Thirty years later, Arya Stark is the character I always wanted to be.
I didn’t really start reading fantasy novels until my senior year of high school and they kept me company well into my twenties – the very difficult years during and after college. There were plenty of heroes, but outside of The Mists of Avalon, I can’t recall a female main character that I admired or stuck with me.
All along I figured that if I ever wrote a fantasy novel, it would be centered around a character who, in my day, would have been called a tomboy; who was a girl, but more interested in guy things and guy friends, was close to her father, lost him at a young age, as both Arya and I did, pushed her way to being trusted with a sword, and taught to fight. To look at her, you might not expect much, but she made a career out of surprising people.
I know there’s a tendency to dismiss fantasy as a genre. Years ago I had a co-worker who proclaimed that fantasy novels were just romance novels with names like Stavrin and Vayle. I was insulted, but he was not wrong. They are escapes, and they can be formulaic. I certainly didn’t know very many women who read them; but people were often surprised to hear I had played Dungeons and Dragons at one time. “Yes,” I would tell them, “and our Dungeon Master was a woman too!”
I gave up fantasy novels for years until, after grad school, I somehow stumbled on Game of Thrones, the first in the not yet completed Song of Ice and Fire series. I’m not sure what drew me in, but the fact that the author dared to kill off a major character in the first book surprised me so much that I kept on reading as new installments became available. I was thrilled that HBO had picked up on the series and I wondered how well it would do with what I expected to be a small audience. I had no idea it would be so popular.
I’m in my fifties now, my sword swinging opportunities long passed (I did get the opportunity to wield a sword in a shopping mall in Ottawa years ago. I was surprised by how good it felt). I’m not sure I’ll ever see a woman President, the women in the race today are struggling for media attention and the “likability” factor. I can remember the days at a company I worked for early in my career where any woman in a management position was either divorced or never married, and there are only a tiny percentage of women on corporate boards today, and we still don’t have equal pay. Our society continues to ratchet up the standards of parenting without much support for families. Every day there is a news item about another legislative assault on women’s reproductive health, and the Trump regime shows that women have not made as much progress as you would expect in thirty years.
So, I’m grateful for Arya; that young women might see themselves in her, even if they never want wield a sword. I’m grateful for this new generation of freshman women in the House of Representatives, even if I don’t always agree with them. I’m gratified by the efforts of the #MeToo movement, the Women’s March, and #TimesUp. I am excited about the possibilities of SuperMajority.
We’re not where I hoped we would be as a country, as a society. We’re not even where I thought we were five years ago. I no longer have the energy of an Arya, or an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I never dared as they have. I’m stunned by the pushback that strong women are still encountering, but I see them forge ahead nonetheless. I am hopeful.