[This essay was first published on May 6th 2019 on my tumblr]
In the latest episode of Game of Thrones Varys and Tyrion talks about who would be the best ruler of The Seven Kingdoms; the queen who has spent years trying to get the throne, or the potential king who doesn’t want it. (NOTE: I AM NOT TAKING A STAND ON WHO WOULD BE THE BETTER RULER) Varys then says: “Have you considered the best ruler might be someone who doesn’t want to rule?” (Game of Thrones 2019: 57:34 min) This plays right into the classic trope of the reluctant hero, the character who doesn’t want to lead but is forced into the situation and turns out to be the hero. Another example of this is Harry Potter, who never wants to be the chosen one, but ends up leading the fight against evil nonetheless. In the seventh Harry Potter book the issue of power and how it can corrupt is very present, and in their final dreamlike discussion Harry and his mentor Dumbledore discusses just that. Dumbledore says:
It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well. (Rowling 2007: 575)
I couldn’t help but to think of that quote after watching that latest Game of Thrones episode and ruminating on how alike Jon Snow and Harry Potter’s journey of reluctant leadership are. Jon Snow declines leadership several times in both the books and the show, in this latest episode of the show they emphases several time how he doesn’t want the throne. The books obviously haven’t gotten that far, but there as well this trope is evident when Jon initially doesn’t want to be the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch (Martin 2000/2011: 519). This recurring theme in stories of the hero not wanting to lead is interesting and is most likely there to make us more sympathetic towards them. But as @arhythmetric on twitter wrote (and shout out to her for being the inspiration of this text), not everyone has the opportunity to be a leader in the first place:
I understand the appeal of the “reluctant monarch” but I continue to hate it because it almost always cuts against those to whom power doesn’t just fall into their laps. Look at who gets to be the reluctant monarch every time: straight, able-bodied white men.
The myth of the reluctant leader cuts against women, POC, LGBTQ, disabled people, those who DON’T already have power. And when they try to take some of it, they get painted as power hungry for wanting something denied to them. Because we have to fight for it in a way those who just get it don’t. (arhythmetric 2019)
There are a million ways one could analyse the reluctant hero, why some leaders are seen as legitimate and some not, but one thing that struck me as interesting is the way the importance of them to be masculine.
As many have written before, the traditional hero in Western stories are male, and masculine (Goodwill 2009: 15). But what does masculine mean? RW Connell (2008: 109) writes that there are different types of masculinities in society, that are all a result of the gender relations that exists. She sees gender as a way to organise social praxis, that is, how everyday life is organised based on the reproductive arena (i.e. bodily functions such as attraction and child bearing) (Connell 2008: 138). Moreover, by describing the different kinds of masculinity that exists she makes it clear that there are hierarchical relations between them as well (Connell 2008: 114). She describes different types of masculinity, but here I want to focus on hegemonial masculinity. Hegemonial masculinity is the type of masculinity that is on the top of the gender hierarchy. It is the ideal version of masculinity and the one that best preserves men’s power over women. It’s important to note that this might not be what we often think of as the most masculine, it doesn’t have to be a body builder for instance. In Sweden (where I live) I’d probably describe it as a white middle class man, who works out (but not too much), is a responsible dad, is handy and likes being outdoors, but is also “with the times” and tech-savvy… You get it, the ideal. The point is that hegemonial masculinity is different in different contexts. One important part of it however is that it often excludes certain types of men, for instance LGBTQ men are often seen as “too feminine” (Connell 2008: 116). Another example is that men of colour for instance might represent a marginalised masculinity, something framed as the opposite of the (white) hegemonic masculinity (Connell 2008: 117).
How does this all connect to the reluctant hero? Well, I would consider most heroes to be examples of hegemonic masculinity. In many ways, that is what makes others rally around them as leaders, even if they don’t want to be those leaders. If we use Harry Potter and Jon Snow as examples they very much fit many of the requirements to be ideal masculine heroes. Firstly, they’re both white, straight (as far as we know…), able-bodied and men. Like Varys said in this last Game of Thrones episode “Yes because he’s a man. Cocks are important I’m afraid.” (Game of Thrones 2019: 1:01:08 min) (Note: I obviously don’t think genitals determine one’s gender, but the world does, including in Westeros) But while they’re both fighters they aren’t merciless, both of them try to spare people from death when they can, often to their own detriment. (Martin 2011/2012: 829 & 1064; Rowling 2007: 64) This shows that they aren’t just super-masculine killing machines. The fact that they don’t want to be leaders also show that they are somewhat humble, another good trait. But the fact that they can afford to not be ambitious, and still becomes leaders is in my opinion dependant on the fact that they fit the image of hegemonic masculinity so well.
Wahl, Holgersson, Höök and Linghag (2011) discusses how gender impacts hierarchies in organisations, and what kind of leader someone can be. They write about three aspects that impacts one’s ability to rise in the hierarchy; ability/opportunity, power, and the composition of the group (Wahl et al. 2011: 77). The first aspect is about what kind of ability one perceives themselves to have to advance. Someone with limited resources/opportunities will limit their own ambition, but someone who starts off with many opportunities will have a higher self-esteem and make use of the opportunities they have. When it comes to power, someone with a small amount of power becomes more authoritative and has to use force to get their will through (Wahl et al 2011: 79). But someone with more power can afford to be more relaxed and thus is generally more liked. Finally, the group’s composition matters because if you are in a minority (for instance being a woman in a male-dominated workplace) you become more visible (Wahl et al 2011: 80). This can be negative because you then become a representative of that whole minority and might have to suffer from stereotypes that exists. You might also feel more pressured to perform well, feeling that you are a representative of for instance all women. A final consequence might be that the majority group might feel threatened by you infringing on what has previously solely been their territory.
Does any of this sound familiar? Those last points in particular, in my opinion, very much describe how Daenerys and Jon have been described in this last season of Game of Thrones. Authoritative and disliked, or less bothered by formalities and more liked by the people. Daenerys is a stranger, not only as someone having lived in another country, but also as a woman trying to rule. She becomes hyper visible in this way, and as Varys says, perhaps people would be less forgiving if she was a man. Jon on the other hand doesn’t want to rule, but people keep trying to force it on him. He can keep turning down leadership, but people will still accept him as a leader. If Daenerys didn’t actively try to seek power no one would give it to her. This is in the end why so many reluctant heroes are white straight able-bodied men, they can be reluctant and still be given power. I’m not saying that someone that isn’t a white man is automatically a better ruler. But I am saying that it’s much easier for such a person to gain power. If a woman, POC, LGBTQ+ person, and/or disabled person doesn’t actively seek it no one will give it to us. But a good hero doesn’t seek power.
arhythmetric (2019). I understand the appeal of the “reluctant monarch”(…) [twitter post], 6th of May. https://twitter.com/arhythmetric/status/1125377350596812801 [2019-05-06]
Connell, R.W.(2008) Maskuliniteter. (2nd edition). Göteborg: Bokförlaget Daidalos AB [this is the Swedish translation of Connell’s book Masculinities]
Game of Thrones (2019). The Last of the Starks. [TV-show] HBO, 5th of May.
Goodwill, J-A. S. (2009) THE ACTION HERO REVISIONED: AN ANALYSIS OF FEMALE “MASCULINITY” IN THE NEW FEMALE HERO IN RECENT FILMIC TEXTS. Master dissertation. University of South Africa.
Martin, G.R.R. (2000/2011). A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold. London: HarperVoyager.
Martin, G. R. R. (2011/2012). A Dance with Dragons. London: HarperVoyager.
Rowling, J.K. (2007). Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Wahl, A., Holgersson, C., Höök, P. & Linghag, S. (2011). Det ordnar sig: teorier om organisation och kön. Lund: Studentlitteratur.
2 reaktioner på ”The reluctant (masculine) hero in GoT and Harry Potter”
I like how this also skirts around the idea that there is a very specific idea of masculinity, but that you identify of how it looks in your country as while there are core similarities, every culture has different gender traditions. I LOVE that you point out that resources/ what I’d define as the primary elements of class are such a touchstone.
And the other thing about the ‘reluctant hero’ is that they often have an inate ability or talent or are perceived to. (In Jon’s case he’s a superior fighter, in Harry he’s a survivor with famous parents who doesn’t seem to have to work as hard to achieve results others work for…which is not to say that neither put in effort) One thing about both of these characters is that while they ‘don’t want to lead’ they also aren’t opposed to the ‘perks’ . How many times did Jon dream of being legitimized without considering what responsibilities that would entail? How much self confidence and even (subconscious?) entitlement did Harry feel?
Thanks for the lovely comment! I absolutely agree with the part about how they don’t really mind the perks even if they do complain about their position sometimes (“I did not ask for this”).