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
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.
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
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.
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