[Note: this essay was originally published on December 1st 2019 on my tumblr]
CW: Sexism, cissexism, rape, sex, description of genitalia and bodily functions.
Spoilers: All of A Song of Ice and Fire, and a tiny spoiler from Game of Thrones season 8.
“’I hold the man’s balls in the palm of my hand.’ He cupped his fingers, smiling. ‘Or would, if he were a man, or had any balls.’” (Martin 1996/2011, 194) Ah, classic Littlefinger burn about Varys. In George RR Martin’s world of ASOIAF such jokes are frequent, but when last time when I re-read A Game of Thrones this one joke in Ned’s fourth chapter stuck out. Perhaps it was because I had recently watched the last season of Game of Thrones where Varys comments on Tyrion’s ever-present jokes about Varys being a eunuch (Game of Thrones 2019, 04:27). Perhaps it’s because issues of gender and sexuality interest me in general (see: all of this blog). Regardless, it got me interested at seeing how eunuchs are described in the books. I soon found that the connection between a man’s genitals and masculinity seemed to be very strong. Now, before I go any further, I feel like two disclaimers are in order. 1: I’m not saying that having a penis is necessary to be a man, I’m saying that both our society and the world of ASOIAF seems to think so. 2: I’m not saying that GRRM thinks this either, I have no idea what his personal stance on these things are, but I’m saying that he seems to have transferred these views from our world into his world. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, why focus on this aspect of masculine embodiment in ASOIAF? Well, as I intend to show in this analysis, by analysing how eunuchs are portrayed in the books, I think one can infer quite a bit of how men and masculinity is conceived of in Westeros and beyond. So, firstly I want to give a brief overview of how sex/gender was conceived of in our medieval world (mostly to show how this DOES NOT seem to match ASOIAF), and secondly how these things are conceived of in more modern times and compare this to ASOIAF.
So, before the 18th century or so, European conception sex/gender relied on what has afterwards been called a “one-sex model” (Mottier 2008, 33). This model was very influenced by the Greek philosophical idea that men’s bodies were active, hot and strong; women’s bodies being passive, weak, damp and cold (ibid, 5).
As the historian Thomas Laqueur has pointed out, the classical model of gender involved a ‘one-sex model’: since gender was fluid, men risked becoming more feminized if they lost heat, while women could become more like men if their bodies heated up. The psychological consequences of such beliefs was [sic] that gender did not appear as a stable, biological characteristic, but as an identity that was potentially under threat. (Mottier 2008, 6)
That is to say, during this time sex/gender was seen as fluid, and not a biological fact. As mentioned, this view didn’t really change until the 18th century. Mottier describes that shift like this:
From the 18th century, the traditional idea of the ‘one-sex’ body, which conceptualized women’s bodies as similar but inferior versions of male bodies (with female genitals being thought of as internal, much smaller versions of male genitals) started to be replaced with the idea of a clear biological differentiation between men and women. Male and female bodies came to be seen as fundamentally, biological different, not as part of the same hierarchical continuum. The gender hierarchy remained, however. (Mottier 2008, 33)
From this we can infer then, that during the medieval period in Europe, female bodies were perceived as sort of defect versions of male bodies, not fundamentally biologically different. It was after this model was replaced with the ‘two-sex model’ that men and women were seen as biologically different creatures. This biological difference also began being used as a justification for social difference (and inequality) between men and women. That is not to say that such social difference didn’t exist before that, but it wasn’t though to be the result of biological differences in the same way. In my view, this later conceptualisation of sex/gender is much more in line with how sex/gender seems to be perceived in ASOIAF. Throughout the books there are several references of women being of the gentle/weaker sex, or similar descriptions. One such is in Catelyn’s last chapter in A Game of Thrones when Catelyn tries to persuade Robb’s lords to sue for peace with the Lannisters. The Greatjon then says that because she is a woman she does not understand such things, while Lord Karstark says: “You are the gentle sex (…) a man has a need for vengeance.” (Martin 2011, 770) Such a view, seeing the female sex as gentler/weaker than the male sex, seems much more in line with a “two-sex model” than the “one-sex model” that would’ve existed in Medieval Europe. I shall therefore proceed to explain the male body has been conceived in more modern times.
In general, one can say that the male subject is expected to embody strength, toughness, and have a capability to exercise power over a space (Whitehead 2002, 189). This expectation also carries through to expectations of men’s sexuality, which is why many aging men might start to lose confidence in their sexuality when they can’t live up to this expectation (ibid, 200). This connection between masculinity and strength, virility etc. also impacts the importance being put on having “normal” genitalia. As Fausto-Sterling writes about the male body, from a medical point of view, the existence of a “functional” penis is often considered crucial for manhood (1995, 130). This is taken to the extreme that children born with a penis that is considered too small (even though the size of the penis at birth doesn’t seem to be a good indicator of adult size) will have their genitalia surgically changed into a vagina (for more on surgery on intersex children see for example: Amnesty 2017). Presumably this is partly because the sexual act of penetration is so closely linked to masculinity, that having a penis that is considered “too small” for this is inconceivable (as someone who works with sex education, I just want to add SIZE DOESN’T MATTER THAT MUCH. Just communicate with your partner and figure out what works for you!) Other studies have also analysed the way testicles are perceived in modern society and found that those seem to be closely connected to masculinity as well (Karioris & Allan 2017). The most obvious example of this is of course the phrase “grow a pair”, said when wanting someone to toughen up. Kaioris and Allan also write that fear of castration is often linked with a fear of losing one’s masculinity. This is all to say, that in our society genitalia seems to be very important to manhood and being “a real man”. Now, is this also the case in ASOIAF?
Short answer, yes. One example is of course the quote with which I started this text, when Littlefinger seems to equate Varys’ lack of testicles with his lack of manhood. Another example comes from A Clash of Kings when Tyrion expresses a similar sentiment when comparing himself to Varys: “Yet I’m still a man.” (Martin 1999/2011, 120). But the linking of lack of genitals with lack of masculinity doesn’t stop with Varys, it is also something we see with Theon after his torture by Ramsey. He himself thinks that he is no man (Martin 2011/2012, 566). Later, when Ramsey forces him to be a part of raping Jeyne Poole, he jokes about Theon (not) getting an erection by seeing Jeyne, and then says that Theon is: “Not even a man, in truth.” (Martin 2011d, 582). This equating of (lack of) a penis and testicles with (a lack of) masculinity/manhood isn’t contained to Westeros, however. Daenerys thinks a similar thing when describing the unsullied in A Storm of Swords: “(…) they were no men at all. The Unsullied were eunuchs, every one of them.” (Martin 2000/2011, 314). Speaking of Daenerys, in A Game of Thrones we learn from her chapters that in Dothraki culture, the only ones who ride in carts are those with a disability, women giving birth, the very old and the very old. Oh, and eunuchs (Martin 1996/2011, 373). Here it becomes very clear that eunuchs are seen as weak and unmanly when they are grouped together with pregnant women, old people and those with disabilities. How disability is portrayed in ASOIAF is not something I will go into further here, but I recommend the text “Power and Punishment in Game of Thrones” by Mia Harrison that does explore that. However, it seems clear that those with disabilities are not seen as “real men” either.
So, based on this, we can see that the Westerosi (and Essosi) view of what a man is seems to presume that he is strong, active and virile. It is apparently also very important to have functioning genitalia (whatever that even means). Therefore, those who cannot live up to that, such as eunuchs, are not real men. This is a very narrow definition of masculinity and manhood, yet it unfortunately rings true in our world as well. Not only does it exclude trans folx completely, it also limits people of all genders. We see the consequences of that in ASOIAF when Brianne is excluded from knighthood based on her gender, and in the way people of Westeros treat all of its “imperfect” men. And we can most definitely see it in our own 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/
Game of Thrones. (2019) Winterfell. [TV-show]
Harrison, Mia. (2018). “Power and Punishment in Game of Thrones”, pp. 28-43 in Schatz, J L & Amber E George (Eds.), The Image of Disability: Essays on Media Representations. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne (1995). “How to build a man”, pp. 127-134 in Berger, Maurice, Brian Wallis and Simon Watson (eds.) (1995). Constructing Masculinity, Routledge, New York
Martin, George RR. (1996/2011). A Game of Thrones. Harper Voyager: London
Martin, George RR. (1998/2011). A Clash of Kings. Harper Voyager: London
Martin, George RR. (2000/2011). A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow. Harper Voyager: London
Martin, George RR. (2011/2012). A Dance with Dragons. Harper Voyager: London
Mottier, Véronique. (2008). Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Whitehead, Stephen M. (2002). Men and Masculinities, Cambridge and Malden: Polity, pp. 181-204
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I wish I had something constructive to comment on, but this was nicely knitted together. Except I have to note that the way Varys is almost ALWAYS described as ”The eunuch” regardless of other possible descriptions really irritates me. I could be wrong but it seemed like at first Tyrion used more neutral terms but when he felt betrayed he switched to it…
Ohhh, that’s a good point! I should look into that!