Disability, gender, and sexuality in ASOIAF

[Note: this essay was first published on March 1st 2020 on my tumblr]

TW: abelism, sexual violence, sexism

Spoiler warning: spoilers for all of the A Song of Ice and Fire books.

Perhaps one of the most famous quotes from Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is “cripples, bastards and broken things”, from Tyrion Lannister in the show (Game of Thrones 2011). And there definitely are quite a few disabled characters in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. I cannot possibly write about all of them here, but I wanted to write something about how disabled characters are described in ASOIAF, because as Mia Harrison writes in her text Power and Punishment in Game of Thrones:

By presenting characters as pitiful, frightening inspirational, or visually interesting based solely on their physical or intellectual difference, fantasy representations of disability contribute to harmful popular narratives that establish people with disabilities as a cultural “Other”. (Harrison 2018, 34)

I’ve previously written about the “othering” of characters in ASOIAF quite a lot on this blog, for instance, regarding race and sexuality, as well as sexuality/gender and ability when it comes to eunuchs (and Varys specifically). In this essay, I want to focus on sexuality, gender, and ability once again, but from a broader perspective than just regarding eunuchs. However, I will limit myself to physical disabilities, because otherwise this will get way too big. I might do a follow-up essay at some point though! 

Before I go any further, however, I want to clarify the perspective from which I’m viewing ability, gender, and sexuality. Allow me to quote Renita Sörensdotter, who has a pHD in social anthropology:

There is no neutral body. We understand our bodies historically, socially, culturally, and materially. Interpretations of bodies’ appearances, behaviour, and value might change, but they are always imbued by cultural significance. Bodies change depending on what we put them through, they are fluid in the sense that they respond to for instance workouts, changing one’s diet, medicine, and surgery. Bodies are also born with different possibilities and abilities, and change through life, which effects how we live in and interpret them. Our bodies are filled with both possibilities and limitations. But the possibilities are nonetheless often constrained by cultural assumptions; that which decides what certain bodies are expected to do, depending on gender, sexuality, ability, ethnicity, class, or age. (Sörensdotter 2015, 11) [my translation]

That is to say, similarly to Sörensdotter, I see both gender, sexuality, and ability as something that is given meaning by society and culture. As she notes further on in the same text, all of these factors also influence each other. What sexuality someone has impacts how their gender is interpreted, or as I will attempt to show in this text; ability impacts how gender is perceived. I also want to note, that when I write about (dis)ability, I acknowledge that pretty much no one is perfectly able-bodied. For instance, I need glasses to see properly, but my body is not considered disabled because being near-sighted is considered within the norm of an able body. So, while no one is really entirely able-bodied in reality, there are still norms and structures in society which deem some bodies disabled and “other” (Malmberg 2012). So, when I analyse disability in ASOIAF, this is my perspective.

Firstly, I want to focus a bit on the men of the series, and how disability affects their ability to embody masculinity. Stephen Whitehead, who is a researcher on gender and sexuality among other things, writes quite a lot about expectations about masculine embodiment. He writes that in general, it is expected that the male body is strong, tough, and in control of physical space (2002, 189). He doesn’t write directly about disability, but he writes about how aging men might struggle to live up to this ideal of the strong male body (ibid, 200). He also notes that aging men might lose their sexual confidence as they age. Implicit in that argument is that male sexuality is expected to be active, and probably also that it should involve penetration, might not be possible for older men. I’ve written LOADS about the connection between masculinity, heterosexuality, and penetration in my essays about eunuchs, but it bears repeating briefly. Anne Fausto-Sterling, for instance, has written about how the penis becomes central in the construction of masculinity (1995). She points out that when a child is born if that child has a penis that is considered too small, surgical interventions will be made, because:

During childhood, the medical literature insists, boys must have a phallus large enough to permit them to pee standing up, thus allowing them to “feel normal” when they play in little boys’ peeing contests. In adulthood, the penis must become large enough for vaginal penetration during intercourse. (…) At birth then, masculinity becomes a social phenomenon. For proper masculine socialization to occur, the little boy must have a sufficiently large penis. (Fausto-Sterling 1995, 131)

It should be noted that there is no medical reason for such interventions, just social ones, and many activists critique these types of surgeries on infants (see for example Amnesty 2017). We can, therefore, note that for a man to be seen as embodying masculinity, he must be strong, in control of physical space, and virile. It is also deemed important that he engages in penetrative heterosexual sex. All of these components make a “real man” in the eyes of society. In popular culture, there are multiple examples of how fear of losing one’s masculinity is tied up in fears of becoming disabled. For instance, in an analysis of disability and masculinity in the show Breaking Bad, JL Schatz writes this about the character Walt: “The fear of losing autonomy and becoming disabled is directly connected with masculinity for Walt.” (2018, 80). A similar connection, I argue, is the case with disability and masculinity in ASOIAF.

Shiloh Carroll writes in her wonderful book Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones that: “The Prowess-focused masculinity of Westeros is also obvious in the culture’s treatment of men and boys with disabilities.” (Carroll 2018, 58) Carroll then goes on to cite two of the perhaps most prominent examples of this: Tyrion Lannister and Bran Stark. These are two characters who throughout the series multiple times struggle with not being able to those things that are expected by them as men. After Bran gets paralyzed, several characters argue that it would be better for him to die than to live with such a disability. For instance, Jaime makes such a case, which prompts Tyrion to defend the lives of “the grotesques” as he puts it (Martin 2011a, 87). Later in A Game of Thrones, Bran also hears Eddard Karstark and his brother Torrhen repeat a similar sentiment (ibid, 560). Regarding Tyrion, he suffers similar stigmatization because of his stature. One of the most interesting moments when he ponders his physically is when he discusses manhood with Varys in A Clash with Kings:

People have called me halfman too, yet I think the gods have been kinder to me. I am small, my legs are twisted, and women do not look upon me with any great yearning… yet I’m still a man. Shae is not the first to grace my bed, and one day I may take a wife and sire a son. (…) You have no such hope to sustain you. Dwarfs are a jape of the gods… but men make eunuchs.’ (Martin 2011b, 120)

We can see here that Tyrion has internalised some of the messages about disability he has been receiving over the years. He calls himself a “halfman” and relates his physicality with some sort of lacking masculinity. However, he still calls himself a man, because he can have sex with women and father sons. Here, we once again see the connection between physical prowess, virility, and masculinity. This is interesting in relation to Bran. In A Game of Thrones when Ned and Arya discuss Bran’s future, Ned says that while Bran cannot be a knight anymore, there are several other positions he could hold. But as he notes: “he will never run beside his wolf again, he thought with sadness too deep for words, or lie with a woman, or hold his own son in his arms.” (Martin 2011a, 248) While Ned is mostly just sad for Bran’s lost opportunities here, there is also a clear gender dynamic in this scene, because right after this Arya asks about her possible future, and Ned says that while Bran might become a High Septon for instance, Arya can’t. Similar to how his sister is hindered by her gender, Bran is seen as limited by his disability. Bran is assumed to not be able to live a full life because of his disability. I’ll get back to disability and sexuality further on, but let’s just note here, that if you can’t have penetrative heterosexual sex and father children you aren’t counted as a “real man”.

Speaking of being a real man, someone else who is accused of only being half a man is Doran Martell (2011d, 46). ASOIAF analyser @liesandarbor has written an excellent thread on twitter about how several Martell characters might have some sort of auto-immune disease and lays out an excellent case for why/how this might be the case (2017). I’ll return to the implications of this for Elia Martell later, but first, Doran. In the first chapter when we meet him in person, his niece Obara Sand confronts him about not declaring war on the Lannisters after Oberyn Martell’s death. When Doran explains that he has written letters to them, she exclaims: “Written? If you were half the man my father was- “. (Martin 2011d, 46) She then explains her plan for revenge, pointing out that Doran need not even leave his chair to go through with it. Here Obara clearly links what she perceives as weakness/cowardness as well as unmanliness with Doran’s disability (his gout and how it mostly confines him to a chair).

I next want to turn to Jaime, and his experiences with masculinity and disability. When we first meet Jaime, he is the very embodiment of masculine prowess (Jon notes that “this is what a king should look like” (Martin 2011a, 48)). With so much of his identity tied up into being a knight and a fighter, it is perhaps not surprising that he gets launched into an identity crisis after losing his hand. As he puts it in the chapter after losing said hand: “Was that all I was, a sword hand?” (Martin 2011c, 416). If he can’t be a fighter (i.e. strong, in control of physical space like Whitehead writes) is he even a man? As he travels through the Riverlands with Brianne and the Brave Companions he thinks: “It was his right hand that made him a knight; it was his right arm that made him a man.” (Martin 2011c, 417). Now, Jaime arguably becomes a better person after this identity crisis, but, as Mia Harrison puts it: “For Jaime his right hand symbolizes everything he must forfeit to become a better person, his fighting, his masculinity, and his selfishness.” (2018, 30). It’s definitely fitting that he must do this in company of Brianne, who is also struggling with other’s expectations on her based on her gender (I’ve written more about Brianne here).

I’ve now written quite a lot about masculinity and disability, and you might be wondering, WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN? Don’t worry, I’ve got you. So, if a male body should be strong and in control according to society, then a female body should be pretty much the opposite, according to Whitehead (2002, 189). It should be timid, restricted, careful, etc. Furthermore, as Malmberg writes, there are many expectations on what female bodies should look like (2012). This leads to women with disabilities to generally be perceived as unattractive:

The limping leg or the missing arm, by definition, excludes them from being attractive, in a broad sense, no matter how their bodies, in other ways, conform to the normative body. In particular, many women with physical disabilities have internalised an image of seeing themselves as non-attractive, which is strengthened by how they are treated and the prevailing societal norms. (Malmberg 2012, 198)

Since disabled women are often seen as unattractive, they are often desexualised too and/or assumed to be asexual. As Malmberg also points out, this largely excludes them from narratives about reproduction. That is to say, disabled women are not expected to have children. In general, disabled women are often not seen as “real women” since they are assumed to not be able to live up to the norms of womanhood (attractiveness, heterosexuality, motherhood etc). Malmberg also argues that disabled people in general are just seen as their physical condition. They are no longer a person, someone with gender and sexuality, etc, instead being reduced to an object, for instance, a wheelchair, autism, or polio (that is their disability or their technical aid)

When it comes to disabled women in ASOIAF, I want to start with Penny. On the surface she fits into a lot of norms of femininity, she is for instance described as shy/timid (Martin 2012, 512). Her shyness and submissiveness might be seen as an example of what a perfect woman in ASOIAF should be, but it very much annoys Tyrion. She later tells Tyrion off for mocking ser Jorah, because: “You mustn’t mock him. Don’t you know anything? You can’t talk that way to a big person. They can hurt you.” (Martin 2012, 616) Here the different gender and class position that Tyrion and Penny have grown up in becomes extremely clear. While Tyrion has been seen as less of a man because of his physicality, he has still had his class position to back him up and uses that to make up for his lack of physical strength. Penny has not had that opportunity. She also becomes a victim of sexualised violence, when for instance on the Selaesori Qhoran “the cook had put about the notion that squeezing a dwarf girl’s breast might be just the thing to win their luck back.” (ibid 612) This is unfortunately very in line with how disabled women are sexually abused in our world as well. As I mentioned above, disabled women are often desexualised and seen more as objects than people. Malmberg’s describes that impact thusly: “The objectification of a disabled woman constructs a ‘logic’ according to which the perpetrator does not violate or assault a human being, but an object, a ‘thing’”. (Malmberg 206). While Tyrion doesn’t sexually abuse Penny, he doesn’t have any sexual attraction to her either. When she kisses him, he thinks about how he does not want her, and describes her as being very innocent (Martin 2012, 620). This seems in line with how disabled women are desexualised, and as a consequence of that often infantilised (Malmberg 2012).

Speaking of innocent girls, I next want to turn to princess Shireen. When we first meet Shireen, Maester Cressen describes her like this:

Hers was not a pretty face, alas. The child had her lord father’s square jut of jaw and her mother’s unfortunate ears, along with a disfigurement all her own, the legacy of the bout of greyscale that had almost claimed her in the crib. Across half one cheek and well down her neck, her flesh was stiff and dead, the skin cracked and flaking, mottled black and grey and stony to the touch. (Martin 2011b, 3)

Her appearance makes her the object of others’ pity, and to a certain degree, disgust. When Val meets her in A Dance with Dragons, she argues that Shireen should be given the gift of mercy because of the contagiousness of the disease grey scale (Martin 2012, 825). In general, Shireen is described as innocent and sweet, and as a “poor child” because of her health and looks. Mia Harrison argues that Shireen in many ways fits into the trope of “poor little things, brave little souls” (2018, 32). Such characters “are to be pitied, derided, or feared” (ibid). We can see this in how she is pitied for her looks (as Catelyn says about Brianne in A Clash of Kings; “Is there any creature on the earth as unfortunate as an ugly woman?” (Martin 2011b, 312), and how her illness is feared. Harrison also points out that characters who fit this trope generally mostly serves as a function in other character’s plots; the reader is supposed to judge other character’s moral goodness based on how they treat the poor disabled character (Harrison 2018, 32). This, by the way, is seemingly also the case for Penny. Both of their innocence is heightened by being seen as “poor little things”, and young women/girls. Like Malmberg writes, they are infantilised in many ways (2012).

I next want to turn to someone whose disability is perhaps less often commented upon, namely Catelyn Stark. After Catelyn hurts her hand in the attack by the catspaw, she seemingly loses most of her mobility in that hand. In A Game of Thrones when she arrives in Kings Landing, she notes how her fingers are “thick and awkward” when she tries to use them (Martin 2011a, 165). She continues to struggle to use them in A Clash with Kings when she thinks:

Her fingers seemed more clumsy than usual as she fumbled on her clothes. She supposed she ought to be grateful that she had any use of her hands at all. The dagger had been Valyrian steel, and Valyrian steel bites deep and sharp. She had only to look at the scars to remember. (Martin 2011b, 301)

But while Cat herself makes note of her hands several times, it is definitely not brought up as often as Jaime’s hand injury is for instance. When it is mentioned by other characters, the focus is often on the scarring, i.e. on their looks (for instance: Martin 2011a 167 & 196). Since Jaime is a knight, and Cat a noble lady, this is perhaps not surprising. Cat can still do most of her duties even with lacking mobility in her hands, Jaime struggles a lot more. But it does also say something about the expectations and focus on men and women’s bodies.

Next, I want to turn to another mother, Elia Martell. As I mentioned above, there is a case to be made that she had some sort of auto-immune disease. In the books, we hear several times how she was frail and struggled with childbirth. I want to focus in particular on this quote about her from the chapter The Griffin Reborn in A Dance with Dragons:

She was sick and sickly from the first, and childbirth only left her weaker. After the birth of Princess Rhaenys, her mother had been bedridden for half a year, and Prince Aegon’s birth had almost been the death of her. She would bear no more children, the maesters told Prince Rhaegar afterward. (Martin 2012, 940)

This, according to Jon Connington, made her unworthy of being the wife of Rhaegar. Now, Jon also loved Rhaegar, so part of this is surely jealousy talking. But even so, Elia’s so-called frailness is connected to her apparent failure as a wife and mother. Being a mother is generally intimately connected with being a proper/real woman, and the lack of it is one of the things that make disabled women seem less womanly in the eyes of society (Malmberg 2012). This, by the way, is something Daenerys struggles with as well as she wonders “what man would want a barren wife?” (Martin 2011b, 182). For Dany, this of course has larger implications, with a big part of her identity being that of the mother.

Now that I’ve analysed (dis)ability and its connection to both femininity and masculinity, I want to focus a bit more specifically on sexuality. I’ve noted that for someone to be considered a “real” man or woman in the eyes of society, it seems very important that they engage in heterosexual penetrative sex. That heterosexuality is important for gender according to society is something A LOT of writers agree on (for instance: Butler 1990; Rich 1980; Rubin 1975). Furthermore, as feminist theorist Gayle Rubin notes in her famous essay Thinking Sex, in our society different sexual practices are seen as “good” and “normal” vs “bad” and “abnormal”, illustrated below by two circles (Rubin 1984).


Other writers have also written about how what is sexual differ between different people, for instance, for some having penetrating sex might take second fiddle to just being close to your partner and engage in other intimate practices (Sandberg). Sandberg specifically notes that what someone sees as sexual might change over one’s life, as one’s body and ability changes. This, however, does not lessen the experience. I want to finish this paragraph by recommending a Youtube video that is produced by the Swedish project Sex i rörelse (“sex in movement”), which aims at starting conversations around sex and ability (RFSU 2019). They have produced three videos in total, which are on Youtube, with English subtitles, as well as a website with more info, but that is unfortunately only in Swedish (Sex i rörelse 2020).

As I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, one could write a lot more on this topic, and I think I will return to it at a later date, but this essay is getting long as it is. So, in conclusion, when analysing (dis)ability in ASOIAF, it becomes obvious that the way someone’s body looks, and functions is very tied up with their gender and sexuality. Or, rather, what people think of those things are tightly intertwined. For the disabled men of ASOIAF, such as Bran, Tyrion, Jaime, and Doran, they are seen as less of a man because of their lack of physical prowess. For the disabled women, such as Penny, Shireen, Catelyn, and Elia, it rather affects how their looks and value as sexual partners and mothers are determined. Regardless of gender, it impacts how characters are treated. Assumptions about their ability, preferences, goals, sexuality, etc are made based on their body. So, in that way, it is quite similar to our world.


Amnesty International. (2017). “First, do no harm: ensuring the rights of children born intersex.” Accessed 1 December, 2019. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2017/05/intersex-rights/

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge: New York.

Carroll, Shiloh. 2018. Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 1995. “How to build a man”, in Constructing Masculinity, eds. Berger, Maurice, Brian Wallis & Simon Watson, 127-134. New York: Routledge.

Game of Thrones. 2011. Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things. HBO, May 8, 2011.

Harrison, Mia. 2018. “Power and Punishment in Game of Thrones.” In The Image of Disability: Essays on Media Representation, edited by JL Schatz & Amber E. George. McFarland & Company: Jefferson.

liesandarbor. 2017. “lots of thoughts on auto-immune disease in the Martell line…” November 17, 2017. https://twitter.com/liesandarbor/status/930152177255010304?s=21

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. 2011a. A Game of Thrones. Harper Voyager: London.

Martin, George RR. 2011b. A Clash of Kings. Harper Voyager: London.

Martin, George RR. 2011c. A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow. Harper Voyager: London.

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

Martin, George RR. (2012). A Dance with Dragons. Harper Voyager: London.

Rich, Adrianne Cecile. 1980/2003. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980)”, Journal of Women’s History, 15:3, 11-48.

Rubin, Gayle. 1975. “The traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy of Sex’.” In Toward and Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna R. Reiter. Monthly Review Press: New York.

Rubin, Gayle. 1984. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” In Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, edited by C. S. Vance. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Pandora: London.

RFSU. 2019. “Någonting nytt (Sex i rörelse)”. Youtube, May 5, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUmGjfl719I

Schatz, JL. 2018. ”Disabling Masculinity: Masculine Fragility and the Discourses of Disability in AMC’s Breaking Bad.” In The Image of Disability: Essays on Media Representation, edited by JL Schatz & Amber E. George. McFarland & Company: Jefferson.

Sex i rörelse. n.d. ”Om sex, funktion och att bryta mot normen.” Accessed 1 March, 2020. https://sexirorelse.se/

Sörensdotter, Renita. 2015. ”Kroppar sedda utifrån cripteori.” Kroppsfunktion. En antologi, edited by Frida Sandström, C.off: Stockholm.

Whitehead, Stephen M. 2002. Men and Masculinities, Polity: Cambridge and Malden.

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