Monday, October 15, 2012

How Women Play The Game: Part Two of Five

Welcome to Part Two of my 'A Feast For Crows' blog series exploring the vastly different ways the women in the novel play The Game of Thrones. This will contain SPOILERSOMG up through the end of A Feast For Crows. The previous entry covers Cersei Lannister playing by the rules. This week, we're going to take a trip to the Iron Islands.

Ignoring the Rules ~ Asha Greyjoy

If there are rocks to starboard and a storm to port, a wise captain steers a third course. I shall [show you] ... at my queensmoot.
Illustration courtesy S. McCrea 
Oh man. What can I say about Asha Greyjoy? I mounted a defense of Cersei in the last installment, but that's wholly unnecessary here. I haven't met anyone who thinks of Asha as anything but a badass, self-sufficient woman who's able to carve out a fair amount of power for herself it an aggressively male-dominated society (though, being the daughter of the king helps).

In some ways, Asha is a lot like Brienne of Tarth (who we'll get to in a future post). Both reject the path their societies have dictated for them, and both do so vehemently and without second-guessing themselves. In other ways, however, the two couldn't be more disparate. Brienne doesn't reject the concept of patriarchy and gender roles -- she just considers herself placed in the wrong role. While Brienne hides her femininity whenever possible, Asha embraces it. She doesn't pretend to be anything other than a woman. She doesn't call herself 'king' when asserting her right to the throne; she is a queen through-and-through.

This, of course, presents some problems for her. While it's hard to say for certain, I suspect that if she had cut her hair short, taped down her breasts and called herself by a male name, she might in fact have an easier time gathering support for her reign. The Ironborn are all about tradition; even overturning the strictly hereditary rule of the Greyjoys is only allowable because the tradition of kingsmoot supports it. Thus, a king would likely be far preferable to a queen, even if that "king" was only arguably male (and to be sure, it would take a lot of arguing on Asha's part).

But Asha don't play that. As referenced in the quote above, she ignores the rules of the game and chooses a third path. To be unabashedly female while claiming the rights and duties of the male son of King Balon. And it goes ... okay.

Asha's queensmoot is mostly a failure for her, and the crown is handed to Euron instead. Arguably, however, this is less because of her sex and more because of her commitment to a level of pacifism which doesn't contrast well with Euron's promise of a-rapin' and a-pillagin' (one could, I suppose, argue that Asha's less violent stance is a function of her gender and upbringing, but I digress). Though many of the Ironborn initially seem to support Asha's claim, Euron's promise to conquer all of Westeros is too tempting to ignore.

There are two main takeaways from this. One is that Asha does much better than anyone, especially her uncles, actually expected. Could it be that the Ironborn aren't as adherent to gender roles as we assumed? Well, yes and no. Mostly no. Women still have an awful time in the Iron Islands, which is saying something given how misogynistic the mainland of Westeros is. One look at the concept of salt wives, the slave concubines of Ironmen, is enough to prove that. But the kingsmoot proves that this lack of respect for women is not necessarily unrelenting for an individual woman. This is a common theme when dealing with feminist characters in a decidedly non-feminist world -- disadvantages can be overcome if you're strong enough, smart enough and persistent enough.

The other interesting aspect of the kingsmoot is that it's not quite clear whether Asha's gender actually damns her. One the one hand, it's clearly Euron's appeal to violence and use of the dragon horn that puts him over the top. The crowd doesn't really care what he's got dangling between his legs; they want plunder and dragons.

On the other hand, if Asha had the clear, unambiguous support of several of her uncles, especially Aeron and his vassals, she would have been in a much better position to take the throne. Even in the face of Euron's appeal-to-dragons (which is by far the best rhetorical device since the Chewbacca Defense), a clear descendant with the backing of Ironborn leaders likely would have prevailed. It was Asha's gender which prevented her from getting the support of her uncles, and it's very possible that sans this little detail, Asha would have been propelled to victory.

This doesn't detract from Asha's power as a character, though. If anything, it adds to it. It's good for characters to fail, and smashing the patriarchy is far from trivial. More often than not, the hammer will bounce off the glass and hit you in the face. But that doesn't mean it's not worth trying, and it doesn't mean that adhering to society's expectations is the only sensible course of action. I'm with Asha: play the game, but screw the rules.

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