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Patriarchy Brain in A Song of Ice and Fire

Julia and Kylie finally take a break from adaptation shaming to gush about A Song of Ice and Fire, this time with the help of their guest Gretchen! What is it that makes George R.R. Martin’s close-PoV structure so compelling? To them, it’s the way that the he is able to utilize the toxically patriarchal setting to explore character biases for incredibly feminist take-aways.

Listen below, subscribe/listen on iTunes (the newest episode is updated in the app, even if not on the site yet), subscribe to our RSS feed, search for “Unabashed Book Snobbery” in any podcast app, or download an MP3 of this episode here.

This episode’s saltarello performance is by Jessica Comeau.

Episode Breakdown:

  • 0:00 – Intro & explanation of “patriarchy brain”
  • 17:03 – Cat
  • 30:40 – Arys
  • 39:30 – Vic/Aeron & Barry
  • 50:47 – Cersei
  • 1:03:00 – Tyrion, Sam, & Ned
  • 1:19:49 – Brienne & Arya
  • 1:30:00 – Sansa
  • 1:41:40 – Asha & Arianne

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Kylie is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals on a mission to slay all the tropes. She has a penchant for complex familial dynamics and is easily pleased when authors include in-depth business details.


Julia is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals with far too many hobbies and complex emotions. She may or may not be an actual Martell.

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Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.
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Voted Thanks!
  • frogcrunch

    Great podcast!

    “Older women who suffered under patriarchy want to inflict the same thing on younger women” is such a powerful thing. In Cersei’s case she’s very aware of the extent to which she was hurt and treated unfairly, and while she processes it all wrong (“this wouldn’t happen if I were a man like Jaime, but also fuck all other women”), I think it’s maybe the foremost attribute that makes her so interesting. A lot of women whom I see in everyday life are extremely invested in upholding the patriarchy as they experienced it, and there is no malice in it but also no acknowledgement of the fact that in many ways it really, really sucks for them. Older women in my life have a desperate obsession with seeing every young woman in their social network safely hetero-married off and having a baby, then having a second baby etc, even though they themselves still experience the downsides of doing all the housework, deprioritizing their careers and so on. I think it’s partly because acknowledging the really negative aspects is just too painful, so instead they just try to ensure everyone else does it the same way too. Because if it’s what everybody does, then it must be normal, natural and inevitable and there’s no reason to grapple with it.

    • What you said about it being too painful to acknowledge the truth rings true of my experience. I’ve seen so many older women fail to acknowledge how troubling the patriarchy is and how it has hurt them because being honest about it scares them. Enforcing it on other women allows them to not face the possibility that they could have had a better or different life, and thus live with regrets. I’m not even certain it’s a conscious choice sometimes, because even that level of awareness is frightening. “This is just how things are” covers up a lot of that.

      • Jana Wolf

        Oh, god. That’s my grandmother, insisting that we’d all be lucky to have as great a husband as hers was. You know, while he spent his evenings at the pub rather than interact with her or his children, and any and all bad news had to be kept secret from him or he’d drink himself into a stupor so he’d be unable to go to work the next day, endangering the livelihood of the family.

        But apparently, only my mother remembers that part for some reason.

    • Elsa

      I agree but unfotunately it’s not just older women who behave this way. I know many younger women who think that we don’t live in a patriachal society anymore, thus we don’t need feminism anymore. If you alert them to forms of secisim in our society they say that this sort of behaviour is just normal, because this is just how men behave. We women should just accept it, it’s not that bad, etc.
      On International Women’s Day the place where I intern had many events about feminism and women’s treatment in society. Some other female interns outright mocked this and said that we don’t need these thing and asked why some women are complaining when everything is fine.

      • Sadly, you’re absolutely right. And that’s patriarchy brain in action in our own world. It affects all of us in the system to one degree or another.

  • Maria

    Great podcast!

    While I think we’ll need more POVs from Mel in order to discuss this completely, I think she is definitely worth discussing, in that her past very possibly included sexual slavery of some kind. To me, there’s something sad/unsettling about the detached way she thinks of her her body as something to be ”used”. There’s also her difficult-to-place relationship with/influence on Stannis. Like, she’s got multiple ”roles” in his life (including an intimate, even consort-like aspect) that sort of blend into each other and make the relationship very ”blurry”, if that makes any sense.

    No, I’m not writing an academic essay on her, why do you ask?

    • I would LOVE to read that essay, if you feel like sharing.

      Mel is such an oblique character for precisely the reasons you iterate; she thinks of herself more in terms of roles than anything else, and they’re roles not shaped by Westeros, so they’re not as clearly defined. She perceives herself as an instrument of R’hllor (hence her body being ‘used’), and that doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of psychology as the other characters. Her personal agency and self-perception are tied to the deity, a deity that, like her, is opaque to the audience in a lot of ways.

      I suppose one could argue that she ties herself to male characters (or deities, since she uses masculine pronouns for R’hllor) in a strong way and perceives her power as being intimately tied to theirs. She’s more independent about it than Cat, though, and the religious aspect adds a different flavor. She’s not shy about her personal power, it’s just…different from the political and/or social power that occupies most of the other female characters POVs.

      Seriously, I want to read your essay!

      • Maria

        I’d love to share, if I’m happy with it! I mean, it’s part of an essay I’m doing for uni (about epistemic injustice* and how it affects her relation with Davos, in particular).

        I think that’s very true about her viewing herself as an instrument. What I think fandom tends to ignore (or not notice) is the question of how much her past has shaped her into viewing herself that way. There’s a reason why r’hllorism is the religion of the slaves in Essos, after all. In Mel’s case, I think it can be argued that her perception of being a instrument/object can be both, in some way, empowering *and* and a coping mechanism for the trauma she endured. I think Mel is basically a lesson repressed trauma, in some ways. She displays what we would probably call some kind of PTSD in any other (read: not hated to an irrational degree) character. She’s so ”alien” and yet so painfully, tragically human. And then there’s the Greek tragedy goldmine of her and Stannis (aka the type of relationship I apparently ship like fed-ex these days, no matter how badly I know it will end).

        I don’t actually think Mel has all that PB per se, but I do think her experiences of being victimised by men have shaped her (hence why she’s made sure she can literally always see intended harm coming). I don’t think she trusts men at all, Azor Ahai or otherwise.

        *Coined by Miranda Fricker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8zoN6GghXk

        • That’s an excellent point about how she views her instrumentality as both empowering and as a coping mechanism. Because it does give her power in a very messed up system (slavery) while also dehumanizing her at some level. It both humanizes and dehumanizes her, and we can’t quite tease these two things apart. It’s not so much patriarchy brain as a mindset created by slavery and her trauma, as you say.

          The insight that her victimization has led her to be able to foresee danger to herself is spot on. It’s a mystical/magical way of describing hyperawareness. I hadn’t seen it that way before, but it makes so much sense! Excellent insight!

          • Maria

            Yes, exactly! And that’s basically why I think fandom doesn’t really ”get” her. Her contradictions are the whole point I think, including her subconscious rejection of another AAR candidate; she *needs* it to be Stannis because he’s the type of person she wants it to be, I think (a telling moment is the Freudian slip where she thinks of him as ”her” champion, and not R’hllor’s, after wondering whether Bloodraven and Bran are the champions of the Great Other). Her determination to be detached from her own emotions just might lead to disaster.

            I think that’s totally correct about the hyperawareness btw, just like her vision-induced flashbacks and her desire to never sleep/dream again (because all her dreams are torment, whether supernatural or memories) are so PTSD it’s heartbreaking. Basically, being human is to suffer, in her experience.

            And then there’s the murderous rage she seems to awaken in certain men (”Hey, let’s corner her and stab her to death, yay!”), even before she even burned anyone. Which is worthy of a whole essay in itself.

          • Yes! She’s a character of great contradiction. That one POV chapter was both illuminating and frustrating in that regard. We got to see more of her head, but what we see is frustratingly incomplete and complicated. It’s much to much to explicate in a single POV chapter.

            Your insights about PTSD have got me thinking of her in a new, richer way, thank you! She’s on the run from so much: her emotions, her past, her memories, her dreams, her self really. She’s faced so much suffering in her life, no wonder she’s cultivated such a strong veneer of detachment. Her ‘glamor’ is more than just the facade of her beauty, it’s a mask of avoidance. UGH. SO good.

            Great point about her thinking of Stannis as ‘her’ champion. That is an illuminating moment. I hope that we get to see inside her head the moment she starts to realize she’s been wrong about AA. An internal glimpse of the breakdown of religious faith (and one that’s inextricably intwined with her self perception)? That’s darn compelling.

            I could (and maybe should) write a whole essay about how the Westerosi characterize and respond to non-Westerosi women. I would love to hear about Mel specifically, too!

          • Maria

            Yes! Basically, Mel simply can’t be separated from her past (any more than any other character tbh), but her past and her experiences are a surprisingly rare feature in meta concerning her beliefs etc. It’s probably why GRRM wrote that little scene in the show where she mentions being a slave to Gendry. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be surprised if GoT simply would have left it out, but because Martin wrote that bit they added a couple of lines about hunger in s4 (of course, they seem to have forgotten that her ”real” appearance would probably include scarring or something, but that’s not as shocking as Old Hag Tits, I suppose).

            That’s another thing that fandom (and the show!) frequently misses IMO: thematically speaking Mel’s relationship with Stannis (and Davos, for that matter) is just as (if not more) more important than her relationship with Jon Snow (there barely is with him, as of now), even though the latter might be a more important plot point, what with the likely resurrection and all. Whatever type of connection she’ll have with Jon in the future will probably not reach the emotional of the one with Stannis (who I actually do suspect has feelings for her, even though most of fandom disagrees with me), which will make the whole thing ever *more* painful in the end. The human heart in conflict with itself and all that. Mel really exemplifies that trope in so many ways.

            You should totally write that essay! If you want great Mel-stuff on tumblr, my partner in crime @argelladurrandon (her fic and art are amazing) is the one to follow! I’m @maggadin on there, but I’m not writing much right now (will hopefully change that), just reblogging and being salty about stuff.

  • Elsa

    Wonderful podcast.

    Could you maybe publish the full patriachy brain list as well? I would be interested in seeing were some other characters are ranked.
    You guys also made want to see more of Selwyn Tarth 🙂 and you made me even more excited for my upcoming re-read.
    I agree with the part were you said that it was a failure by D&D to have Arya and Brienne meet each other without thinking about how this would affect them. There are so many threads along the lines “which characters you want to meet?” and people actually spend some time discussing how the characters they want to meet would interact.

  • Hyrkoon

    Interesting perception about the North in particular. To be honest, I’d always viewed the lack of a real northern retinue in AGOT as kind of… early installment weirdness/shoddy worldbuilding.

    It’s fair enough to say that Winterfell doesn’t have a courtly culture of Highgarden, but there are definitely ambitious northerners. Maege Mormont wanted to match her granddaughter with Robb, as Rickard Karstark wanted to match Robb and Alys – why wasn’t Alys made a lady-in-waiting to Sansa during her childhood, or Granddaughter Mormont to Arya, or Jonelle Cerwyn to Catelyn? And especially since Sansa was going to be, you know, the queen, you’d think Wyman might want to have sent Wylla along with her.

    Also, I’m not sure if the widow situation is specific to the north – I think it’s a case-by-case thing where Donella is given temporary control of Hornwood because the succession is so unclear, and Barbrey does seem to be a very exceptional, ambitious character.

    But, in fact, despite how rich Catelyn’s worldview is, we do only see her life at a time of extreme crisis, and I do feel that women’s lives, friendships, and relations, as such, could definitely be improved more for the POV characters. Like, Cersei hates women… but really, the *queen* only has Jocelyn Swyft as an attendant? Wouldn’t she have some Crakehalls, Baneforts or Farmans with her, or Robert’s bros’ wives? Even Arianne only seems to have Sylva, and it’s not even clear if she’s a formal lady-in-waiting or just a friend. And there are some bits where it seems like GRRM shrugged it off, like Catelyn’s “ladies” gossiping about Ashara but never existing (which could have furthered her patriarchy brain in discussions, or her alienation from the north), or Lysa’s ladies in waiting never being mentioned again after her wedding to Littlefinger.

    Of course, there are still some very good and genuine moments, such as between Arya and Ravella Swann, Sansa and Myranda, and Asha and Alysane, and of course, the wonderful contrasts and similarities between Catelyn and Brienne’s worldviews… but it feels like the court life that Margaery brings – a retinue with about 9 or so ladies-in-waiting, comes out of the blue because such a thing hasn’t been established before.

    And I think Selwyn is probably the Adwin Rowan of the main series era.

    Interesting point about Sansa. To be fair, even in the Seven Kingdoms when a woman is ruling in her name I think she is somewhat superior to a living husband in all things but the command of the armies and stuff, but with Sansa specifically… I don’t know if I can see her wanting to impose her authority over a husband should she be queen and choose to marry.

    I will say that the MUSH actually had a bedding at the Toland wedding last month, but it was a lot more toned down than the stuff we see with Edmure and Roslin, and was sort of Lord Toland and Lady Richelle Gargalen retiring to their chambers. Yeah it is a bit of a contradiction to the fanfic policy I’ll say, but I just love writing about this universe and I don’t know if I would’ve done so without it and getting to hang with Martells.

  • Maidens&Mules

    This podcast and Radio Westeros’ Catelyn podcast complement each other very well. Cat doesn’t just go from Zero to Revenge Zombie. Rather she’s slowly pushed toward becoming Lady Stoneheart. She had thrown herself into being a wife and mother, the greatest honours her society can bestow upon a woman and over the course of three books she loses it all, despite going to increasingly extreme measure to keep it. I would argue that the real moment she transformed into Stoneheart wasn’t when Beric resurrected her, but when she slashed Jinglebell’s throat after watching Robb, her last (as far as she knows) child murdered before her eyes. But even as Stoneheart, she’s still trying to be a mother: the Brotherhood asks Merrett if he’s seen Arya and as Lem puts it “she wants her son alive or the men who killed him dead.”

    Having read The Forsaken, I’d say go so far as to describe Aeron’s patriarchy brain as his tragic flaw. He knows what Euron is, and all he needs to do to stop him is back his niece Asha’s birthright, but he cannot wrap his head around the idea of a woman ruling the Iron Islands. As a result, he dredges up the ancient custom of Kingsmoot in a desperate attempt to stop Euron, which, tragically, plays directly into Euron’s hands.

  • Ivana Cvetanovic

    A minor correction: the Red Wedding happened at (or rather near) the end of season 3, not in season 4.

    One thing you didn’t mention is that Catelyn states “A woman can rule as wisely as a man”. (It’s when Blackfish mentions Lysa wanting to remain regent for her son on her own instead of remarrying. Blackfish answers Cat’s retort with “The right woman can, but Lysa is not you” – inplying they both know Cat is capable and could rule, but he is warning her that Lysa is not.

    Catelyn may not have an ambition or even think about the possibility of ruling on her own, but it’s not because she thinks women are inferior to men – she does not – it’s because she is a believer in following the rules and upholding the system. If she had been widowed when Robb was Sweetrobin’s age, I’m sure she would have ruled as a regent, rather than look for a man to pass a job to. She doesn’t think of being Lady of Riverrun instead of Edmure because that’s not the proper order of succession.

    It’s also telling that Catelyn’s reaction to women who don’t fit into the traditional feminine role, like Brienne, is not hostility, but a mix of concern and a pity, but also a certain appreciation of their skills. When she thinks “Is there a creature as unfortunate as an ugly woman”, she is not thinking “ugh, Brienne is gross” but “Poor thing, life must be so hard on her” (which is not inaccurate, in that society). It’s not that Cat thinks patriarchal roles are awesome (in fact, she seems to be somewhat bitter about them at times, e.g. how they don’t allow her to do anything but wait), they just *are*, and you need to stick to them – or else things are bound to be unhappy and bad for you. Which is why she wants Arya to learn to be a lady. She does still take Brienne into her service, and in fact she not only respects the Mormont women, she ends up wondering if she should have been more warrior-like, like them, and if she would have protected her family better that way.

    • Mytly

      Agreed wholeheartedly. The ‘patriarchy brain’ view of Catelyn glosses over the fact that she is also the closest thing Westeros has (as far as we know) to an ardent and outspoken feminist. Women like the Mormonts, Brienne and Asha may themselves rebel against patriarchal roles for themselves, but they don’t necessarily stand up for women in general or consider themselves representative of their gender (that’s not meant as a slight against them, just an observation of their attitudes; in Brienne’s case, it’s the result of severe low self-esteem rather than a feeling of ‘better than other girls’). Cat, on the other hand, goes out of her way to support women in general as well as individual women. She constantly muses on women’s role in her society and how it circumscribed it is. As you point out, she is not disapproving of Arya’s non-gender conforming ways because they are ‘unfeminine’ or whatever, but because Arya’s rebelliousness is likely to make her life hard in their society.

      Cat may not come off as a feminist at first glance, because obviously she does not conform to the 21st century views of feminism. But she’s very much a feminist in the limited way that is afforded to her by her society. She doesn’t want sweeping changes, because she’s aware that that’s unrealistic: she’s willing to accept some of the basic tenets of patriarchy, such as the idea that wives should submit to their husband’s wishes and that boys inherit before girls. But she nonetheless perceives and speaks up against the smaller injustices that women have to contend with in their daily lives. Her attitude towards nearly all the women she encounters is that of sympathy and sisterhood, and she never judges a woman for choosing a different way of life than she herself has. What is that if not feminism?

      • Maidens&Mules

        All very true, and I would also note that Arya (unlike her “not like other girls” show counterpart) is quite like Cat is her support for other female characters. She may choose to flaunt Westerosi gender roles, but she doesn’t look down on women who are more conventionally feminine and actually seems to admire them. Arya takes after her mother far more than many fans realize.

        • Mytly

          Oh, definitely. I find it baffling when people claim that Cat and Sansa are alike – when the two have pretty much nothing in common beyond being conventionally feminine – while at the same time overlooking the many similarities between Cat and Arya, in terms of both personality and relationships with other women.

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  • Eleanor

    That was a great listen!

    I know you said the patriarchy brain list was really quickly made up, but I was curious about your placement of Aeron and Victarion. For me they are right at the top of the list, more so than Cat. It might just be because of the violence of their particular views but Victarion beat his wife to death because Euron had ‘soiled his property’ by raping her. I feel like there’s a strong view with them that women are chattel whereas at least Catelyn recognises women as human beings.

    Similarly with Arys, you totally nailed his POV analysis but he must at least be somewhat accepting of the Dornish primogeniture rules whereas I can only imagine Aeron looking upon the situation with horror and leading a campaign to change the law to disinherit Arianne.