First off — if you haven't read the books, and don't want to know what lies ahead, prepare yourself : SPOILERS ARE COMING.
So… anyone else noticed the power of gender roles in Game of Thrones?
Yeah, understatement of the decade. Hell, Westeros may be the ultimate rape culture. In Westeros, women are either prostitutes, wives, highborn ladies, or queens. All of them rely on their sexual roles to navigate the world – which can mean using sexuality as a weapon or a way out, immersing in motherhood, buying into the romantic fantasies spun by the singers, or manipulating behind the scenes, within the accepted hierarchy.
Men, on the other hand, are knights, kings, killers, rapists, lords, princes, and warriors. They wield their masculine power politically and sexually (often at the same time).
In such a gendered world, characters that fulfill traditional roles have predictable motives – and in Martin’s world, usually have at least one obvious weakness. It’s the characters who blur the lines of these gender roles, or eschew them altogether, who are the most unpredictable elements in the story, and therefore the most uniquely powerful.
In fiction, this is nothing new – characters caught between worlds, from Natty Bumpo to Harry Potter, wield a power that those who don’t walk that line never can.
In Martin’s world, that line is gendered. The characters who do not fit into Westeros’s gender roles are the ungendered, the people on the fringes. Throughout the novels, Martin gives numerous physical indicators that the character is of the powerful ungendered, and therefore is one of the characters who may be most instrumental in changing the game.
Most obvious choice: the eunuch Varys, Master of Whispers. Varys is a human intelligence organization who collects information and waits patiently for the right time to use it. Sly, soft-spoken, slippery and scheming, Varys is simultaneously mocked as a eunuch and feared as a man with ears and eyes in every place.
Yet the Varys King’s Landing knows is not the Varys who visits Ned Stark during his imprisonment, nor the Varys who tells Tyrion the truth about his castration, the Varys who helps Tyrion exact his vengeance against his father and spirits him out of King’s Landing safely.
Varys’ power lies in his ambiguity. He tells Ned Stark that he serves “the realm,” which means…what? We begin to suspect that he is not on any particular side, but has his own larger view of the world. Varys will throw his considerable power behind whoever he deems most worthy to benefit the realm – he backs Daenerys now, but will he always? Possibly the most unpredictable character in the series, he is defined by his lack of genitalia, unable to fill traditional masculine roles, yet not embracing femininity. (Interestingly, he deflects all prods about his sexual proclivities, or lack thereof, remaining as label-free as possible. Keep Littlefinger guessing, Varys. We love you for it.)
Oh, Arya. The Stark daughter who faces the future of a highborn lady and flatly declares, “That’s not me.” Arya begins her journey the day she begins to master Needle, a symbol of a man’s world. Syrio Forel (First Sword of Braavos, and you will be speaking to him with more respect!) gives us the first indication of Arya’s gender-bending journey with his first words: “You are late, boy.”
Arya’s ability to pass as a boy saves her life many times. She walks out of King’s Landing as a male recruit for the Night’s Watch while the Gold Cloaks search for a female hostage.
Arya is clearly a powerful character, and so we should not be surprised that her path is a genderless one. Arya trains to become Nobody, a Faceless Man (the name itself is a cue) — not a man, not a woman, not anyone she has ever been. Arya is a wild card in this game, a dangerous figure on the edges of the story with a passion for vengeance and an as-yet unknown body of skills. She has become a genderless figure, to many a nonexistent one, and she has the potential to change the game – the power of unpredictability because she is neither one thing nor another.
Brienne of Tarth
Second to Varys, Brienne may be the most obvious ungendered, or perhaps more accurately, bi-gendered, figure in this series. Quite simply, she is a large, strong woman who has struggled all her life to be viewed as equal to a man. She is the first female kingsguard, but more importantly, she beats Jaime Lannister in a fight. Before he loses his sword arm. Brienne, you are my hero and I wish to serve as your squire.
Brienne has divided loyalties, but those loyalties are fierce. Her male loyalties lie with a knight’s duty, her honor, and her loyalty to Jaime, who becomes the only person she trusts. Her female loyalties lie with Lady Catelyn Stark in her tireless search for Sansa. Martin lets us think that Brienne is dead for most of A Dance With Dragons, until she turns up to whisk Jaime away. Meanwhile we giddily celebrate the fact that Jaime is REALLY A GOOD PERSON, DEEP DOWN, SERIOUSLY YOU GUYS, who finally realized that Cersei is the bitchiest of evil bitches.
But we are really celebrating the strength of Brienne, who is both a woman, with a woman’s strengths, and a man, with a man’s prowess in battle. She is a woman, which Jaime Lannister has gradually been noticing (Jaime, I am putting you on notice, do NOT let my ship sink!); she is a man who can go toe to toe with the Kingslayer, can survive the years of torment she’s faced for being a woman who behaves like a man, and who can escape death at the hands of Lady Stoneheart and STILL fulfill her vow to find and rescue Sansa. Seriously, the Jaime and Brienne spinoff series – I could watch/read this all day long. George R.R. Martin, I have my suspicions about how this ends (probably not well, death and destruction, EVERYBODY DIES), but by the Seven, I believe that we will see Brienne continue to wield power on the fringes of the gender system.
Bear with me, all. If we’re talking about characters with unique power, Theon’s story arc is definitely not the most obvious choice. I admit that I hated him as much as anyone else, and then I read A Dance With Dragons and promptly repented because NO ONE deserves that and WHILE WE'RE ON THIS SUBJECT WHY DID THEY PICK SIMON TO PLAY THE MOST EVIL CHARACTER EVER, MY FEELS ARE CONFUSED (Simon, I love you forevs).
Sorry. We were talking about Theon. We’ve watched him go from insecure son of Winterfell to emotionally tortured turncloak to literally, brutally tortured broken man. But Theon had to follow this course to become one of the ungendered, to be removed from the confines of male gender roles and given the power of the genderless character who is free to operate outside of the rules.
Ramsay Bolton absolutely breaks Theon Greyjoy, taking his name and making him the second bearer of a genderless name, Reek. In addition to the fingers and toes Ramsay takes, it is strongly implied that he castrates Theon. Thus Theon has lost his identity, his gender, his spirit, his dignity…and yet. Despite his horrific downward spiral, knowing that he is risking his skin (too much? I thought it was too much), he flees with Jeyne Poole. By the end of A Dance With Dragons, he is Theon Greyjoy again. He has his identity, but he is now one of the ungendered – which tells me that Theon’s role will be instrumental, because there is no longer any way of telling what he will do. Of all the storylines, Theon’s has been one of the most compelling, and I sincerely hope that the Bastard of Bolton has created the instrument of his downfall.
Yes, Tyrion is a bit of a ladies' man, and he and his brother Jaime between them possess all the charm that ever came out of Casterly Rock. Yes, he has had intense romantic relationships, first with Tysha, then with Shae. There is no doubt in the reader’s mind that Tyrion is a man – but to the world he lives in, he is a Halfman. (I know, I know. Chop off his manhood and feed it to the goats.)
As a dwarf, Tyrion is immediately desexualized by everyone he meets, unless he pays them first. In fact, the only people who have truly seen Tyrion as a sexual being are Jaime, who condescended to his brother’s sexuality and contributed to the ruin of his first love, and Tysha, who Tyrion lost at his father’s hands. Tywin has never viewed his son as “a man, with a man’s urges.” His desexualizing of his son climaxes when Tywin pays Shae to humiliate Tyrion at his trial. Tyrion, discovering Shae in his father’s bed after escaping from the black cells, is pushed past endurance. He kills his father in the most humiliating way possible, penetrating his bowels with a crossbow (any Freudians in the house?).
But no one can deny the sheer power of Tyrion Lannister in this world – and considering his tenuous alliance with Varys, there is no doubt that Tyrion will be one of the most influential, unpredictable elements in this series.
And finally: Petyr Baelish
Littlefinger is a pimp who is uninterested in whores. We learn that he has loved (possibly been obsessed) with Catelyn Stark since he was a boy, and has now transferred that obsession to Sansa. In other words, he sets himself up for failure by fixating on a woman he can’t have and her less-than-half-his-age daughter. If he manages to get anywhere with Sansa, it won’t be because she returns his affections, but because of the manipulative power imbalance he has carefully constructed. Emotionally and professionally, he has built his world on being unaffected, calculating, and in control, but he is separate from the men of his world. He does not share their vices or their strengths — exploiting those in others is what he does best. His power comes from his choosing to carefully walk a very creepy line just short of male gender roles.
Littlefinger may be a dubious choice for this category, because while he is extremely unpredictable, as are the other non-gendered characters in this world, he has one obvious weakness, which may destroy his power. If he gives in to his desire for a male role in this world, as Sansa’s…. whatever he wants to be… we may see Littlefinger fall, and hard.
The bottom line? In the Game of Thrones, there are men, and there are women, and if you are a man, you will probably get gutted, and if you are a woman, you will probably get raped. This is not a nice place, is what I'm saying. But those who walk the path between the two, whether physically, emotionally, or in appearance, are the ones who will determine the fate of Westeros. That, and, you know, dragons.