[Note: this essay was originally published on February 8th 2020 on my tumblr]
TW: sexual violence, sexism, transphobia, transphobic violence
Brienne Tarth and Arya Stark, perhaps our most prominent warrior maids of ASOIAF, share a lot of similarities, even as their stories diverge. In her book Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones Shiloh Carroll describes how both of them fit the fantasy trope of the “exceptional woman” (2018, 71). Carroll describes that trope like this:
In a society that has specific expectations of women and women’s roles, those who step outside of them- and are not immediately shamed, beaten, or otherwise forced back into line- are exceptions to society’s rules. Exceptional women are isolated due to the liminal space they inhabit, not part of a community of women nor truly accepted into the company of men. (ibid, 70)
In this text I want to look at how Brienne and Arya inhabit this liminal space, and how they are perceived as, in Jack/Judith Halberstam’s words, “gender outlaws” (1998, 118). I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the book which that quote comes from, Female Masculinity, as well as Halberstam’s other book In a Queer Time and Place when writing this text, something I will return to later.
Now, I’m hardly the first person to write about Brienne and Arya’s relation to their gender. In this text I’ve taken inspiration from a lot of other people, including Shiloh Carroll that I mentioned above. One aspect that many other people mention that I thought important to bring up is the problematic notion that women/girls like Arya and Brienne are framed as better than feminine girls, like Sansa. For instance, in their episode MM3 The Women of Westeros the Maester Monthly podcast highlight how the notion that Arya is stronger than Sansa is very contextual (2017). Also, as Shiloh Carroll mentions in her book, most women in ASOIAF run the risk of being raped etc, be they feminine/masculine, highborn/lowborn (even if the situations are different) (2018, 89). Another point that Maester Monthly brings up is how both Arya and Brienne, in contrast to other warrior women like Asha, seem to in some sense reject their gender (2017). This is a point that many people have discussed, with some agreeing, and others such as tumblr poster trebutchettully arguing that she does identify as a woman, just not with the gender norms of Westeros (2014). This is a point I will return to later. Another analysis of these characters’ genders that I want to highlight comes from the podcast Girls Gone Canon’s patreon episode Patreon episode 3: Every Day is Halloween where they discuss different disguises in the ASOIAF novels. They point out that while Arya at first assumes her identity of the boy Arry for safety reasons, she continuedly has a sort of genderfluid identity, moving between differently gendered identities. This is amplified by her association with death, given how death’s personification in The Stranger is a genderless deity. All this said, I’m going to focus less on Arya and Brienne’s gender IDENTITY, and more how their gender is perceived in story. This is partly because I generally think that’s more interesting, but also because trying to puzzle out someone’s gender identity can be a very thorny issue.
So, to get into the analysis then. I want to begin by looking at both Arya and Brienne’s childhoods. In A Game of Thrones we are introduced to Arya as a tomboy who prefers playing with swords to doing needlework (Martin 2011a, 67). This is something her father Ned somewhat accepts, even if he expects that she’ll end up marrying a lord like a proper lady (ibid, 248). Similarly, we learn that Brienne got to learn to swordfight as a child, but her father still tried to find her a betrothed, that is until she fought one of them in the yard (Martin 2011d, 202). In the book Female Masculinity author Halberstam points out that while tomboys often are slightly more accepted than feminine boys, there is a limit to this acceptance:
Tomboyism is punished, however, when it appears to be the sign of extreme male identification (taking a boy’s name or refusing girl clothing of any type) and when it threatens to extend beyond childhood and into adolescence. Teenage tomboyism presents a problem and tends to be subject to the most severe efforts to reorient. We could say that tomboyism is tolerated as long as the child remains prepubescent; as soon as puberty begins, however, the full force of gender conformity descends on the girl. (Halberstam 1998, 6).
What Halberstam highlights here seems similar to the attitude Brienne and Arya’s fathers seem to take; tomboyism is okay, as long as you still fall into (the heterosexual) line. To be fair, we obviously never get to know how Ned would’ve treated Arya’s continuous tomboyism (</3).
Now, I next want to look at Arya’s story in A Clash of Kings. In Clash Arya starts out in the disguise of the orphan boy Arry. This is, in Yoren’s words, because of the unsavoury nature of the other recruits headed for the Night’s Watch:
‘(…) half o’ them would turn you over to the queen quick as spit for a pardon and maybe a few silvers. The other half’d do the same, only they’d rape you first. So you keep to yourself and make your water in the woods, alone. (…)’ (Martin 2011c, 25)
So, from her first chapter in the book, the threat of rape is present. Arya continues employing the disguise of Arry, until Gendry realises that she is a girl, partly because he notices that she always sneaks off to make water (ibid, 270). In the end, her cover as a boy is blown for good, when captured by Gregor Clegane’s men and being forced to make water in sight of other people (ibid, 377). This brings to mind what Halberstam calls “the bathroom problem”;
Ambiguous gender, when and where it does appear, is inevitably transformed into deviance, thirdness, or a blurred version of either male or female. As an example, in public bathrooms for women various bathroom users tend to fail to measure up to expectations of femininity, and those of us who present in some ambiguous way are routinely questioned and challenged about our presence in the ‘wrong’ bathroom. (…) Not-man and not-woman, the gender-ambiguous bathroom user is also not androgynous or in-between; this person is gender deviant. (1998, 20-21)
Bathroom thus becomes places where gender conformity is extra enforced, and therefore it is very fitting that Arya’s “true” gender becomes exposed in these circumstances (obviously gender is not the same as sex, but in the minds of the Westerosi it is). This view of the gender ambiguous person, or gender deviant person, puts me in mind of how Brienne is often described, which I want to analyse next.
When we first meet Brienne of Tarth she is mistaken by Catelyn Stark as a man (Martin 2011b, 311). This discussion of whether she is a man or woman is continued in Jaime’s A Storm of Swords’ chapters, where he teases her about seeing herself more as her father’s son than daughter (Martin 2011c, 155). Unsurprisingly, this is expressed most harshly by Lord Randyll Tarly:
(…) it is said that your father is a good man. If so, I pity him. Some men are blessed with sons, some with daughters. No man deserves to be cursed with such as you. (Martin 2011d, 520)
In her encounters with Lord Tarly, presently and previously, he also several times points out that it is her own fault if she gets raped, because she dresses as a knight and goes to war. Just as with Arya in A Clash of Kings, the threat of rape is ever-present in Brienne’s chapters. This might be, as Shiloh Carroll puts it, because:
(…) her status as an exceptional woman makes her more vulnerable than other noblewomen to sexual assault and rape; while many of [Martin’s] common women are subject to sexual assault, few noblewomen face more than the threat of violence. Brienne’s choice to take on masculine power and act as a knight exposes her to the threat of physical violence, but unlike the men, Brienne is also subjected to the threat of sexual violence because she is a woman acting outside of her gender role. (2018, 73)
So, as a “gender deviant” she gets punished. This is also a point that Halberstam raises, that in the views of society, “gender nonconformity must be corrected through the enforcement of heterosexuality” (2005, 66). Halberstam here writes about violence against trans men, but even if Brienne perhaps does not identify as a man, I think the situation is similar. Specifically, Halberstam refers to the case of Brandon Teena, who was raped and later murdered for being trans. Halberstam writes:
(…) for the men, the body must be the final arbiter of manhood because, in a sense, this is the only competition within which they can beat the version of masculinity that Brandon champions. When Brandon literally did not measure up to the physical test of manhood, his two male ‘friends’ took him out to a remote spot, where they then raped and sodomized him. The punishment, as far as they were concerned, fit the crime inasmuch as Brandon must be properly returned to the body he denied. (ibid)
Lets now first take a breath, curse the world, and dry possible tears. Okay, lets continue… Like I said, Brienne’s situation is not exactly the same, but she does face threats of similar sexual violence from the bloody mummers (Martin 2011d, 795). Gender deviance must be punished, and gender nonconformity must be corrected through heterosexuality.
So, in conclusion, Arya and Brienne shows us that while tomboyism might be slightly accepted in children in Westeros, all proper ladies are expected to conform to gender norms and heterosexuality in the end. To not do that might lead to extreme sexual violence. Now, as I stated before, I have not focused a great deal on what Arya and Brienne’s gender identities are. I might analyse that sometime in the future, but for now I wanted to focus on how other people perceive them, and what consequences that has. While I don’t necessarily consider them to be trans in the sense that they identify as another gender than they were assigned at birth (although this could be a valid read!), I think that many of their experiences are shared with trans and gender nonconforming folx. So while I’m not saying that their experience in the patriarchy is worse than that of feminine women like Sansa (because her experience definitely sucks), I wanted to highlight how it is terrible in a specific way because of their position as masculine women and “gender outlaws”. So, basically, fuck the patriarchy.
Carroll, Shiloh. 2018. Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer
Girls Gone Canon. 2018. Patreon episode 3: Every Day is Halloween. 31st October, 2018. https://www.patreon.com/join/girlsgonecanon/checkout?rid=2792766&redirect_uri=%2Fposts%2Fpatreon-episode-22407567
Halberstam, Judith 1998. Female Masculinity. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.
Halberstam, Judith. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place. New York: New York University Press.
Maester Monthly. 2017. MM3 The Women of Westeros. 20th April, 2017. https://maestermonthly.wordpress.com/2017/04/20/maester-monthly-episode-three-the-women-of-westeros/
Martin, George RR. 2011a. A Game of Thrones. London: Harper Voyager.
Martin, George RR. 2011b. A Clash of Kings. London: Harper Voyager.
Martin, George RR. 2011c. A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow. London: Harper Voyager
Martin, George RR. 2011d. A Feast for Crows. New York: Bentam Books.
trebutchettully. 2014. [untitled] https://asoiafuniversity.tumblr.com/post/79462577814/trebuchettully-asongofshipsandfeels