Brienne of Tarth is one of my favourite character in ASOIAF for a myriad of reasons, but a major one is that I find her struggle with being herself in a world that rejects her so very interesting and relatable. I’ve written about Brienne on several occasions before, but in this mini-essay, in honour of her participation in Davos’ Finger’s “A Song of Madness”, I wanted to write a bit more about how she, as a gender nonconforming person, struggles to meet society’s gendered expectations. About how she’s not quite a lady, but also not quite a knight.
Since the reader is introduced to Brienne, we see how she is met with a mix of confusion of revulsion by many in her surroundings because she doesn’t conform to Westerosi gender norms. This quote from Randyll Tarly in AFFC demonstrates this view clearly:
‘As for you, my lady, 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.’ (Brienne V, A Feast for Crows)
It becomes even more heart-breaking when Brienne says this about her father (and herself) in a later chapter:
‘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. Galladon drowned when I was four and he was eight, though, and Alysanne and Arianne died still in the cradle. I am the only child the gods let him keep. The freakish one, not fit to be a son or daughter.’ (Brienne VI, A Feast for Crows)
Clearly, she feels like she has failed her father by not living up to the expectations of her society. But crucially, both she and Randyll notes how she “fails” doubly, namely by not being feminine enough for a daughter but not being a son so her masculinity can be justified. Her in-betweenness is “freakish” or “a curse” in this view. I’ve written about this “freakishness” in Brienne before, so I won’t focus on that here, but I rather want to focus on how she “fails” at being a son or a daughter. A lady or a knight.
In Westeros, just as in our own world, people are expected to follow certain paths through life. What path a specific person is expected to take depends on a multitude of factors, including gender, race, class, etc. (Ahmed 2006). For instance, a woman is expected to find a male partner, eventually marry him, and afterwards have children. She’s expected to follow this straight line through life, and if she deviates from said line, she’s deemed a deviant. Furthermore, if she doesn’t follow the expected path, she’s often seen as a disappointment to her family because she doesn’t reproduce and therefore reproduce the family. This queer person becomes a threat to the family (something conservatives out there loves to argue in a myriad of ways). There are even more lines one is expected to follow, as Signe Bremer points out when explaining the concept of “linear gender”:
Linear gender explicates the heteronormative assumption that a person’s genitals, general bodily materiality, legal sex, gender identity, gendered expression, sexual desire, ways of reproduction, parental status, kinship and death point in the same direction through a life course – along a straight line from birth to death. (Bremer 2013)
That is to say, for someone to be seen as a “real” and “proper” woman, for instance, they are expected to have a vagina, a “feminine body”, have their passport say that they’re a woman, identify as a woman, dress and behave in a feminine manner, be attracted to men, birth biological children, be a mother to said children, marry a man and have a family with him, and then die happy at old age (preferably surrounded by grandchildren). It’s a lot to live up to. As we can see with Brienne, she doesn’t live up to most of this. It’s repeatedly noted how “unwomanly” she looks, be it because she doesn’t fulfill traditional beauty ideals or because she’s muscular and dresses in mail. She definitely doesn’t behave like a “proper” woman, going on to fight instead of staying in the home and doing typically feminine activities. When it comes to her sexuality, it does seem like she is attracted to men, but she doesn’t confirm to gendered expectations since she doesn’t marry and settle down with children. This is partly because she has had a hard time to find someone to marry, but as she also notes:
Brienne had been betrothed at seven, to a boy three years her senior, Lord Caron’s younger son, a shy boy with a mole above his lip. They had only met the once, on the occasion of their betrothal. Two years later he was dead, carried off by the same chill that took Lord and Lady Caron and their daughters. Had he lived, they would have been wed within a year of her first flowering, and her whole life would have been different. She would not be here now, dressed in man’s mail and carrying a sword, hunting for a dead woman’s child. More like she’d be at Nightsong, swaddling a child of her own and nursing another. It was not a new thought for Brienne. It always made her feel a little sad, but a little relieved as well. (Brienne III, A Feast for Crows)
As she thinks, it does make her a bit sad but also a bit relieved that she didn’t end up with a life where she did more closely conform to gender norms. But while she feels relieved, she also feels like she has failed her father in not being the daughter he deserves.
It does seem like Brienne is more comfortable living the life of a soldier, being a true knight even if she doesn’t have the title. But she still feels like she can’t be the son her father deserves either. Being born with the body she has, everyone expects her to be a woman, behave like a woman should, and won’t let her step into the role of a knight completely. One way of understanding that is by considering a concept that Sara Ahmed calls “stopping devices” (2006, 139). By this she means how certain people are stopped or blocked from moving freely through certain spaces. One example that Ahmed gives is how when she travels to the UK, where she’s a citizen, she’s still always stopped at the airport because her looks and name makes people associate her with the Middle East and Islam (and therefore terrorism, because racism). Ahmed argues that the same thing can happen in for instance academia when women or people of colour try to make their way into that very white and male institution (2017). You are stopped, blocked, questioned. People ask if you’re really the professor, if you really belong. Trying to create a space for yourself anyway will often feel like running up against a brick wall. I would argue that a similar thing is happening to Brienne, people don’t expect her to be in this space. To try to make her way as a knight, in tourneys, on battlefields. Her attempts to do so anyway are continually blocked. She’s questioned, mocked, harassed. But, as Ahmed also points out, while trying to get through these brick walls we do eventually weaken them (2017). Brienne’s efforts might, eventually, leave cracks in the sexism institutional walls of Westeros, making it easier for the next generation to get through.
In this essay, I have tried to show how Brienne fails by Westerosi standards to be both a lady and a knight. She can’t be a proper woman and lady because of her gender nonconformity and un-linear gender. But for the same reasons she can’t be accepted as a knight, because she’s not ”enough” of a man. She gets blocked at every turn, until she feels like she is a failure and a freak that her father doesn’t deserve. But nonetheless she fights on, doing her best to break down limiting boundaries and walls on her way. She fights on.
Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.
Bremer, Signe. 2013. “Penis as Risk: A Queer Phenomenology of Two Swedish Transgender Women’s Narratives on Gender Correction.” Somatechnics 3(2): 329–350.
Martin, George RR. 2011. A Feast for Crows. New York: Bentam Books.