This is just about the only negative thing I have to say about George R R Martin’s A Dance with Dragons so far. I was in two minds about posting it, as it’s a really, really touchy subject for me, and I wasn’t sure I could deal with getting into a debate about it. But it’s also an important facet of my reading experience, and I know what a relief it would be for me to see that someone else shared this issue with the book, so I don’t want to exclude it if it’s an important facet that other people could relate to. That’s why I’m posting it as an aside to the full post I’ll be putting up above. The comments are off, though. I know that debate is a really important part of life, but some things don’t tend to go well on the internet, and sometimes a person has a valid reason for avoiding a discussion that they know they won’t be able to engage in dispassionately. I hope you guys can accept that, and that you’ll respect my wishes and not comment on this in the other post.
If you didn’t have the problems I had: Hurrah! I’m sure it’s going to be an otherwise great book, and I’m glad if other people aren’t distracted from it by this. My only other worry is that by putting this in a seperate post I’ll wind up drawing attention to it, rather than having it as an aside to an otherwise positive review, but I really don’t see a way around that.
On to the negative stuff. I’m going to try and get it over with as quickly as possible. This is the bit I didn’t want to talk about on YouTube: breasts. Especially lactating breasts. I want to emphasise that this is an entirely subjective reaction, but I found the over-frequent references to breasts (or ‘teats’ or ‘dugs’) unpleasant and distracting. Why do we need the detail that the ‘dugs’ of the woman the warg kills are full of milk? I don’t know what it added. On its own, it might have just been a detail of the horror of the scene adding to the distasteful presentation of the point-of-view character. It would have squicked me, for personal reasons, but I would have got by. The trouble is that it’s not an isolated instance.
I’ve mentioned before about the ludicrous moments where women just happen to ‘forget’ that they are naked, or the exotic fashion just ‘happens’ to be for women to walk around with one boob hanging out. I love these books but I’m completely thrown out of my absorption by moments like these, and I guess I was hoping that we might have got past this. It’s depressing, therefore, to see on the second page that the starving woman was really thin except for her breasts, which the wolf lavishes biting into, enjoying the fact that they are full of milk.
It might have been just a gross-out detail of an unpleasant character, but it’s not one detail. There are four or five unsettling mentions of breasts in the prologue and first chapter, only one of which seems to be actually relevant to the action (and in that one Tyrion is thinking that he could be smothered by the breasts in question, which is hardly a positive image). I don’t see why Tyrion needs to associate drinking wine with sucking on a breast – what’s with all the lactation? And why are the first two men we meet, thousands of miles apart, obsessed with breasts and lactation at the same time? It’s this that makes me feel this is more about the presumed male view upon the text than the actual view of the male characters in question.
I want to be clear on something here. I am in no way wishing to cast aspersions of deliberate sexism on Mr Martin. We’ve seen in the backlash to that idiotic New York Times article that he values his female fans intensely. He also writes a wealth of strong and interesting women whose strength comes from all kinds of directions, and which is contrasted with a wealth of other female characters who don’t need to be ceaselessly kicking ass, but can realistically present human weakness because they are displayed against the background of so many rich and realistic strong women. He created Arya and Brienne, for Christ’s sake, and I shall always value him for that.
The point is that this kind of thing is symptomatic of general cultural expectations and assumptions – ones that wind up making me feel objectified and excluded, even if I’m sure that the author didn’t intend any such thing. Much like the deeply offensive and sexist opening conversation to The Walking Dead TV show – I absolutely understood that these were the voices of the characters, rather than the writers, yet by having it as the first significant scene where we are introduced to the protagonists I was made aware that the writers didn’t really expect me to be watching.
Again: I do not think there was any active sexism engaged in on their parts, they just didn’t think about how many women could not help but have some kind of emotional reaction to such a discussion – a distracting reaction that was about womanhood and not about the show they were hoping to be swept up in and captivated by. By choosing that kind of a discussion to put at the forefront of the show they put a barrier between me and the action – I was thinking about me, and not about the characters, and it was clear the writers hadn’t thought of me and how I would react when they wrote the scene. And that’s why I didn’t go on to watch the rest of the series, even though I thought the pilot was otherwise very well-made. I knew I would always be thinking about gender in connection with the show, even though it didn’t really seem eager to engage in any true gender debate, and however much I loved the show, I would always be a little angry about that. I don’t need more anger in my life, that’s all.
Now, George R R Martin has already won my heart. He has shown me he can write rich and interesting female characters, so I allow him some leeway. My problem is this: I want to be writing about how I liked the tension between sympathy and disgust that is generated for Varamyr Six Skins in the prologue; I want to be talking about what a pleasure it is to see Tyrion again, and how his character has developed in response to having killed his own father. Instead I’m writing about breasts. They were distracting for me to read about, and now they’re distracting for this review. But it would be wrong for me to leave out this important emotional reaction I had, and how it marred my attempts to get back into a story I last picked up years ago. For me, at least, it was distancing and unnecessary.
I hope it comes across that this concerns my personal reaction, and I accept that your mileage may well vary. It’s my subjective impression. I hope that for anyone who had a similar experience it will be helpful to know they were not alone. Otherwise, I hope it’s a thing we can move past. With any luck the book will, too!