George R.R. Martin doesn’t treat his characters well. We’ll get that out of the way upfront. People are beaten, raped, used, dismembered, making the many who actually do die seem lucky. Readers and viewers of the HBO series based on the books are almost afraid to let their hearts go out to a character, because we know nothing good will come of it.
Or will it?
The characters in the series, both men and women, are put through the wringer at every turn. No punches are pulled. And there have been many cries of outrage, many people who stopped watching, and accusations of violence mongering abound. And I can’t blame people in the least. They aren’t wrong.
Yet if you wait to watch or read the whole story as it unfolds, something interesting is happening. These people who have been shamed and beaten and raped are doing something I don’t see nearly often enough in fiction. They are rising up. They haven’t been left as weak cast asides waiting to be rescued. I’m not going to get into details, because I know I hate spoilers, but these characters, many of whom started the story off in “powerful” places because of birth and position, have been torn to the ground. But when you think about it, were they really powerful in the beginning? They were put there by someone else. Their power belonged to someone else. And would they have found their own power, had they not been thrust to ground zero and made to see that really, a name in itself doesn’t hold ultimate power? I’m not saying that women have to be raped or men need to be…well, dismembered, to be led to some awakening—far from it (and in NO way is this saying that there is any benefit to abusive crimes). But I think we are seeing a full scope of growth which would have been more difficult to see without the characters going through unimaginable trials.
I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I’m sure someone out there has. I feel like Game of Thrones (which I will call the series because I think more people are familiar with the show than have read the books) has more female characters relatively than most other fantasy and science fiction shows or series. And these women are not just tokens. Watch the show. They are the movers and the shakers of the world. In every setting (except in the current Winterfell, because who the hell would want to be there?), you see women making plans, leading, fighting. There are other characters who are are victims of spinal injuries, dwarfs, scarred monsters, eunuchs, gentle giants with shattered minds, and more. These characters are not what we would ordinarily see as heroes. Yet all of them have done things that make them such. They have also, over the course of the show, suffered horrible wrongs physically and emotionally. Westeros is not a world for the tenderhearted. And outrage poured across social media in many of the cases—as it should. Rape and violence is not something we should ever be desensitized to. It should never be normalized. But on Game of Thrones, something happens that doesn’t happen nearly enough on television or other media.
The characters hardly ever stay down. And it isn’t others who bring them back up, ultimately. It’s themselves. They aren’t letting their abuse define them.
Martin’s characters discover a fire within them. How dare someone use them in that way? How dare someone think they have that kind of power over them? And I don’t think people realize how important that is for people who have been victims of abuse to see. People who have experienced rape and other abuse so often see those crimes depicted in the media, but more often than not, the characters are known as “the rape victim.” Their identity is meshed with that of being a victim. They are seen as being someone who needs to be protected. “Oh, she was raped.” “Ooohhh,” the other characters say, as if that explains everything about a person. And it is easy for a victim to fall into that mindset. “I am a victim. I am what that other person made me into.”
Game of Thrones can be hard to watch at times. It’s trigger central, and it’s not for every one (what is?). But I think the lessons it teaches are valuable. Rape/abuse victims are NOT what another person made them. That’s what the abusers want, that is where they get their power, but the story doesn’t have to go that way. And Game of Thrones shows that very well. It shows that victims of the most horrid abuse can pick themselves up and use what life has dealt them to become powerful in their own right, more powerful than many of the men in high places.
It’s not just victims of abuse that need to see this, either. Society as a whole could do with the lesson that abuse and rape do not make the perpetrator powerful. They only prove how weak they are, that they have to seek the false feeling of control rather than the true thing. Having been abused does not make a person weak. It’s something that happens to them, an experience in their life, and they have the power to say, “You know, this happened to me, but this is not who I AM.” It doesn’t define them. And society should see that aspect of things. Though bad things happen to people along their way through life, the characters in Game of Thrones still press on. To fight. To become great. To take command. To survive. And in some cases, to rule.
Just like people in this world.
Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy and science fiction stories where heroes don’t always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her work has been published in several magazines, and she was a finalist in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction Contest. Melanie is also a freelance author publicist and publicity/marketing coordinator for both Ragnarok Publications and Mechanical Muse, an independent gaming company. She blogs regularly for GeekMom and The Once and Future Podcast. Her short story “A Whole-Hearted Halfling” is in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis, available now on Amazon. Follow Melanie on Facebook and on Twitter as @MelanieRMeadors.