Dead Ladies Club Critique of George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”: A Missed Opportunity

The “Dead Ladies Club” argument is the position that George R. R. Martin has over-used the “trope” of women dying out of sexism, lazy writing, or some combination of the two. This could not be further from the truth. Martin is and considers himself to be a feminist. All of his work to this date has been from that perspective. Furthermore, he is writing a critique of quasi-medieval fantasy at the same time he is attempting to make it more real. While he does have a tendency of making it more real by including lots of violence, much of it sexual, against women, his overall technique is much more sophisticated, effort intensive, and sensitive than it might appear at first glance. However, an analysis of the Dead Ladies Club perspective does have much to teach us about some members of the audience for “A Song of Ice and Fire”.


To start, in this context, “trope” means a literary device that has become so common commentators consider its use uninventive, repetitive, and/or reflexive. As one blogger wrote: “if the message is that Lyanna, Rhaella, and Joanna had to die so that the heroes could be born, well, gross. That’s such a tired, painful trope.”  Used that way, trope has a negative connotation. There are several things going on with the foregoing deployment of “trope” to criticize Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” universe.


First of all, something common to literature does not make it “tired, painful”. It depends on the execution. A parent or someone dying to save a child can be one of the most moving things imaginable. The same commentator who lamented the “mother dying in childbirth” trope was so moved by “Logan” (2017) he could not write at length about it soon after seeing it. And yet, the hero dying at the end to save a child is one of the oldest plot lines in literature. Thus, there had to be something about the elite women of Westeros dying for their children that struck a nerve other than the common use of that plot line in literature.


Second, as for the sexism claim, there are a great many elite males who die, including fathers, in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” universe. Khal Drogo, Viserys, Rhaegar, Ned Stark, Rickard Stark, Tywin Lannister, and Aerys the Mad King just to name a few leave behind loved ones including young children. Kings, knights, lords, brothers, uncles, sons, and nephews are taken before their time, lamented, and have an impact on those they left behind. There are no statistical studies, but the numbers in “A Song of Ice and Fire” are roughly even between the sexes in the death toll even of those without significant characterization other than a few words about strong, weak, tall, fair-haired, or intelligent. And yet, there is still a powerful adherence to the idea that Martin is sexist, that his female characters tend to die and without much development compared to the men. The originator and primary exponent of the Dead Ladies Club critique writes: “It’s like the Dead Ladies just exist in GRRM’s narrative to be brutalized/rape/give birth/die, later to have their immutable likenesses cast in stone and put up on pedestals to be idealized.”


In my opinion, this vein of criticism is a conflation of the author’s critique of patriarchy with the author’s own views, his execution of the critique, and the nature of the story he is telling. There is a reason why Martin uses point of view chapters and conveys his histories through maesters from the world of ice and fire. He is demonstrating in a potent, richly textured, and sophisticated way how a person’s background, perspective, and position in life affects how they perceive, relate to, and understand the world. For example, Jorah Mormont’s descriptions of the Dothraki as primitive, barbaric, and quick-tempered are not Martin’s views, only Jorah’s, and Jorah is a Westerosi bigot. In another example, Barristan Selmy has a very slanted view of Ashara Dayne because he is from the Stormlands and Dayne is from Dorne, two very different places with sharply diverging stances on culture and society. Selmy is also condescending, paternalistic, and sexist towards Daenerys’ lack of interest in Quentyn Martell. He observes that young women want fire, danger, and flash, and the Martells have sent mud. Just as one should not take maester historians at their word, so we should not take Barristan Selmy’s traditional views as Martin’s.


This same pattern is repeated when it comes to prophecy. Martin has repeatedly stated that, besides being an agnostic/atheist, he is using prophecy as a) a game with his readers, b) a plot device to motivate characters, and c) to examine the issue of destiny, fate, and the strange, contradictory nature of prophecy. But, commentators will persist in making statements like the following: “If GRRM’s prophecy required that three women be raped to save the world, it’s not [a] world worth saving, and I want that chiseled on my tombstone.” Aside from the ducking of the moral quandary about social utilitarianism, it is NOT Martin’s prophecy. He has in no way conveyed the message that the raping of women is necessary to the saving of his world. The commentators have confused the characters in the story with the author.


This conflation of the points of views of the characters and Martin’s is not limited to the “A Song of Ice and Fire” books, but also to The World Book. Just like the books and the short stories, “The Rogue Prince” and “The Princess and the Queen”, The World Book comes from the perspective of characters in the world itself. The putative author of The World Book, Maester Yandel, according to Elio Garcia (the actual co-author) himself, is writing for a Tywin Lannister-dominated audience. His characterizations, wordings, and views, particularly on topics that concern the Lannisters, are not to be taken at face value. And yet, that is what the commentators who subscribe to the Dead Ladies Club critique invariably do.


For instance: “I was writing essays about Aerys and his rivalry with Tywin years before TWOIAF [The World Book] was published, and if I do say so myself I was pretty much spot on, because TWOIAF just expanded on what we already knew about Aerys in books 1-5.” In point of fact, The World Book confirmed that, contrary to the original portrayal of Aerys’ relationship with Lady Joanna as a one-sided infatuation that was never consummated and creepy, he had been having an affair with her while she was a handmaiden to his wife, Queen Rhaella, and the queen dismissed her from her post for it. In order to notice this kind of detail and draw the correct conclusion, one had to sift through Yandel’s lionizing of Tywin and denunciation of Aerys II. If one is entirely identifying with the Lannisters as the motto of a blog indicates (“Tywin/Joanna is all I care about.”), it would be very difficult to accept, much less find the significance of (It supports Tyrion Targaryen.), The World Book’s additional information.


There are three possible, interrelated reasons that come to mind for this conflation of characters’ views and Martin’s. First, literary theory – the most popular way by far of analyzing “A Song of Ice and Fire” – can hold that the text is divorced from the author and is possessed by the reader. Second, identification with certain characters produces an empathy that can lead to blaming the author for what has happened with those characters. Third, seeing the text exclusively from one’s own perspective creates a whole host of political, societal, and cultural judgments in direct conflict with seeing the tale as a critique of, not an endorsement of, its world.


For example, the original formulator of the Dead Ladies Club argument opened her blog entry about the Lyanna-Rhaegar relationship as follows: “A Song of Ice and Fire is a book series written in the late 20th and early 21st century, and we are readers in the 21st century. We must look at the issues of consent through a modern lens. For example, just because Westeros has no concept of marital rape doesn’t mean Cersei wasn’t raped by Robert. Modern definitions of consent must also be applied when evaluating Lyanna’s situation.” This line of reasoning prevents a discussion of what terms like “rape” and “consent” mean, the contextualization of societal norms, and Martin’s intent. It is highly unlikely Martin endorses rape, violence towards women, and/or sex with minors. To the contrary, it is incredibly likely that Martin wants to problematize these kinds of stories, pose moral quandaries, and prompt examinations of societal constructs like morality, crime, and gender.


Thus, a significant portion, perhaps even majorities, of his readers are seeing the situations in “A Song of Ice and Fire” quite differently than he does. The idea that the “rape culture” promotes rape and that artists have a responsibility to write about rape in appropriate ways as defined by advocates is widespread among this community. The personal is the political. The art has become personal. By the transitive property, the art is political. That political nature, then, demands activism, personal responsibility, and a present-day, personal perspective. For them, “A Song of Ice and Fire” is no longer a condemnation of patriarchal, martial, quasi-medieval societies, but a deeply flawed work a misogynist has written. This is unfortunate.


The presentist, conflation of views with the text prevents a deeper understanding of both the text and the issues it presents. It is not just that readers have missed the considerable evidence for Tyrion Targaryen or the perils of power or the dynamics of familial relationships played out on a political stage. “A Song of Ice and Fire” is an involving way for us to consider the foibles of humanity. Our trials and tribulations are more colorful, fantastic, and powerful when they appear in planetos. If we rush to judgment, we miss the opportunity to inquire into the nature of humanity, society, governance, religion, and family. We should take advantage of it so we can learn more about ourselves and our world.


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