[Note: this was originally published on January 10th on my tumblr]
Note: This is a partly rewritten paper that I wrote for a university course. I’m quite happy with it to be honest, and I thought more ASOIAF fans might enjoy it. I’ve attempted to make the language slightly more accessible and removed some of the parts of the explanations of the story because I here assume that people have read the novels. I’ve previously written a similar analysis about eunuchs in ASOIAF, but this one goes much deeper. So, hang on, this is quite a long one (puns not intended).
“No one loves a eunuch.” (Martin 2011a, 609). So states Varys the eunuch, in A Game of Thrones. The five (as of yet published) books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series tell a story of war, love, and power and are set in a mostly medieval world. A medieval world which also happens to contain dragons and magic. But as Shiloh Carroll writes in her analysis of medievalism in the novels: “(…) A Song of Ice and Fire examines contemporary concerns or anxieties while placing them in a far-distant past, allowing the reader to consider them at a distance.” (Carroll 2018, 7). This can, for instance, be seen in how George RR Martin has said that he believes that most people of the Middle Ages were not very different from people of today when it comes to love, sex, and sexuality (ibid, 83). While scholars and students of gender and sexuality would most likely disagree (see my previous text, or just later in this one), Martin’s statement seems in line with the idea of looking at contemporary concerns through another lens. Based on the novels, it is also clear that Martin has been influenced by several different historical and cultural contexts, from Celtic history to Mediterranean Mythology and beyond (ibid 109). Fans of the books have also compiled several more of Martin’s stated historical influences from Scottish history, to Alexander the Great, the Mongols, and the Vietnam war (glass_table_girl 2014).With this amalgamation of different historical perspectives, it is interesting to look at how one aspect of the power dynamics in this series is portrayed: namely gender power dynamics, and more specifically masculinity.
The world of A Song of Ice and Fire is a deeply patriarchal one, with most of the people in power being men (Carroll 2018, 56). But throughout the series, it is also clear that not all men in this world are equal, just as in our own. In this paper, I want to analyze how one of the men who are not as highly regarded in the series is portrayed, namely the eunuchVarys, mentioned above. (It should be noted that in this context, eunuch seems to mean someone who has had both their penis and testicles removed. On one occasion Varys mentions being cut “root and stem” (Martin 2011b, 584).) Varys holds the position of Master of Whispers in the Seven Kingdoms, a position that entails keeping a network of spies through the kingdom and beyond (Martin 2011a, 166). Because of this web of informants, he is also often called the Spider. The Seven Kingdoms encompasses the continent of Westeros and might be said to be a parallel to the United Kingdom of our world, or Europe generally (Carroll 2018, 109). Varys, however, comes from the city-state of Lys in the continent Essos. Essos seems to be inspired by different parts of Asia, and the Westerosi perspective on it is similar to the European perception of “the Orient” (Carroll 2018, 109). As both a foreigner, a eunuch, and a Master of Spies Varys is mistrusted by most characters in the novels (for example: Martin 2011a, 246). By a close reading of three different scenes where Varys is present, I want to analyze how his gender is perceived by other characters and what that can tell us about how masculinity is constructed in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire.
In analyzing Varys, I will use several theoretical perspectives that I will present here. Firstly, I will look at how eunuchs have been viewed in our world historically. Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos writes that Greek writers of the classical period often viewed eunuchs with contempt (2008, 232). Oftentimes eunuchs were associated with Eastern cultures, such as Persia. They were generally seen as feminine, submissive, and sexually available yet also sexually passive. That might sound counterintuitive, but what it means is that according to the sexual conventions of the time, a eunuch could participate in intercourse but not be the active part. As Nikoloutus writes of the norms of sexuality during that time:
In fifth- and fourth-century Athenian literature, sex is discussed in connection with the issue of age, class, gender, and power. In our male-authored texts, sexual intercourse is perceived as an act that reflects (or should reflect) the hierarchical structure of society; as such, it involves a penetrator (i.e. an adult male citizen) and a penetrated other who could be a woman, a slave, a metic (i.e. a non-citizen resident), a prostitute, or a kinaidos (i.e. an effeminate man who preferred the passive role in sexual intercourse). According to the moralizing discourses of ancient Athenians, a freeborn man who wished to retain his claim to full masculine status should always seek to play the active/insertive role while having sex with other men. (Nikoloutus 2008, 230)
By being assigned the passive role in sexual intercourse the eunuch is therefore seen as less of a man. The eunuch could also be seen as a liminal figure, neither man nor woman, neither Western nor Eastern. In a way he inhabited a third gender space. By inhabiting this transgressive role, he was also able to move between female and male spaces (Llewellyn-Jones 2002, 37). This could make him useful at court, as he became privy to the intrigue of the private female sphere and could pass on that information to the public male sphere. Other authors have noted how in many societies, while eunuchs were useful figures at court, they were outsiders as well in the sense that they often had a different ethnicity (Tougher 2002, 149). For instance, in the late Roman empire eunuchs were not allowed to be created in the empire, but allowance was made for “importation of castrated barbarians” (ibid, 144). The eunuch is here constructed as something “other” than the own population, the “us” part of the “us vs them” equation. This association with what was consider the ethnic “other” (particularly the Eastern other) with femininity and sexual promiscuity and/or deviance has striking similarities with orientalism. The term orientalism describes how western cultures have traditionally described the people of “the Orient” as emasculated, lesser, savage, barbaric, sexually depraved, etc. (Carroll 2018, 107, 119 & 121). Dehumanization of people who are considered “other” can be seen with other groups of people who transgress societal borders as well, such as trans people. Susan Stryker writes that transsexual people are often seen as monstrous, similar to for instance Frankenstein’s monster (1994). Eva Hayward compares the trans experience with that of the spider, partly because they are both looked upon with both curiosity and distrust (2010). But she also writes that similarly to the spider’s web, transsexuality can be seen as a creating a home of one’s own body. Making a home where one is not intended to exist, but that becomes a home nonetheless.
In modern time the role of the penis in the construction of masculinity, that can be seen with eunuchs of more ancient times, persists. Anne Fausto-Sterling writes that even though medical professionals are often aware of the fact that it is possible for children to be born with sex characteristics that fall outside of the male/female binary, these so-called intersex children will often be “corrected” by surgery (1995, 130). It should be noted that a lot of activists oppose these types of surgeries (for example: Amnesty 2017). Fausto-Sterling further analyses how in medical literature a so-called normal penis is often considered crucial for boys (1995, 130). When a child is born, if that child’s penis is considered too small the penis will often be turned into a clitoris, and a vagina will be created. The child will then be raised as girl. The existence of a phallus that is large enough is seen as crucial for boyhood and manhood:
All this surgical activity goes on to ensure a congruous and certain sex of assignment and sex of rearing. 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)
Here again, the existence of a penis is connected not only to masculinity but also sexuality. Having penetrative sex (and being the one penetrating) is linked to proper manhood. Similarly, Karioros and Allan write that the testicles are often linked to masculinity (for example by phrases like “grow a pair”), but also virility (2017). They also write that because of this, castration is often linked with a fear of losing one’s masculinity. Here we can see a connection between masculinity, sexuality, and fatherhood as well. Other authors have also noted this link, for instance in regards to how the inability to father children might feel like a threat to one’s masculinity (Thorsby & Gill 2004).
The theme of sexuality and masculinity is one that Stephen Whitehead also writes about when he analyses masculine embodiment (2002). Whitehead writes that is that what is considered to male not just determined by biology but is also dependent on the discourse around sex/gender (ibid, 186). What he means by that is that how a “male body” should look and behave is not just innate, it depends on how expectations from society. Furthermore, the way that the masculine subject experiences their own body depends on what is generally expected of the male body, mainly for it be strong, tough and in control of physical space (ibid, 189). This can be seen as a contrast of the expected feminine embodiment, which is generally expected to be timid, careful, and restricted. Whitehead further describes how bodies (regardless of gender) are regulated through the panoptic gaze (ibid, 194). He borrows this term from Foucault to describe how we in modern society are constantly under surveillance, to the degree that we subconsciously regulate our own behavior. Whitehead then goes on to show how this panoptic gaze can be extra harsh on some bodies (such as for people of color), subverted by some (such as gay men), and be different during the lifespan. Regarding aging male bodies he writes that with age many cannot live up to the ideal of having a strong and active body, and many lose sexual confidence at this time as well (ibid, 200). Here we once again see the theme of connecting masculinity to an active sexuality.
The analysis of the scenes with Varys from A Song of Ice and Fire will be presented below in a thematic fashion, but for context I will provide a brief overview of them here. The first scene is from the first novel, A Game of Thrones, from the point of view of Catelyn Stark when she arrives in Kings Landing (Martin 2011a, 165-169). There she meets the Master of Coin Petyr Baelish as well as Varys himself. This is the first time Varys appears on page, even though he has been mentioned before. The second scene occurs later in the same book, from the point of view of Hand of the King Eddard “Ned” Stark who has been imprisoned, accused of treason (Martin 2011a, 608-613). Varys shows up in his cell, disguised as a gaoler, and they discuss the future. The third scene is in the next book, A Clash of Kings, where the new Hand of the King Tyrion Lannister and Varys discuss politics and power (Martin 2011b, 117-122). This scene is from Tyrion’s point of view.
In the first scene where the reader sees Varys he is described thusly:
The man who stepped through the door was plump, perfumed, powered, and as hairless as an egg. He wore a vest of woven gold thread over a loose gown of purple silk, and on his feet were pointed slippers of soft velvet. (…) His flesh was soft and moist, and his breath smelled of lilacs. (Martin 2011a, 167)
In the scene with Tyrion in A Clash with Kings he is described similarly, this time as having flowing lavender colored robes and smelling of lavender (Martin 2011b, 117). In both these occasions his appearance seems somewhat feminine, with flowing robes and flower scents. It is also interesting to note how his mannerisms are described. In the scene from A Game of Thrones it is described how he “giggled like a little girl” (Martin 2011a, 168). Later he handles a knife “with exaggerated delicacy” and when he still cuts himself on it, he lets out a squeal (ibid). In the scene from A Clash with Kings he is described first as “gliding into the hall”, and then he “tittered nervously” when questioned by Tyrion (Martin 2011b, 117). Later he is also described as giggling nervously (ibid, 121). Throughout this scene his reactions and speech generally seem exaggeratedly emotional, almost theatrical. One example is when Tyrion confronts him about not telling him about Tyrion’s sister’s involvement in the killing of the former king Robert’s bastard children:
‘Your own sweet sister,’ Varys said, so grief-stricken that he looked close to tears. ‘It is a hard thing to tell a man, my lord, I was fearful how you might take it. Can you forgive me?’ (Martin 2011b, 117)
His mannerisms throughout these two scenes seem careful, delicate, and emotional. This is somewhat of a contrast to how he is described in the scene with Eddard Stark from A Game of Thrones. Here some of the same language is present; Varys is described as speaking sadly and sighing (Martin 2011a, 609-610). But Eddard also notes how he seems blunter than usual. His appearance is the most different though, here he has disguised himself:
The eunuch’s plump cheeks were covered with a dark stubble of beard. Ned felt the course hair with his fingers. Varys had transformed himself into a grizzled turnkey, reeking of sweat and sour wine. (Martin 2011a, 609)
Here Eddard sees how Varys has changed himself from his usual plump and feminine self, into an unwashed gruff gaelor. Seeing this disguise might hint that Varys usual appearance, with his theatrics, is a disguise as well. I will return to this notion later.
From these scenes we can see that Varys usually seems to dress in a slightly feminine manner. His mannerisms seem feminine too, if one considers what Whitehead writes about feminine and masculine embodiment (2002, 189). Feminine embodiment is described there as timid and more restricted, while masculine embodiment is described as tough and in control of physical space. With his nervous tittering, exaggerated delicacy etc., Varys most definitely appears more feminine than masculine. All of this also seems in line with how eunuchs were described being feminine and submissive in antiquity (Nikoloutus 2008). Varys’ clothing is also interesting from this point of view; having a loose silk gown, a golden vest, and pointed slippers he fits in well with the idea of the eunuch from as an “Eastern” figure. This, of course, also makes sense since he comes from the continent of Essos that seems inspired by such real-life cultures. Based on his appearance one can then see how he is both perceived as feminine and “Eastern”, which was how eunuchs were seen in for example ancient Greece. However, it is also worth noting how this is similar to the orientalist view of men from “the Orient” as being emasculated/effeminate (Carroll 2018, 107).
Another way Varys can be considered to be emasculated is of course in regard to his lack of genitalia. In all of the scenes I am analyzing it is mentioned that he is a eunuch, which makes it seem like this is central in people’s perception of him (Martin 2011a, 166 & 609; Martin 2011b, 120). In the scene with Eddard, Varys says that he swears upon his lost manhood that he is telling the truth (Martin 2011a, 613). This is an interesting turn of phrase since it directly links the removal of his genitalia with masculinity. However, it is in the scene with Tyrion that this issue is discussed most thoroughly. Tyrion says:
‘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)
Here Tyrion explicitly links having a penis with being a man. He seems to specifically connect being a man to having sex with women and fathering children. This is in line with what Fausto-Sterling writes about how having a large enough penis is considered crucial for masculine socialization, partly so the man can have penetrative sex with women (1995). It is also similar to the view of Ancient Greece, where being the penetrator in sexual intercourse was very important for one’s masculinity. However, unlike those times it seems that in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire it also important for one’s sexual partner to specifically be a woman, not simply any person below oneself in social standing. One can also note how fatherhood seems important to masculinity, which Thorsby and Gill write about as well (2004). That losing one’s manhood means losing one’s masculinity makes sense in relation to Karioris and Allen’s article, where they write that the testicles is seen as the seat of masculinity (2017). They also note how the testicles are connected to virality. All in all, it seems clear that partly why the penis and testicles are important to masculinity both in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire and our own is because of their perceived necessity for (penetrative) heterosexual sex and fatherhood. For someone to be counted as a real man they apparently have to take part in those practices. This is why Tyrion claims that he is still a man, and that Varys is not. Tyrion’s comparison of himself and Varys is furthermore interesting in other ways. It is clear when Tyrion refers to himself as a “halfman” he believes that his disability is an obstacle to him completely inhabiting a masculine subject position. As Whitehead writes, masculine embodiment is often expected to mean toughness and being in control of physical space. Tyrion describes himself as small and with twisted legs, and one can assume that this makes harder for him to live up to those ideals. However, since he can still have heterosexual sex and father children, he counts himself as a man. This emphasizes how important sexuality and virality is in the construction of masculinity.
The last theme that I want to touch upon is how Varys seems to be mistrusted and ill liked. In Catelyn’s chapter in A Game of Thrones she reflects on how she does not trust him, and how Varys’ ability to find out information disconcerts her (Martin 2011a, 167-168). In Eddard’s chapter later in the novel Varys points out himself how “no one loves a eunuch” (ibid, 609). However, he then says that “A eunuch has no honor, and a spider does not enjoy the luxury of scruples, my lord.” (ibid 610). This provides somewhat of an insight into his political strategy, while also making it seem wise to mistrust him. In the chapter with Tyrion in A Clash of Kings Varys makes a similar statement: “Spiders and informers are seldom loved, my lord.” (Martin 2011b, 120.) So, as a eunuch and a spy Varys is mistrusted and unloved. That he occupies the role of a spy is interesting in relation to what Llewellyn-Jones writes about the role eunuchs historically could have at court (2002). Those eunuchs could move between the private (feminine) sphere and the public (masculine) sphere, and therefore inform those in powers of courtly intrigue. This seems similar to what Varys does. A reoccurring theme for him, then, seems to be the transgression of borders. From private/feminine to public/masculine spaces, from feminine to masculine embodiment, from East to West. Perhaps, similarly to how eunuchs were regarded with contempt in Ancient Greece because of their transgressive position, this explains part of the reason why Varys is disliked. The fact that he is called “the Spider” also hints to him not quite being considered human. This is similar to how both Stryker and Hayward describe the way trans people are often perceived (1994; 2010). Similarly to how Hayward describes how the spider is looked upon with both curiosity and disgust, this seems to be how Varys the spider is seen. Furthermore, similarly to Hayward’s description Varys seems to create a place for himself through his spider web. However, there are some complications to simply reading him as a trans character. For one, it is very unclear how Varys considers his gender himself, the reader only gets descriptions of him from other characters’ points of view. But while it is unclear how he identifies; the way other characters see him seems similar to attitudes trans people might face. His, in their eyes, unclear gender and sex makes him seem slippery and unlikable. This ties back to the idea of eunuchs being seen with contempt because of their liminal character.
Perhaps one strategy that Varys uses to counter the disadvantage of his position as a eunuch is to play into it. Earlier I noted that his feminine mannerisms seemed almost theatrical, and if he can disguise himself as a goalor, then perhaps his usual appearance is a disguise as well. As a spymaster he is most likely aware of how one’s every move might be watched, similarly to the panoptic gaze that Whitehead describes. This might have made him realize how important it is to control his own appearance etc. Varys might do something similar to how Whitehead writes that gay men might sometimes subvert the panoptic gaze on male bodies, by not conforming to the expectations of their embodiment (2002, 198). Varys seemingly conforms to the way eunuchs are expected to inhabit their bodies, but the reader cannot be sure if this is his “true” appearance or if he even has one. In this way he might be said to subvert the panoptic gaze by not simply conforming to the role of the effeminate and weak eunuch that his appearance might indicate but use this to his advantage. Furthermore, it seems useful for his position at court to both be able to move between different spaces with different disguises, and to use the idea of a eunuch as effeminate to seem less threatening in a patriarchal society.
In conclusion then, Varys is considered less of a man because of his lack of “manhood”. In a world where sexuality and virality is intimately connected to masculinity, his perceived lack of those makes him no true man. Furthermore, his appearance and mannerisms seem more feminine than masculine. This, however, might be a strategy of his to seem less threatening in his position of Master of Spies. As he says himself, eunuchs and informants are seldom loved, so it might be beneficial for him to play into the role of the weak effeminate eunuch. Perhaps this also makes him able to move between differently gendered spaces, similarly to the eunuchs of antiquity. However, being the effeminate eunuch also seems part of what makes people distrust him. Him inhabiting the liminal space between borders of gender/sexuality and ethnicity, both spatially and with his embodiment, makes people vary of him. Is he a man or woman? Western or Eastern? Neither? But by destabilizing such borders, he also makes them visible. When the characters deem him less of a man for appearing feminine and lacking the body parts that would make him a man, it becomes clearer what requirements there are to be a man. Those seem to include a certain amount of toughness, active sexuality, and virality. Lacking both the set of genitalia that is deemed necessary to perform those actions and having the gendered perceptions of his ethnicity working against him, Varys cannot be perceived as a true man. But ultimately, this says more about how the society he lives in views masculinity.
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/
Carroll, Shiloh. 2018. Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer
glass_table_girl. 2014. “(Spoilers All) A List of Things that GRRM Has Cited as Influences or Sources of Enjoyment”. Reddit, August 31, 2014.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 1995. “How to build a man”, in Constructing Masculinity, eds. Berger, Maurice, Brian Wallis and Simon Watson, 127-134. New York: Routledge.
Hayward, Eva. 2010. “Spider city sex”, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 20(3):225-251
Karioris, Frank G. and Jonathan A. Allan. 2017. “Grow a Pair! Critically Analyzing Masculinity and the Testicles.” Journal of Men’s Studies, 24(3): 245-261.
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Nikoloutsos, Konstantinos P. 2008. ”The Alexander Bromance: Male Desire and Gender Fluidity in Oliver Stone’s Historical Epic.” Helios, (35)2: 223-251
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Stryker, Susan. 1994. “My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: Performing transgender rage” GLQ 1(3): 237-254
Throsby, Karen & Rosalind Gill. 2004. ”It’s Different for Men: Masculinity and IVF.” Men and Masculinities, (6)4: 330-348
Tougher, Shaun. 2002. “In or out? Origins of court eunuchs.” in Eunuchs in antiquity and beyond, ed. Tougher, Shaun, 143-160. Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales.
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I love the idea of spider being curiosity and distrust. It’s also interesting that webs have varying uses between male and female spiders depending on species which would also make his nickname put him in an inbetween space.
I had often wondered if Ned’s shock at Varys’ disguise was more because he completely was invested in this idea of him being this effeminate figure. “Men make eunuchs” in more way then one. People are cruel. I also find it incredibly cruel that viraiity is seen as a manner of manhood but the lack of children in a relationship is clearly always the fault of the ‘woman’.
That which is not seen as ‘normal’ or ‘exotic’ is either massively desired (your earlier article on race + sexuality) or loathed and feared (eunuch) there seems to be very little gray space.
The more I read of your work and reflecting on all these issues, I don’t mean to sound crude, but I have never been so happy to be ace. The fixation and idiotic ideas history/the majority of those in power have established because of this fascination with sex is just absurd. I think I know where the saying about blood circulation being redirected and decreasing the ability to think logically originated. >__> Yes you can slap me for that one.
Thank you for this comment! You make so many good points. ❤
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