I think Game of Thrones is quite successful when it comes to portraying interesting, complicated female characters, and a good many of them, especially in its second season. You could even say that it’s impressive that George R. R. Martin, not to mention the actresses who play them, have managed to make characters like Lady Catelyn, Arya, Daenerys, and the awesome Brienne of Tarth as compelling as they are considering they’re members of a fictional society that is designed to minimize women’s power over the world and themselves. Plenty of less talented people have designed such societies and ended up with female characters that are accordingly marginalized.Being the author of a newly published epic fantasy that relies quite heavily on Roman history, (for those AG readers who don't read VP, my new novel, A THRONE OF BONES is now available on Amazon, so do feel free to support AG by picking up a copy), I have given this matter a bit more thought than most.
What I question is the purpose of creating an imaginary civilization to be this way in the first place. I agree with Becky Chambers when she says that if female characters are pushed to the sidelines in a video game, “‘that’s just how it is in that world’ is not good enough.” I’d say “that’s just how it was in the real historical setting this is based on” is not good enough either—and I don’t see much beyond that when it comes to most sexism in fantasy.
In my opinion this applies to all historical fantasy, including that which turns the “history” dial up a lot higher than Game of Thrones does.
In Selenoth, human women have even less power over the world and themselves than they do in Westeros. This is because in Roman society, women had one primary role, which was to produce heirs for the noble families and soldiers for the legions. And they benefited greatly from being kept to that role, since Rome became vastly wealthy and featured lifespans that were not again witnessed until the last 50 years of the modern scientific era.
By contrast, elven women have considerable autonomy and their societies are demographically dying as a result. Their long lives and powerful magic help mitigate this, to a degree, but the historical trend is readily apparent to Man and Elf alike.
The problem with what Wohl advocates is that by putting modern views on sexual roles and intersexual relations into the minds, mouths, and worse, structures of an imaginary historical society, it destroys the very structural foundations that make the society historical and the dramatic storylines credible - in some cases, even possible. It's problem similar to the one faced by secular writers, who wish to simultaneously eliminate religion from their fictional medieval societies, and yet retain the dramatic conflict created by the divine right of kings. However, it is more severe because the sexual aspect touches upon the most concrete basis of every society: its ability to sustain itself through the propagation of its members.
The "sexism" of which Wohl and many of his commenters complain isn't cultural, it is simply the logical and inevitable consequences of biological and martial imperatives. It can't possibly be cultural, because the division of male and female roles has been observed in nearly every historical culture; modern equalitarianism is not only a myth, it is a myth made barely credible only by the combination the illusion of societal wealth, technological advancement, and the imposition of relentless propaganda from an early age. Even so, the imperatives of reality puncture that myth as soon as one stops to consider it.
Take "the awesome Brienne of Tarth", who I found to be simultaneously one of the saddest and most ridiculous characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. Setting aside the sheer absurdity of her existence; any woman that big would be so slow that the Kingslayer could chop her into bits wielding his sword with his left foot, never mind his left hand. (We have to excuse Martin this common blunder; he's clearly no athlete and has probably never flattened a female black belt or even punched one in the face.) Now suppose that Cersei was cut from the Brienne mode. Let's make just one simple change in favor of the modern equalitarian perspective. Instead of being a conniving bitch working within the confines of a traditional female role, she's grown up to be a Strong, Independent Warrior Woman every bit as skilled with the sword as her twin and every bit as uninterested in propagating the species in the customary manner.
First, she doesn't marry Robert. So, no alliance between Baratheon and Lannister. With two childless children, Tywin's dynastic ambitions now rest on... Tyrion the Dwarf. He is now concerned with finding an heir for his House, not seating his grandchildren on the throne. We also lose all of the plot lines related to Cersei's children, so the sadistic relationship between Prince Joffrey and Sansa Stark is gone, as well as the protective one between Sandor Clegane and Sansa. So too is the entire storyline in Dorne as well as the Dornese machinations with regards to Tommen.
No one cares about the nature of unmarried cat lady Cersei's unusual closeness with her twin anymore, so Jaimie needn't bother throwing Bran Stark from the window. The conflict between Lannister and Stark doesn't ever erupt; in fact, since no one thinks Jamie's bastard is Robert's heir, no one poisons Jon Arryn, Ned Stark never goes south to King's Landing to serve as Robert's Hand, and neither King Robert nor Jamie and Cersei's incestuous escapades ever come within a hundred miles of Winterfell.
Notice how just changing a single woman from a medieval mother to a modern warrior woman would totally eviscerate the entire series and eliminate its raison d'etre. Cersei would have to be one astonishingly compelling warrior woman to provide a storyline capable of compensating for all of the intertwining storylines that her equalitarian independence requires sacrificing. And this specific example serves as a sound analogy for what attempting to remove the historical roles from women will do to most of the drama presently found in literature.
Do you want massive battles between civilized cultures? Then most women had better be at home raising large families capable of providing the men for the armies and the societal wealth to support them. Do you want dynastic conflict? Then you need mothers married to powerful men producing those dynasties. Do you seek the dramatic tension of forbidden love? Then someone had better possess the authority to credibly forbid it.
The assertion may seem a little extreme at first, but if you contemplate the matter, it should rapidly become obvious that the insertion of modern equalitarianism into quasi-medieval fantasy is less credible and more dramatically devastating than giving the occasional knight an M16A4 assault rifle. The assault rifle is merely ridiculous whereas the equalitarianism undermines the logical basis for the vast majority of most historical conflict. And while there are ways to work around these issues, (the knight with the assault rifle is a time traveler, strong independent warrior women drop large litters of children by the roadside that are gathered by good-hearted monks and mature in six months), the point is that if they are not addressed in an intellectually competent matter - and they usually aren't - the result is doomed to be an incoherent, illogical mess that will have to be very well-written to even pass for mediocre.
One commenter, seemingly reasonable, states: "The way I see it – if I’m supposed to suspend my disbelief enough to believe in dragons, then I’m pretty sure it can extend to equal positions for female characters."
That sounds superficially credible, but it really isn't. The absence of dragons is not significant to our lives today. If they appeared tomorrow in their conventional fantasy form, most of our lives would be little different. Intersexual relations are central, on the other hand, hence the interest in this and other Game blogs. The difference can be seen in the way in which those inferior writers who blithely ignore the unavoidable consequences of "equal positions for female characters" refuse to address them in anything approaching a sensible way. If an author wants warrior women and sizable societies, why not have her women simply drop children like puppies who can fend for themselves after a month? Because that small change from observable biological norms would too severely violate the necessary suspension of disbelief, even for readers who are observably stupid enough to fail to realize that a medieval-era society featuring strong, independent, and equal women is unsustainable and would be wiped out in less than three generations.