A song of changing genders a literary gender analysis of

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When the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire, was published (A Game of Thrones, 1996) it was well-received by fantasy critics and fans alike, winning three different fantasy and science-fiction awards in 1997. However, the attention that the novel received was almost entirely limited to the fantasy and science-fiction world of literature and thus next to no one outside of the fantasy world had heard of George R.R. Martin (Martin). This changed a decade later, when it was announced that the novels be adapted for a TV-show to be broadcast on HBO. The novels, of which there were four now, experienced a massive revival of interest and the series managed to breach the barrier between the rather limiting fantasy audience and the mainstream, by becoming a major cultural phenomenon.

Due to its delayed reception by a mainstream audience, most critical commentary of the novels was not written until recent years, after the publication of volumes 2, 3 and 4. Most of the empirical commentary concerning A Song of Ice and Fire is what would be defined as ‘popular’ literature: reviews, articles for popular magazines and newspapers, and BA/MA-projects from students from various universities (the quality of which is varying). However, a few commentators with academic background have added their assessments of the series to the popular scholarship – a description of some of these authors is found in the “Methodology” chapter of this project.

Many authors of the empirical commentary agree that Martin’s series has been highly influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, a fact which Martin himself has confirmed in interviews. The Lord of the Rings (1954) is celebrated for being the single most defining foundation of the modern fantasy genre. Tolkien’s influence is made visible in Martin’s novels in various ways, from small things like similarly sounding character names to the crucial ways in which he has decided to develop his narrative. Most authors also agree, however, that while George R.R. Martin clearly has Tolkienesque elements incorporated within his series, he also transcends Tolkien’s romantic fantasy traditions and brings his narrative into the 21st century.

One perspective, in which most of the critics agree that Martin differs from Tolkien and the traditional ideals of fantasy and romance, is gender. The romance genre is influenced by the chivalric ideals and gender roles of medievalism and in Martin’s first volume, A Game of Thrones, the women start out by embodying the gender traditions of chivalry and romance. They are dependent on the men in their lives, holding no true power that is not derived from these men, and are expected to uphold the ideals of a proper lady. However, the female characters soon evolve into something very different, dynamic and subversive. As Mark Buchanan writes in his honors essay from the University of British Colombia, “Martin not only includes female characters in his novels, but has made them integral to the plot, major protagonists, and dynamic characters… Martin is working against the tradition of marginalized female characters in the fantasy genre”1. Buchanan argues that some of Martin’s major characters are consciously aware of the performance of gender; they are aware that they live in a patriarchal system and are able to manipulate that system until it works to their own advantage. The critics agree that Martin has created strong and empowered female characters in his novels. They are all unique, three-dimensional and realistic creations, with whom Martin has created a spectrum of different female gender identities, which is rare in the fantasy genre. In her essay “Power and Feminism in Westeros”, Caroline Spector agrees with this assessment: “Throughout A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin establishes conventional medieval fantasy tropes and then destroys them… [By] creating such diverse and fully rendered female characters and thrusting them into this grim and bitter world, Martin has created a subversively feminist tale2.

There is next to no scholarship (academic or popular) focusing on the male gender and masculinity in A Song of Ice and Fire. It is surprising to me that so few gender scholars have examined the male perspective in George R.R. Martin’s novel series. The greater majority seem to agree that Martin is enlightened when it comes to gender, creating both male and female characters that are three-dimensional and who each face unique trials and struggle with their own shortcomings and inner corruption. They agree that he brings the traditional standards of fantasy and romance into our contemporary society, in which the male and female genders have become much more equalized in recent years. In today’s gender discussion, masculinity receives almost as much attention as femininity – if Martin’s series is as enlightened as they say, should the scholarship then not do the same?

As most critics have commented, many of the female characters start out by embodying the traditional gender ideals of fantasy, in the true nature of chivalry and romance. Later, however, these ideals shatter and the girls and women of the novels evolve into fully realized and comprehensive characters. None of these commentators have mentioned the fact that this is also true for the male characters. The boys and men of the series are also expected to uphold the masculine ideals of a medieval knight; a fierce and valiant warrior who always acts in the name of honor and his personal sense of duty. What was true for the women is also true for the men – as gender ideals are shattered, the male characters must also learn to evolve or perish in Martin’s universe. A student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Matthew Williamson, touches shortly on the subject in his research essay before continuing on to his main focus of femininity in the series. He argues that the male characters “fall into two categories: those who conform to standard male masculinity, and those who are emasculated in some way. Those males who ascribe to the more masculine side usually die for their hubris or folly3. Apparently the only way to survive in Westeros is to reject a binary system of genders.

During the 1970s feminist movement, the literary world underwent a change as female authors began to focus on themes that had earlier been prohibited by social conventions. Feminist Revisionism, for example, was a symbolic gesture that flushed out all past opinions of a patriarchal society and through literature introduced a new age of equality between genders. Their work drew attention to various literary practices that were biased towards women in some way or another. Today a gender enlightened text involves creating female characters that are not only three-dimensional and complicated beings, but also women who are strong because they embrace their femininity in some way, rather than absorbing some traditionally male values that make the women stronger.

Much and more has been written about female gender enlightened literature. But what about male gender enlightenment? Considering all the struggles men face in society today, their social crises and issues, I find it hard to believe that contemporary Western society is still male-dominated (as feminist commentators and a majority of focus on feminism by the media would suggest). And I wonder if this shift in gender roles is not visible in recent fictional literature? Perhaps it is time for some “Masculine Revisionism”?

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