Brienne and me- breaking gender norms in Westeros and in our own world

[Note: this essay was originally published on April 4th 2020 on my tumblr]

CW: sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism (briefly)

”I am the only one the gods let him keep. The freakish one, not fit to be a son or a daughter.” (Martin 2011, 672). This quote from Brienne’s sixth chapter in A Feast for Crows is probably one of the most heart-breaking quotes from the whole series, in my opinion. It’s also one that hits a bit too close to home for me, as a trans/genderqueer person. In the essay I want to (attempt to) explain why I can relate so much to Brienne, as well as put this in the perspective of some gender theory. I want to begin with an attempt at a theoretical understanding of what it feels like being out of place, of behaving contrary to norms, and having the world react to that. Then I’ll return to Brienne’s experiences, and my own.

In her book Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others Sara Ahmed writes about how bodies inhabit space in different ways (2006). She notes that depending on what path, or lines, we follow through life, different things becomes reachable for us (ibid, 14). She writes that “bodies take shape through tending toward objects that are reachable, that are available within the bodily horizon.” (ibid, 2). She describes how when we are in line, so to say, we follow the direction that others have followed before us, and this allows our bodies to extend into spaces that are already used to their form (ibid, 15). Ahmed mainly explores this in relation to gender, sexuality, and race/whiteness. I’ll return to lines about gender and sexuality later, but for now I want to focus on whiteness, because that’s a clear example of Ahmed’s writing on bodies and space. She argues, that in a world that is made white, the body that is comfortable and at home in that world is the body which can inhabit whiteness (ibid, 109). She continues this line of thought by writing about stopping devices, things that stops one’s movement, that questions one’s belonging to a certain place. This, for instance, often happen with black bodies in white spaces (ibid, 139). She also makes a note of how intersectionality impacts one’s position in different spaces:

There are ‘points’ in such intersections, as the ‘points’ where lines meet. A body is such a meeting point. To follow one line (say whiteness) will not necessarily get you too many points if one does not or cannot follow others. How one moves along institutional lines is affected by the other lines that one follows. (ibid, 136)

What Ahmed means here, is that one’s ability to be “in line” depends on several factors. She here connects the following of differing lines that she has previously mentioned, for instance regarding gender and sexuality. This, I take to mean that you could apply her reasoning about following lines of whiteness to following gender lines as well for instance. This becomes interesting in relation to what she writes about disorientation:

Disorientation can be a bodily feeling of losing one’s place, and an effect of the loss of a place; it can be a violent feeling, and a feeling that is affected by violence, or shaped by violence directed toward the body. (ibid, 160)

This, I think, allows us to think of disorientation in relation to several different types of institutional lines, such as gender, race, sexuality, and class.

In another text, An Affinity of Hammers, Ahmed continues to write about the experience of being out of line, of being blocked (2016).

We learn about worlds when they do not accommodate us. (…) Another way of saying this: when we are not at home, when we are asked where we are from or who we are, or even what we are, we experience a chip, chip, chip, a hammering away at our being. (Ahmed 2016, 22)

She uses this idea of hammering to analyse different anti-trans (yet self-proclaimed feminist) texts, and writes:

Some of the hammering might seem on the surface quite mild because it appears as an instance: a joke here, a joke there. And jokiness allows a constant trivializing: as if by joking someone is suspending judgment on what is being said. (…) Many of these instances might be justified as banter or humorous (the kind of violent humor that feminists should be familiar with because feminists are often at the receiving end). So much of this material makes trans women in particular the butt of a joke. (ibid, 28)

Just as many trans people (particularly trans women) are the butt of a joke, much anti-trans writing can be seen as a “rebuttal system” according Ahmed. She writes:

A rebuttal is a form of evidence that is presented to contradict or nullify other evidence that has been presented by an adverse party. A rebuttal is a form of evidence that is directed against evidence that has already been presented. What if you are required to provide evidence of your own existence? When an existence is understood as needing evidence, then a rebuttal is directed not only against evidence but against an existence. An existence can be nullified by the requirement that an existence be evidenced. (ibid, 29)

Essentially, what Ahmed is saying, is that the constant jokes and questioning of trans people becomes a constant hammering against our existence. Having to constantly prove that you exist hammers away at your very being. Finally, Ahmed writes about how norms and barriers are experienced differently for different people:

We notice norms as palpable things when they block rather than enable an entry. If you do not conform to an idea of woman—of who she is, how she comes to be, how she appears—then you become a diversity worker in both senses. For to exist as a woman would require chipping away at the walls that demarcate who resides there, who belongs there. And this is what diversity workers come up against: walls. An institutional wall is not something that we can simply point to: there it is, look! An institutional wall is not an actual wall that exists in front of everyone. It is a wall that comes up because of who you are or what you are trying to do. Walls that are experienced as hard and tangible by some do not even exist for others. And this is how hammering, however exhausting, can become a tool. Remember, it is through hammering that these walls become tangible. We can direct our attention toward those institutions that chip away us. We chip away at those walls, those physical or social barriers that stop us from residing somewhere, from being somewhere. We chip away at those walls by trying to exist or trying to transform an existence. (ibid, 32)

(I felt like I had to end this section on a bit of a positive note!) (Also, can you tell that I REALLY like the way Ahmed writes by the number of quotes I’m including?)

Now that we’ve discussed how bodies are stopped, I want to return to institutionalised lines regarding gender, and how diverging from them is perceived by the world. In her book Kroppslinjer: Kön, transsexualism och kropp i berättelser om könskorrigering (”Bodylines: gender, transsexualism and embodiment in narratives about gendercorrection”), Signe Bremer writes about how lines (in the way Sara Ahmed conceptualises them) upholds, conditions, and produces embodied subjects and the world they inhabit (2017, 214). Bodies and subjects are only seen as coherent if they follow these lines. For instance, a person’s bodily materiality, legal sex, gender identity, gendered expression, sexual desire, ways of reproduction, parental status, kinship, etc are expected to follow the same straight line through life. In this way, Bremer writes, the way Ahmed describes lines is very similar to how another feminist theorist, Judith Butler, describes norms; norms control what is seen as a liveable life and possible personhood. Bremer also writes about the act of passing for a trans person. Drawing inspiration from Ahmed’s writing about which bodies get to comfortable inhabit certain spaces, Bremer describes the act of passing as just that, having one’s body become invisible when inhabiting a space, and thus fitting comfortably (ibid, 134). Bremer furthermore writes about interpellation:

What is meant with interpellation, in the way that Judith Butler conceives of it, is the performative acts of speech through which bodies, by the act of being named, step into the sphere of coherence, and are constituted as possible subjects and ‘real’ people. (ibid, 196) (my translation)

What is meant here, is that when someone is named as something (for instance as a woman), that’s when the person is understood as that thing. She also notes, however, that interpellation does not require the consent of the individual, interpellation can also be forced upon them. This is because, for a body to be interpaled it must follow the lines of society which makes it possible for the body to be recognised as a human. As Bremer notes, this can often result in trans people being interpaled as a wrong gender.

So, now I’ll return to Brienne. I would argue that by not following expected lines through life, she is in a way constantly uncomfortable. She simply does not fit in. One clear example of this is when Brienne contemplates seeking Sansa Stark in the free cities:

Brienne did not want to chase the girl across the narrow sea, where even the language would be strange to her. I will be even more a freak there, grunting and gesturing to make myself understood. They will laugh at me, as they did at Highgarden. A blush stole up her cheeks as she remembered.

Brienne III A Feast for Crows (Martin 2011, 299).

She then goes on to describe her experience of having “suitors” court her as part of a bet, and the humiliation when she realised why they did it. But, oh, if the feeling of being awkward and being laughed at isn’t familiar…

I still remember the gym classes in elementary schools where we were supposed to practice dancing. How awkward I felt. How some of the crueller boys would look on me with disgust when we got pared up and tried to switch partners. How I ended up pretending to be sick to get out of those classes.

And then there’s the constant stream of “jokes” laid at Brienne…

“I thought Brienne the Beauty had no use for men.”

– Ser Hyle Hunt, Brienne III A Feast for Crows (Martin 2011, 292)

That one Facebook comment on my photo that said: “lol so gay”.

… and the mocking of her very existence:

“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.”

– Lord Randyll Tarly, Brienne V A Feast for Crows (Martin 2011, 520)

That other Facebook comment which replied: “You’re not gay, you’re a garbage dump filled with genetic waste.”

The words thrown at her to hurt her, to belittle her, said by those who cannot understand who or what she is:

“’Whore!’ he boomed ‘Freak! Bitch!’”

– Rorge, Brianne VII A Feast for Crows (Martin 2011, 795)

That one time someone commented on a post I made about LGBTQ rights, saying that I was just a confused gender activist who supported paedophilia. That other time when a student I was teaching said that being LGBTQ was just wrong. All those times students have joked that if someone can identify as non-binary, then they can identify as an attack helicopter.

And then there’s the constant feeling of not being enough…

“’A daughter’ Brienne’s eyes filled with tears. ‘He deserves that. A daughter who could sing to him and grace his hall and bear him grandsons. He deserves a son too, a strong and gallant son to bring honor to his name. (…) I am the only child the gods let him keep. The freakish one, not fit to be a son or a daughter.’”

Brienne VI A Feast for Crows, (Martin, 672)

That time I had finally gathered up my courage to tell my mum. And her first question was if I was sure, maybe I just felt restricted by gender norms? Maybe I just didn’t like girly things? Maybe I still was her daughter? And I felt a world of disappointment crash down on me. Even after, when she understood, when she tried her best to be accepting. Even then, the fear of being a disappointment. Even then, fearing that I was disappointing her simply by not being her daughter anymore.

Having to argue for your existence. That you exist even if you do not fit the world’s expectations of you. Having to experience that continuous hammering. Not being intelligible in the eyes of society because you are not a son nor a daughter, not a knight nor a lady. Not following the expected path through life. Constantly being stopped, questioned; what are you doing here?

“’A war host is no place for a maiden. If you have any regard for your virtue or the honor of your house, you will take off that mail, return home, and beg your father to find a husband for you.’”

– Lord Randyll Tarly, Brienne III A Feast for Crows (Martin 2011, 301)

The amount of people who have said that people like I don’t exist. We’re just confused. There only exist two sexes, two genders, that’s just biology.

People trying to force you do fit into the straight line. Be straight. Be a lady. Become a wife, a mother. Trying to make you into what you’re not, with words, with actions. Interpellation forcing you into what you’re not; daughter, maiden, lady.  When they still can’t understand you, then labelling you with other words; freak, garbage, confused.

Not being able to be comfortable. So rarely being able to relax. Never really being in a space in which your body can just extend itself unchallenged. Keeping running up against walls. Being hyperaware of how other people perceive you and your body. Seeing their disgusted looks. Wanting to hide from it all. Trying to make your body take up less space, to make it less of a target of their violent words. Still getting hurt, still feeling like you don’t fit, still feeling disorientated and out of place. Realising that some people will never understand you. Realising that to so many people, you and your life will always be strange. Realising that in the eyes of society, your life is simply seen as unliveable.

Realising all of that and trying to go on anyway. To turn the hammering the world has given you into a tool. To make it your strength. To remember that “men will always underestimate you” and make use of it (from Brienne II A Feast for Crows. Martin 2011, 203).

In this essay I have tried to combine theory and personal experience in a way that I very seldom have before. I hope it ended up making sense. It was my way of explaining why I love Brienne of Tarth so much, and why her story hurts so much. I want it to be clear that what Brienne goes through is much worse than what I’ve had to suffer. In the end my family is supportive even if they mess up. I have friends who backs me up when I have a rough time with the transphobia of the world. But I can very much relate to Brienne’s feeling of being out of place, of not being comfortable, of feeling like a freak sometimes. And I greatly admire her ability to carry on through it all. To be able to turn the hammering into a hammer, into a tool, into a way forward.


Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press: Durham

Ahmed, Sara. 2016. “An Affinity for Hammers”, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 3:1-2, 22-34.

Bremer, Signe. 2017. Kroppslinjer: Kön, transsexualism och kropp i berättelser om könskorrigering. Makadam: Göteborg.

Martin, George RR. 2011. A Feast for Crows. New York: Bentam Books.

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