One trend I’ve noticed in TV, books, and media is the ‘Exceptional Woman.’ This is not to be confused with the ‘Mary-Sue.’ She’s different from the others. In a world full of bland, mundane, vapid ladies, this one stands out because she is not only competent, she looks down on the things that are traditionally considered feminine. Rather than going shopping or focusing on her looks, this woman is fighting with swords and kicking ass. Often times, she’s the most compelling of all the characters because she works against the curve and proves herself to be exceptional. However, I’m going to argue that having only this kind of woman character dominating our culture is actually detrimental and follows the usual patterns of looking down on women as a whole.
You see the Exceptional Woman everywhere and she is written so that she is the standard to which her gender should strive, she is good enough to be ‘one of the boys.’ A pack of dudes are on a mission, they kick ass, they can hack like nobody’s business, so how does she set herself apart? By being better than them. Only by showing them up, is she accepted as their equal. They never thought before to include a woman’s talents into the group before this because women had never been an option. Yay, she won against the odds.
This kind of narrative shows up in fantasy worlds as well–one where we assume because they are derived from Medieval Europe (or at least, Tolkein’s idea of Medieval Europe), women are automatically in the backseat. It’s even clearer in these settings ‘why’ women were excluded. The excuses are typically insulting: women are physically weaker, women are baby caretakers, women tempt men and distract them. So to overcome these odds, the Exceptional Woman hones her skills so that men don’t have to worry about her getting hurt or getting in their way. She joins men in looking down on other women because she internalizes masculine traits and derides feminine ones.
“Most girls are stupid,” said Arya.
Arya is no doubt a cool character. She’s a survivor. However, it is my belief that George R.R. Martin did NOT write her to be an Exceptional Woman. She is rather, along with her sister Sansa, a study of this strange hatred of the feminine. The most common thing I hear about Game of Thrones is that Sansa is stupid and weak while Arya is smart and strong.
I think this kind of reaction derives from what we’ve seen in the mainstream, where there is always a female focused on things without consequence and serves as a contrast to the Exceptional Woman. Step back for a moment and think why there is such a negative backlash to Sansa. Sansa and Arya go through parallel challenges–one within the court and the other in the wider world. Both are settings where they are in constant peril, yet they learn, they grow, and they maneuver through the waters with ever increasing skill. They are not contrasts of each other, rather they are two complementary parts of the same picture. There is more than one way to be strong.
I guess I’m just tired of people ragging on Sansa for no reason, other than it was their gut reaction to hate her.
My other issue with the Exceptional Woman trope is that her arc is dominated by her escaping the expectations of her society….which is based on our society. It’s a world the writer made up in her head. I feel like women are therefore limited if in this made-up world where anything can happen (even a setting that is technically modern) they are STILL thought of as the exception to the rule if they do something cool.
Not to say that I don’t think that the Exceptional Woman is necessarily bad, but it’s not exceptional that women have fought in wars or they were doctors. They’ve done it all along yet we pretend that for the majority of history, they were silent, which is why in the stuff we see today, the cast is largely empty of females. So why do we limit the role of women to what we believe is ‘realistic’? Why is it realistic that all the ladies in your fantasy world are weak and stay inside all the time? Why does anyone want that reality?