Asriel’s revolution- a Marxist analysis

Spoilers for the His Dark Materials books and show. Some light spoilers for The Secret Commonwealth.

Shot from season 3 episode 7 of His Dark Materials (His Dark Materials 2022e).

Quite early on in the His Dark Materials books, it becomes evident that Lyra’s world is an unjust one. The class differences in the story are stark, which becomes clear from the start when Lyra is running through Jordan College and Oxford as a whole, meeting different people. And then children in the lower classes start disappearing… As I’ve discussed before, the way lower-class children are targeted by the Magisterium shows both a disregard for the lives of those children and a willingness to control the (sexuality of the) lower classes and marginalised groups in general. Much of this cruelty and injustice is justified by religion, and the Magisterium has an iron grip on society. Then Asriel comes along, threatening the Magisterium’s rule and getting ready to attack and dethrone God himself. Asriel starts his revolution, gathering forces from all over the worlds to fight tyranny and injustice, to gain freedom.

As I was watching the third season of the BBC/HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials recently, I couldn’t help but think about how parts of Asriel’s rhetoric reminded me of other revolutionary movements. Specifically, parts of his revolutionary ideals reminded me of Marxist theory. Now, Karl Marx is of course seen as many as a political figure, the father of Marxism and the inspiration of both Socialists and Communists worldwide. But he was also an academic and is often considered one of the founding fathers of sociology. He wrote theoretical texts, analysing society and trying to understand how unjust structures were upheld. That’s Marxist theory. It’s through that lens I want to look at Asriel’s revolution, to see what is similar but also what is different to Marxist theory. In that way, I hope to examine both the strengths and flaws of Asriel’s revolution as well.

Asriel’s revolution- ideology and goals

To begin, I thought it best to look at what we know about Asriel’s revolution, its ideology, and its goals. Here, I’ll look at both the book and the show because while there are some differences between the two, I think Asriel’s plot and motivations are mostly similar. The two media together create a clearer and fuller picture of him and his revolution. In the books, one of the clearest explanations of the revolution and its goals comes from Ugunwe as he talks to Mrs Coulter about it. Ugunwe explains that the Authority has been oppressing angels and humans since he came into being, and that he is not the creator, but that this has only been a myth meant to give him more power and discourage rebellions. He continues to say:

“It shocked some of us too to learn that the Authority is not the creator. There may have been a creator, or there may not: we don’t know. All we know is that some point the Authority took charge, and since then, angels have rebelled, and human beings have struggled against him too. This is the last rebellion. Never before have humans and angels, and beings from all the worlds, made a common cause. This is the greatest force ever assembled. But it may still not be enough. We shall see.”

“But what does Lord Asriel intend? What is this world, and why has he led us here?”

“He led us here because this world is empty. Empty of conscious life that is. We are not colonialists, Mrs Coulter. We haven’t come to conquer, but to build. (…) Mrs Coulter, I am a king, but it is my proudest task to join Lord Asriel in setting up a world where there are no kingdoms at all. No kings, no bishops, no priests. The kingdom of heaven has been known by that name since the Authority first set himself above the rest of the angels. And we want no part of it. We intend to be free citizens of the republic of heaven.”

(Pullman 2011, 210-211)

We learn some key things from this. One is that the Authority took charge and has been oppressing other beings ever since. Another is that Asriel’s revolution seeks to set up a republic and that there in this republic will exist fewer (if any) hierarchies. No kings, no bishops, no priests. Fewer class structures if you will. It is also very noteworthy that they point out that they are not colonisers, in my opinion (I’ll come back to this). This quote is one of the very few mentions of what life in the republic of heaven would be like, besides general talk about a place with more freedom. In the show, the fact that Asriel fights for freedom of thought and expression is focused on a lot. We hear it both from Asriel himself:

“This is but one world among many. In every single one of them, the same thing. Children, mutilated. Science, learning, criminalized, and whole civilizations covering under the sky.”

(His Dark Materials 2022a, 42:03-42:13)

And from the Authority’s side, as the angel Alarbus tells Asriel what Metatron wants:

“The end to this! Dust is not for you to understand. Conscious beings have become dangerously independent. He will lead a permanent inquisition into every world, on every being. Until they understand complete obedience. And with it, we will bring an end to freedom of thought and will, and control Dust once and for all.”

(His Dark Materials 2022b, 19:02-19:28)

The show do also seems to imply that there would be more equality in the republic of heaven, similar to the books. One such instance is in Asriel’s big speech at the end of season 2:

“My fight is with the Authority and those doling out cruelties in His name. Those who seek to divide in order to control. And who have built worlds founded on privilege and divine right rather than care and need. I fight for freedom of knowledge, and in place of deceit, intolerance and prejudice… I fight for the possibilities of understanding truce and acceptance…”

(His Dark Materials 2022, 41:00-41:35)

This definitely implies that Asriel wants to build a world that is based more on care and compassion, not power and hierarchy. There’s less of this explicitly in season three.  And it’s not really focused on how this more equal society would be achieved. Something that is noteworthy, however, is how Mrs Coulter continually criticises the idea that Asriel could create equality. She says it to his face in episode 3:

“They worship you, don’t they? Ogunwe, the witch, the insect. Will they bow, do you think, when you finally put yourself on the throne?”

“I’m not putting myself on a throne, woman, I’m trying to defeat one.”

“You know, it fascinates me. How enamoured you are with your own power that you’ve come to embody the very thing you most despise.”

(His Dark Materials 2022c, 35:05-35:22)

She brings up it again later to Ugunwe when he says he can’t make a decision without council approval:

“Oh come on. Let’s not pretend. The only vote that counts around here is Asriel’s and he acts purely in his own interests. You should do the same.”

(His Dark Materials 2022d, 21:59-22:12)

Now, Mrs Coulter isn’t always a reliable narrator. She’s often trying to manipulate circumstances and people. But she’s not necessarily wrong here, Asriel is the one in charge. It’s his revoulution. And it’s not clear if his republic would truly lead to equality. I’ll unpack that more later, but before moving on I want to add one more quote about how Asriel’s actions impact other groups. This one from when Asriel meets up with Iorek, on a melting Svalbard:

“I’m greatly saddened to see the damage my work has done to your land.”

“My bears starve because you blew a hole in the sky!”

(His Dark Materials 2022d, 24:36-25:44)

As I have said before, both regarding the show and books, Asriel’s man-made climate change has consequences.

Another very prominent part of Asriel’s ideology and politics is of course how he criticises the way religion is used to oppress people. He continually brings up how religious doctrine is used to control people and push down freedom of thought. One key aspect of this is how religious institutions (and the Authority) use the threat of hell and the promise of heaven to control people. As one of the people Lyra and Will meet in the land of the dead puts it:

“When we were alive, they told us that when we died we’d go to heaven. And they said that heaven was a place of joy and glory and we would spend eternity in the company of saints and angels praising the Almighty, in a state of bliss. That’s what they said. And that’s what led some of us to give our lives, and others to spend years in solitary prayer, while all the joy of life was going to waste around us, and we never knew. Because the land of the dead isn’t a place of reward or a place of punishment. It’s a place of nothing. The good come here as well as the wicked, and all of us languish in this gloom for ever, with no hope of freedom, or joy, or sleep or rest or peace.”

(Pullman 2011, 320)

When Lyra and Will set the dead free, they help weaken the Authority’s control. Xaphania says so outright in the show, that after Lyra and Will destroyed “Metatron’s purgatory”, his control is weakened. She seems to mean this literally, that he is somehow physically weaker now, but it’s true in more senses than that. Asriel points out as much in his big war speech:

”Some of us will die today. The Authority wants you to be afraid of that. And why not? We are all of us here mortal. Whether our lifespans are three or 300 years, our time down here in the Earth is finite. So we cower. We cower under the tyranny of an authority who calls himself Creator… Who tells us that hell awaits those who disobey him. And that paradise exists only for those who obey. This is a lie. A lie that has prevented us from living our lives to the utmost. Today is our chance. It is our chance to tell him that our lives are beautiful and precious, and that we should be allowed to experience all they have to offer without the fear of retribution. Because if we don’t fight until the end, we will lose everything. So, yes, today, some of you will die. But thanks to my daughter… thanks to Lyra… We need no longer fear that fate. For from today, death is no longer an ending, but instead a journey back into life. So, from today, the Authority has no power over us. Today, life confronts death, and our light shines through the darkness. Today we will tell him that our children shall experience paradise, but they will know it down here, in the earth. Today, we are free!

(His Dark Materials 2022e, 10:42-12:42)
Shot from season 3 episode 7 of His Dark Materials (His Dark Materials 2022e)

So, Asriel fights his war. He and Mrs Coulter kill Metatron. Lyra and Will accidentally kill the Authority, and then they Fall. But as anyone who has read The Secret Commonwealth knows, this isn’t the end of oppression. Because as John Parry says, we can’t flee to another world and build a perfect society there:

“And this is the reason for all those things: your deamon can only live its full life in the world it was born in. Elsewhere it will eventually sicken and die. (…) Lord Asriel’s great enterprise will fail in the end for the same reason: we have to build the republic of heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.”

(Pullman 2011, 364)

So, having looked at the goals and some of the results of Asriel’s revolution, let’s look at revolutionary theory.

Marxist theory

A basic tenant of Marxist theory is that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (Marx & Engels 1848) This struggle is between the “haves” and “have-nots”, those controlling the means of production and those who do not. By means of production, Marx and Engels mean for instance factories, companies, land, etc. Those controlling the means of production in modern society are capitalists, while those selling their labour to the capitalists are the proletariat. In such a system, capitalists hold power over the proletariat. I won’t go further into specifics in Marxist economic theory here, but instead, I want to focus on how Marx theorised such unequal systems are upheld. In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx writes:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

(Marx 1859)

This is a complex way of saying that the modes of production, and relations of production, determine how we think and understand the world. If we live in a capitalist society, our political, scientific, and religious philosophies etc will be based on such a system. Marx further argues that the dominant “ideas” (political ideology, scientific thought, legal writings, religious doctrine, etc) of an era will support the dominant class:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that, thereby generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one ruling class one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. (…) For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interests as the common interests of all the members through its aim, to represent its interests as the common interests of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.

(Marx & Engels 1845)

That is to say, the ruling class makes use of ideas (philosophy etc) to uphold their rule. To make the status quo seem natural, the only reasonable way for things to be. One way of looking at this is through the concepts of “superstructure” and “base”. The base is the means of production and relations of production, the material reality, while the superstructure is the ideas on top of it. One way of illustrating this is:

Picture from Wikipedia.

Marx would argue that the base is dominant because the superstructure exists because of it. There is a need for ideology to justify the relations of production and its injustices.

One type of ideology that I think is worth looking closer at is religion. One of Marx’s most famous quotes is probably that religion is “the opium of the people,”  but that quote is seldom shared in context. So here is the context:

“The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”

(Marx 1844)

So, what Marx really says is that religion is often something people turn to in order to seek solace in a dark and harsh world. And this is then used by those in power in order to stay in power. If you can have people striving for happiness in the afterlife, you don’t have to provide for them materially in this life. So what Marx is really saying is that he wants to change the conditions where people need to turn to religion as their solace. What he is critical of is people using religion to not change material conditions. Another way of putting this comes from Swedish-American labour activist (and Marxist) and songwriter Joe Hill in his classic protest song “Long Haired Preachers”:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ‘bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die. (…)

Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out,
And they holler, they jump and they shout
”Give your money to Jesus,” they say,
”He will cure all diseases today.” (…)

If you fight hard for children and wife,
Try to get something good in this life,
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell,
When you die you will sure go to hell.

(Joe Hill 1911)

This is the core of the Marxist critique of religion, that it is used by those in power to uphold injustices. While I don’t have the space to go into that right here, it should still be noted that many have combined Marxism and religion, for instance in Liberation Theology. But in those cases, religion (specifically Christianity) is used as an idea/philosophy specifically to challenge the dominating ideas and structures.

Having described some Marxist theory, it is worth noting that what makes Marx (and Engels) dissimilar from many other intellectual thinkers of the time is that they were not just content to describe society, they also wanted to change it. This is of course clearest in Manifesto of the Communist Party (Marx & Engels 1848). Marx and Engels hoped that the proletariat could overthrow the capitalist class and create a more equal world, where the workers controlled the means of production and where society was governed by the principle of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” (Marx 1875) A state actually governed by those ideals has not (yet) existed.

Before moving on, I would like to touch on how Marxist thought has been developed both within academia and without, specifically relating to other power structures such as race and gender. While both Marx and Engels were critical of colonialism, slavery, and women’s place in society (all of this is brought up in Manifesto of the Communist Party), this wasn’t their focus. Although, it should be mentioned that Engels wrote Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State where he discusses the oppression of women (Engels 1884). Still, many Marxist feminists would later expand upon how the oppression of women is inextricable from class oppression and how both oppressions must be fought simultaneously (eg. Mitchell 1966). Similarly, others have pointed out how deeply intertwined oppressions based on patriarchy, heteronormativity, racialisation, and colonialism are with class oppression (eg. Bannerji 2020; Davis 2020). That is to say, even as Marxist theory is still used today and is the foundation for a lot of theoretical work, many would argue that it needs to be seen as just that, a foundation that other theoretical perspectives (feminism, post-colonialism, critical race theory etc) are added onto. Otherwise, the true inequality of society cannot be understood, and those inequalities cannot be addressed and changed.


Looking at Asriel’s revolution from a Marxist lens, some similarities immediately jump out. The main is the criticism of religion, and how it’s used to control the people. As stated both in the show and the books, the Authority and its institutions (like the Magisterium) uphold their power by threatening the people with hell and by promising them heaven. If people follow the rules set out, if they obey, and if they don’t question the power structures, they’ll get into heaven. If you try to fight for something better in life, you’re doomed to hell. In this way, power structures are upheld. As I explained above, Marx explains the power structures and injustices of our world in the same way. Those in power use “ideas” (such as philosophy, religion, science, etc) to justify the status quo and make it seem the only possible way for the world to work. Religion often plays a specific role, with certain doctrines arguing that you need to work hard and be obedient in life to then experience paradise after death.

Promotional picture for season 3.

Asriel challenges this view, arguing that from now on “our children shall experience paradise, but they will know it down here, in the earth.” People will no longer need to wait for the afterlife to experience happiness and pleasure, they will experience it in life. This approach allows people to fight for equality and justice in their society, in this life.

In general, Asriel wants a freer world. One where more ideas can exist than those of the ruling class. As mentioned above, he’s keenly aware of how ideas, philosophy, religion, etc are used to oppress people. But while he seems to want a more equal world, one based on “care and need” instead of privilege and divine right and one without bishops and kings, it’s still unclear what this would mean exactly. We can assume some more equality in a republic as opposed to a kingdom, and throughout the series, we have seen that less religious dogma seems to be good for women’s equality for instance (this is also brought up in the show, where teenage girls from Ugunwe’s world mention that they can have an actual life in resistance). But still, Asriel often seems to be focused on the bigger picture, and the superstructure rather than the base. While this makes sense in the story, you have to defeat Metatron if you want the chance to do anything else, it also leads to the flaws in his revolution. In the books, Ugunwe says that they are not colonisers, and that’s why they’ve set up camp in an empty world. But Asriel is still very willing to sacrifice people to win his war, whether they be innocent kitchen boys, witches, or the homeland of the pansarbjørne. As I’ve argued elsewhere, in these series (books and show) we see a tendency from both Asriel and the Magisterium to be more willing to sacrifice people who are from lower classes or ethnic minorities. This is part of the colonialism of that world. On one level, this shows how Asriel definitely isn’t a Marxist (they tend to care about the lower class and working class). But as many Black, Anti-Colonial, and Feminist Marxists have pointed out, traditional Marxism also tends to disregard many issues related to racism, colonialism, and sexism.

But in the end, even if Asriel did win against Metatron, the war wasn’t fully won. Because as John Parry tells us, we have to build the republic of heaven where we are. Which means paying attention to the base, not just the superstructure. And it means fighting the fight in every world, to achieve equality and justice everywhere. The fact that Asriel didn’t (or if we’re being a bit generous to him, didn’t have time to), means that even after attacking and dethroning God, the Magisterium remains. The consequences of that become evident in The Secret Commonwealth. It also becomes evident that defeating God doesn’t necessarily get rid of inequality based on for instance class. So, I guess the message, to paraphrase Marx, should be:

Workers in every world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!


Bannerji, Himani. 2020. “Himani Bannerji.” In Revolutionary Feminisms, edited by Brenna Bhandar & Rafeef Ziadah, 95-118. London: Verso.

Davis, Angela Y. “Angela Y. Davis.” In Revolutionary Feminisms, edited by Brenna Bhandar & Rafeef Ziadah, 203-216. London: Verso.

Engels, Friedrich. 1884. Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. . [I have used the version published in Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume Three, published by Progress Publishers 1970]

Hill, Joe. 1911. “Long Haired Preachers”. Retrieved from:

His Dark Materials. 2020. “Æsahættr.” HBO. December 22, 2020.

His Dark Materials. 2022a. “The Enchanted Sleeper.” HBO. December 5, 2022.

His Dark Materials. 2022b. “The Break.” HBO. December 5, 2022.

His Dark Materials. 2022c. “The Intention Craft.” HBO. December 12, 2022.

His Dark Materials. 2022d. “The Abyss.” HBO. December 19, 2022.

His Dark Materials. 2022e. “The Clouded Mountain.” HBO. December 26, 2022.

Marx, Karl. 1844. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.[I have used the version published in Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), published by Cambridge University Press in 1970]

Marx, Karl & Fredrich Engels. 1845/2008. “The German Ideology.” In Classical Sociological Theory, edited by Craig Calhoun, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff & Indermohan Virk, 82-85. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Marx, Karl & Fredrich Engels. 1848/2008. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” In Classical Sociological Theory, edited by Craig Calhoun, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff & Indermohan Virk, 96-111. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Marx, Karl. 1859. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy [I have used the version published by Progress Publishers 1977]

Marx, Karl. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Programme. [I have used the version published in Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume Three, published by Progress Publishers 1970]

Mitchell, Juliet. 1966/2012. ”Kvinnorna: den längsta revolutionen.” [Swedish translation of “Women: The Longest Revolution”] in Kvinnopolitiska nyckeltexter, edited by Johanna Essevald & Lisbeth Larsson, 184-193. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Pullman, Philip. 2011. The Amber Spyglass. London: Scholastic Childrens’ books.

Pullman, Philip. 2019. The Secret Commonwealth. London: Penguin Books.

“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.

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

Marisa Coulter: power, femininity, and shame

Content warning: sexism, violence against children

Spoiler warning: spoilers for all His Dark Materials books.

In preparation for the final(?) season of His Dark Materials, I wanted to take a moment to reflect upon one of the main characters of the show, Marisa Coulter. I will do so from a book perspective, but much of her book journey is of course relevant to the show as well. In either format, Marisa Coulter is someone to be reckoned with. From the moment we first meet her, we realise that this is someone extraordinary that we are dealing with.

A lady in a yellow-red fox-fur coat, a beautiful young lady whose dark hair falls shining delicately under the shadow of her fur-lined hood, is standing in the doorway of the Oratory, half a dozen steps above him. It might be that a service is finishing, for light comes from the doorway behind her, an organ is playing inside, and the lady is holding a jewelled breviary. (…) The young lady’s daemon is moving out from behind the fox-fur coat. He is in the form of a monkey, but no ordinary monkey: his fur is long and silky and of the most deep and lustrous gold.

(Pullman 2011a, 42)

Who is this beautiful lady, surrounded by luxuriousness and holy light we might ask? Well, we soon find out that she is a child trafficker who is conducting unethical experiments on marginalised children, partly in order to gain power. I’ve previously analysed these events from a few different points of view, so here I wanted to approach Marisa and her actions a bit differently. Specifically, I want to analyse how Marisa’s relationship to gender, class, shame, and power impacts the way she approaches the world.

Promotional shot from the His Dark Materials tv-show, retrieved from this article.

We don’t know too much about Marisa’s background, except that she wasn’t from the same social standing as either Asriel (or presumably her husband Mr Coulter). This is made clear in Northern Lights when John Faa explains to Lyra how Asriel and Marisa met:

When he was a young man, Lord Asriel went exploring all over the North, and came back with a great fortune. And he was a high-spirited man, quick to passion, a passionate man. And your mother, she was passionate too. Not so well-born as him, but a clever woman. A scholar, even, and those who saw her said she was very beautiful. She and your father, they fell in love as soon’s they met.

(Pullman 2011a, 122)

Here we learn a few crucial facts about Marisa. First, that she wasn’t exactly “well-born”, and second that she was considered both clever and beautiful. She was also a scholar, something the reader already knew, but it’s interesting that it’s pointed out in this passage when describing her social standing. Asriel has a lordship and “a great fortune”, and Marisa has her beauty and some academic acclaim. We don’t know as much about Mr Coulter, but it is stated that he was a politician and someone who was raising in power. It makes sense then that Marisa might marry him to gain a better social standing herself. As Asriel says later in Northern Lights:

You see, your mother’s always been ambitious for power. At first she tried to get it in the normal way, through marriage, but that didn’t work, as I think you’ve heard. So she had to turn to the Church. Naturally she couldn’t take the route a man could have taken- priesthood and so on- it had to be unorthodox; she had to set up her own order, her own channels of influence, and work through that.

(Pullman 2011a, 372)

So, she tried to gain power by marrying up, so to say, but that didn’t work. So to start, I’d like to analyse that strategy of hers and what made it fail. To do so, I’ll have to go into some theory…

I think one way of understanding Marisa’s actions is by looking at them through the theoretical perspective of two sociologists: Beverley Skeggs and Pierre Bourdieu. Skeggs has done a lot of writing about working-class women, and while I don’t think Marisa grew up lower-class (just not upper-class), I still think a lot of this applies. When writing about class, Skeggs makes use of the work by Pierre Bourdieu and how he conceptualises class. As he argues, someone’s position in society isn’t just caused by their economic capital, but also social capital, cultural capital, and symbolic capital (1987). One’s position in what he calls social space is furthermore dependent on not only the volume of one’s capital, but also the composition of said capital, and one’s trajectory. This essentially means that it matters how much capital you have, how much of each type of capital in comparison to each other you have, and where you started in the social space and where you have moved. Economic capital refers to, as one might guess, the amount of money one has. Social capital on the other hand refers to what social connections one has, which networks one has access to etc.  But cultural capital is perhaps the most interesting one and one that becomes very relevant for this analysis. Cultural capital refers to for instance education, knowledge of culture (books, movies, music, etc.), and general taste (in clothes, décor, etc). As Bourdieu argues, different type of cultural capital is valid in different social spaces. If we apply this to His Dark Materials, we might consider how at Jordan, tokay is served after dinner, while with the Gyptians one can expect jenniver. You can make similar comparisons about what is seen as good taste in décor, for example when Lyra arrives at Marisa’s apartment:

She had seen a great deal of beauty in her short life, but it was Jordan Collage beauty- grand and stony and masculine. In Jordan Collage, much was magnificent, but nothing was pretty. In Mrs Coulter’s flat, everything was pretty. It was full of light, for the wide windows faced south, and the walls were covered in delicate gold-and-white stripped wallpaper. Charming pictures in gilt frames, an antique looking-glass, fanciful sconces bearing anbaric lamps with frilled shades; and frills on the cushions too, and flowery valances over the curtain-rail, and a soft green leaf-pattern carpet underfoot; and every surface was covered, it seemed to Lyra’s innocent eye, with pretty little china boxes and shepherdess and harlequins of porcelain.

(Pullman 2011a, 76)

Both Jordan and Marisa’s apartment are described to have this sort of luxury beauty, albeit in different ways. It’s interesting to consider how this contrasts with what is valued in the Gyptian community, where the Costa family’s boat is described as “brightly painted” (Pullman 2011a, 37), and the family is “noted for the grandeur and sumptuousness of their boat (ibid, 54). We hardly get a view that the Gyptians’ boats are luxuriously decorated in the same sense that Jordan is, the painting is most likely not as expensive as whatever decorations they have in Jordan, yet the Costas’ boat is still considered one of grandeur in this community, based on what they value. It thus contributes to them having a higher standing in that community. Yet, it would not be recognised as a legitimate form of cultural capital in other spaces. This can be explained by another Bourdieu concept, symbolic capital. Symbolic capital refers to the form the other capitals take when they are deemed legitimate. An example of this would be how a university degree (especially from a “fancy” university) makes one’s cultural capital (in this sense education) legitimate, and thus it functions as symbolic capital. As Bourdieu notes, for capital to matter, for it to wield any power, people need to believe that it does.

The power of words and commands, the power of words to give orders and bring order, lies in belief in the legitimacy of the words and of the person who utters them.

(Bourdieu 1979, 83)

Symbolic capital is therefore crucial to make the other types of capital matter.

Thus far, I’ve mainly talked about class and capital in isolation, not considering other social structures, but as many (eg. Skeggs 2005) have noted, social structures such as gender and race most definitely impact class and capital. As mentioned above, Beverley Skeggs is one scholar whose work regarding this I think is especially interesting. When discussing class and gender, Skeggs have noted how the working class has often been seen as dirty, dangerous, pathological, and lacking respect (2002). As she notes, one strategy that the working class (especially working-class women) have employed to counter this perception is striving for respectability. Achieving respectability then becomes a form of cultural capital, which can compensate for one’s lack of other capital (eg. economic, social, and symbolic). To achieve respectability, one needs to utilise femininity correctly. Femininity thus becomes a tool to achieve more capital and a higher standing in the social room. This can include using femininity when pursuing heterosexual relationships and gaining status through these. But while performing femininity correctly might lead to one gaining more capital, there is also the risk that one will perform it incorrectly, for instance by dressing or behaving in a way that is seen as trashy/promiscuous/slutty will further cement one’s place in the social room. And, as Skeggs note, for someone who does manage to make it out of the classed space they grew up in, it often feels like one is always waiting to mess up. For the other shoe to drop. One can often feel afraid of saying the wrong thing, behaving in the wrong way, dressing in the wrong way etc, because one wasn’t brought up with the social codes that come for granted for everyone else.

While not all of this applies to Marisa, I do think that thinking about her actions through the lens of capital, respectability, and femininity sheds some light on what she was trying to do early in her life, and why it failed. It seems as if she attempted to use her femininity as capital to better her station, particularly through her marriage which became a way to gain more cultural, economic, and social capital. Yet this all obviously got (at least partly) ruined when she had an affair with Asriel and got pregnant with Lyra. In the public perception, she wasn’t a respectable woman anymore, having deviated from the norms surrounding sexuality. No longer a respectable and proper wife, she lost a lot of cultural and symbolic capital. As Marisa puts it herself, having this child outside of marriage has been shameful:

“My child, my own child, conceived in sin and born in shame, but my child nonetheless, and you keep from me what I have every right to know!”

(Pullman 2011b, 37)

It is interesting how Marisa uses the word shame here, in a context where the Magisterium is discussing Lyra and the prophecy around her. As the reader learns later, Lyra is destined to repeat the role of Eve, committing “original sin” again. I have in a previous essay discussed both Lyra and Marissa in relation to Eve, so here I would just like to note how according to the bible (in our world and Lyra’s world) humans started to feel shame over their bodies due to Eve’s actions. Again, shame is connected to women’s sexuality.

Promotional shot for the His Dark Materials tv-show, retrieved from this article.

This connection between femininity, sexuality, and shame is also something Professor Ulrika Dahl has written about (2014). Dahl describes womanhood as more or less a connotation to the affect of shame. This can mean being shamed, but also shaming others, for instance shaming one’s family by “inappropriate” actions. According to Dahl, the way femininity is so closely bound up in shame leads to the two concepts often reinforcing each other.

Maybe shame is the connective tissue that embodies femininities and their relations, that which forever associates femininity to that which is called womanhood and defines the subordination of that which we call the second sex.

(Dahl 2014, 325) My translation from Swedish.

Furthermore, Dahl also argues that this is all tied to social class. Shame prevents us from taking certain paths in life because it reminds us of where we come from, and how we are perceived. Like Dahl says:

Shame moves between us, it spreads, sometimes like wildfire between downcast eyes in a subway cart when someone speaks too loudly, dresses inappropriately, or is harassed. Shame sticks between bodies and things, it’s a form of inherited connective tissue which links you to your class background, your barn, your family’s reputation, your lack of family, it precedes you when you arrive at school or your workplace, in the same way your people’s reputation might precede you when you arrive to a (new) nation. Shame is a repeated movement away, down, and in, an instinctive reaction, shame slides over bodies like sticky slime, and it’s not just the fault of slimy men; it can make us reject the one we love the most or at least the one who wants to love us, shame leaks out of bodies in the form of sweat and tears. Shame holds us in its grip, our private lives and our feelings, our relationships and our way of moving through life and it’s not always possible to deconstruct or intellectually dismiss how shame operates in individuals and collectives. Shame orients us in certain directions and not others. Shame stops us from speaking, questioning, it’s used to silence, not in the least women and feminists (…) Shame is to be exposed and the exposure of your shame is even more shameful. Look down. Know your place. Do not make claims and do not show interest.

(Dahl 2014, 326) My translation from Swedish.

I think this description of shame and how it affects people, especially feminine folk, provides a very clear explanation of Marisa’s actions. The exposure of her “shame”, in having a child out of wedlock, affected her so deeply because the shame was so associated with her position as a woman. And being a woman is already inherently shameful, especially in her world. It’s already associated with sin, the sin of Eve. Marisa’s actions made this association even clearer. She probably, therefore, felt like she had to separate herself as much as possible from the shame, move away from and reject the child she loved out of shame. As Dahl says, shame orients us in this world and Marisa’s shame strongly affected the future steps she would take to regain power.

Another aspect of Marisa’s decision to reject motherhood as she strove to gain more power is of course the difficulty of combining motherhood and a career, even today. And in Marisa’s world, it’s probably even more difficult. As many second-wave feminists pointed out as early as the mid-20th century, an obstacle to true equality for women was that even when women were given access to the labour market, they were expected to put their role as mothers first (eg. Moberg 1961). To handle this, and the shame her extramarital affair had brought, Marisa seems to have tried to separate herself as much as possible from motherhood and sexuality. While still being feminine in her appearance etc and making use of that cultural capital, she devotes her whole career to fighting against sexuality and sin. In her work in investigating Dust and severing children she essentially rejects all that she risks being associated with due to her previous “shameful” behaviour. She also has access to a lot of her previous cultural, economic, and social capital as we can see during for instance the cocktail party in Northern Lights. She’s still (somewhat) respected as a woman of high society, with the social connections to prove it. And she doesn’t hesitate to show off her status through her clothing and decorations in her apartment. Yet, it seems clear that even though she has amassed some power through her forms of capital and her position and the Magisterium, part of why she has been able to do that is that she’s seen as a disavowable asset by the Magisterium. As a woman, and a woman with her past, she can be used by the Magisterium to do unsavoury tasks, but she can also be cut off if necessary.

In conclusion, it becomes clear that Marisa has several different strategies to gain different forms of capital and power. She has tried to use social capital and cultural capital to gain economic capital and symbolic capital, to rise above the class position she was born into. As part of that, she tried to use her femininity to be seen as respectable and gain more cultural capital. But that ability was damaged when she had an extramarital affair and a child out of wedlock. She wasn’t seen as respectable anymore. Her actions brought shame upon her. And this shame was especially connected to her femininity and sexuality. As such, this shame oriented her going forward, for instance rejecting motherhood and building a career in policing sin. Throughout this, it is clear that Marisa’s power is very much tied up with class, shame, and femininity. Both her goals, her means, her limitations, and the consequences of her actions are inextricable from the social structures around her. That’s part of what makes her a fascinating character. She does absolutely terrible things, but she’s also such a clear example of what power and social structures can do to someone. The shame of the patriarchy has burned her, but instead of burning it down in return she for the most part works within it to gain power. Until she doesn’t. Until she becomes part of conservative men’s worst nightmare.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. “Symbolic Power.” Critique of Anthropology 4(77): 77-85.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1987. “What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of groups.” Berkley Journal of Sociology, 32: 1-17.

Dahl, Ulrika. 2014. Skamgrepp. Femme-inistiska essäer. [”Dirty trick. Femme-inist essays.”]Stockholm: Leopard.

Moberg, Eva. 1961 [2012] ”Kvinnans villkorliga frigivning.” [”The woman’s conditional liberation.”] In Kvinnopolitiska nyckeltexter [”Key texts in women’s politics”],eds. Johanna Essevald & Lisbeth Larsson, 164-173. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Skeggs, Beverley. 2002. Formations of Class & Gender- Becoming Respectable. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Skeggs, Beverley. 2005. ”The Re-Branding of Class: Propertising Culture.” In Rethinking Class: Culture, Identities & Lifestyle, eds. Fiona Devine, John Mike Scott & Rosemary Crompton, 46-68. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pullman, Philip. 2011a. Northern Lights. London: Scholastic UK Ltd.

Pullman, Philip. 2011b. The Subtle Knife. London: Scholastic UK Ltd.

The queer potential of a blank slate- Stories of transition at The Wall, The Citadel, and The House of Black and White

Content warnings: transphobia, sexism, homophobia, racism, sexual violence, murder, death generally

In the world of ASOIAF, there are several orders that offer their members a chance to start their lives over, to leave behind family names and past deeds. Perhaps the most prominent of these is The Night’s Watch, where, as The Old Bear puts it:

Your crimes will be washed away, your debts forgiven. So too you must wash away your former loyalties, put aside your grudges, forget old wrongs and old loves alike. Here you begin anew. (AGOT, Jon VI)


But there are other places where one can get a clean slate, such as the Citadel when becoming a maester. And, of course, one can quite literally shed one’s old identity at The House of Black and White. One might therefore ask if characters in the story could use these opportunities of shedding their identities to also make gender-related transitions. I have previously written about how the character Alleras might not just be presenting as male at the Citadel to gain entry, but also because they feel like this more closely reflect their gender identity. In this essay, I want to explore that further, as well as the potential other institutions like the Night’s Watch and the House of Black and White have for transitions. I will do this specifically through characters who have a somewhat liminal gender position: Alleras, Brave Danny Flint, and Arya Stark. Essentially, this essay asks: how can certain institutions offer a way to transition for gender nonconforming people in the world of ASOIAF, and which limitations exist for such transitions?

Alleras the Sphinx

Artwork of Alleras the Sphinx. They are standing before a door which is guarded by two sphinx statues, one masculine one and one feminine one. 
Alleras has brown skin and dark curly hair. They're holding a book and has a bow slung over their back.
Their appearance straddles the line of androgynous and masculine.
Alleras the Sphinx. Artwork by Sanrixian, commissioned by me.

In the prologue of A Feast for Crows, the reader is introduced to the mysterious Alleras (“The Sphinx”), a novice at the Citadel in Oldtown. Alleras is described as a slight and comely youth, doted on by the serving girls at the inn The Quill and Tankard. The prologue tells us that he “was always smiling, as if he knew some secret jape. It gave him a wicked look that went well with his pointed chin, widow’s peak, and dense mat of close-cropped jet-black curls.” This description, among other things, has led readers to think that Alleras the child of Oberyn Martell, named Sarella Sand at birth (see more of the evidence laid out here). As mentioned above, I have previously argued that Alleras might not just be presenting as male for convenience, but also for more queer/trans reasons. One reason I think it’s important to recognise this possibility is that, as I have written about previously, trans people are often written out of history. As scholars Alicia Spencer-Hall and Blake Gutt note:

Marginalised identities are often written out of the historical record by those with the privilege of formulating “historical truth”. The Middle Ages is frequently viewed as a time “where men were men, women were women, everyone was the same race and practised the same faith, and no one was corrupted by technology, sexuality or democracy”. This is not how any medievalist worth their salt would put it.

Disingenuous interrogation of the presence of trans people in history is rarely about the factual specifics of the past alone. If talking about trans lives is “anachronistic”, then “trans-ness [is] not an inextricable part of humanity or human diversity”. The transphobe’s dream is an imaginary medieval past in which everyone knows their (gendered) place. Similar themes emerge in the usage of the Middle Ages by the alt-right and beyond: those who fantasize a past in which everyone who mattered was straight, cisgender, white, and Christian. White supremacists and fascists weaponize the Middle Ages to justify their hatred.

(Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 19)

So, there is value in recognising the possibility of trans people even in Medievalesque stories. Furthermore, there are plenty of examples from our world of people who we might today read as trans (even if that language wasn’t used then). One such example, that I think is interesting to compare to Alleras, is Saint Marinos. Saint Marinos was born around the year 300 in what is today Syria, and his story is shared in several medieval chronicles (Bychowski 2018; Bychowski 2021). He was assigned female at birth, yet he lived for a long time as a monk and passed as a man during this time. After Marinos’ mum died his dad joined a monk order and Marinos did the same. He was considered an exceptional monk until a village girl falsely claimed that he had impregnated her. At this point, he could have told people about how he physically could have not impregnated anyone, but he apparently decided not to. He was allowed to stay at the monastery and raise the child there but was obviously disgraced. When he eventually died and his body was prepared for the funeral, the other monks realised he had a body that would usually be termed female. They then also realised that they had wronged him, as he could not have impregnated someone, and prayed for forgiveness.

While Saint Marinos is quite different from Alleras, there are some parallels. Alleras isn’t a monk, but the Citadel is somewhat similar to a monastery in some ways. In medieval times, monks were scholars in a sense, being learned in healing and recording history for instance. And similar to the maesters, they were supposed to be celibate and leave their families behind. Another similarity between Marinos’ story and Alleras’ story is that they both followed in the footsteps of their fathers in a sense, Marinos’ father who joined this monk order and Alleras’ father Oberyn who had studied at the Citadel for a while. Based on the gender they were assigned at birth, they would not have been welcome at these institutions, and wouldn’t be able to follow their fathers, but they did anyway. Some might see that as them only wanting access to spaces denied to them due to their gender, and while that certainly might be the case, I think it’s important to consider the possibility of that not being the only reason. When I’ve written about historical trans people previously, I’ve quoted trans writer Leslie Feinberg and I wanted to do so again. In hir book Transgender warriors, Feinberg talks about historical trans people and how many, especially those assigned female at birth, are often assumed to just pass as another gender for practical reasons. Zie relates this to hir own experiences, writing:

”No wonder you’ve passed as a man! This is such an anti-woman society,” a lesbian friend told me. To her, females passing as males are simply trying to escape women’s oppression – period. She believes that once true equality is achieved in society, humankind will be genderless. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t predict human behavior in a distant future. But I know what she’s thinking – if we can build a more just society, people like me will cease to exist. She assumes that I am simply a product of oppression. Gee, thanks so much.

(Feinberg 1996, 83)

I think this perspective is important to keep in mind when discussing both historical people like Saint Marinos and fictional characters like Alleras. Someone passing as a man might do it for more reason than pure practicality, and to reduce gender nonconformity to just a result of oppression is insulting.

Another aspect I wanted to discuss is how coming to the Citadel might be a way for someone to not only transition but also get away from heteronormative expectations put upon them. To do that, I would like to start by discussing another Medieval Saint, namely Saint Esmarde, whose story is recounted in a 13th-century verse hagiography (Wright 2021). Esmarade was assigned female at birth but left secular life for a monastery where they would go on to present as a eunuch. The story of Esmarde describes how they did not wish to marry the partner chosen by their father, instead wanting to remain a virgin and join a religious order. Being afraid of their father being able to find them, they decided to enter a monastery while presenting as a eunuch. As Wright argues, this can be seen as a way for them to articulate a genderqueer identity with the language available to them, since eunuchs were often seen as a sort of in-between between male and female. This is in fact similar to what trans people have done much later in history too. Sølve Holm for instance describes Danish trans people at the beginning of the 20th century describing themselves as “hermaphrodites” because that was language that would be understood by their surroundings (2020). But, returning to Esmarade, their father would later come to the monastery to seek advice and met Esmarade without recognising them. This arrangement went on for years, and right before their death, Esmarade told their father the truth and asked that he alone prepare their body for the funeral so that no one else could see their body. This seems to be so that no one else could “discover” what their body looked like and what their assigned gender would have been. This request isn’t followed, however, and a fellow monk prepared their body, leading them to be seen and venerated as female after death by their fellow monks.

Again, we have someone seeking refuge at a monastery and articulating a new gendered identity while doing so. But it’s worth noting that Esmarade in this story was specifically fleeing heteronormative pressure, not wanting to marry the man their father had chosen for them. In ASOIAF, joining an institution like The Citadel provides a similar escape. I also want to make a note here of how Wright argues that Esmarade’s use of “eunuch” to describe themselves can be seen as an attempt to articulate a genderqueer identity. As I mentioned previously, it is often assumed that trans people didn’t exist historically, but in actuality, historical people just didn’t have the same language available to them as we do today.

As I mentioned, there are of course differences between Alleras’ story and those of Saint Marinos and Saint Esmarade, but I think it is interesting that Alleras in some way parallel these stories of historical people who were assigned female at birth but who joined monk orders. There exist even more such stories than the ones I described here, indicating that this was a possible path for some gender-nonconforming people in The Middle Ages. One could create a new identity by joining such a celibate order and pass as a man. Maybe that indicates that such a path would be possible in ASOIAF too.

But another point I think is important to note here is that both Saint Marinos and Saint Esmarade were seen as female after their deaths when their bodies were examined. Even though they hadn’t lived as women for years, they were seen as such because of their bodies. That shows that even while someone might transition and live for years as the gender that they consider themselves to be, people might still think their assigned gender is their “true gender.” And there are risks associated with such discoveries, as will become clear with the character I want to discuss next.

Brave Danny Flint

Artwork of Brave Danny Flint. The artwork is in black and white. It shows Danny sitting on a bed, binding their chest. They're wearing black pants and a black cloak is hanging over a chair.
Their appearance straddles the line of androgynous and masculine.
Brave Danny Flint. Artwork by DREADLady Forlorn, commissioned by me.

We don’t get many mentions of Brave Danny Flint in the ASOIAF books, but what we get is grim. In ASOS, Bran IV we hear that the Nightfort is “where brave young Danny Flint had been raped and murdered” and in ADWD The Prince of Winterfell Wyman Manderly requests “Or sing to us of brave young Danny Flint and make us weep.” We get another mention in ADWD when Jon and Tormund discuss which Nights’ Watch castle different Free Folk should be assigned to. When discussing some of the Free Folk women, Jon says this:

“Did Mance ever sing of Brave Danny Flint?”

”Not as I recall. Who was he?”

”A girl who dressed up like a boy to take the black. Her song is sad and pretty. What happened to her wasn’t.” In some versions of the song, her ghost still walked the Nightfort. ”I’ll send the girls to Long Barrow.” The only men there were Iron Emmett and Dolorous Edd, both of whom he trusted. That was not something he could say of all his brothers.

The wildling understood. ”Nasty birds, you crows.” He spat.


So, what we know of Danny Flint is that they were someone who was assigned female at birth but presented themselves as a man and joined the Nights’ Watch. This is similar to Alleras and the medieval saints discussed above who also joined all-male orders that are celibate. But with Danny we see the risks of these types of actions.  Many of the medieval saints mentioned above were interpreted as female after death, but with Danny we have a person where their supposed true sex directly leads to their death.

Before discussing Danny’s violent end further, I would like to briefly look at some historical parallels for them. There are many historical examples of people who were assigned female at birth dressing in masculine clothing to join military orders or armies, from the English civil war (Stoyle 2018) to the American civil war (Hendrix 2017). Fellow ASOIAF analyst Aemy Blackfyre has also compared Danny Flint to the legend of Hua Mulan. There are also quite a few examples of people assigned female at birth who left for the American West in the 19th century and went on to pass as men, some living as cowboys (Boag 2005). Here we have people leaving their families behind to hold traditionally male positions, often in all-male spaces. While it is of course possible that they did that because they wanted to escape female oppression, it should be noted that many of these people lived as men for years. And if they did that for purely practical reasons, to gain freedom, that was a risky strategy. I previously quoted Leslie Feinberg who discussed that historical people assigned female at birth might not just choose to pass just to escape oppression. Feinberg goes on to talk about how just how difficult it can be to pass as a man:

But could she pass as male on board ship, sleeping with and sharing common facilities with her fellow sailors for decades and not be discovered? Of course, hundreds of thousands of women have dreamed of escaping the economic and social inequities of their lives, but how many could live as a man for a decade or a lifetime? While a woman could throw on men’s clothing and pass as a man for safety on dark roadways, could she pass as a man at an inn where men slept together in the same beds? Could she maintain her identity in daylight? Pass the scrutiny of co-workers? Would she really feel safer and more free?

(Feinberg 1996, 85)

Feinberg’s point here is partly that it’s difficult to pass as a man, and partly that it’s dangerous to try it. It requires dedication. With Brave Danny Flint we see just how dangerous it can be to be discovered.

In my view, it is clear that what happens to Danny Flint isn’t just your run-of-the-mill sexual violence that we often see in ASOIAF. They were targeted specifically because of their gender nonconformity. As my friend Sam of the Rainbow Guard put it on our panel Gays of Thrones at Ice and Fire Con 2022, it seems likely that GRRM was inspired by the highly publicised fate of Brandon Teena. For those not aware of Brandon Teena, he was a trans man who was raped and later murdered in Falls City, Nebraska, in 1993 (Halberstam 2006, 22). Or rather, Brandon was one of three murder victims (the other being his friend Lisa Lambert and her friend Philip DeVine, a disabled African American man). After the fact, the main focus has been on Brandon, but it is worth noting that one of the murderers had ties to white supremacist groups, so it seems likely that this influenced the murder of the other victims. I will, however, mainly focus on Brandon for the purposes of this essay. Brandon’s life and death were also the inspiration for the movie Boys don’t cry (1999). Given that these events happened during the nineties, it is therefore quite possible that GRRM would be aware of this when he was coming up with the fate of Danny Flint.

Brandon Teena was not originally from Falls City but moved there because he had friends there. It seems like his version of masculinity was quite different from the mainly white working-class town he moved to, and not just because he was assigned female at birth. While living in Falls City, Brandon had dated several women, who in a documentary after his death described him as a dream guy, a man who knew what women wanted (Halberstam 2005, 28). Halberstam notes that:

We might conclude that Brandon lived up to and even played into the romantic ideals that his girlfriends cultivated about masculinity. Brandon’s self-presentation must be read, I believe, as a damaging critique of the white working-class masculinities around him; at the same time, however, his performance of courtly masculinity is a shrewd deployment of the middle-class and so-called respectable masculinities that represent an American romantic ideal of manhood.

(Halberstam 2005, 28)

So, in a way, Brandon was “better” at being a man than the other men in his surroundings. At least according to the women in Falls City. But being assigned female at birth, he was still seen as a fraud. This, in the end, contributed to his rape and murder. So, what I think is important to consider with Brandon Teena, and how his fate relates to characters like Danny Flint, is the motives behind the attack. It’s not just “ordinary” sexual violence, it’s sexual violence (and murder) because of gender nonconformity. As Halberstam writes regarding Brandon Teena:

(…) for the men, the body must be the final arbiter of manhood, because, in a sense, this is the only competition within which they can beat the version of masculinity that Brandon champions. When Brandon literally did not measure up to the physical test of manhood, his two male “friends” took him out to a remote spot, where they then raped and sodomized him. The punishment, as far as they were concerned, fit the crime inasmuch as Brandon must be properly returned to the body he denied.

(Halberstam 2005, 66)

Essentially, Brandon was punished for his gender nonconformity and masculine identity by sexual violence and then lethal violence. His embodiment forcibly straightened out, any trans and queer tendencies crushed by male sexual violence. As Halberstam puts it “gender nonconformity must be corrected through the enforcement of heterosexuality.” (ibid)

It also bears mentioning that in the aftermath of Brandon’s death, his suffering and story were claimed by some different groups. Some understood his fate as that of a masculine and/or queer woman and read the attack as misogyny and homophobia. Today, most people would probably agree that Brandon was trans and that this attack was fuelled by transphobia. But that shows how in death, someone’s identity is easily misunderstood and misconstrued for future histories. We see a similar tendency in the stories of medieval saints I shared earlier, they too were understood as female in death. And in ASOIAF we hear of the story of Brave Danny Flint, “A girl who dressed up like a boy to take the black” (AWDW, Jon XII). My point here is that we shouldn’t assume that Danny was a girl. It is very possible that they identified as another gender than they were assigned at birth. And regardless, it is clear to me that the violence done toward them is fuelled by transphobia.

The story of Danny Flint shows how perilous it can be to be trans/gender nonconforming. So, while I have been discussing how places like The Citadel and The Night’s Watch can offer a blank slate for those who want to escape their previous lives, doing so isn’t without risk. Such transitions can result in pain or even death. And speaking of death…

Arya of House Stark

Artwork of Arya Stark in acolyte robes. Behind her are two faces, one feminine one looking like her mum, and one masculine one looking like her dad. She's holding a third face, looking like her sister's face.
Arya at the House of Black and White. Artwork by Sasha, commissioned by me.

Arya Stark is a character who defies gender expectations in so, so many ways. I have previously written an essay about how she troubles gender norms, and how her story can resonate with many trans and gender nonconforming people. I want to be clear that I don’t necessarily think she’s trans, but I know people who read her as such, and I do think her story is still relevant to consider in relation to trans topics. For instance, her passing as a boy while out on the road exposes her to a lot of the same risks as trans people experience. But here I want to focus on a slightly different aspect of her story, her connection to death and the House of Black and White.

Even before Arya ends up at the House of Black and White, she is connected with death in many ways. She has her revenge/kill list, she hangs out with the resurrected Beric, and later with Sandor and his horse Stranger. Arya’s connection to death is interesting to consider since the Stranger of the Faith of the Seven is quite… queer. The Stranger is someone you don’t really worship in the Faith, but he constitutes a sort of necessary shadow to life. He’s described as both male/female and half-human/animal, for instance:

They were all afire now, Maid and Mother, Warrior and Smith, the Crone with her pearl eyes and the Father with his gilded beard; even the Stranger, carved to look more animal than human.

(ACOK, Davos I)

And the seventh face… the Stranger was neither male nor female, yet both, ever the outcast, the wanderer from far places, less and more than human, unknown and unknowable. Here the face was a black oval, a shadow with stars for eyes. It made Catelyn uneasy. She would get scant comfort there.

(ACOK, Catelyn IV)

So, the Stranger is genderless (or genderfull?) and there is also something not quite human about him. Given all that and that he’s also the god of death, it makes sense that he’s not the most worshipped god. But even if people don’t tend to pray to the Stranger, some do.

Tyrion lingered after his cousin had slipped away. At the Warrior’s altar, he used one candle to light another. Watch over my brother, you bloody bastard, he’s one of yours. He lit a second candle to the Stranger, to himself.

(ACOK, Tyrion X)

Tyrion who often sees himself as an outsider and is seen as monstrous, not quite human, clearly relates to the Stranger. As I’ve discussed previously, trans people are also often seen as monstrous and not quite human. To me, the reason the Stranger relates both to someone as Tyrion and Arya, outsiders in their own ways, is that he represents the abject. As feminist scholar Julia Kristeva might put it, the abject is that which is uncomfortably close to us (the subject) but which is impossible to assimilate into ourselves (Kristeva 1984). The abject represents that which we reject for being unbearable and unthinkable, but which still resides inside ourselves. For the subject to come into being, it needs to reject the abject which we see in ourselves but also that which we see in others. For us to make sense as people, not just to ourselves but also to others, we must reject that which is abject, monstrous, weird, queer. That is why trans people are often pushed into the zone of the abject by cisnormative society (Stryker 1994).

So, Arya is associated with this genderless and abject god. And then she joins the House of Black and White, where someone can quite literally shed their identity and transform their body. As my friend Elena pointed out on our panel Gays of Thrones at Ice and Fire Con 2022, the House of Black and White really have some interesting potential for people who might want to change their body. Of course, the downside is that you have to join a death cult and completely abandon your previous life and identity. But to some people, that might be preferable to living in accordance with the expectations of your assigned gender, that you don’t identify with. It is interesting that this death cult offers an opportunity to completely change your body. You can literally change your face, and assumedly this also means you can change how your gender is perceived by others. Someone assigned female at birth could get a masculine face, and pass as a man with this new identity. That we get this possibility in specifically a death cult is noteworthy. As mentioned previously, in Westeros at least, the death god is somehow associated with the queer and monstrous. He’s the abject. That we get the association between that and the Faceless men who can change their appearance makes sense in a way. In abjection, you can find more possibilities than in normative conceptions of personhood. If you embrace the abject, you can do and become more. Trans scholar Susan Stryker makes a similar point when discussing the way trans people are often seen as monstrous and abject. She gives the reader this message:

Hearken unto me, fellow creatures. I who have dwelt in a form unmatched with my desire, I whose flesh has become an assemblage of incongruous anatomical parts, I who achieve the similitude of a natural body only through an unnatural process, I offer you this warning: the Nature you bedevil me with is a lie. Do not trust it to protect you from what I represent, for it is a fabrication that cloaks the groundlessness of the privilege you seek to maintain for yourself at my expense. You are as constructed as me; the same anarchic womb has birthed us both. I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine. I challenge you to risk abjection and flourish as well as have I. Heed my words, and you may well discover the seams and sutures in yourself.

(Stryker 1994, 241) [my bolding of text]

If you are to embrace a form, an existence, outside of the normative, you must risk abjection. You must question that which is taken for granted. That way you can discover the seams and sutures in yourself and unravel those to give yourself a new form. Arya, and others who seek the House of Black and White, have accepted abjection when giving themselves over to the Many-Faced God. Giving themselves over to death. For Arya, when she comes to the House of Black and White, she has lost almost everything. She has already had to give up parts of her identity so many times and she’s had to take note of her seams and sutures when creating the different personalities that she’s embodied (Arry, Nan, Salty, etc). When she arrives at the House, she willingly eats the Kindly Man’s worm. In doing so, she embraces this symbol of death. The abject. She moves toward abjection, like the others at the House of Black and White. And in this abjection, a new subject can be created. In death, a new life can be created. Death must pay for life, as they say.

It should be noted that this way of creating a new subjectivity and new bodily form is hardly as healthy as what Stryker proposes. The harm that it does to Arya’s psyche and body seems more similar to what transphobes fear gender-affirming healthcare means. And one does wonder about the ethics of using these faces- did the previous face owners consent to their faces being used like this? I can’t help but think of some early transphobic feminists’ criticism of trans people, where transsexuality was referred to as “necrophilic invasion” and trans women were accused of exploiting women by “appropriating” female bodies (see my essay about trans history for more on this). Given all of that, I want to acknowledge that it is not completely unproblematic to compare the Faceless men and the House of Black and White to the transition trans folk might go through today. But it’s also worth noting that it seems like in the world of Planetos, this might be one of the few ways people can see of completely escaping their circumstances. Which says a lot. At the House of Black and White, the erasure of one’s previous identity is more complete (and effective) than in the other orders I’ve discussed. The past won’t come back to haunt you as it did for Brave Danny Flint. You can completely remake yourself.

There are also some other key differences between the House of Black and White and the other institutions I’ve discussed. For one, even though the people there are referred to as the Faceless Men, there are women at the House too. In fact, in contrast to the black brothers of the Wall, the House of Black and White seems to embrace a slightly more dualistic approach, being open to more people. This is evident even in their symbolism, with the black and white door to the House and the black and white robes that acolytes wear as compared to the black clothing of the Night’s Watch. But on the other hand, the House has a very strict (black and white) approach to who can become a full-on member of the order. One has to completely surrender one’s previous identity, to a much more extreme extent than what the Citadel or the Night’s Watch require. But as mentioned above, that also means you can truly leave your old life behind.


So, in conclusion, it seems like characters in ASOIAF could use these institutions of the Citadel, the Night’s Watch, and the House of Black and White to get a clean slate- pursuing a life and identity that feels more right to them. In this cisnormative world, it might very well be easier to start over than to transition in your old community. Of course, some of these orders require more extreme commitment to starting over, but for some that might be preferable to the life they were living previously.

These stories of transition also echo the history of our world, for instance with people who were assigned female at birth joining monk orders or the military. But as our own history tells us, even if you manage to transition there are risks of violence if your past or body is revealed. Because people tend to think those aspects of you speak to your “true” being and “true” sex. This can lead to tragedies like that of Brandon Teena in our real world or Brave Danny Flint in ASOIAF. Such fates make me worry for Alleras in the upcoming ASOIAF books… But even if that isn’t the case, if you don’t die a violent death, your identity might very well not be recognised after your death. The histories might erase your transness/queerness. This is why it’s important that we uplift trans histories and trans stories in medieval-esque fiction. Stories are powerful and they help us fight for a better world. A world where someone can transition without having to join a literal magical death cult.

Special thanks to Sam and Elena for helping inspire this essay, and extra thanks to Sam for helping me access some theoretical writing while I was on the road. Thank you also to Merry for discussing Arya with me and helping me sort out my thoughts. Thank you to Virginie for beta-reading. And of course, thank you Sanrixian, DREADLady Forlorn, and Sasha for the artwork!


Aemy Blackfyre. 2022. ”Hua Mulan Symbolism in A Song of Ice and Fire: Brave Danny Flint, Sarella/Alleras, and Lyanna Stark (Historical Parallels II).” Aemy Blackfyre’s Blog, May 15, 2022.

A Wiki of Ice and Fire. n.d. Alleras/Theories. Accessed November 13, 2022.

Boag, Peter. 2005. “Go West Young Man, Go East Young Woman: Searching for the Trans in Western Gender History.” Western Historical Quarterly, 36(4): 477-497.

Bychowski, M.W. 2018. “Were there Transgender People in the Middle Ages?” The Public Medievalist, November 1, 2018.

Bychowski, M.W. 2021. «The Authentic Lives of Transgender Saints: Immago Dei and imiatio Christi in the Life of St Marinos the Monk.” In Trans and Genderqueer subjects in Medieval Hagiography, eds Alicia Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt, 245-265. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Elena K, Rohanne Lily, Sam Doran & Lo the Lynx. 2022. ”Gays of Thrones: IAFC 2022 Panel.” Ice and Fire Con [Youtube-channel].

Feinberg, Leslie. 1996. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press.

Halberstam, J. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place. New York: New York University Press.

Holm, Sølve M. 2017. Fleshing out the self: Reimagining intersexed and trans embodied lives through (auto)biographical accounts of the past. PhD thesis, Linköping: Linköping University.

Kristeva, Julia. 1984. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.

Spencer-Hall, Alicia & Blake Gutt. 2021. “Introduction.» In Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, eds Alicia Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt, 11-40. Amsterdram: Amsterdram University Press.

STOYLE, Mark. (2018), ‘Give mee a Souldier’s Coat’: Female Cross-Dressing during the English Civil War. History, 103: 5-26.

Stryker, Susan. 1994. “My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: Performing transgender rage” GLQ, 1(3): 237-254

Hendrix, Steve 2017. «A history lesson for Trump: Transgender soldiers served in the Civil War.” The Washington Post, August 25, 2017.

Wright, Vanessa. 2021. “Illuminating Queer Gender Identity in the Manuscripts of Vie de sainte Eufrosine.” In Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, eds. Alicia Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt, 155-176. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Guest episode- The Silent Sisters (House of the Dragon episode 9)

This week, I had the opportunity to once again guest on The Silent Sisters Podcast and talk about House of the Dragon! This time we covered episode 9 and all the complex things going on in regard to gender, sexuality, disability, class, and power generally. The amazing Akash also guested on this episode, and I had an amazing time talking with them about all of this!

If you missed it, I’ve guested on The Silent Sisters Podcast two other times during this House of the Dragon season: episode 2 and episode 5. Thanks again to The Silent Sisters for having me, it’s been a blast!

Guest episode- The Silent Sisters Podcast (House of the Dragon episode 2)

Last week, I had the opportunity to guest on The Silent Sisters Podcast to talk about the latest episode (episode 2) of House of the Dragon! I had a great time talking about all things gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, and more.

Keep an eye out on The Silent Sisters’ podcast feed, you might see more of me before this season of House of the Dragon is over…

“It’s who I’ve always been”- trans representation in The Umbrella Academy season 3

Content warning: transphobia, violence, sexual violence

Spoiler warning: spoilers for season 3 of The Umbrella Academy

In the time leading up to season three of The Umbrella Academy, many people wondered how the show would handle Elliot Page coming out as trans given that his character on the show had previously been presented as a woman. Promotional material leading up to the season gave us a sneak peek of Page as Viktor Hargreeves, a clearly masculine-presenting character. But how would they present this shift? Was it a version from another timeline? Was this the same character as before that had transitioned? So, when I sat down to watch the new season, I was very curious, to say the least. As it turned out, the show simply decided to have Viktor be the same character as before but has him transition into, well, Viktor. The show never specifically gives him a label, but it seems that the audience is supposed to read him as a trans masculine character.

In this essay, I want to discuss just how the show portrays Viktor Hargreeves, both from my perspective as someone with a master’s degree in gender studies and as a trans person myself. But before going further, I thought I should make some things clear. This essay is based on certain values and assumptions, for instance, that trans people deserve respect and dignity, that trans people should be represented in different forms of media, and that trans characters in media should be represented in a respectful (or at least not harmful or offensive) way. I will therefore not engage in any discussion about if it was the right call to have Elliot Page’s character reflect Page’s own transition. I realise some viewers are upset by this decision for a variety of reasons, but that’s not my focus here. My focus is on how Pages’ character Viktor Hargreeves was portrayed in season 3, not whether he should exist.

Promotional photo of Viktor Hargreeves

To start off, I thought it’d be helpful to summarise how the show presents Viktor’s transition and his coming out. In episode one, after the family is thrown into yet another strange place on the timeline, we see Viktor being contemplative and considering what this new life will entail. He clearly mourns his partner Sissy whom he left behind, someone who as he says, “saw me for who I really am. I’m not ready to give that up.” In that episode, there is also a telling moment after Allison tells him that “you’re a good sister.” Viktor looks sort of melancholy, a hint at how he doesn’t feel fully comfortable with the designation as “sister”.

Then in episode two, Viktor is looking through history books to see how the world remembers the group’s previous time-jumping adventures and learns that his partner Sissy has passed away. He remembers her saying, “You have given me the greatest gift of a lifetime. You let me feel alive for the first time. You helped me find hope again. That’s a wonderful thing. You don’t even notice the box that you’re in until someone comes along and lets you out.” Taken together with Viktor’s previous comment that Sissy saw him for who he really was, it seems like the implication is that this queer relationship helped Viktor see through and break free from society’s restrictive gender and sexuality norms. And right after Viktor has this moment of remembering his partner, he goes to a barbershop and gets a short haircut.

After this physical transition of sorts comes the social one, where Viktor introduces himself as Viktor to three of his siblings, saying that it’s “who I’ve always been.” The siblings look a bit confused, but when Viktor follows that up with “Uh, is that an issue for anyone?” we get these lovely replies:

Diego: Nah, I’m good with it.

Klaus: Yeah, me too. Cool.

Five: Truly happy for you, Viktor.

And then they move on to other topics at hand. The next coming-out moment is with Allison, where Viktor explains that he’s making a few changes and that it’s “a bit more” than the hair. We don’t get to see the full explanation, the show cuts to Allison’s reaction which is at once lovely and the type of reaction I think many LGBTQ+ people have experienced:

Allison: Why didn’t you tell me sooner?

Viktor: I didn’t—Well, I…

Allison: Uh I just… I can’t believe I never realised

Viktor: Well, how would you?

Allison: No, I know, I just feel like such an asshole.

This sort of situation with a loved one focusing on how they should have realised earlier probably feels familiar to a lot of LGBTQ+ people. But as Viktor points out:

You couldn’t have known ‘cause, I mean, I didn’t fully. Being with Sissy. I don’t know. She… opened something in me. Showed me I’d never be free hiding from who I really am. And after losing her, I realized… I just can’t live in that box anymore. I won’t. You know, I always hated mirrors. I thought everyone felt so strange in their skin. I guess that’s not true, right?

Allison: What do you see now?

Viktor: Me. Just me.

Allison then goes on to thank him for trusting her with all of this, making it clear that he’s family and that she loves him.

Then in episode three, we get the last sibling, Luther, finding out about Viktor. Interestingly enough, he finds out when he uses Viktor’s old name and Diego corrects him. Again, it’s not made into a big deal (besides Luther lamenting that he has missed things while he was temporarily kidnapped by their enemies). However, later in the episode, we get this exchange.

Luther: Hey

Diego: Yeah?

Luther: This whole, uh, Viktor thing.

Diego: Yeah?

Luther: Well, it’s a pretty big deal, right?

Diego: I guess, for him. It’s whatever.

Luther: Well, should we say something? You know? I mean, make a formal gesture? Welcome him as brothers.

Diego: God, no. Just roll with it man. Don’t say anything, and don’t be weird.

Luther: Okay. But not saying anything feels weird, right? I mean… Shouldn’t we, I don’t know, mark the occasion somehow?

Diego: You just wanna throw a party.

Luther: Why do you hate tiny sandwiches?

Viktor: Hey, what’s up?

Diego: Luther wants to throw you a big, stupid party so you feel loved.

Viktor: Oh

Diego: Do you feel loved?

Viktor: Yeah, I… I do.

Diego: Good. You are. Can we all get back to saving the world now?

Luther: I… I really like the hair. Is that a number 10? Yeah, that’s a good choice. Really… frames your face.

Viktor: Thanks.

It’s an incredibly wholesome scene, and in many ways shows just how the show intends to handle this situation. Every character reacts a bit differently, but they all react positively. I also personally love Diego’s point, that this is a big deal for Viktor but that they shouldn’t make it into an unnecessarily big thing. They just need to make sure he knows he’s loved. Throughout the rest of the season, all the characters use the correct name and pronouns for Viktor and the siblings refer to him as their brother. There is also the absolutely lovely moment of Luther asking Viktor to be the best man at his wedding, which clearly touches Viktor. The siblings might fight and argue a lot, but even when they are pissed at Viktor, they are never transphobic. They might be angry at him, but they always respect him as their brother.

So, having summarised how Viktor’s transition and coming out is portrayed, what do I think of it? Well, I generally think it worked quite well. When I first watched the season, I thought it was a bit rushed, especially in regards to Viktor’s own process of coming to terms with his gender identity. But upon a second watch, I felt like it worked better. The show tied it to his queer experiences last season, and it makes sense to not want to lose time living in a box (as he puts it) when you have lived through two apocalypses. Furthermore, I get that the showrunners (and probably Elliot Page) wanted to get to the point of Viktor presenting as a man relatively quickly. As it is, the show still gets a lot of very nice and meaningful moments in there, as outlined above. I wanted to look at two of them a bit more closely, and specifically how they relate to common trans tropes.

Firstly, I wanted to discuss what you might call the “I was born this way” trope. Viktor comes quite close to it when coming out to Diego, Klaus, and Five, saying that Viktor is “who I’ve always been.” Trans people describing their gender as something they’ve always been or always known is quite common, both in media and in real life. As Spencer Garrison notes, this is a common narrative and relatively accepted, so trans people tend to employ it when narrating their life stories so that their lives will make sense to others (2018). That doesn’t mean that it’s some sort of trick, a narrative only used to convince others. It simply means that this is a way of explaining a very complex experience in a way that others can understand. It’s worth noting, however, that trans writer and scholar Julia Serano has questioned the usage of the “born this way” narrative, arguing that it might be contra-productive in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality (Serano 2022). Serano notes that when she grew up in the 1970s and 1980s “people would often treat the revelation that someone they knew was LGBTQ as though it were a potential contamination event. “ That is to say, LGBTQ+ identities were seen as contagious. While this is still the case today to a certain degree (especially in among conservatives), it’s less so than 40 years ago. As Serano writes:

In subsequent decades, there has been growing acceptance of LGBTQ people, much of it hinging on the public understanding that we are ”born this way.” Within LGBTQ communities, that phrase evokes mixed reactions. Some feel that it accurately captures their experience of knowing from childhood that they were different, and finding that there was nothing they could do to make those feelings go away. But others have critiqued ”born this way” for its failure to account for their later-in-life shifts in identity, their experiences with gender or sexual fluidity, and/or that the phrase gives the impression that LGBTQ people have suffered some kind of ”birth defect.” Because of its success, anti-LGBTQ campaigners have worked hard to upend the ”born this way” narrative. This is why they have long flaunted ”ex-gays,” and more recently, people who detransition, as though the existence of such individuals disproves the authenticity and longevity of all of our identities. And now, they are citing the growing LGBTQ population as supposed evidence that our identities are merely ”trendy” (…) or worse, the result of ”social engineering”.

(Serano 2022)

Essentially, they’re trying to revive the idea of queerness being contagious. In light of this new wave of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, Serano argues that the “born this way” narrative might be ineffective. As she notes, many people seem to assume that LGBTQ+ people being born this way means that the number of LGBTQ+ people in the world should be static. That more people come out as LGBTQ+ nowadays (as the world grows more accepting) is, therefore, a sign of queerness being contagious in these people’s eyes. Serano, therefore, suggests that a shift in language could therefore be beneficial:

In my own writings, I often describe gender and sexual diversity as being intrinsic and inexplicable. By inexplicable, I mean that none of us can precisely say for sure why we turned out to be gay, or trans, or otherwise. Nor can we say why some people come to this self-understanding as children, others during adolescence, and still others as adults. (…) By intrinsic, I mean that our sexual orientations and gender identities typically arise in an unconscious manner, are deeply felt, and are not readily repressed or ignored. While language and culture may influence how we make sense of, or act upon, those forces, they do not create them out of whole cloth, nor are they capable of entirely purging them from our persons (which is why conversion therapies are widely considered both ineffective and unethical).

(Serano 2022)

I wanted to share this viewpoint when discussing Viktor’s coming out because I think it’s important to consider how certain tropes and discourses might be reproduced in media, even when the people behind it have good intentions. I’m not saying that it’s wrong of them to have Viktor say that being Viktor is who he’s always been, it’s a common way of describing one’s experiences after all. But having recently read Serano’s article, I couldn’t help but think of the limitations of that way of describing transness.

Secondly, I briefly wanted to discuss the trope of having a trans character look at themselves in the mirror as a way to visualise their transness. Such scenes are very often part of the portrayal of trans characters (Poole 2017). Often (but not always) the character is nude or partly nude during these scenes. While the specifics might vary, the scene generally invites the audience to observe the dissonance between the character’s perceived self and their body. Sometimes it’s very voyeuristic, sometimes it’s more contemplative and invites the audience to feel with the character. The Umbrella Academy does a version of this when Viktor looks in a mirror and notes how he has always hated mirrors because they made him realise how uncomfortable he was in his own body. Now, after his transition into Viktor, he can look into the mirror and see himself. This is an interesting twist on the usual trope, where instead of highlighting the dissonance between self and body, the mirror is used to show how his transition has made Viktor comfortable in his body. Viktor is also fully clothed in the scene, so the voyeurism that can be there in some iterations of the trope is not present. So, all in all, while being a bit cliché, the scene functions well as a visible representation of how Viktor’s transition has made him happier and more comfortable. It’s also nice because it shows that “just” coming out and changing parts of your appearance (such as clothing and hairstyle) can make a big difference in how comfortable someone might feel in their own body. Trans people’s experiences are often very medicalised, with people assuming that they must want to make a “full” medical transition from one binary gender to another (something I’ve discussed elsewhere). To be sure, Viktor wouldn’t have time for any gender-affirming treatment during season 3 regardless, being a bit busy trying to save the world again. But it’s nevertheless nice to see a transition story that isn’t focused on the medical aspect.

Having discussed these tropes and specific scenes, I wanted to consider the portrayal of Viktor this season as a whole. Because when doing so, it becomes quite clear that this type of portrayal of trans masculine characters on TV is still quite uncommon. As Wibke Straube notes when analysing trans cinema:

In films in which the trans male character is grown up, the character(s) are most often exposed to sexualised violence enacted by cis male characters and contextualised through the passing and the failing to pass of this character (Romeos, 2011; Boys don’t Cry, 1999). Tomboy (2011), featuring a child character, closely links its character to a continuous fear of being discovered as passing and for the “knowing entrants” this directly links to the fear that the character will become a victim of (sexualised) violence.”

(Straube 2014, 39)

As Straube notes, in portrayals of trans men in movies this fear of being discovered as trans, as a “deceiver”, is often pervasive and usually connected to a fear of sexual violence. Straube further argues that the use of sexual violence against trans male characters in cinema (and television) often functions as a way to put them “in their place” and undermine their position as men.

Sexualised violence seems to be a conventionalised narrative device in films with trans male protagonists that seems to be used to accentuate the over-stepping of cis male gender boundaries, to put the transing characters “in their place” and to re-establish and reinforce the gender hierarchy (Gay 2014). It also links to the overly dominant use of rape as a narrative tool in both television series and cinema, where rape is used in order to victimise a cis female character and create drama and higher ratings (Gay 2014). The contextualisation of the trans male character with sexualised violence that is otherwise conventionally deployed against cis female characters works to undermine the masculinity of the male trans character and effects an intra-diegetic feminising of the character (Halberstam 2005: 90). In contrast to the representation of trans masculinity in films, sexualised violence is not central to the representation of trans female characters, who experience discrimination and violence in other forms.

(Straube 2014, 40)

We don’t get any of this in The Umbrella Academy. Sure, Viktor (and his siblings) face plenty of violence but he isn’t targeted with sexual violence because of his gender. The violence isn’t motivated by transphobia. There really isn’t any questioning of Viktor’s gender at all in the show. This is truly rare. Even in more recent representations of trans masculine characters in television (for instance The Fosters, The OA, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, DRUCK, etc) transphobia is present in the story. It might not be as exploitative and used for shock value as some of what Straube describes, but the threat of violence is often there. The fear of what might happen if others find out that one is trans is definitely there in a lot of those stories, which is of course true to life. As Straube puts it quite succinctly: “Trans Cinema often works through an overarching feeling of fear and impending danger.” (2014, 45) So to have a story where a character’s transition just goes well is very rare. It’s also almost unrealistic, given the transphobic state of the world. But watching as a trans person, it’s sort of refreshing to watch a happy trans story. Don’t get me wrong, there is value to depicting how difficult trans people’s lives can be. But sometimes it’s nice for trans stories to not just be about hardship. It can be nice as a trans person to not always have to watch trans pain.

So, in conclusion, the portrayal of Viktor Hargreeves in season 3 of The Umbrella Academy is interesting in that while it uses some common tropes, it is also very different from a lot of other examples of trans masculine representation in media. There isn’t really a focus on the body of the trans character or their medical transition, and the character doesn’t face violence (including sexual violence) for their transness. In that way, it’s almost a bit of a breath of fresh air. It’s a break from the trans pain that is often depicted in media. Of course, depictions of the hardships trans people face can be important too but seeing some wholesome trans joy is quite nice when living in a world filled with trans pain.


Garrison, Spencer. 2018. “ON THE LIMITS OF ‘TRANS ENOUGH’: Authenticating Trans Identity Narratives.” GENDER & SOCIETY 32 (5): 613-637.

Poole, Ralph J. 2017. “Towards a Queer Futurity: New Trans Television.” European Journal of American Studies. 12-2.

Serano, Julia. 2022. “It’s time to rethink “born this way,” a phrase that’s been key to LGBTQ acceptance” Salon, June 17, 2022.

Straube, Wibke. 2014. ”Trans cinema and its exit scapes- A Transfeminist Reading of Utopian Sensibility and Gender Dissidence in Contemporary Film.” PhD diss., University of Linköping.

Lords Too Fat to Sit a Horse: Body Normativity and Masculinity in ASOIAF

Content warnings: fatphobia, cissexism, racism

The king was a great disappointment to Jon. His father had talked of him often: the peerless Robert Baratheon, demon of the Trident, the fiercest warrior of the realm, a giant among princes. Jon saw only a fat man, red-faced under his beard, sweating through his silks. He walked like a man half in his cups.

(AGOT, Jon I)

From very early on in ASOIAF, we get told that a Real Man is a fierce and strong warrior, not a fat man in silks. With Robert Baratheon, we are presented with a king in decline, weakened by a lavish lifestyle. In the eyes of many, he has gone from a strong and charismatic warrior to a weak-willed fat king. As readers, we should most likely question this assessment since Robert’s main character flaw is hardly his weight but rather characteristics like his unrelenting hatred towards the Targaryens, his treatment of his wife, and his disinterest in ruling. Characteristics that he had before he gained weight. Yet, in the story, his failure as a person, a leader, and a man is so very often seen as connected to his weight. As Jon thinks, Robert isn’t a giant among princes anymore, “only a fat man.”

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the world of ASOIAF is not only a world with quite strict gender norms, it is also a world where such norms clearly intersect with other societal norms (just as in our world). I have previously highlighted this in relation to for instance the intersection of gender, sexuality, and disability as well as gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. Here I wanted to focus on a similar question, body normativity and masculinity. I’m borrowing the term “body normativity” from researcher Denise Malmberg to describe the way society classifies certain bodies as normative and others as deviant. As Malmberg notes, there is seldom a strict boundary between the two, with the normative body generally being defined by what it is not. For instance, it is not too fat, skinny, tall, or short. Or, heaven forfend, disabled in any way. Malmberg also points out that body normativity often interacts with other norms, such as gender norms and sexuality norms. That’s what I want to focus on here. Specifically, I wanted to discuss how fatness interacts with norms of masculinity in relation to the characters Samwell Tarly, Wyman Manderly, and Illyrio Mopatis.

Samwell- Ser Piggy

Art by Noah/@samanthatarly

When we are first introduced to Sam, we are almost immediately made aware of his body size and how this, in the eyes of his surroundings, makes him lesser.

A striding huntsman had been worked in scarlet thread upon the breast of the fat boy’s fur-trimmed surcoat. Jon did not recognize the sigil. Ser Alliser Thorne looked over his new charge and said, ”It would seem they have run short of poachers and thieves down south. Now they send us pigs to man the Wall. Is fur and velvet your notion of armor, my Lord of Ham?”

(AGOT, Jon IV)

As the chapter(s) go on, it is clear that Allister sees Sam as pathetic and weak in large part because of his body size, and because of his inability (and unwillingness) to fight. He soon gives him the nickname “Ser Piggy”, a clear reference to his body size and probably his lack of courage. It’s also clearly a form of dehumanisation. Sam himself confesses to Jon and Jon’s friends that he’s afraid of fighting and calls himself a coward for it. This connection between his body size and his (supposed) lack of bravery comes up several times, from several characters. For instance, Chett makes this comment when Jon tries to convince maester Aemon that Sam should be allowed to swear his vows as a Night’s Watchman.

Chett could stand no more. ”I’ve seen this fat boy in the common hall,” he said. ”He is a pig, and a hopeless craven as well, if what you say is true.”

(AGOT, Jon V)

Of course, Sam isn’t actually a coward, as many fans have pointed out (I recommend Girls Gone Canon’s coverage of Sam for many examples of this). When we get Sam’s point of view, we can see that he also makes this connection between his body size and cowardness. But he also makes more explicit connections between this and his masculinity, or lack thereof. In his first chapter he first thinks:

The snow will cover me like a thick white blanket. It will be warm under the snow, and if they speak of me they’ll have to say I died a man of the Night’s Watch. I did. I did. I did my duty. No one can say I forswore myself. I’m fat and I’m weak and I’m craven, but I did my duty.

(ASOS, Sam I)

Here there is an implication that his fatness, weakness, and cowardness somehow take away from his status as a man, but that he did his duty makes it possible for him to still be deemed a man. He can still die as a man of the Night’s Watch. Later in the same chapter, however, he thinks this:

Sam was sorry; sorry he hadn’t been braver, or stronger, or good with swords, that he hadn’t been a better son to his father and a better brother to Dickon and the girls. He was sorry to die too, but better men had died on the Fist, good men and true, not squeaking fat boys like him.

(ASOS, Sam I)

Here Sam first points out his different failures, that he’s not (in his mind) brave, strong, or martial enough and that he has failed to live up to the image of a proper son and brother. Then he goes on to compare himself to the “good men and true” who have died, implying that he, as a “squeaking fat boy” has less value than them. Clearly, in Sam’s mind, the fact that he isn’t physically strong and brave (in the sort of traditional sense) means that he isn’t a real man, and therefore he’s lesser. He has a similar thought in A Feast for Crows after he sleeps with Gilly for the first time:

The best thing he could do would be to slip away and jump into the sea. If I’m drowned, no one need ever know that I shamed myself and broke my vows, and Gilly can find herself a better man, one who is not some big fat coward.

(AFFC, Sam IV)

That Sam continually associates his fatness and (supposed) cowardness with failing at being a “real man” is hardly surprising, since masculinity is so often associated with strength and being in control (Whitehead 2002, 189). This is something I’ve previously discussed in relation to how disability and masculinity are presented in ASOIAF. While the dynamic is similar when it comes to fatness and masculinity, the intersection between body normativity and gender works slightly differently there. In general, fatness is often associated with laziness, unintelligence, lack of self-discipline, and general incompetence (Trautner, Kwan & Savage 2013). For fat men specifically, this often means that they are seen as feminine since masculinity is so defined by strength and control. In fact, studies have specifically shown that people perceive fat men as less intelligent, competent, successful, healthy, hardworking, and masculine than slim men (Trautner, Kwan & Savage 2013). Of course, constantly being seen as such also impacts one’s self-image as we can see with Sam. Since he feels that he is less of a man because of his body (and the attributes he associates with it), he sees himself as lesser.

Unfortunately, this has been reinforced for him by many people in his life. This is something Noah (@samanthatarly on Twitter) explores beautifully in their essay about Sam’s relation to gender. Similarly to characters like Tyrion or Brienne, Sam has grown up in a world where his deviation from gender norms is relentlessly mocked. Similarly to Brienne, he’s often dehumanised and compared to an animal. Similarly, to Brienne, he feels like a freak because of it. They’re even both compared to pigs specifically, with Red Ronnet comparing Brienne to a sow in Jaime’s third AFFC chapter. I’ve talked elsewhere about how this dehumanisation of Brienne is an example of how gender non-conforming people are often seen as the abject. Those of us who don’t conform to gender norms are often viewed that way, as less human. Instead of being accepted as a subject, a proper person, we are reduced to the abject, that which is unbearable, unthinkable and needs to be rejected (Butler 1993). Basically, to be recognised as a coherent subject in our world you need to conform to certain norms. For instance, you need to have your body line up with your gender and gender expression in the way society expects. If it doesn’t, you don’t make sense to people. People don’t recognise you as a subject, a proper person. Arguably, trans and gender-nonconforming people are seen as unnatural and monstrous a lot of the time, not human (Stryker 1994). Similarly to Brienne, Sam is despised and seen as freakish because of his deviation from gender norms but also because of his body size. His existence in relation to both of these norms is what makes him be seen as so freakish. He’s seen as unmanly because of his size, and the association of weakness that comes with it, but also because he doesn’t want to live up to the ideals of manhood. The manhood that has constantly hurt him throughout his life, through people like his father and Allister Thorne. As he thinks himself, he always preferred spending time with the women in his life, singing, and wearing soft fabrics. He has never felt comfortable with the tough masculinity expected of him. Yet he still feels like a failure because of his inability to live up to these expectations. He feels incompetent and weak even if he’s of course the opposite of that, he’s just not as competent in typically masculine pursuits as the men in his life would like him to be. But as many fans have pointed out, Samwell Tarly is incredibly brave, and his skills and intelligence will be critical to the endgame of the story.

Wyman- Lord-Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse

Art by cabepfir

The idea that fat men lack self-discipline and are incompetent becomes extremely clear when it comes to Wyman Manderly. The first time we meet him is when he visits Winterfell for the Harvest Feast, to which he apparently arrived by barge and litter because he is “too fat to sit a horse” (ACOK, Bran II). While at Winterfell, Ser Rodrik instructs Mors Umber to work together with Manderly to build the North a fleet. Umber responds like this:

“Manderly?” Mors Umber snorted. ”That great waddling sack of suet? His own people mock him as Lord Lamprey, I’ve heard. The man can scarce walk. If you stuck a sword in his belly, ten thousand eels would wriggle out.”

”He is fat,” Ser Rodrik admitted, ”but he is not stupid. You will work with him, or the king will know the reason why.” 

(ACOK, Bran II)

Clearly, Umber associates Manderly’s fatness with some sort of incompetence and does not want to work with him because of it. Later, in ADWD, when we hear of Manderly again his weight is once again associated with his ability to act, but here it is connected to cowardice as well. This comes up several times in connection to Stannis’ need for Manderly for his campaign, for instance in these two exchanges between Jon and Stannis:

”For that, you need White Harbor. The city cannot compare to Oldtown or King’s Landing, but it is still a thriving port. Lord Manderly is the richest of my lord father’s bannermen.”

”Lord Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse.” The letter that Lord Wyman Manderly had sent back from White Harbor had spoken of his age and infirmity, and little more.

(ADWD, Jon I)

”You could bring the north to me. Your father’s bannermen would rally to the son of Eddard Stark. Even Lord Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse. White Harbor would give me a ready source of supply and a secure base to which I could retreat at need. It is not too late to amend your folly, Snow. Take a knee and swear that bastard sword to me, and rise as Jon Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North.”

(ADWD, Jon IV)

The implication in these two exchanges is that Stannis looks down on Wyman for not supporting him (on-brand for Stannis), and he seems to somehow associate this weakness of character with Manderly’s weight. It seems like he/the text makes some sort of connection between being fat and being weak/cowardly/not doing one’s duty. A similar sentiment is expressed by Lord Godric Borell in Davos’ first ADWD chapter when Davos expresses surprise at the Frey’s presence in White Harbor:

”Freys?” That was the last thing that Davos would have expected. ”The Freys killed Lord Wyman’s son, we heard.”

”Aye,” Lord Godric said, ”and the fat man was so wroth that he took a vow to live on bread and wine till he had his vengeance. But before the day was out, he was stuffing clams and cakes into his mouth again. There’s ships that go between the Sisters and White Harbor all the time. We sell them crabs and fish and goat cheese, they sell us wood and wool and hides. From all I hear, his lordship’s fatter than ever. So much for vows. Words are wind, and the wind from Manderly’s mouth means no more than the wind escaping out his bottom.” (ADWD, Davos I)

(ADWD, Davos I)

Again, there seems to be an association between fatness and weakness of character (and perhaps lack of self-discipline). Later, at Ramsey and fake-Arya’s wedding, Barbery Dustin makes a similar comment about Manderly’s drunkenness and what it means:

”Drowning his fears. He is craven to the bone, that one.”

Was he? Theon was not certain. His sons had been fat as well, but they had not shamed themselves in battle. ”Ironborn will feast before a battle too. A last taste of life, should death await. If Stannis comes …”

”He will. He must.” Lady Dustin chuckled. ”And when he does, the fat man will piss himself. His son died at the Red Wedding, yet he’s shared his bread and salt with Freys, welcomed them beneath his roof, promised one his granddaughter. He even serves them pie. The Manderlys ran from the south once, hounded from their lands and keeps by enemies. Blood runs true. The fat man would like to kill us all, I do not doubt, but he does not have the belly for it, for all his girth. Under that sweaty flesh beats a heart as craven and cringing as … well … yours.” (ADWD, The Prince of Winterfell)

(ADWD, The Prince of Winterfell)

Here again, it’s assumed that Wyman is cowardly and lacks the ability/willingness/strength to act and this is associated with his fatness. This is consistent with how fat men are often perceived by their surroundings (Trautner, Kwan & Savage 2013). Now, compared to many people in our world, Manderly still possesses a lot of power and privilege because of his economic, cultural, and social capital. He’s still a great lord. That’s why he can treat Davos the way he does, for instance, putting on his mummer’s farce. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Davos is in a much more precarious position because of how much Davos’ power and capital are tied up with Stannis. So, while Manderly is mocked by many in his surroundings, he still retains much of his power.

What’s interesting with Wyman, however, is that he seems very aware of how other people see him and uses it to his advantage. As he says himself to Davos:

”I am fat, and many think that makes me weak and foolish.”

(ADWD, Davos IV)

In that very chapter, he notes that he has managed to sneak away from a feast because everyone is convinced that he needs long visits to the privy. As many fans have speculated before (see for instance Radio Westeros’ episode on the Grand North Conspiracy), it seems likely that he makes use of how he’s perceived to enact a variety of anti-Bolton and anti-Frey plots.

The way Wyman makes use of how people perceive him to make himself seem less threatening reminds me of Varys in some ways. As I’ve argued previously when discussing Varys’ masculinity, he too seems to play up certain parts of how he’s perceived to seem weaker and less threatening. As I argued there, parts of what make him appear weaker to his surroundings are that he is perceived as more feminine, not just because of his status as a eunuch but also because he is Essosi. This brings me to the next person I wanted to discuss…

Illyrio- The Cheese Monger

Art by Fantasy Flight Games

One of the first descriptions we get of Illyrio comes from Dany:

[Illyrio] moved with surprising delicacy for such a massive man. Beneath loose garments of flame-colored silk, rolls of fat jiggled as he walked. Gemstones glittered on every finger, and his man had oiled his forked yellow beard until it shone like real gold.

(AGOT, Daenerys I)

In this description, Illyrio’s body shape is a clear focus but so are his luxurious clothing and accessories. Illyrio continues to be associated with wealth throughout the story, and when we meet him again in Tyrion’s story, Tyrion often focuses on this.

Illyrio was reclining on a padded couch, gobbling hot peppers and pearl onions from a wooden bowl. His brow was dotted with beads of sweat, his pig’s eyes shining above his fat cheeks. Jewels danced when he moved his hands; onyx and opal, tiger’s eye and tourmaline, ruby, amethyst, sapphire, emerald, jet and jade, a black diamond, and a green pearl. I could live for years on his rings, Tyrion mused, though I’d need a cleaver to claim them.

(ADWD, Tyrion I)

Here, Illyrio is the very picture of a gluttonous rich man. His fatness and love for food seem to be associated with some sort of general gluttony and greed, as it often is with fat men (Harker 2016). He is, after all, often referred to as the “Cheese Monger” which hints at both his love of food and profit. As Tyrion himself thinks:

”Yes, my fat friend,” Tyrion replied. He thinks to use me for his profit. It was all profit with the merchant princes of the Free Cities. ”Spice soldiers and cheese lords,” his lord father called them, with contempt. 

(ADWD, Tyrion I)

Clearly, by the standards of Westerosi lords, to just focus on profit like this is something worth contempt. Of course, by this point, the reader hardly trusts the scheming Illyrio either. This connection between fatness, gluttony, opulence, and moral corruption that we see with Illyrio is rather reminiscent of Orientalist depictions of Eastern men in our world.

As I have discussed elsewhere, for instance in relation to Varys and Lysono Maar, many Essosi men in ASOIAF are surrounded by Orientalist tropes. Such Orientalist tropes were first systematically theorised by Edward Said in his book Orientalism (1979)There Said describes how the East is homogenised, eroticised, exoticized, infantilised, and degraded in the Western psyche. As part of this, Eastern men were generally feminised, not seen as real men. This is all to uphold the West as civilised and morally superior. As Shiloh Carroll has pointed out, such tropes are all too common in Medievalist fantasy (including ASOIAF).

Medievalist fantasy is a blend of the modern and the medieval, containing many colonial and postcolonial issues to be parsed. Despite the possibilities offered by the fantastic to explore unfamiliar realms inhabited by creatures that do not exist and humans with magical abilities, writers are still constricted by their own experiences as well as the necessity of communicating their ideas to an audience. Thus, ideas and cultures from the familiar world creep in, and for Western writers, this can include an almost subliminal imperialism.”

(Carroll 2018, 107)

As she goes on to describe, this can unfortunately often be seen in how GRRM describes various Essosi characters, who often contain traces of Orientalist tropes (ibid, 119). I would argue that Illyrio is a very clear example of this. He is constantly associated with exotic luxury and excess, a common Orientalist trope (Bach 1997). Such a person is not a proper (Western) man, who should be self-disciplined and certainly not clothe himself in silks and jewels. So, with Illyrio we see an interesting interaction between body normativity and Orientalism. Both as a fat man and an Eastern man, he’s associated with excess and femininity, and both contribute to him seeming morally corrupt.

Another significant way body normativity and Orientalism intersect with Illyrio is when it comes to his sexuality. The reader early on associates him with sexual practices that we might see as immoral or even barbaric, specifically his role in brokering the marriage between Dany and Drogo. Later, we learn that Viserys through Illyrio gifted Dany an enslaved handmaiden to teach her the art of pleasing a man. When Tyrion meets Illyrio in ADWD, he’s also offered an enslaved woman to have sex with. Illyrio is continually associated with sexual practices that the reader would disapprove of, perhaps especially when he uses enslaved people for sexual purposes. The use of enslaved people, in general, is very Eastern coded in the world of ASOIAF, as slavery is not legal in Westeros. A connection is therefore made between Illyrio’s sexual preference, his ethnicity, and his wealth (since he can afford to buy all these enslaved people). But that’s not the only way his sexual preferences are presented as immoral. He also describes thinking about the young Daenerys like this:

”Daenerys was half a child when she came to me, yet fairer even than my second wife, so lovely I was tempted to claim her for myself. Such a fearful, furtive thing, however, I knew I should get no joy from coupling with her. Instead I summoned a bedwarmer and fucked her vigorously until the madness passed.”

(ADWD, Tyrion II)

The reader knows that Dany was very young at this point, so for him to think this way comes off as quite disgusting to us. The specific words he uses are also noteworthy. He talks about wanting to “claim” her, once again alluding to his greed and wish to own things. The reader is encouraged to think of Illyrio as perverse at other times as well:

The fat man stroked one of the prongs of his oiled yellow beard, a gesture Tyrion found remarkably obscene. 

(ADWD, Tyrion I)

So, Illyrio is again and again associated with some sort of inappropriate sexuality, and this is often associated with his wealth, greed, and through that his general excess and gluttony. This is perfectly in line with Orientalist tropes, which often see the Orient as “the space of illicit sexuality, unbridled excess, and generalized perversion.” (Puar 2007, 75). This becomes another way to feminise the men of the Orient and portray them as lesser men. Furthermore, as I alluded to, one can also see norms surrounding body normativity influence how Illyrio’s sexuality is described. In our society, fat men’s sexuality is generally perceived as monstrous and dangerous (Harker 2016). As Harker notes, there often exists a tendency to associate the fat body with uncontained desire, both for gluttony (food, drink) and sex. This is seen as dangerous, a dangerous hunger with which the fat man risks consuming his partner. Again, Illyrio is doubly deviant because of his body shape and his ethnicity.


Throughout this essay, I have discussed the way fat men in ASOIAF are seen as mess masculine because of their body shape. They are often associated with various other negative traits as well because of this, such as weakness, cowardice, incompetence, and general deviance. These are all traits that brand them as Not Real Men. As Marie C Harker puts it:

At its core, fat embodiment, and in particular fat male embodiment, threatens the coherence of gender, challenging the stable maintenance of boundaries between male:female and the vast network of relational binaries which depend upon this mutual exclusion.

(Harker 2016, 989)

But it’s also clear that other societal structures and norms impact any specific individual’s circumstances. With Sam, we can see that his general gender nonconformity impacts the degree to which he is ridiculed, and dehumanised, and his internalisation of it. On the other hand, while we see many similar preconceptions with Wyman because of his body shape as we do with Sam, he is somewhat protected by his status and capital. Illyrio might also be somewhat protected by wealth, but with him, his wealth and splendour also become a signifier of his cultural Otherness. His excessiveness and what is perceived as gluttony becomes intertwined with Orientalist tropes of the exotic and morally corrupt Eastern man.

As usual, then, it becomes clear that in order to fully understand any character, we must consider several societal structures and norms at once. No one person can be defined by only one characteristic or identity.

A special thanks to Eliana and Virginie for very helpful commentary and feedback on this essay.


Bach, Evelyn. 1997. “Sheik fantasies: Orientalism and feminine desire in the desert romance.” Hecate 23(1).

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York & London: Routledge.

Carroll, Shiloh. 2018. Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer

Girls Gone Canon. 2021. “ASOIAF Episode 148 — AFFC Brienne VI featuring Lo the Lynx.” December 17, 2021.

Girls Gone Canon. 2022.

Harker, C Marie. “Fat male sexuality: The monster in the maze.” Sexualities 19(8): 980-996.

Lo the Lynx. 2020. “Lost manhood: analysing the eunuch’s masculinity in A Song of Ice and Fire.” August 27, 2020.

Lo the Lynx. 2020. “Disability, gender, and sexuality in ASOIAF.” August 27, 2020.

Lo the Lynx & Aemy Blackfyre. 2020. “The Beautiful Spymaster: Lysono Maar, Orientalism, and Liminality.” December 20, 2020.

Malmberg, Denise. 2012. “’To Be Cocky Is to Challenge the Norms’: The Impact of Bodynormativity on Bodily and Sexual Attraction in Relation to Being a Cripple.” lambda Nordica, 17:1-2, 194-216.

Puar, Jasbir. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Duke University Press.

Trautner, Nell Mary, Kwan, Samatha & Savage, Scott V. 2013. “Masculinity, Competence, and Health: The Influence of Weight and Race on Social Perceptions of Men.” Men and Masculinities 16(4): 432-451.

Radio Westeros. 2015. “Episode 19- The North Remembers.” October 28, 2015.

Said, Edward. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

SamanthaTarly. 2021. “If It Is Chains You Want: Samwell Tarly, Gender, and War.” September 7, 2021.

Stryker, Susan. 1994. “My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: Performing transgender rage.” GLQ 1 (3): 237-254.

”Gays of Thrones”- panel at Ice and Fire Con 2022

I recently had the opportunity to participate on a panel at Ice and Fire Con about all things queer in ASOIAF! Together with Rohanne, Elena, and Sam, I chatted about how our identities as LGBTQ+ people impact our readings of the story, and why we think queer readings of the story are important. The panel is now up on youtube, check it out!

The Queer Song of Achilles

Content warnings: homophobia, sexism, discussion of sex between minors, discussion of sex between minors and adults.

Spoiler warning: spoilers of the entirety of The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

When I started reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, I knew it would be gay and sad (as Chloe of Girls Gone Canon put it when recommending it), but I didn’t anticipate just how invested I would become in this novel. And I’m not just talking about how I cried my eyes out for ten minutes straight after finishing reading the last chapter. I also spent the next 24 hours going through different parts of the books in my head, thinking about how they compared to the theory and history of sexuality that I have read. So eventually I came to the conclusion that I had to write something about it. Hence this essay.

”Achilles lamenting the death of Patroclus” by Gavin Hamilton

The Song of Achilles tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus from the Iliad, their life, love, and eventually their death. This relationship has been interpreted in a myriad of ways through the ages, with some focusing on their friendship and others on the erotic aspects of their relationship. A reading that in my opinion is more in line with how the relationship is presented in The Song of Achilles, however, comes from Warwick (2019). Warwick argues that in the Iliad, Achilles and Patroclus are portrayed similarly to the husband-wife relationships of the story (such as Odysseus and Penelope or Hector and Andromache). It seems like Miller had a similar idea when writing A Song of Achilles since there’s even a scene where Odysseus compares his relationship to his wife to that of Achilles and Patroclus when he is trying to convince Pyrrhus to allow Patroclus’ name to be carved into their joint tomb (Miller 2017, 348). In the novel, Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is clearly both romantic and sexual (even if the sex scenes aren’t explicit). It is clear that the two of them both love each other and desire each other sexually. In an interesting way, their relationship, therefore, reads as queer both in a modern context and in the context of Ancient Greece. As Warwick notes, in Ancient Greece, their relationship would potentially be seen as anomalous (or queer) not because they were both men (as it does today) but because of their similarity in status. This is quite an interesting contrast to modern conceptualisations of sexuality. To explore this further, I will therefore analyse the way Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is presented in The Song of Achilles in relation to sexuality and gender norms in Ancient Greece.

Sexuality in Ancient Greece

Before getting further into the norms and structures of sexuality in Ancient Greece, it is worth noting that some, including Warwick, has argued that these social norms and conventions are less pronounced in Homer’s work than in other sources (2019). Nonetheless, it seems relevant to consider the social context in which Homer worked and where the story of Achilles and Patroclus would be heard.

In many ways, the norms of Ancient Greece surrounding sexuality and gender were quite different from those of today, even while there are some similarities (that I will get into later). One big difference is that they didn’t use terms such as heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, or anything similar, and didn’t really conceptualise sexuality as a stable identity like we do today. This makes sense considering that it wasn’t really until the 18th century that the homosexual started to be conceptualised as a specific type of person (Foucault 2002 [1976], 64). Before then homosexual acts were generally seen just as that, acts, not as something that informed someone’s identity. They could be shameful or even criminal acts, but as Foucault notes, the difference is that the homosexual of modern times is seen as a type of person, a part of a different species. Some researchers have questioned this, arguing that individual people living before the 18th century might have considered their sexuality as a stable identity, even if society didn’t (eg. Goldberg & Menon 2005; Roelens 2017). Nevertheless, based on the sources that do exist it seems that the people of Ancient Greece didn’t see sexuality as an identity. Still, what sexual acts one participated in could impact one’s reputation, because there were definitely sexual norms to consider in Ancient Greece, even if those were different from those of today.

As many researchers have noted, Ancient Greek societies were very hierarchical, with adult free-born men on top of the hierarchy and everyone else (women, children, slaves, etc) below them. As for instance Mottier (2008) has noted, these norms surrounding gender and status also impacted sexual life:

Normative ideas of masculinity valued aggressive, dominant behaviour, both in public speaking and in other areas of life, including sexual activity. Masculinity was identified with the active, penetrative sexual role. Sexual desire was seen as normal or deviant in relation to the extent to which it transgressed normative gender roles. Specific practices such as sodomy or masturbation did not give rise to moral anxieties in classical sexual culture. Questions of sexual etiquette centred instead on penetration. Penetration symbolised male as well as social status, but it mattered little whether the penetrated was a woman or a boy. What did matter was who penetrated whom. Penetration was seen as active, submission as passive. It was considered unnatural and demeaning for a free-born man to desire to be penetrated, since that would reduce him to the socially inferior role of a woman or slave.

(Mottier 2008, 9)

That is to say, a “real man” was supposed to be the active party in sexual intercourse. It didn’t matter who he had sex with (woman, boy, slave, sex worker, etc), as long as he was the one penetrating them. That of course doesn’t mean that there weren’t adult free-born men who enjoyed penetration, it just means that they would be looked down upon for it. One’s sexual behaviour could also impact one’s honour and reputation (Foucault 2018 [1984], 56). As Foucault notes, to have a spotless sexual reputation was especially important for men with large authority who might wish to leave an impressive legacy, since sexual scandals might ruin that legacy.

When discussing sexuality in Ancient Greece, it is impossible to avoid the question of pederasty, i.e., the sexual relationship between boys/teenagers (about 12-20 years old) and adult men, which was often seen as a form of mentorship (Mottier 2008, 12). While obviously deeply problematic to us today, these types of relationships were very normalised at the time, as long as the proper sexual etiquette was upheld. This etiquette included, for instance, that the boy only gives his consent after a significant amount of courting (Foucault 2018 [1984], 203). He should furthermore not gain pleasure from the sexual intercourse, only participate as a form of gift to this older man that he respects. This, in combination with the fact that these boys had not yet grown into manhood, made it possible for them to engage in these relationships without it being considered a blight on their honour (Mottier 2008, 11). It should be noted, however, that relationships between teenagers/young men of the same age were also seen as normal (Foucault 2018, [1984] 176). As Foucault describes it, it was considered natural that boys of a certain age would have these types of relationships. Sometimes it would even be accepted that these relationships continued beyond boyhood, but then there would often be speculation about the exact nature and mechanics of the relationship. As mentioned above, the Greeks didn’t disapprove of sexual relations between men per se, but they did find it shameful for a man to be (what they considered to be) the passive part of such a relationship. It was therefore seemingly easier to accept relationships between men where there existed a clear difference in status (e.g. in age or that one was a slave). Warwick makes a similar point, arguing that it was in a way easier to discuss sex between men and boys because then it is clear who is in power, and the subordinate party is expected to grow out of that position when he becomes a man (2019). But relationships between adult free men were more complicated because then one of the adult men has to be passive/subordinate (in the eyes of society).

”Achille, jouant de la lyre sous sa tente avec Patrocle, est surpris par Ulysse et Nestor” by Giuseppe Cades

Interestingly, one example that Foucault mentions when discussing this topic is actually Achilles and Patroclus, describing how their relationship was fascinating for the Greeks because it was unclear who was the more powerful in their dynamic (2018 [1984], 177). As Foucault notes, Homer described Achilles as the one with higher birth and more strength, but Patroclus as the older one and the one with more intelligence. Warwick makes a similar point:

Although pederastic relationships were strictly hierarchical with no ambiguity of active and passive roles permitted (Dover 1978, 16), Achilles and Patroclus do not fit into this paradigm. Patroclus is older than Achilles and is instructed by Menoetius to advise Achilles on the basis of his greater experience and wisdom (Il. 11.785–789). The fact that Achilles is younger (and more beautiful, Il. 2.673–675) than Patroclus should by rights make him the erōmenos, the passive partner in the relationship, but Achilles is also clearly socially dominant over Patroclus, both in terms of his rank and his greater prowess in battle. As has been noted, this ambiguity of statuses led to some confusion among ancient authors over who should properly be seen as the erastēs of the relationship, Patroclus or Achilles.

(Warwick 2019, 128)

In a modern context, we might very well find it ridiculous to focus so much on this aspect of a relationship, but then again, it’s not too different from how top/bottom dynamics are sometimes discussed today (cf. Johns, Pingel, Eisenberg, Santana & Baeuermeister 2012). As mentioned previously, the reason it was considered so important who was the active/passive part of a sexual relationship was because it was considered to reflect one’s gender position as well. Men who enjoyed the “passive” position in sex were seen as soft, effeminate, and women-like (Mottier 2008, 11). Essentially, a man being in this position was seen as him relinquishing his position as a man (Foucault 2018, 21). And to voluntarily relinquish the prestige and status of a man was obviously seen as deeply shameful. Similarly, men who dressed or acted in a feminine manner (for instance curling one’s hair, speaking with a soft/feminine voice, singing and dancing, etc) were looked down upon. Clearly, sexuality, gender, and status were very closely intertwined in Ancient Greece.

Queer sexuality in The Song of Achilles

So, how is all of this portrayed in The Song of Achilles? Well, generally, quite accurately. One clear example is in chapter 15 when Odysseus discusses Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship with them as they travel towards Troy:

‘One tent’s enough, I hope? I’ve heard that you prefer to share. Rooms and bedrolls both, they say.’

Heat and shock rushed to my face. Beside me, I heard Achilles’ breath stop.

‘Come now, there’s no need for shame- it’s a common enough thing among boys.’ He scratched his jaw, contemplated. ‘Though you’re not really boys any longer. How old are you?’

‘It’s not true,’ I said. The blood in my face fired my voice. It rang loudly down the beach.

Odysseus raised an eyebrow. ‘True is what men believe, and they believe this of you. But perhaps they are mistaken. If the rumour concerns you, then leave it behind when you sail to war.’

(Miller 2017, 165)

As he says, relationships between boys were considered normal (cf. Foucault 2018 [1984], 176). But the tension comes from them almost entering adulthood, and with that comes the potential of rumours and shame… Achilles and (particularly) Patroclus reflects on this afterwards:

Inside the tent there was quietness between us. I had wondered when this would come. As Odysseus said, many boys took each other for lovers. But such things were given up as they grew older, unless it was with slaves or hired boys. Our men liked conquest; they did not trust a man who was conquered himself.

Do not disgrace him, the goddess had said. And this was some of what she had meant.

‘Perhaps he is right,’ I said

Achilles’ head came up, frowning. ‘You do not think that.’

‘I do not mean—’ I twisted my fingers. ‘I would still be with you. But I could sleep outside, so it would not be so obvious. I do not need to attend your councils. I—’

‘No. The Phthians will not care. And the others can talk all they like. I will still be Aristos Achaion.’ Best of the Greeks.

‘Your honour could be darkened by it.’

‘Then it is darkened.’ His jaw shot forward, stubborn. ‘They are fools if they let my glory rise or fall on this.’

‘But Odysseus—’

His eyes, green as spring leaves, met mine. ‘Patroclus. I have given enough to them. I will not give them this.’

(Miller 2017, 166)

This quote gives so much information about the way they, and their society, views sexuality, relationships, and tangentially gender. For one, the line about their society not trusting men who were conquered is a really succinct way of summing up what I spent several paragraphs explaining above. A “real man” has to be active, conquering partners the way he would conquer land or people. So, as Patroclus says, if he wants to have sex with a man it must either be when he is a boy or as an adult with a slave or someone he hires. Therefore, Patroclus is worried about what the world might think about his relationship with Achilles, how that would be interpreted. He worries that it would damage Achilles’ reputation and honour, making people see him as less of an honourable man because they might suspect him of being submissive. As Foucault notes, this is something men in a high position in Ancient Greece would worry about, since their sexual behaviour would impact their reputation and their legacy (2018, 56). But Achilles refuses to let this fear affect their relationship, refuses to give it up. Throughout the novel, it is very clear that Achilles and Patroclus do not only desire each other but also love each other deeply. This, in combination with their similarity in status, is what makes their relationship queer in the eyes of society.

By Venessa Kelley

Of course, me calling the relationship queer doesn’t mean that the characters think of it in those terms. As mentioned in the theory section above, terms like homosexual, bisexual or queer didn’t exist at this time and people didn’t really think of sexuality as a stable identity. Still, it is interesting to consider how Achilles and Patroclus’ sexual (and romantic) orientations are portrayed. It’s clear that their most important relationship is the one they have with each other, but they do both sleep with women. From the way it’s portrayed in the book, it’s a bit unclear how much they enjoy this experience. It seems as it wouldn’t be their first choice, they clearly prefer each other. But it is unclear if this is because they prefer sex with men in general or just that they prefer sex with each other. Another aspect to consider here is their relationship with Briseis. When they first rescue her, she is afraid that Patroclus is a threat to her, but he convinces her that he’s not by kissing Achilles. It’s interesting to consider why this works. Is it meant to show her that he prefers men over women? Or is it meant to show that he’s not a threat because he is in a relationship? I imagine modern readers, who tend to see sexuality as an identity, probably read it the first way, even if it shouldn’t work based on the way Greek society viewed sex (but since Miller is writing for a modern audience, I don’t really consider that a problem). A third interpretation could possibly be that this is meant to make Briseis trust them because Patroclus showed her an aspect of their relationship that could damage their reputations if it became known. Throughout the story, Briseis continues to be close to them, not exposing them, even if she sometimes becomes a bit of a threat to the relationship in other ways. One such moment is of course when she kisses Patroclus, in chapter 24. She says that she knows he loves Achilles but that she knows that some men have both wives and lovers. Then she asks if he wouldn’t want to have children. As Patroclus tells her: ‘If I ever wished to take a wife, it would be you.’ (Miller 2017, 253) But as he also explains, he does not wish to take a wife. Afterwards, Patroclus mentions their discussion to Achilles and…

‘Does she wish to have a child?’

‘Maybe,’ I said.

‘With me?’ he said.

‘No,’ I said.

‘That is good,’ he said, eyelids dropping once more. Moments passed, and I was sure he was asleep. But then he said, ‘With you. She wants to have a child with you.’

My silence was his answer. He sat up, the blanket falling from his chest. ‘Is she pregnant?’ he asked.

There was a tautness to his voice I had not heard before.

‘No,’ I said.

His eyes dug into mine, sifting them for answers.

‘Do you want to?’ he asked. I saw the struggle on his face. Jealousy was strange to him; a foreign thing. He was hurt, but did not know how to speak of it. I felt cruel, suddenly, for bringing it up.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think so. No.’

‘If you wanted it, it would be all right.’ Each word was carefully placed; he was trying to be fair.

I thought of the dark-hair child again. I thought of Achilles.

‘It is all right now,’ I said.

The relief on his face filled me with sweetness.

(Miller 2017, 256)

In a sense, this becomes a moment where Achilles and Patroclus reaffirm their relationship to each other. Patroclus gets an opportunity to go down a more traditional path, taking a wife and having a bunch of cute dark-haired children with her, even as he keeps Achilles as a lover. But he rejects that, choosing Achilles. He doesn’t need a wife when he has Achilles as a partner.

This is of course not the only time their relationship is compared to a marriage. As mentioned in the introduction, Odysseus compares their relationship to his marriage at one point. But there is also the moment on Scyros when Achilles and Patroclus are reunited and Achilles (being dressed as a woman) calls Patroclus his husband. It is worth noting that if this behaviour, Achilles positioning himself as Patroclus’ wife, became public knowledge, he would most likely be severely shamed by others. Even just the fact of his dress could be used to shame him, as Diomedes makes clear when he notes that they could make Achilles’ dressing as a woman known if he won’t come to Troy. Achilles’ reaction is telling:

Achilles flushed as if he’d been struck. It was one thing to wear a dress out of necessity, another thing for the world to know of it. Our people reserved the ugliest names for men who acted like women; lives were lost over such insults.

(Miller 2017, 154)

Again, a man being interpreted as being feminine is seen as deeply shameful. But while Achilles clearly doesn’t want this known, he doesn’t mind people speculating about his relationship with Patroclus. This is somewhat remarkable as that could also be seen as a stain on his reputation, given that people might speculate that it means he is submissive (and therefore unmanly in their eyes). It is worth noting that the book doesn’t comment on how exactly Achilles and Patroclus have sex, if one tends to be the penetrating party, or if they even have sex in that way. In this way, Miller doesn’t have to take a position in this debate around their relationship that’s been going on for thousands of years. But at the same time, not including those details sort of becomes a statement about how it doesn’t matter exactly how they had sex, what matters is their passion and love.

However, the specifics of their relationship did of course matter to their surroundings. This becomes very clear after their death when Achilles’ son Neoptolemus (aka Pyrrhus) comes along and has very strong opinions on the matter.

‘We were talking of your father’s tomb, and where to build it.’

‘On the hill,’ Odysseus says.

Menelaus nods. ‘A fitting place for them.’


There is a slight pause.

‘Your father and his companion. Patroclus.’

‘And why should this man be buried beside Aristos Achaion?’

The air is thick. They are all waiting to hear Menelaus’ answer.

‘It was your father’s wish, Prince Neoptolemus, that their ashes be places together. We cannot bury one without the other,’

Pyrrhus lifts his sharp chin. ‘A slave has no place in his master’s tomb. If the ashes are together it cannot be undone, but I will not allow my father’s fame to be diminished. The monument is for him, alone.’

(Miller 2017, 341)

The specific way that Pyrrhus insists on disrespecting Patroclus here is interesting (if infuriating). He keeps describing Patroclus as being of a lower status, even calling him a slave. As mentioned previously, a man having a sexual relationship with a slave was much more accepted in Greek society than him having a relationship with an equal. So, one can argue that what Pyrrhus is doing her is sort of straightening out the queerness of his father, after death. Again, it’s not that it’s illegal for Achilles to sleep with Patroclus, but it’s frowned upon and impact’s his reputation/honour. This is unacceptable for Pyrrhus who wants to have his father be seen as Aristos Achaion. So, casting Patroclus as a slave rewrites the story to make Achilles seem as the unquestionable active and masculine party.

Later, Odysseus tries to convince Pyrrhus to reconsider and Pyrrhus notes that he will not have his father’s name tainted by a commoner (again, positioning Patroclus as having a lower social standing). He also says that Patroclus is a “blot on my father’s honour, and a blot on mine.” (Miller, 347) Odysseus then continues by asking if Pyrrhus has a wife and says:

‘I have a wife. I have not seen her for ten years. I do not know if she is dead, or if I will die before I can return to her,’ (…) ‘My consolation is that we will be together underworld. That we will meet again there, if not in this life. I would not wish to be there without her.’

‘My father had no such wife,’ Pyrrhus said.

Odysseus looks at the young man’s implacable face. ‘I have done my best,’ he says. ‘Let it be remembered that I tried.’

(Miller 2017, 348)

Here, at least, someone tries to have the truth of their relationship be remembered. To not have it be taken away from them, as Achilles so adamantinely refused in life.

By Venessa Kelly

When the podcast Girls Gone Canon discussed this novel, Chloe made a wonderful point about how this is tragically similar to what many queer people have to go through after death:

There’s something about being different, you know from everyone, that knowing someone has control over your body, and your body’s meaning and what your body stood for, when you die. When your partner or the only person you trusted doesn’t have that control, is horrendous. It is scary. It makes their joint tomb really symbolic.

(Girls Gone Canon 2022, 1 h 31 min)

As Chloe notes, queer people (and other marginalised people, such as disabled people) seldom get control over their bodies or their narratives after death. The people they might have trusted to have their wishes carried out aren’t allowed to, because their relationship isn’t seen as legitimate. This is also something that Judith Butler discusses when writing about what types of kinship and relationships are deemed legitimate by the state, and what consequences that has:

Of course, there are consequences to this kind of derealization that go beyond hurting someone’s feelings or causing offense to a group of people. It means that when you arrive at the hospital to see your lover, you may not. It means that when your lover falls into a coma, you may not assume certain executorial rights. It means that when your lover dies, you may not be able to be the one to receive the body. It means that when the child is left with the nonbiological parent, that parent may not be able to counter the claims of biological relatives in court and that you lose custody and even access. It means you may not be able to provide health care benefits for one another. These are all very significant forms of disenfranchisement, ones that are made all the worse by the personal effacements that occur in daily life and that invariably take a toll on a relationship. If you’re not real, it can be hard to sustain yourselves over time; the sense of delegitimation can make it harder to sustain a bond, a bond that is not real anyway, a bond that does not “exist,” that never had a chance to exist, that was never meant to exist. (…) And if you’ve actually lost the lover who was never recognized to be your lover, then did you really lose that person? Is this a loss, and can it be publicly grieved? Surely this is something that has become a pervasive problem in the queer community, given the losses from AIDS, the loss of lives and loves that are always in struggle to be recognized as such.

(Butler 2002, 25-26)

It should be noted that Butler also recognises the risks of legitimisation by the state, in that this can cause more control and create new boundaries of normativity, but their point about the consequences of not being seen as legitimate still stands. It also definitely speaks to what happens to Achilles and Patroclus after death. Their wishes aren’t respected because their bond is not respected. Pyrrhus refuses to let them share a tomb because he refuses to allow their relationship to be acknowledged and recognised. Even as Odysseus tries to appeal to him by talking about how they would want the opportunity to be reunited in the underworld, he still refuses. He only sees Patroclus as a blot on his father’s honour since their relationships make it possible to question Achilles’ masculinity.

Yet in the end, their love and their bond are recognised. Thetis is convinced by Patroclus talking about his memories of Achilles and she allows for both their names to be on the tomb. As I was reading, this is where I truly started sobbing. Reflecting on it now, I think it wasn’t just that I was happy that they got to reunite in the afterlife, but also that I got so emotional about their relationship being acknowledged. Living in a world where queer people’s lives and loves are still erased so often, especially after death, this ending was truly beautiful to read. Yet it still hurt, because it was clear how much of a struggle it had been to have their love be publicly recognised. You can be Aristos Achaion, yet still lack power over how you and your love is remembered.


In many ways, The Song of Achilles accurately depicts how sexuality was viewed in Ancient Greece. For the modern reader, this way of thinking of sexuality might seem very strange. But The Song of Achilles manages to describe the norms of the society succinctly and most of all imbue it all with a ton of emotion. From the plot, it also becomes very clear that there are consequences to these societal norms. We read about Patroclus thinks how their actions could impact Achilles’ reputation and honour, and at the end of the novel, we see that it very well could. Achilles asserts that he doesn’t care if their love darkens his honour, but in the end, their love is almost erased by other people trying to protect his honour.

But for all the way that the conventions of Achilles and Patroclus’ society are different from our own, there are a lot of events from the story that might feel painfully familiar for queer readers. There is family trying to stop you from being with the one you love, there are your surroundings judging you for the way you love, and there is a world trying to erase who you truly are. Achilles and Patroclus’ story might not be queer in the way we think of queerness today, but their story still resonates for anyone who has had to fight for who they are and who they love. It also provides a small hope that maybe, just maybe, you can have a happy ending.

Art by Venessa Kelley

May you also find what will make you shine like the sun.


Burgwinkle, William E. 2006. “Queer Theory and the Middle Ages.” French Studies: A Quarterly Review 60(1): 79-88.

Buter, Judith. 2002. ”Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13(1): 14-44.

Foucault, Michel. 2002/1976. Sexualitetens historia 1: Viljan att veta. Translated by Birgitta Gröndahl. Göteborg: Bokförlaget Daidalos AB. [This is the Swedish translation of Histoire de la sexualité I :La volonté de savoir/The History of Sexuality I: The Will to Knowledge]

Foucault, Michel. 2018/1984. Sexualitetens historia 2: Njutningarnas bruk. Translated by Britta Gröndahl. Göteborg: Bokförlaget Daidalos AB. [This is the Swedish Translation of Histoire de la sexualité, II: l’usage des plaisirs/The History of Sexuality II: The Use of Pleasure]

Girls Gone Canon. 2022. “Patreon Episode 41 — New POV Character: Patroclus (The Song of Achilles episode”

Jones, Michelle Marie, Emily Pingel, Anna Eisenberg, Matthew Leslie Santana & José Bauermeister. 2012. “Butch Tops and Femme Bottoms? Sexual Positioning, Sexual Decision Making, and Gender Roles Among Young Gay Men.” American Journal of Men’s Health 6(6): 505–518.

Miller, Madeline. 2017. The Song of Achilles. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

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

Roelens, Jonas. 2017. “A Woman Like Any Other: Female Sodomy, Hermaphroditism, and Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Bruges.” Journal of Women’s History 29(4): 11–34.

Warwick, Celsiana. 2019. “We Two Alone: Conjugal Bonds and Homoerotic Subtext in the Iliad.” Helios 46(2): 115-139.