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.

How Women Play The Game in “A Feast For Crows”: Part One of Five

I‘ve been wanting to put together a little exposé on the women of A Song of Ice and Fire for a while, and after reading and rereading and processing A Feast for Crows, I’ve got a few ideas that make sense. The fourth book in the series, AFfC is actually a wonderful entry for those, like me, who are drawn to women characters, as it’s nearly all about them. All the point of view characters except for Sam, Jaime and the one-offs (Jaime and the One-Offs, that’s a band name) are girls or women, all of them unique in their leveraging of power.

To that end, this blog series (which will run for five weeks, as I’m covering five characters) will explore the vastly different ways each character plays The Game of Thrones. It began as a single post, but I quickly discovered it was far longer than anyone would reasonably read in one setting. So I’ll do it as a serial, and maybe collect it all in one place afterward, for posterity.

I’ll repeat this for each entry, but this will contain SPOILERSOMG up through the end of A Feast For Crows. I think the spoilers for that book are fairly minor (though present), but if you haven’t read at least the third book, I’d stay away.

With that disclaimer, let’s get started.

Playing by the Rules ~ Cersei Lannister

I cannot let them see me cry. A woman may weep, but not a queen.

Illustration courtesy of arcticorset / M Pardo

Cersei Lannister. The woman everyone loves to hate — often unjustly, for many of the evil deeds ascribed to her (the crippling and attempted assassination of Bran, the execution of Ned Stark) actually had nothing to do with her. Still, no one can deny that Cersei is a, shall we say, enterprising woman. Lord’s daughter to ruling queen (regent, but don’t you dare add that modifier in her presence) in just a few years. Not bad.

The interesting thing about Cersei when set against the other women in the series is that her power derives completely and utterly from patriarchy. She marries King Robert at the behest of her father, serves as advisor for Joffrey, and then finally as guardian of the realm for young Tommen. An astute reader would expect this would make Cersei quite bitter, and the astute reader would be correct. Nearly all of Cersei’s major character flaws result from her living in — and being forced to wring the tiniest amount of power from — a male-dominated society. This is what tends to irk me about a lot of the hatred toward Cersei. Some of it is pointed — to be sure, Cersei is not all that likeable, and she’s not all that noble, and many of her actions, especially toward Tyrion, are inexcusable. But too much of the criticism is simple misogyny: “I hate that fuckin’ bitch!” without any recognition about why her mindset is so problematic.

At the best of times, she is thought of as a pawn by those around her, completely lacking control of her own destiny in even the most fundamental way. In A Feast For Crows, this changes drastically. Tyrion is gone, Joffrey (who truly is a little shit and deserves all the hate he gets), Robert and Tywin are all dead and can no longer lord their privilege over her. For once in her life, she is finally in control.

And Cersei just can’t deal.

Most of her life has been lived surrounded by enemies, even in her own family. This has led to a highly tuned and fairly ruthless survival instinct. That’s helpful during the times Cersei is actually threatened, but unfortunately, it’s also led to extreme paranoia and, well, short-sightedness. Let me expand on that.

When I first read A Feast For Crows, I was a bit disappointed in Cersei; specifically, in her decision to allow the Faith Militant (essentially Westeros’s version of the Templars) to reorganize. Up to this point, Cersei has been many things, but she has not been stupid. Allowing the Faith to create an entire army outside her control is stupid. I struggled with her characterization here for a long while, perhaps even thinking that Martin made something of a mistake when writing her. That’s when a fellow writer pointed out that the decision wasn’t purely idiotic, it was just myopic.

Ah, there we have it.

Cersei’s life of playing by the rules even when they’re stacked against her has made her intensely greedy. I do not mean greedy in the usual sense, that all she cares about is riches. No, Cersei is greedy in the game theory/algorithmic sense. A greedy player is one who strives to make the best play possible at any given moment without thinking ahead in the game. It’s a simple strategy, and often a losing one in most complex games. Think about chess; top players think three, four, perhaps ten moves ahead, and often the winning move is to play conservatively in the short term (even doing things like sacrificing pieces) for a long term gain.

This is something that’s beyond Cersei. Acquiescing to the Faith Militant squares her debt to the church, full-stop. Whatever happens tomorrow is tomorrow’s problem. This worldview makes Cersei the most inflexible of all the women I plan to cover, which is why, in the end, she’s the least likely to keep any real power. But this is the flaw that makes her very tragic (in modern parlance as well as classical), because for much of her life, that focus on surviving the here-and-now was a virtue, and it may have been the only thing that got her this far.

I could also go into Cersei’s use of sex as a resource, but I probably won’t, as that’s been dealt with enough. Suffice it to say that there’s nothing transgressive about her here. A woman using sex is conventional in this society, and Cersei uses what’s available to her. It is interesting that she uses her sexuality while condemning Margaery for the same thing, imagined or not, but oh now I’m off on a tangent, and I have more characters to deal with!

Next week, I’ll discuss Asha Greyjoy, the Daughter of the Kraken. I don’t want to give too much away, but consider that Cersei can be said to play by the rules of the Game, and Asha is almost her polar opposite in that regard.