Earlier this year, in an article on Entertainment Weekly George R.R. Martin explains why there is violence against women in his series A Song of Ice and Fire.
From the outset I want to make it very, very clear that George R.R. Martin, as with any author, is perfectly entitled to do whatever he wants in his world, to and with his characters and has no need to justify those reasons to me. I was a fan of the first few books in the series, and I am all for greater numbers of fantasy books and TV shows being created. This discussion is about the article and the arguments he makes justifying the depiction of rape and sexual violence against women in his novels.
George R.R. Martin offers three interlinked explanations as to why there is so much rape and sexual violence against women in his novels. Given the amount of ink spilled on the sexual violence in his novels and in the TV Show adaptation it is understandable that his explanations are more akin to defences to charges. So what are his points?
Defence 1: Temporal Realism – The books are a reflection of Medieval society therefore the depiction of sexual violence against women is justified on the basis it happened in the Middle Ages.
“The books reflect a patriarchal society based on the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were not a time of sexual egalitarianism. It was very classist, dividing people into three classes. And they had strong ideas about the roles of women.” – Martin
Defence 2 : Balancing Realism and Fantasy – Although it is a fantasy you can’t change everything.
“If you’re going to do [a fantasy element], it’s best to only do one of them, or a few. I wanted my books to be strongly grounded in history and to show what medieval society was like, and I was also reacting to a lot of fantasy fiction. Most stories depict what I call the ‘Disneyland Middle Ages’—there are princes and princesses and knights in shining armor, but they didn’t want to show what those societies meant and how they functioned.” – Martin
Defence 3 : Realism of the Human Condition – Rape and sexual violence is the dark underbelly of the human condition and it would be dishonest to pretend it doesn’t exist.
“I’m writing about war, which what almost all epic fantasy is about. But if you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that. Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today. It’s not a strong testament to the human race, but I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist.” – Martin
With all due respect to Mr Martin I don’t think these are persuasive arguments and I am going to explain why.
Before I get started, here is a great article (and this one) that breaks down the incidents of rape and sexual violence in the book series as well as the TV show so we know what we are talking about.
Rape acts in ASOIAF the book series (to date): 214
Rape victims in ASOIAF (to date): 117
With the exception of Maester Kerwin who was gang raped, and the victims of Septon Utt (young boys he raped and murdered), all the other rapes are performed on women. All of them. That is over 200 acts of rape and sexual violence against women mentioned or depicted in the novels, and just over 10 are depicted or mentioned in regard to sexual violence and rape of men and boys. Just let that sink in for a moment. Less than 5% of the sexual violence of the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is perpetrated against men.
So how does this relate to Martin’s defences? If Martin wants to make the argument that his world building is gritty and realistic and follows a more believable pattern of the medieval time period then he has some very skewed perceptions about rape and sexual violence.
A simple example that exposes this bias and skewed thinking can be found in the institution of the Night’s Watch. He populates the Night’s Watch with murderers, rapists, thieves, and the cast-offs of society, sends them up to the middle of nowhere, prevents them from mixing with anyone else, denies them access to a civilian population with which to fraternise, and yet they never indulge in the rape or sexual assault of the newcomers to the Watch.
They might hate each other, want to kill each other, scheme against one another, but certainly not rape each other. Because we all know that rape never happened in the military, never happened in prisons, and certainly wouldn’t happen in a quasi-military force made up of criminals locked away from the rest of humanity.
Therefore Martin’s work suggests that it is more believable that an army of men, made up of the dregs of humanity, kept in close ranks and away from any other distractions, don’t indulge in rape, whereas the rape of noblewomen, protected female wards and commoners alike is commonplace.
So even if Martin’s aim is to have represented a brutal reality of a harsh and unforgiving medieval-esque world, there is a strong authorial bias toward sexual violence against women that far outweighs and overshadows any of the sexual violence against men. Given that there is a substantial body of literature and scholarship on pederasty, sodomy, lechery, paedophilia and male rape in the Medieval time period and earlier, it is clear that Martin’s choice to focus on sexual violence against women is clearly that; an authorial choice. Male rape did exist. Male rape was common enough throughout history to have numerous mentions and strictures in religious texts, laws and customs throughout the world. If Martin is going to use historical veracity as a defence he has chosen a strangely biased form of that veracity to depict in his novels.
By his own argument then, to depict a realistic version of Medieval society warts and all, Martin has failed in his worldbuilding.
But Martin then argues that this is only a Medieval-esque world, that one can only change so much. So perhaps excluding male rape is one change too many for him. This leads us to the discussion of his assertion that you can only change certain things.
I would fundamentally disagree with this premise, and also disagree with the argument that to include an element of gender equality would produce boring results. Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is just as epic, gritty, detailed, and hard hitting as Martin’s ASoIaF, yet it manages to be so despite the fact that there is gender and sexual equality. Erikson has written a fantasy world with tension, drama, and tragedy without using rape as a quick plot device to provide flavour to the actions of male characters or making it a boring feminist utopia in the way that Martin assumes such writing must be. Erikson has women serving openly in the military, leading countries, being generals, assassins, mages, heavy infantry and so on and so forth. Yet no one has ever accused his writing of being a boring utopia without drama.
Martin is a professional and successful author, and he knows that there are innumerable ways to create drama and tension in fiction without resorting to sexual violence against women. He is also well read enough to know of, if not to have read, several of the great Feminist Science fiction novels by authors such as Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ and Marge Piercy (to name but a few), who wrote about feminist societies and gender equal societies without creating ‘a pretty boring book’. So it is more than a little disingenuous to claim that he needed sexual violence in order to create drama.
But his third defence is perhaps the most troubling of his reasoning here as not only does it damn him in his choice to depict so much female rape and so little male rape, but it also undercuts his argument that you can only change a few things in fantasy. He claims that he is attempting to show the dark side of the human condition, that to deny that rape happens in war is ‘fundamentally dishonest’. So is it fundamentally dishonest of him to not depict the horrors of male on male rape in war and in the medieval armed forces? But even if that is not persuasive, we can also ask if you are going to depict rape to illustrate the darkness of the human condition, do you have to depict rape against women over 30 times on average per book?
By not depicting male rape should we view him as a dishonest writer refusing to acknowledge that dark side of human nature? And let me remind you, those were his words, not mine. If his work is about the human condition, even its darkside, then his fully realised characters are all any reader needs to engage with the story. He could easily jettison a lot of the sexual politics and gender bias and still have written a compelling, dark and gritty fantasy world. The world doesn’t need rape to make it realistic, his characters, their personalities and how they come alive on the page, make it realistic. The world can be as fantastic and as strange as his imagination can stretch, and it will still be accessible to readers as long as there are characters in the novel whose experiences entertain or move us.
Don’t take this as me arguing for more male rape in the novels. Personally I would like a lot less rape, of all kinds, in the novels. But if Martin is going to make the argument that rape is necessary to depicting the world, then let’s be honest about this. He has deliberately chosen to write a lot of rape into the books, but is clearly uncomfortable with writing male rape. So there is authorial choice and authorial bias in what he has chosen to put on paper. No claim of realism, historical fact or historical inspiration defends his choice to actively depict these violent assaults and rapes. He is a smart man, a talented writer, and, I am sure, a very nice human being, so he knows there are other ways of working that aspect of the world into a story without it being a ‘go to’ tool for character development and drama.
Put simply, he is not writing a medieval historical novel, he is writing medieval inspired fantasy. That means that every aspect of medievalism he chooses to bring into his world is a deliberate choice, a deliberate authorial act. He is under no obligation to bring them all over, nor does he have any obligation to focus on those aspects explicitly in his novels. He is not bound by the realities of the medieval world. So his choice to portray a lot of female rape and violence is exactly that, a deliberate authorial choice. His choice not to portray male rape is exactly that, a deliberate authorial choice. The prevalence of either act in the Middle Ages has no bearing, whatsoever, on how often he decides to utilise them in his narrative about Westeros. At no point does he have to include male or female rape. If he simply acknowledged that instead of trying to defend his choice as historical realism I would have a great deal more sympathy for his position, and would be the first to defend his authorial choice. But he is the one who is sidestepping ownership of these choices behind the flimsy excuse of historical realism.
The thing is I don’t, in any way, think that Martin is a dishonest writer. I don’t think he is a bad writer. I think he is genuine in his desire to explore the darkside of the human experience and to explore some of the darkness of the Middle Ages. But my point is that he is being extremely selective about which aspects he explores, and therefore this has less to do with realism, historical accuracy, or even a comprehensive look at humanity’s inhumanity, and far more to do with authorial intent and specific narrative choices.
So perhaps a more honest answer from Martin would be, ‘Yup, you are right. I am sorry. When I started the series I began with a set of assumptions about medieval reality, sexual politics and violence, and I am now stuck with that world. It was a mistake, and right now I don’t know how to step back from it.’ Unfortunately, Martin seems to be doubling down on his stance, and given his sales figures and the popularity of the television adaptation, maybe he thinks this is justified.
Mr Martin is perfectly entitled to write his world and characters anyway he chooses, but he can’t hide behind ‘the Middle Ages were like this’ as an excuse for what he is doing in his fantasy novels, particularly when he is the one controlling the narrative. He is the one creating the scenes. He is the one deciding what to focus on. He is the one deciding how each scene will be narrated. He is the one who creates the rules of the fictional fantasy world. He is the one crafting each and every character and their arc. He is the author. He just needs to own up to that.
Here endeth the rant.