excite. I never had pets growing up, because my mom is allergic to everything. My dad had a cat, but it was his cat, not my cat. Plus I ended up becoming severely allergic to his cat.
- By accident, I got a male and female parakeet, but the Internet tells me this shouldn’t be a problem so long as I don’t put a nest in their cage. I named them Lucy and Desi. +100 if you get the reference, which is not particularly hard. I would post pictures, but right now they’re still terrified of me so I don’t think I should approach them with strange objects such as a camera.
- I can already tell they have distinct personalities. Desi is chill and sleeps all the time and has even nuzzled my finger, while Lucy refuses to sleep because she is still convinced that I want to eat her or something. But I respect her survival instinct. This is pretty much in line with what everyone says about male/female parakeets, which is that the females are harder to train.
- Which brings me to my point: Whipper the parakeet. Seriously, he is adorable.
- More cute animal stuff. Seriously, this cat really is the cutest cat in the world.
- Remember when I posted pictures of Avatar (the television show) My Little Ponies? No? Maybe? Well, this week io9 has some much more disturbing Doctor Who My Little Ponies – of some of the creepier aliens on the show. Seriously, don’t miss this. Relatedly, tomorrow I’m posting about my favorite Doctor Who episodes! Whee!
- Wherefore art thou, Jonathan Taylor Thomas? I thought this was funny. Maybe you will too.