“As mutable as flame”- understandings of dragons’ sex and the implications for conceptualisations of sex/gender generally in ASOIAF

Vhagar by Sanrixian.

In ASOIAF, there is much of the lore behind the dragons that is unknown, lost to the mists of time. One such mystery is how the dragons’ sex and reproduction function. In Fire and Blood, when discussing prince Jacaerys’ visit to Winterfell during the Dance of the Dragons, Archmaester Gyldayn tells us that:

Mushroom also claims that Vermax left a clutch of dragon’s eggs at Winterfell, which is equally absurd. Whilst it is true that determining the sex of a living dragon is a nigh on impossible task, no other sources mention Vermax producing so much as a single egg, so it must be assumed that he is male. Septon Barth’s speculation that the dragons change sex at need, being “as mutable as flame” is too ludicrous to consider.

Fire and Blood, The Dying of the Dragons: A Son for a Son.

But is it that too ludicrous to consider? As I will explore in this essay, in our world there are plenty of animals that change sex throughout their life (Roughgarden 2013, 150). Why couldn’t dragons be the same? Furthermore, could mayhaps the way the maesters (and others) conceptualise dragon sex be influenced by the way they understand sex/gender generally…? What does the way Westeros understand dragons’ sex tell us about their ideas surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality generally?

This essay will explore all of those questions. But before I get more into dragon sex, I need to talk a bit about sex and gender in our world…

Theoretical background

In this essay, when talking about “sex”, I generally refer to the classifications of individuals as male/female based on their bodily morphology. However, as I will point out in the essay, such classifications are far from simple and definitely not strictly binary. As the evolutionary biologist and gender researcher, Dr Malin Ah-King points out:

When we hear the word sex, most of us probably think of the classification of humans into the biological categories of female and male. This categorisation can seem easy at first since genitals, chromosomes and hormones differ between the sexes. These differences are often seen as given. But every year children are born that can’t easily be categorised as female or male (about 1 per cent of all births). Since the clitoris and penis develop from the same organ, the possible variation creates a continuum of appearance. (…) Other biological differences also aren’t a given. The average muscle mass differs between men and women, but there is a large variation within the groups and some women have larger muscle mass than some men.

(Ah-King 2012, 13) My translation from Swedish.

So, the simplistic view of sex that we often have is, well, too simplistic. But that’s sex, what about gender? As a society, we tend to assign gender based on sex, assuming that someone with a vagina is a woman, etc. Based on this assignment, we attribute a bunch of traits to the person that we expect them to have (women should be feminine, sexually attracted to men, etc). A person might, or might not, follow these gender norms. Furthermore, they might not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. As education and gender researcher Dr Dana Stachowiak puts it, we all have a “felt sense of gender”:

This felt sense [of gender] manifests through our lived experiences in relation to the social construction of gender and the attributes that are socially linked to what mediates masculinity, femininity, androgyny, and so forth. How we identify or disidentify with socially constructed ideals is attached to the multiplicity of our identity. (…) Felt sense of gender essentially translates to a critical embodiment of self, driven by both the corporeal body and the psyche, and the impact of social, cultural, and institutional theories of hegemony on both the body and the psyche.

(Stachowiak 2017, 535)

So, our felt sense of gender can very well incorporate how we experience our body (which is why a trans person might experience gender dysphoria due to their body). But our body doesn’t determine our gender. All of this is to say, sex and gender are somewhat connected but they’re not the same thing. That’s why, in this essay, when I discuss the body and reproductive functions of animals/beings/dragons, I tend to use the term “sex”. But I might use “gender” when discussing gender norms or gender identity.

But to get some more into the understanding of sex in our world… Throughout human history and different cultures, people have understood sex (and gender) differently. The current Western view of sex being made up of two separate binary categories only really goes back to 18th century (Mottier 2008). Before then sex was understood according to “the one-sex” body model, which conceptualized female bodies as similar but inferior versions of male bodies (with female genitals being thought of as internal, much smaller versions of male genitals)” (Mottier 2008, 33). After the 18th century, men and women started being seen as fundamentally biologically different, a view which has since been used to justify social inequality (since men were seen as better, stronger etc) (Schiebinger 1986). But both before the 18th century and afterwards, the male has often been seen as the norm. This can for instance be seen in research, where the male has for a long time been the standard, with for instance medicine only being tested on male bodies (Ah-King 2012, 24). In later years, this has slowly begun to change. But even still, binary and male-centred understandings of sex dominate. That this is ridiculous becomes even more clear when you consider other species than humans.

Dr Joan Roughgarden, an evolutionary biologist, has done a lot of work about how nature isn’t as binary and simplistic as people tend to think (Roughgarden 2013). She points out that while biologists tend to define male as making small gametes (sperm) and female as making larger gametes (eggs), this binary doesn’t apply to other bodily morphology. In many species, female and male individuals don’t look outwardly different. Roughgarden notes:

The binary in gamete size doesn’t extend outward. The biggest error of biology today is uncritically assuming that gamete size binary implies a corresponding binary in body type, behaviour, and life history. No binary governs the whole individuals who make gametes, who bring them to one another for fertilization, and who interact with one another to survive in a native social context.

(Roughgarden 2013, 150)

As Roughgarden writes, the things we assume about how sex functions, based on humans, are often not true if we look at other species (or humans either). For instance, in several species, it’s not the female who gives birth but the male. The female deposits the eggs with the male who incubates them until birth. Another example that’s often brought up as a way to determine sex in humans is sex chromosomes, with it generally being said that a male has XY chromosomes and female XX chromosomes. But this is not true for all humans (Planned Parenthood, n.d.), and even less so for other species. Roughgarden points out that in several types of birds, the reverse is true (females having XY chromosomes and males XX chromosomes) (Roughgarden 2013, 151). What’s more, in alligators, crocodiles, as well as some turtles and lizards, sex is determined by the temperature at which the eggs are raised. Consequently, the female can control the ratio of male/female offspring by where she lays her eggs.

Gator on trans flag by Gators Daily.

Furthermore, as Roughgarden points out, there are several species where an individual can “change sex” throughout their life. As she notes:

Changing sex once might seem a big deal, but some fish do it several times during their life span. An individual might change from an unsexed juvenile to a female, then to a male, and then back to a female. Or it may change from a juvenile to a male, then to a female, then back to a male. In certain species, sexual identity can be changed as easily as a new coat.

(Roughgarden 2013, 153)

These fish can lay eggs during part of their lives and during other parts of their lives they produce sperm. Yet other species of fishes are both male and female at the same time:

Hamlets, which are small coral reef basses, don’t have to worry about choosing their sex: they are both sexes at the same time. However, they cross-fertilize and must mate with a partner to reproduce. These simultaneous hermaphrodites change between male and female roles several times as they mate. One individual releases a few eggs and the other fertilizes them with sperm. Then the other releases some eggs, which the first fertilizes with sperm, and so on, back and forth.

(Roughgarden 2013, 153)

All this is to say, what we tend to assume about how sex functions simply aren’t true. It’s much more complex than just a stable male/female binary that governs all aspects of an individual’s body, appearance, and behaviour.

So why do humans keep arguing that biology and nature are so binary? One explanation is that what is seen as “natural” is often used to legitimise behaviour and norms (Ah-King 2012, 53). If male animals are naturally more aggressive, then of course male humans will be too, and that’s just an unchangeable natural fact. In that way, societal structures and norms are reproduced and upheld. It also works the other way around, with how humans tend to export our understanding of sex/gender onto animals. This can, for instance, be seen in the research of bonobos (a species of ape who similarly to chimpanzees are close relatives to humans). As Ah-King notes:

Bonobos’ social system is very different from that of chimpanzees, bonobos are more peaceful, the females create coalitions and both females and males have sex with both sexes. In nature, most aggressive interactions are because of food resources, and males then tend to yield to females.

Ideas of male supremacy have led some researchers to describe the females’ dominance over the males as the females being “testy”, “difficult” and “daring” (Parish & de Waal 2000). Males on the other hand are “tolerant” towards females and “allow” females to have the upper hand, which has been explained by “strategical male passivity” and “chivalry” (see Parish & de Waal 2000).

(Ah-King 2012, 26) My translation from Swedish.

This all becomes a feedback loop: if animals behave like that then it’s natural for humans to behave like that, and because we assume it’s natural for humans to behave like that, that’s also how we interpret animals’ behaviour. And if we come across phenomena that can’t be explained by our norms, such as same-sex animal relationships or animals with fluid sex? Then that’s just the exception that proves the rule. As Ah-King puts it, in a lot of biological research, all phenomena that fall outside of a monogamous, heterosexual, gender-conforming norm are seen as “alternative.” Something that deviates from the norm, which then serves to uphold the norm (Ah-King 2012, 40).

Sex and reproduction in dragons in ASOIAF

Dragon hatchling by Sanrixian.

Going back to the dragons, what do we know about dragons’ sex in ASOIAF? As mentioned previously, Gyldayne notes that it’s “nigh on impossible” to determine the sex of a living dragon. Then he goes on to say that Vermax must be assumed to be male because he hasn’t laid any eggs (besides the disputed Winterfell eggs). It, therefore, seems that dragons’ sex is usually determined by if they lay eggs or not. Should we, therefore, assume that all dragons that are referred to by she/her pronouns have laid eggs? That seems to be what’s implied. That would then mean that Meraxes, Vhagar, Dreamfyre, Moondancer, Morning, Quicksilver, Shrykos, Syrax, Tessarion, and “the last dragon” all laid eggs. This is despite only Dreamfyre and Syrax being specifically mentioned laying eggs. And that some of these dragons, like Moondancer, Tessarion, Shrykos, and “the last dragon” died quite young (but to be fair, we don’t know when dragons reach sexual maturity).

I will say that it’s interesting that the only dragons we know for sure laid eggs are Dreamfyre and Syrax. Dreamfyre was ridden by Rhaena Targaryen (the Queen in the West) and Helaena Targaryen, and Syrax by Rhaenyra Targaryen. We know that all these women were mothers, and they all had a somewhat fraught relationship with motherhood, and to a degree womanhood. Rhaena had two daughters but lost one of them (Aerea) to a case of teen rebellion made much worse by access to a dragon. Furthermore, Rhaena was queer and seemed to in large part resent the expectations put on her as a woman and wife (which I’ve discussed here). Yet, she seemed to love her daughters even as she struggled to be a mother to them. We don’t know quite as much about Helaena’s feelings on motherhood and her role as a wife, but she did tragically lose several of her children. This is something she shares with Rhaenyra of course, who as many people have discussed (for instance the Learned Hands on several occasions) have a fraught relationship with motherhood and womanhood. She seems to love her children, but often resents the expectations put on her by gender norms and motherhood norms. Furthermore, as I have discussed elsewhere, it is quite possible to read Rhaenyra (at least in House of the Dragon) as gender nonconforming or trans. In light of all of that, it is interesting that these people’s dragons are the only ones that we know for sure have laid eggs. Perhaps the emphasis of that by the history writers in Westeros is meant to highlight (and cement) their status as mothers and female?

Another point to note is that both Syrax and Dreamfyre, as well as several other dragons, are not only referred to by gendered pronouns but they are also called “she-dragons.” This again emphasises their status as female dragons. A similar example is of course Meleys the Red Queen, whose name indicates that she is indeed female (although that name sounds more regal and classy than “she-dragon” to me).

Meleys The Red Queen by Sanrixian.

It is interesting to note that while we have several instances of female dragons being called “she-dragons”, there doesn’t exist any example of “he-dragons.” This indicates that the male is seen as the norm. The female, not being the norm, is what needs to be pointed out. A dragon is assumed male until proven otherwise. As mentioned above, the “proving” of femaleness seems to mainly be done by egg laying. If a dragon lays eggs, it’s assumed to be female. But that raises more questions. Do the people in the story watch the dragons laying the eggs? If not, how are they sure which eggs came out of which dragon? It is assumed that if a dragon hangs around the eggs, that’s the dragon the eggs came out of? What if a male dragon incubates the eggs, like certain fish? We don’t know enough about dragon biology to know exactly how their reproduction work, and it seems like the maesters of Westeros don’t either. They simply apply what they (think they) know about human biology to the dragons. A dragon laying eggs must be female, caring for the eggs must be the one that the eggs came from if it’s being “motherly” like that.

As a contrast to what seems to be the conventional understanding of dragons’ sex and reproduction, we have Septon Barth. Barth argued that dragons’ sex was as mutable as flame and could change at need. This is also something Maester Aemon seems to agree with, saying the following when discussing the “Prince that was promised” prophesy:

“No one ever looked for a girl,” he said. ”It was a prince that was promised, not a princess. (…) What fools we were, who thought ourselves so wise! The error crept in from the translation. Dragons are neither male nor female, Barth saw the truth of that, but now one and now the other, as changeable as flame. The language misled us all for a thousand years.

(A Feast for Crows, Samwell IV)

What Aemon says here of Barth’s theories, that dragons are neither male nor female, but that their sex is fluid, matches a lot of species in our world. For instance, various species of fishes that can change their sex multiple times throughout their lives or be both male and female at the same time. So why can’t magical fantasy creatures be the same? It’s also interesting how Aemon notes that similar to how the dragons aren’t male/female, the Valyrian language doesn’t distinguish between prince/princess. In his comment, he seems to indicate some sort of correlation between those two things. It does seem like, generally speaking, Valyrian as a language is less gendered than the Common Tongue (ie English), if perhaps not completely genderless. Maybe, that linguistic difference is a reflection of a culture that was slightly less strict in its gender binary and hierarchy. That of course doesn’t mean that it was an equal culture in any way, it was a slave society after all. But we do see with some of the early Targaryen rulers, especially Aegon, Rhaenys, and Visenya, power was shared more equally between king and queen. Perhaps if you’re a society with huge fire-breathing beasts that have fluid sex, and that people regardless of gender can ride and draw power from, gender binaries/hierarchies seem less important. While other hierarchies (such as what class someone needs to be to ride a dragon) become more important.

Yet, if that was the case, such understandings of the complexity of sex/gender seem to have mostly vanished. In modern-day ASOIAF, the general understanding seems to be that both sex and gender are binary and stable. Furthermore, it is assumed that the male is the norm and superior to the female. These views of the gender binary and male superiority harm people of a variety of marginalised genders, as I’ve outlined in a variety of essays previously. For instance, the assumption that sex/gender is binary harms gender-nonconforming people, and contributes to the violence against characters like Brienne and Brave Danny Flint. But gender norms and norms around reproduction of course also harm women, as I’ve noted when writing about virginity norms in Westeros.


To summarise, then, it seems like the way maesters and people in general in the world of ASOIAF understand sex/gender is similar to our world in that it is understood to be stable and binary. This is hardly a surprise. But it’s sad that this clearly limits them in the way they can understand the true magic and wonderfulness of the dragons. They don’t, as Dr Roughgarden might put it, see the full rainbow of nature. Unfortunately, this likely also limits how they perceive diversity in humans. Just as it does in our world. Hopefully, someday the people of Westeros as well as the people of our world will be able to fully appreciate evolution’s rainbow.

Special thanks to Sanrixian for allowing me to use her art in this essay and for helping me with the dragon research. Much love to you, friend.

Further reading

Ah-King, Malin. 2012. Genusperspektiv på biologi. Stockholm:Swedish National Agency for Higher Education.

Mottier, Véronique. 2008. Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roughgarden, Joan. 2013. “Sex and Diversity, Sex Versus Gender, and Sexed Bodies- Excerpts from Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People.” In Transgender Studies Reader 2, edited by Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura, 147-155. New York: Routledge.

Planned Parenthood. n.d. “What’s intersex?” Retrieved January 16, 2023. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/gender-identity/sex-gender-identity/whats-intersex

Schiebinger, Londa. 1986. ”Skeletons in the Closet: The First Illustrations of the Female Skeleton in Eighteenth-Century Anatomy.” Representations, 14 (Spring): 42–82.

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