thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Corrupting Motherhood: The Women of Westeros

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Sarah S.

The acclaimed Song of Ice and Fire novels feature an diverse array of female characters. One could easily write a “How to Be Awesome Like” GLG post on the Women of Westeros. Much like Phoebe’s post on the women of Friday Night Lights, one would be hard-pressed to narrow down the number of impressive ladies under discussion. Yet despite the large number of female characters in the cycle (better known as the Game of Thrones books/television series) and their uniqueness—both from each other and from stereotypes of fantasy/medieval women—I noticed one thing that separates these women into two camps: motherhood. Not all of the characters in the medieval-esque world are mothers or destined for marriage and motherhood. But all those who are mothers reveal it to be a corrupting influence that alters the character for the worse.

Requisite disclaimer: This post is about the entire series of novels (and not the HBO series) up to the most recent, A Dance with Dragons, and contains serious spoilers! Proceed at your own risk.

Let’s divide this discussion into camps: Mothers, Non-Mothers, and the Ambigous Ones.

Mothers

Queen Cersei Lannister: The most obvious example of corrupting motherhood, Cersei commits a series of horrendous acts—including murdering her husband—in her ambitions for her son, the loathsome Prince Joffrey, and then her second son, young Prince/King Tommen. Indeed, Cersei’s status as a mother is corrupt from the beginning as all three of her children come from her incestuous relationship with her brother, Jaime. In a feminist reading, we might applaud Cersei’s commitment to the one she considers her other half, and her deft avoidance of her “legitimate” husband, King Robert. Nevertheless, Cersei’s arrogance mingles with her ambition and stupidity to make her the most malevolent mother the series offers up.

Catelyn Stark: Lady Stark serves as partner to her husband, Ned Stark, even though she was passed from his brother to him after the elder Stark’s death. Early in the novels she’s a figure of rationality and warmth, the fecund hearth heating the cold halls of Winterfell. While Ned Stark finds succor in the cool sacred grove, Catelyn builds their bedchamber where a natural, warm spring runs through the walls. Yet as each of Catelyn’s children are taken from her she slowly loses her sense of self. Witnessing the murder of her eldest son, Rob, at the Red Wedding, Catelyn goes completely mad—rending her own face until the murderers slit her throat as well. Brought back to life by the magic of R’hllor’s priest, Catelyn retains her madness, enacting uncompromising and unfair vengeance on anyone she sees as having killed or otherwise mistreated her children. We have yet to see what happens to Catelyn, and if she will find peace, but for now her status as mother has turned her into a vengeful, irrational husk of the woman she used to be.

Daenerys Targareyan: “No, not the Mother of Dragons!” you’re thinking, but, yes, Daenarys is the example that proves the rule. At first, the innocent young princess turned Khaleesi turned Mother of Dragons and hopeful Queen seems as if she will buck the trend. But as her young dragons grow bigger and less manageable the young queen’s plans fall apart and her dreams come to nought. Indeed, her “children” transform from charming wonders to violent beasts, seemingly symbolizing the parent’s inability to control or mold her children. Daenarys may yet prove me wrong but, as with all things in Westeros, plans rarely turn out as one hopes.

See also: Lysa Arryn; and Melisandre, the Red Priestess, who births murderous shadow monsters.

Non-Mothers

Brienne of Tarth: The woman who became a warrior seems set to buck all expectations for women. She eschews all the suitors who might marry her for her father’s wealth (and despite her ugliness) and she adheres to a strict ethical code that’s half knightly chivalry and half her own making. Her celibacy seems cemented in her title, “The Maid of Tarth,” given her by Jaime Lannister and naming her a kind of Westerosi Joan of Arc. Readers may bemoan the cruelty that Brienne endures (and where have she and Jaime wandered off to?!?!) but she’s roundly sympathetic, one of the most upright characters in the entire series. The series has not been particularly kind to upright characters (paging Ned Stark) so we’ll see what’s in store for Brienne.

Arya Stark: Like Brienne, Arya always avoids what’s expected of her. But while Arya may have begun like Brienne, barreling against adversity with a sword in hand, she’s subsequently learning how to swerve around it, whisper lies in its ear, even create it for her own purposes. Arya remains one of the series most fascinating characters in no small part from her transference from a cliché character—the little girl who doesn’t want to be a “lady”—to someone far more challenging, making it hard to predict what will happen to her. However, I feel fairly confident that Arya will never be a mother. Her path does not lie that way and it’s one of her character traits that makes her particularly innovative and likeable.
See also: Meera Reed, another warrior-woman/girl who’s loved by the very young and very crippled Bran Stark.

The Ambiguous Ones

Sansa Stark: Unlike her sister, Arya, Sansa embraced all the rules and ideals of being a lady and dreamt of her subsequent marriage, family, and station. However, she dodged a bullet in getting away from her engagement to King Joffrey, and also managed to avoid being raped by the Hound (or anyone else). Her traumas have matured Sansa considerably, making her far more likeable. Now that she’s in the clutches of Petyr Baelish it remains to be seen how and when Sansa will become a mother and how that change in status might change her.

Asha Greyjoy: As iron-hard as any of the men who surround her, Asha beds whom she will, when she will, and nary a whiff of pregnancy. More importantly, Asha’s the only main female character whose culture would embrace her remaining an active and autonomous figure after motherhood. However, this aspect of the Iron Islands sounds good on paper but may no work in practice, as Asha discovers when she tries to claim her father’s throne only to be roundly rejected by not only her uncles but also the men who vote for King.

See also: Maergery Tyrell, whose marriages to first, a homosexual man, and second, a child, keep her in a space of virginal-matronly limbo.

Final Thoughts

I’m not sure what to make of all this other than to point out that corrupting motherhood is clearly a theme in the series. On one hand, the notion that women become less-than-human (either animalistic as in “mother bear” or disjointed by their intense connection to their children) remains troubling even though it’s not new. On the other, the women of Westeros are so rich and so diverse that they undermine stereotypical characterizations of women, thereby painting a far more interesting portrait that the theme may suggest. What say you?

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  1. Cersei’s endless devotion to her children is her only saving grace. She was always a jealous woman… but she is truly devoted to her children.

    I don’t find Motherhood as a corrupting influence here — but it certainly is a Touchstone. Women break because of their children, their thoughts turn back to them.

  2. I think that Martin is attempting to demonstrate that motherhood can be this corrupting influence, especially as we live in a culture that idealizes motherhood, these stories show how it can be when you allow motherhood to dominate your identity, instead of finding balance.

  3. “and also managed to avoid being raped by the Hound”

    That didn’t… How do you… what??

    Did we read the same book? As I recall, the Hound went to Sansa’s chambers to try to convince her to leave King’s Landing with him, and when she declined he kissed her and left. Inadvisable, perhaps (though also somewhat understandable considering the circumstances), but I don’t remember anything indicating he *ever* intended to rape her. If anything he was trying to *save* her by getting her away from the Lannisters (again, maybe not going about it in the best way, but he wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders at the time). The very idea of the Hound trying to rape Sansa seems fundamentally antithetical to his character; that’s the kind of thing Gregor would do, which is exactly why Sandor would never even consider it.

  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    @BeholdtheHair, in one of the last two books (they start to run together a bit) *slight spoiler* the Hound recounts how he intended to rape Sansa that night but wasn’t able to when actually facing her. So she does manage to “avoid” being raped by him. But I didn’t say that to imply that their relationship is uncomplicated (just for an attempt at brevity). Their relationship clearly is complicated and one of the most humanizing things about both of them in some ways. Clearly, Sansa forces him to feel somewhat human again and he forces her to see the world at least a little more clearly. One of the great things about Martin’s writing is that their relationship does not accomplish these things entirely nor is it redemptive for either of them.

    @Kim, Cersei’s devotion to her children can only be seen as a saving grace if one thinks devotion to children, regardless of all other concerns or issues, is an inarguable good. So I agree with @Aeryl on this one. Cersei’s devotion stems as much from arrogance over the superiority of Lannisters as it does maternal joy and it makes one of her children into a monster. I think Martin does want us to see that motherhood can be very detrimental to an individual and those around them.

    Thinking about it now, one reason I included what I called “the Ambiguous Ones,” like Sansa, is that I wonder if I’ll be wrong in terms of an unwavering theme. There’s definitely a generational thing at play here, and perhaps Martin’s trying to depict an array of women who ultimately succeed (mothers or otherwise) when they refuse the limiting constraints of their society. However, he takes great care to show that the events that would cause one to “refuse the limiting constraints of [her] society” will almost certainly be deeply traumatizing.

  5. Huh. Is that in Dance? I haven’t actually read that one yet. As I recall, the last we ever see of the Hound is when Arya leaves him to die when she takes the ship to Braavos. Of course there’s the fan theory that Sandor actually survived and is living as a novice monk on the Quiet Isle, but there’s no confirmation of that.

    I suppose it’s possible I’ve simply forgotten him giving that confession. Not least because it seems so out of character for him. Not that he would rape someone (he absolutely would), but that he would rape *Sansa.* For all she’s technically an adult by Westerosi standards, she’s really barely more than a child, and one of the Hound’s few redeeming qualities is he seems to feel particularly protective of children.

    • I think we essentially agree. My sense was that the Hound feels a softness toward Sansa that seemed inexplicable to him so it makes sense that he might decide to both quench and control that feeling by raping her. But she’s ultimately stirred some almost-dead part of himself and he can’t go through with damaging her that way and, in the process, destroying his last vestige of humanity.

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