Previously, I wrote an article covering women’s role in the Epic Fantasy genre. While I think I managed to successfully work through a good chunk of my feelings about the current state of the genre as a whole, there’s still quite a bit on my mind regarding this sensitive subject. Check out the last piece, then come back and check out my “part two.”
So, where I previously talked about women taking hold of their own destinies, and warned against the unfortunate (and all-too-common) trope many authors fall into – of making women mere objects for male character’s to seek out and conquer – I’d like to turn my attention towards another aspect of literature, a problem equally pervasive throughout Epic Fantasy. Victimization.
Very recently, the television adaptation of G.R.R.M’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series made news when one of its episodes featured the brutal rape of a beloved character (a fair warning, there will be spoilers here). Fairly quickly two camps arose either defending the merit of the sequence on the basis that the story explores dark and complex moral and philosophical dilemmas, and this was just another example, while others accused HBO and the show’s directors and writers of doing something incredibly dark and monstrous to one of the central cast solely for “shock value.” Personally speaking, I’ve danced back and forth on the nature of this event, but ultimately I’ve come to understand the reasons for why this scene was wrong.
The sequence in question takes place on the eve of a Sansa Stark’s wedding to the nefarious Ramsay Bolton. Previously, we as the viewers have been treated to an ongoing parade of miseries that poor Sansa has been forced to endure, first at the hands of her late-betrothed Joffrey Baratheon, and later by Queen Cersei Lannister. Sansa’s entire arc up until this point has been one of failure, mistreatment, and devastation. In season 5, we’re led to believe that thing’s are changing. Sansa is becoming more empowered, and it appears that she will be taking control of her destiny. Only she doesn’t. Sansa is led into a room with Ramsay Bolton, and against her will, she is horrifically raped. The worse part of this entire debacle of a scene comes not even from its treatment of Sansa directly, but instead from the director’s choice to focus on the reactions of another character. Theon Greyjoy, Ramsay Bolton’s slave/manservant, is instead the focus of this pivotal moment. We don’t see Sansa’s reaction, we don’t see her struggle or her perseverance; rather we’re shown the reactions of anther character, a man who now must save the damsel in distress (and this of course relates back to my issue in Part One). The whole sequence actively reduces Sansa to nothing more than a punching bag, and it’s in terrible taste.
Now to clarify, the entire point of this article is to discuss the case for writers actively avoiding falling into the trope of using their female characters as victims. I’m not advocating that terrible things can’t happen to your female cast. Quite the contrary, no story is without its conflict, and that almost always requires something bad-to-awful occurring to your protagonist(s) or heroine(s). I specifically used the TV-Sansa example to contrast it with the representation of female characters in the book versions of “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Whereas the tv show’s writers fell into the pit of abuse for shock value, I would argue that George R.R. Martin avoids this trope, and instead uses the awful realties of the struggles women face to expand and color the lives of his many female characters. Beyond that, the author also uses the horrible specter of rape against both women and men, showing that in a medieval society, either can just as easily become a victim. But perhaps most importantly of all, it’s how G.R.R.M explores the impact of the threat against his female cast, whether it is rape, torture or any other terrible occurrence.
Further still, in the book version of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” we as the audience follow the reactions of the female characters to these events, and it’s intrinsically connected to their story-arcs. Sansa and Cersei in particular are almost parallels of one another. Both are victims in their own way of the male-dominated society they inhabit, and much of their plot and character-growth stems from the ways each character handles the overwhelming number of abuse thrown at them. Cersei herself rails against the system, and denounces it as unfair and sexist, and even delves into dark, Freudian-esque ideals of becoming a man, whereas Sansa instead shifts her way of thinking and operating to better survive within the “corrupt” system she inhabits. In these two cases, the threat of bad or terrible things happening to the characters, or the actual event of misfortune befalling them is directly tied to their growth as individuals. They change and adapt because of these experiences, and never does it come across that G.R.R.M is bombarding us with nothing more than “evil for shock value.”
It’s also very disheartening when you truly step back and see just how many authors make the mistake of whipping out some terrible act (although it’s almost always rape) to use against their female characters. Terry Goodkind is just one example of an author who provides far to much detail on the actual terrible acts (and almost every time only when it involves his female cast members) and too little on the fallout or the effect on the person(s) involved. While reading his work, I’m left with the sickening sensation that all I’m reading is something akin to the torture-porn genre in film, such as “Saw” or “Hostel.” It’s suffering for the sake of having it there to be shocking, and nothing more. There’s no growth or development of the victim, nor is there much commentary on the villain, other than “oh gee, look, he/she is yep, pretty evil.”
Pulling from my own work (shameless plug incoming!) I made the conscious decision to have “The Children of the Forest” feature a pair of female protagonists at the core of the story. In my book, the primary plot is concerned with the individual struggles of Fionna and Silas as they come together during political unrest within their two societies. Now as I previously said, no good story is without its conflict, and of course terrible things can and certainly will happen to both women throughout the book(s), but I made the conscious decision to avoid anything that might come close to being there for the sake of merely presenting something to shock my readers. Further still, I actively chose to avoid anything close to the subject of rape, so far as Fionna or Silas were related at least. Both characters will go through the usual trials and tribulations leading individuals must to tell an engaging story, but those moments of defeat or darkness will always have a purpose. They will further the story, or they will further the development and the evolution of the character.
At the end of the day, I think this is an issue that very much so, lives or dies on a case-by-case basis. Can an author take something like rape and apply it to the story of a female character and make it meaningful, make it have a point? Of course they can, but I would like to warn storytellers new and old that just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean you should. The question every author should ask himself or herself is “what does this bring to my world, and the characters and plot that inhabit it? What point am I trying to make by doing this? Is this in service of making my character stronger, or am I merely looking to do something shocking?”
So how does everyone else feel about this? It’s a complicated topic to be sure, and I’m certain there will be plenty who disagree with my assessment. Sound off below. Is there an overabundance of mistreatment of specifically women in Epic Fantasy, or am I reading too much into things?
Byron Gillan is an avid reader, recent college graduate, and freelance writer, with multiple publications in various newspapers, magazines, and online publications, including work for the Buffalo News. His first novel, The Children of the Forest, is currently seeking crowd-sourcing through Inkshares.com.