Something that has become apparent to me recently is the need within the fantasy and science fiction communities to compare the great classic works with more modern works which potentially could hold classic status in the future. One such obvious comparison I have followed with some fascination often is The Lord of the Rings versus Game of Thrones comparison. And the biggest and most interesting comparison that always ends up being made is the aspect of romance and sexuality. So I started thinking about how J.R.R. Tolkien and G.R.R Martin both use (and I mean use in the sense of how an author uses any character, object or location thematically) their female characters. The argument that I have seen more often made is that Martin has stronger female characters, because they possess a greater sense of agency. However I want to look at that concept as perhaps a falsehood, or rather that this kind of comparison is a false dichotomy.
First, I should get out of the way that I believe both authors on the whole aim to do different things. Tolkien aims to tell more of a mythology or history and in doing so he tells a brilliant story. Martin on the other hand, sets out to tell a story, and in doing so he adds in his own mythology and history. In the end, both authors tell stories (whether you think they are both equally find depends on perspective) but they set out to write those stories from different perspectives. I believe this is crucial in understanding that to compare how these authors metaphorically, symbolically and linguistically use their characters, is to compare different agendas. And in doing so there will no doubt be a kind of separation that occurs.
Now Tolkien has often been criticised for his use of female characters (or rather his lack of them - the obvious case in point being The Hobbit which only has background female characters who lack the voice to speak). I think it should be noted again that it has become a kind of popular literary criticism to point out where female characters are non-existent and therefore judge a film or book for that. For instance, Pixar as a film studio had no female lead until they created Brave (which was subsequently canned for its use of female characters - so I suppose that people just like to criticise). Now don't get me wrong, I dislike that there are so few female characters in existence and the very stereotype that 'boys won't like a female protagonist' frustrates me to no end. I personally love and loved female protagonists when I was a younger man and boy (of course this lead me to reading books aimed at young girls - which I cannot recommend now). My point here is that I think there is also a kind of movement that says 'to right the wrongs we must tip the scales back the other way.' In other words, to bring balance to the force you must get rid of the dark side practitioners and bring in greater numbers of new Jedi.
So in my view I don't think you can play a numbers game with female protagonists. Of course, if you have hardly any (or none at all) one should feel free to question why that is and what the motives of the author are. Yet to try and create a kind of novel with all female characters and no male characters would also feel like a kind of wrong to me. I think that balance is the greater idea, or at least a greater balance of power where it becomes more important to at least have female characters in important positions. I believe Disney's recent animated movies have hit this spot perfectly with the successes of Tangled, Wreck it Ralph and now Frozen. Each film has a female hero within it but at times that hero can seem like the sidekick. The importance to me is, however, that each character plays a crucial role. Further, that each character is unique and different. You have Rapunzel who is the feisty reversal of the damsel in distress, you have Vanellope Von Schweetz who is the younger girl who steals the titular hero's heart and then, from all accounts, in Frozen both girls (I'll know more on this by tomorrow). So simply because a character isn't taking all the spotlight, does not diminish the fact that they may be a strong, developed character.
From what I've read and understand none of this excuses the lack of women in Tolkien's world. Yet what I want to point out is that there are still some fascinating characters to be found. Although sadly many of these characters exist more in supposition than in actual reality. By which I mean that Arwen is almost non-existent for most of the book (and is therefore updated for the films) as a love interest of Aragorn (again also somewhat rectified in the story by Tolkien on Aragorn and Arwen in Rivendell - but only somewhat), so what we know of her, we know by understanding the male character and not so much by how she acts or speaks. This is of course a shame - but then you have one of the better female characters in literature in Arwen, who is not afraid to break boundaries. Her reasons for doing so may be blurred depending on your perspective, she is a feisty and courageous woman, and a properly developed female character. Not just a male type character with a female description.
So, yes, Tolkien is not the best when it comes to talking about female characters. But that does not mean they don't exist. And in terms of importance those that do exist have importance. They're just sadly not always as important as the men...
But all this merely brings me to the false dichotomy of comparing Martin's female characters and Tolkien's. You see, I believe that to talk about Tolkien as having weak female characters because of a lack of female characters and to talk about Martin as having strong female characters because of a greater presence of those characters is wrong. I don't wish to go into the debate about whether Dany is in an abusive relationship (others have covered that better) and whether she has a lack of agency or not - though I do not believe Martin's characters have as much agency as is suggested by the plot. The point that I wish to make is this on the whole: the presence of characters should not determine the overall strength of your characters. But neither should the fact that you have only one or two strong characters serve as mere tokenism. The answer I believe, as with all things is balance. And that is something I do not see in either Tolkien or Martin.
There is a very interesting article on this topic in connection to The Lord of the Rings which can be found here: http://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/where-are-the-women-in-tolkien-part-1/
And as for Martin's work, I have read this article before, which fascinated me: http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2011/08/29/305723/feminist-media-criticism-george-r-r-martins-a-song-of-ice-and-fire-and-that-sady-doyle-piece/