Note: this essay was originally published on May 10th 2020 on my tumblr]
Now, I’m the first one to admit that Selyse Baratheon née Florent is an extremely unpleasant, filled with racism and internalised misogyny (see for instance Jon XI in ADWD… or any ADWD chapter she’s in… or any chapter she’s in generally). But nevertheless, I want to offer a brief defence of her, mostly because I’m tired of seeing her joked about in particular ways (both in story and in the fandom), specifically regarding her looks. This essay will most likely be shorter and have slightly less depth than my usual work, but I just wanted to get my thoughts about this out there.
When we’re first presented to Selyse in the prologue of A Clash with Kings she’s described thusly:
Lady Selyse was as tall as her husband, thin of body and thin of face, with prominent ears, a sharp nose, and the faintest hint of a mustache on her upper lip. She plucked it daily and cursed it regularly, yet it never failed to return. Her eyes were pale, her mouth stern, her voice a whip.
So, the reader immediately gets a description of her that’s not exactly flattering. In Storm of Swords we get a similar description from Davos’ fifth chapter:
Queen Selyse, a pinched thin hard woman with large ears and a hairy upper lip.
By A Dance with Dragons this has evolved to rumours of her having “a great dark beard” according Val (in Jon XI). Jon assures her that it’s only a mustache, but later Val counters:
You lied about the beard. That one has more hair on her chin than I have between my legs.
So, it seems pretty established that most characters think Selyse is ugly and notice this mustache of hers. In the Clash prologue that I started quoting, we also get one of the many mentions of how bad Stannis’ and Selyse’s marriage is:
Stannis had always been uncomfortable around women, even his own wife. When he had gone to King’s Landing to sit on Robert’s council, he had left Selyse on Dragonstone with their daughter. His letters had been few, his visits fewer; he did his duty in the marriage bed once or twice a year, but took no joy in it, and the sons he had once hoped for had never come.
So, Selyse’s marriage isn’t great, and she hasn’t been able to give her husband the sons he had wished for. Later, in Tyrion III, Littlefinger talks of Stannis’ and Selyse’s marriage like this:
Lord Stannis has spent most of his marriage apart from his wife. Not that I fault him, I’d do the same were I married to Lady Selyse.
So, further confirmation of the unhappy marriage, and further insulting of Selyse (probably of her looks, though it’s not made entirely clear). Then in ASOS Davos IV:
The throne is mine, as Robert’s heir. That is law. After me, it must pass to my daughter, unless Selyse should finally give me a son.
My point with all of these quotes is basically to prove two things:
1) Selyse is continually described as ugly, with prominent ears and a mustache.
2) It’s continually pointed out how she hasn’t been able to give Stannis the sons he wants (one could of course argue that this is hardly just her fault…)
This, I argue, essentially makes her a failure as a woman in Westeros (and to a certain degree in our world).
As I’ve written on numerous occasions before, the gender norms of Westeros are very restrictive, and those who break them are generally punished. Based on how much different characters comment on Selyse’s, and other character’s, looks, beauty ideals seem to be part of those gender norms. We can see that Selyse’s body, particularly her ears and mustache, makes her ugly in many people’s eyes. Her body and looks doesn’t confirm to the norm, even less so the ideal. Researcher Denise Malmberg describes how the normative body in contemporary Western society is defined what it is not, for instance too fat, too tall, too short etc. I’m pretty sure we could add hairy and having prominent ears to the list of things an attractive body should not have. As Malmberg points out, women who are not seen as attractive, who aren’t sexualised, is in some ways seen as less of a woman. They’re not womanly, not feminine, not a proper lady. I also find it interesting that Selyse’s mustache in particular is pointed out so often. To me, it immediately brings associations of so called “bearded ladies” who often figured in the “freak-shows” of the 19th century and have remained in the public imagination ever since. As for instance researcher Clare Sears have pointed out, such shows often included people who in some ways broke gendered (and racialised) norms of embodiment, and in that way policed the borders of gender norms (2008). By showing for instance bearded ladies as “freaks” it became apparent to the public that having such a body was unacceptable. I’m not saying that GRRM purposely drew on such history when describing Selyse’s mustache, but I think the description of her looks have a similar effect; that is to show what is unnormal.
When it comes having children, loads of feminists and feminist researcher have written about motherhood’s significance for womanhood, for instance this is something Denise Malmberg mentions as well. Malmberg writes that a “normal” woman is expected to become a mother, and a woman who doesn’t have children is therefore exempt from true womanhood (this is also something I explore in this essay about disability and gender in ASOIAF). Authors such as Jack/Judith Halberstam, Sara Ahmed, Anna Siverskog etc. have all also written about how having children are expected by the heterosexual life script that we’re all expected to follow (2005, 5; 2006, 85; 2016, 14). I did a quick search for scientific articles about childfree women and got an overwhelming amount of results, and to write a complete overview of the topic would take ages. But, for instance, a 2011 article about childfree women in Australia found that childless women were seen as “unnatural” and unwomanly” (Rich, Taket, Graham, Shelley 2011). So, I think that we can conclude, that in general in society, women are expected to have kids. To not have kids is unnatural and unwomanly. The fact then, that Selyse is seen as not capable of giving Stannis a son, contributes to her being a bit of a “failed” woman in the eyes of Westeros.
So, in conclusion, the way Selyse is described in story makes it clear that she fails to live up to the norms and ideals of womanhood. For that I feel sorry for her. That’s it, that’s the defence. As I pointed out in the beginning of this essay, that doesn’t make her less of a horrible person with her racism against Free Folk, and internalised misogyny. That part of her personality should be critiqued, and harshly so. However, her looks are not part of that. It should be possible to criticise her without making fun of her mustache or ears. Such jokes only contribute to already existing sexist views of how people of different genders should act and look.
Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press: Durham
Halberstam, Judith. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place. New York: New York University Press.
Malmberg, Denise. 2012. “’To Be Cocky Is to Challenge the Norms’: The Impact of Bodynormativity on Bodily and Sexual Attraction in Relation to Being a Cripple.” lambda Nordica, 17:1-2, 194-216.
Martin, George RR. 2011. A Clash of Kings. Harper Voyager: London.
Martin, George RR. 2011. A Storm of Swords. Harper Voyager: London.
Martin, George RR. 2012. A Dance with Dragons. Harper Voyager: London.
Rich, Stephanie., Taket, Anne., Graham, Melissa. & Julia Shelley. 2011. “‘Unnatural’, ‘Unwomanly’, ‘Uncreditable’ and ‘Undervalued’: The Significance of Being a Childless Woman in Australian Society”. Gend. Issues, (2011)28:226–247.
Sears, Clare. 2008. “Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dressing Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco”, WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, 36: 3-4, 170-187.
Siverskog, Anna. 2016. Queera livslopp. Att leva och åldras som lhbtq-person I en heteronormativ värld. Linköping: Linköpings universitet.