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…
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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 fewdifferentpoints 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.
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.
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.
Moberg, Eva. 1961  ”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.
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!
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.
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
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!
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.
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 , 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 , 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 , 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,  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).
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 , 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 , 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.’
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
This past week, I have had the honour of making a guest appearance on not one but TWO podcasts.
One is on the esteemed ASOIAF podcast Davos’ Fingers, where I joined Matt and Scad to discuss the prologue to A Feast for Crows. We ended up having a great discussion about the mysterious and magical events of that prologue, but also all the fascinating power dynamics on display. And boy is there a lot to cover, from the gender and sexuality norms apparent in the situation between Rosey and Pate, to Alleras’ position in relation to structures surrounding gender and race. I had a great time, so if you have three hours (!) to spare, I encourage you to take a listen!
I also had the opportunity to join my friend Jonas on his excellent podcast TroyeTalk, where he discusses the music of Troye Sivan. We talked about the song ”WILD”, but also a lot about heteronormativity, queer longing, and our own wild (and drunk) adventures. And somehow also eugenics. It was a blast to sit down and chat about all of this, and I think that comes across on the episode too.
Hoping I’ll have more opportunities to collaborate with friends soon!
This fall, I had the honour of organising workshops for a non-profit involved in sexual and reproductive health and rights, talking about trans inclusion. As part of those workshops, I talked for a bit about trans history. One response I got after every workshop was that people appreciate learning this history because this was something they had never been taught before. As several people also noted, it’s also great to know these facts when arguing with transphobes who use their inaccurate view of history to argue that being trans is just a trend. So, in this essay, I wanted to discuss the history of trans and gender-nonconforming people, to raise awareness about how transness is nothing new. Before going any further though, I want to point out that while I have a master’s degree in gender studies, I am no historian. What I do know of trans history is a mix of things I’ve studied at university (which, with some exceptions, mainly focused on history from the 19th century going forward), and me reading up on these topics on my own. I will discuss trans and gender-nonconforming people from a variety of historical periods and cultural backgrounds, but I cannot possibly cover all of world history in one essay. That said, here is a brief(ish) trans history.
Concepts and conceptualisations
Before going any further, I should clarify what I mean by trans in this essay. The term trans is sometimes used in different ways in different contexts, but for the purposes of this essay, I use it similarly to how Dr Susan Stryker uses “transgender” in her book Transgender History:
I use [transgender] in this book to refer to people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender. Some people move away from their birth-assigned gender because they feel strongly that they properly belong to another gender in which it would be better for them to live; others want to strike out toward some new location, some space not yet clearly defined or concretely occupied; still others simply feel the need to get away from the conventional expectations bound up with the gender that was initially put upon them. In any case, it is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place- rather than any particular destination or mode of transition- that best characterizes the concept of ‘transgender’ that I want to develop here.
(Stryker 2008, 1)
Now, while I think this definition is very useful for my purposes here, I feel like I must also point out that not everyone who is included in this definition of transness would identify as trans (see for example Finn Enke 2012). For instance, not all non-binary people self-identify as trans, even if they could be seen as trans using the above definition. When talking about real-life people we should therefore always be cautious when ascribing such labels to them, especially since the term “trans” comes from a very specific historical Western context. I will get into that history further on.
Furthermore, we should be especially careful when assigning the term “trans” to people from outside a Western context, who might have other terms to describe themselves (for more on this, see for instance Boellstorff, Cabral, Cádenas, Cotten, Stanley, Young, and Aizura 2014). Because throughout history and the world, people have understood gender in a variety of different ways. Sometimes it has been as something fixed, determined by the way one’s body looks at birth, and sometimes it has been more fluid. One example I would like to highlight is from a land that my country (Sweden) has colonised, namely Sápmi. As non-binary Sámi activists have pointed out, traditionally speaking Sámi culture wasn’t as binary as many Western cultures are and have been (Märak & Nilla Pinja 2021). Märak and Nilla Pinja also describe that in Sámi religion, the goddess who decides which sex/gender a child would have might sometimes decide to make the child into neither a girl nor a boy, but something else. Non-binary Sámi people are therefore nothing new. But as many Sámi people have also noted, this traditional way of seeing gender has been negatively impacted by colonialism, which insisted on reinforcing a gender binary and heteronormativity (see for example Káddjá Valkeapää 2021; Lifjell 2021; Sandberg McGuinne 2021; Finbog 2022). This is of course similar to what has happened with many other indigenous people, where colonialists have tried their best to stamp out any gender identities and expressions that did not conform to the Western binary view of gender (eg. Roen 2006; Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 28).
There are many too many examples of different cultural understandings of gender to name them all here, and as a white European, I do not feel like it is my place to speak for these people. But I want to highlight just a few places where you can learn more:
KUMU HINA is a documentary about what it’s like to live as māhū in Hawai’i. You can also find educational material related to the movie here, and an explanation of māhū here.
This article discusses multiple Pacific Islander gender identities, such as fa’afafine (Samoa) or fakaleitī (Tonga) while interviewing people living with those identities and different activists.
This video follows fakaleitī Eva Baron who talks about her experiences.
In this video, Geo Neptune explain the term two-spirit, its history and discusses other terms that has been used by native Americans.
This Ted talk by Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, talking about gender in India and living as hijra.
The poetry collection you are enough: love poems for the end of the world by Smokii Sumac, a Ktunaxa queer, transmasculine and two-spirit person. You can find videos of readings of some of the poems here.
The article “Can You See Me? Queer Margins in Aboriginal Communities” by Andrew Farrell, a queer Aboriginal person.
This zine, containing conversations with young two-spirit, trans, and queer indigenous people in Toronto.
This article by transgender Aboriginal professor Sandy O’Sullivan, discussing the colonial project of gender.
The bookColouring The Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives- Life Stories and Essays by First Nations People of Australia.
There is of course a much more to read on this topic, and I really recommend looking into it further, and especially listening to the voices of people who belong to the groups they describe.
Finally, I would just like to make clear that while I’m discussing these gender diverse people in the context of this essay on trans history, that is not to suggest that these people are necessarily trans. Some of these groups and people do describe themselves using terms such as trans or non-binary, but many do not. It is not my place, especially as a white European to label them as trans, that would be a form of colonial violence. The reason I wanted to mention these groups here is rather as a way of highlighting how the Western binary notion of gender is not the only way of understanding gender and have in fact been a part of colonialist violence against gender diverse people.
As mentioned above, there have existed a lot of different conceptualisations of gender historically speaking, and there have always existed people who lived outside the Western binary view of gender. Yet, terms like transgender, non-binary, genderqueer etc are of course relatively new, historically speaking. So, one might wonder how it makes sense to speak of people who lived before then as trans. Well, as some scholars would argue, one reason for doing this is to counter the many voices who try to use history to legitimise their transphobia by arguing that trans folk didn’t exist historically (Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 19). We know gender-nonconforming people existed historically too, even if their lives have often been forgotten or actively hidden. By holding them up, we help create a trans legacy that contemporary trans people can gain strength from.
In the next part of this essay, I will therefore touch on a few historical periods and what we know of trans/gender nonconforming people from those periods. I have chosen to limit this to mostly a Western perspective, partly because I cannot possibly speak about the whole world at once, and partly because that’s what I have the most knowledge about. Another reason for doing so is, as I mentioned above, that history, specifically that of Europe, is often used to legitimise transphobia. It, therefore, makes sense to understand what that history actually looked like to counter those arguments.
With that said, let’s dig into some trans archaeology.
As many have noted, archaeological researchers have long had a tendency to (sometimes forcefully) sort their finds into very strict binary categories (Weismantel 2013; Colwill 2021; Turek 2016). This can be seen in how many archaeologists have had difficulties with how to interpret burial sites containing bodies that seem to belong to one sex but are buried with items which do not seem to match that sex. As Weismantel notes, these kinds of finds have often been ignored or hidden away. Alternatively, these burial finds have been assumed to be some kind of mistake on the part of those doing the burial (Colwill 2021). Another problematic aspect of archaeological gendering/sexing of remains is the methods used to gender/sex both the body and the items buried with it. As Colwill notes:
Archaeological sexing is far from a fail-safe tool, particularly for exploring the often-intangible concept of identities. Remains are sexed osteologically (by examining the size and shape of the bones) or on the basis of genomic analysis (‘genomic’ or ‘chromosomal sexing’), and assigned to a particular sex, most frequently a binary male/female one, on this basis. The inaccuracy of such an approach has been criticized by numerous gender archaeologists for its frequent disregard of the possibility of intersex remains (…) Moreover, it is virtually impossible to accurately assign sex to children and adolescents based on osteological sexing alone (…) Genomic sexing is likewise not the magical bullet it is often presented as, offering a ratio of X and Y chromosomes from which a chromosomal arrangement is extrapolated.
(Colwill 2021, 179)
So, as Colwill notes, sexing of remains often risks being inaccurate. But what is more, with many archaeological finds, researchers haven’t even used those methods but instead interpreted the sex/gender of the remains based on the grave goods found with it. As Colwill notes:
When it comes to exploring gender identity through grave goods, it is difficult to avoid the sort of circular reasoning which declares, for example: ‘oval brooches are items of female dress, so graves containing them must be women’s graves; we know that oval brooches are items of female dress because we find them in women’s graves.
(Colwill 2021, 181)
One example of how this might lead to mistakes comes from an Iron Age grave found near the settlement of Birka (in contemporary Sweden). There a person in a grave was first interpreted to be male based on grave goods but then found to have XX chromosomes. As Weismantel and Colwill both point out, situations such as these have made some researchers question traditional interpretative practices, arguing that some archaeological finds could be interpreted as examples of gender nonconformity (2013; 2021). Colwill describes some such examples from Iron Age Scandinavia that possibly reveal some quite interesting ways the people of that time conceptualised gender. Interestingly, some examples of what seems to be burials of gender nonconforming people from this area and time seem to be burials of seiðr practitioners (Colwill 2021, 182). Seiðr was a practice that could probably most closely be described as a magic ritual, or possibly a shamanic ritual. Some have argued that at least some (if perhaps not all) seiðr practitioners held some sort of liminal gender position, partly outside of female and male binarities. This seems to be reflected in some of their burials, with individuals buried with a mix of “feminine” and “masculine” grave goods for instance. That these individuals are buried with those items, in what is often very elaborate and seemingly thought through burials, also indicate that their contemporaries recognised their liminal gender position.
The Trans Middle Ages
Moving forward a bit in history, I would next like to touch a bit on the Middle Ages and the gender-nonconforming people of that era. As for instance, M.W. Bychowski has pointed out (2018), it is often assumed that the Middle Ages was a time when “men were men” and “women were women” and no trans of queer people were around to make things complicated. Yet, there is a fair bit of evidence that gender-nonconforming people, and people who might call themselves trans had they lived today, existed then as well Below, I want to share just a few of these stories. I’ll start with some trans saints.
First out is Saint Marinos, a saint who was assigned female at birth yet lived for a long time as a monk (Bychowski 2018; Bychowski 2021). He was born around the year 300 in Syria and his story is shared in several medieval chronicles. After his 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.
A common argument against interpreting people like Saint Marinos, and other people who were assigned female at birth yet passed as men, as trans is that they only did what they did to get access to spaces the strict patriarchal order didn’t allow them to enter. But as many people have pointed out, we do not have to assume that these people only did this gender transition for practical reasons (eg. Boag 2005; Feinberg 1996, 87). We seldom have records that show how these historical people understood themselves, we usually just have second-hand accounts, and when it comes to queer history, history rarely remembers faithfully (cf. Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 19). There has therefore often existed a tendency to “straighten out” all instances of queerness/transness in history. Seeing gender nonconforming behaviour as just a pragmatic/practical choice is one example of this. As Spencer-Hall and Gutt puts it: “the reflexive assumption that non-normative gender expressions can only ever indicate cross-dressing is reductive.” (2021, 27) Furthermore, as Feinberg points out, it is arguably insulting to only see trans identities as the product of sexist oppression (1996, 83).
The next life I want to describe is that of Joseph of Schönau, who was born in Cologne and assigned female at birth (Newman 2021). His very eventful life has been retold in several 12th-century chronicles, which is much too long to describe in their entirety here, but I will include the major events here. The chronicles describe that as a child Joseph accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but his father died on the way. While making his way back to Europe, he encountered a variety of challenges which culminated with some people trying to kill him via hanging. In the retelling, it is said that Joseph survived by an angel arriving and supporting his feet until he could be rescued by some local shepherds. Afterwards, he entered a Cistercian monastery as thanks for the divine aid he had received. He eventually died at the monastery, as a monk. What is interesting is that at least one chronicle consistently describes Joseph as male during this part of his life, using male pronouns etc. The retelling of the story also presents Joseph’s identity as a man as neither a choice on his part nor as a disguise, but rather as a divine gift, another part of the divine interventions in Joseph’s life. Another interesting part of the story is that for the monks that knew Joseph as a man, it seemed as if he had transformed into a woman in death. This was perceived as a form of miracle. One interpretation is that through his holy actions, Joseph’s soul was so perfected that he became so intertwined with the divine that he managed to transcend gender. This was made literal in how he had a body that was morphologically interpreted as female even while he was a man. This carries fascinating implications for the gender of the divine, and the possibility to transcend gender.
Next up, I want to talk about the saint Esmarade, whose story is recounted in a 13th-century verse hagiography (Wright 2021). Esmarade was someone who was assigned female at birth, but who left secular life for a monastery where they would go on to present as a eunuch. Vanessa Wright argues that Esmarade can be read as genderqueer since the identity they express does not fit into a binary understanding of gender. The story describes how Esmarade 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 came 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 asks 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 can “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 as venerated as female after death by their fellow monks.
Another possibly trans medieval saint is of course Joan of Arc. I’ve talked about Joan in other essays too when discussing the possibility to analyse medieval people (and fictional characters in mediaevalesque settings) as trans, those essays are available here and here. Joan of Arc is probably most remembered today for her claims of holy visions and successful military leadership and has as such been turned into a symbol of French nationalism and white supremacy (Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt 2021, 12). Yet her story is undeniably a queer one, regardless of how much white supremacists try to scrub off the queerness. As trans writer and activist Leslie Feinberg once wrote about Joan: “If society strictly mandates only men can be warriors, isn’t a woman military leader dressed in armor an example of cross-gendered expression?” (1996, 31) It is clear that her contemporaries viewed her gender expression with contempt, with for instance the English king Henry the VI writing to Inquisitor Pierre Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais:
It is sufficiently notorious and well known that for some time past a woman calling herself Jeanne the Pucelle (the Maid) , leaving off the dress and clothing of the feminine sex, a thing contrary to divine law and abominable before God, and forbidden by all laws, wore clothing and armour such as is worn by men.
(quoted in Feinberg 1996, 34)
Joan of Arc was eventually brought before an Inquisitorial court, charged with a variety of crimes (such as witchcraft and heresy). The court could not prove the witchcraft, so they chose to focus on how Joan’s crossdressing (according to them) constituted heresy since it went against God’s will. For this crime, she was eventually burned at the stake. As both Feinberg (1996) and Bychowski notes (2018), Joan continued to refuse to stop wearing “men’s clothing” even while being accused of heresy. For this crime she was eventually burned to death. As Bychowski notes, it is difficult to say if Joan would have identified as trans had she lived today, but it is clear that what killed her was transphobia.
I have thus far only talked about possible trans people of the Middle Ages who were assigned female at birth, so before moving on I wanted to mention one who seemed to have been assigned male at birth. Eleanor Rykener was a seamstress living in London during the 14th century who was arrested on charges of sexual misconduct, having been caught in the act of selling sex (Bychowski 2018). She presented as a woman when appearing at the court and gave her name as Eleanor, but during questioning, she was forced to reveal that she had previously lived in London under a male name. This provided the court with several quandaries: firstly, which name should they use in the records (they ended up using both), and secondly, if Eleanor is a man, does that mean that sodomy was committed when she slept with men? No verdict is recorded, but it is clear that the court was very confused about how to handle Eleanor’s gender. It is also clear that both someone’s gender identity and how their gender is perceived by their surroundings can have very clear material consequences.
The 19th century and beyond
I am now jumping forward quite a bit in time, but in many ways, the 19th century was a turning point for how trans people were perceived in the West. As Dr Susan Stryker points out: “One of the most powerful tools for social regulation in this period was the rapid development of medical science.” (2008, 36). During this time, sexology and other scientific disciplines started to examine and categorise human sexuality and gender, dividing people into groups and dictating what was normal and abnormal. One such researcher was the Austrian Karl Heinrich Ulrichs who published a series of booklets in 1864-1865. In these booklets, he described people who he called “urnings” that he described as having a female soul enclosed within a male body. This term encompassed both what we might today call homosexuality and transgender. Over the next couple of decades, several other researchers proposed different terms to describe trans people, with the only one that has really survived until today being “transvestite”, as suggested by German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in 1910. While the usage of that word is slightly different today, Hirschfeld originally used it to (more or less) mean someone who dressed or lived as another sex than they were assigned at birth (Bychowski 2021). It is also worth noting that in his book Die Transvestiten, Hirschfeld actually discusses the life of Saint Marinos which I also mentioned above. Besides being a scholar, Hirschfeld also advocated for LGBTQ+ people (he was gay himself) and he was very involved in the queer community in Berlin at the time.
I’ll return to Hirschfeld shortly, but before moving too far into the 20th century I would like to touch a bit more on the 19th century.
Because another relevant event to discuss is the way gender nonconforming expressions started to become more formally criminalised during the 19th century, especially in the U.S. While gender nonconformity had hardly been approved of earlier either, in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, a wave of anti cross-dressing laws became enacted across the U.S. These were often municipal laws and were enacted in 40 American municipalities between 1848 to 1974. As Stryker notes, there isn’t much historical research to explain the sudden explosion of such laws in the latter half of the 19th century, but one explanation might be the rise of modern industrial cities (2008, 33). In such places, people had more opportunities to express their sense of gender than they might have had in close-knit communities in smaller towns. Another contributing factor to these anti cross-dressing laws was the rise of feminism, and with it calls for dress reform allowing for women to wear pants. But another important aspect to consider is the immigration to the US from a variety of Asian countries, especially on the West Coast. As Stryker notes:
Gold rush-era newspapers are full of stories about how difficult it was for European Americans to tell Chinese men apart from Chinese women, because they all wore their hair long and dressed in silky pajamalike costumes. To understand the historical conditions for contemporary transgender activism, we thus have to take into account race, class, culture, sexuality, and sexism and we have to develop an understanding of the ways that U.S. society has fostered conditions of inequality and injustice for people who aren’t white, male, heterosexual and middle class- in addition to understanding the difficulties particularly associated with engaging in transgender practices.
(Stryker 2008, 36)
As I have mentioned previously in this essay, norms of gender are heavily culture dependant, and Europeans (and European Americans) have a long history of judging other cultures as inferior because of their perspectives on gender. It is also worth noting that while cross-dressing and dressing in certain cultural clothing was being criminalised, so-called freak shows were busy exhibiting people whose appearance would have been criminalised in public (Sears 2008). In such a way, these people were doubly classified as abnormal: their existence was both criminalised and made into something freakish to be shown off at a show. Sears even mentions one person who after having been arrested for cross-dressing, got recruited by a freak show who made use of their infamy when advertising the show.
Now, I would like to return across the Atlantic to Europe, and Germany… As mentioned previously, Magnus Hirschfeld was one of the more significant sexologists there at the turn of the century (Stryker 2008, 39). But he didn’t just research trans people, he was also an early advocate for them. For instance, he worked with the Berlin police department to end the harassment of trans people, and he employed trans people at his institute (as receptionists and maids, but still). Said institute was called Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (”the Institute for Sexual Science”) and was opened in 1919. There Hirschfeld and his colleagues held lectures and collected historical documents detailing the diversity of sexuality and gender throughout the world. They also had a clinic, where trans people could receive gender-affirming treatments starting in the early 1920s (Holm 2020). It was there the world’s first documented gender-affirming genital surgery was performed in 1931, on one of Hirschfeld’s employees and friends, Dora Richter.
Later during the same year, Lili Elbe (who some might know from the movie The Danish Girl) received the same treatment at the institute. Unfortunately, the institute was attacked by Nazis in 1933, its books burned, and many of those working there were killed (Stryker 2008, 40). Hirschfeld himself survived, not being in Germany at the time.
Even if much research was destroyed in the destruction of the Institute for Sexual Science, not all knowledge was lost. One key example of this can be seen in the person of Harry Benjamin, a former colleague of Hirschfeld who had migrated to the U.S. in 1913 yet had remained in contact with Hirschfeld for several years (Stryker 2008, 45). In the U.S. Benjamin eventually ended up being one of the leading medical authorities on trans people. For example, he advised on a court case in San Francisco in 1949, arguing against the opinion of other experts (including Alfred Kinsey) who thought that:
…transsexual genital modification would constitute ‘mayhem’ (the willful destruction of healthy tissue) and would expose any surgeon who performed such an operation to possible criminal prosecution. That opinion cast a pall, lasting for years, over efforts by U.S. transgender people to gain access to transsexual medical procedures in their own countries.
(Stryker 2008, 45)
As is hinted at in that quote, however, treatments were available in other countries, for instance in Europe. This was something for instance Christine Jorgensen, who can perhaps be called the world’s first modern trans celebrity, made use of when she travelled to Denmark in 1951 to receive gender-affirming surgery.
This immediately made Denmark famous for allowing trans people access to gender-affirming treatments, although as Holm notes, this also led them to quickly stop allowing non-Danish citizens access to such treatments (Holm 2017, 36). In the U.S. gender-affirming treatments slowly started to become more accessible during the 60s and 70s, but mainly through university-based research programs (Stryker 2008, 93). This was partly thanks to Harry Benjamin, who had in 1966 published a book called The Transgender Phenomena. In this book, he argued that trans people should be given access to medical treatments, instead of being subjected to psychotherapy. He also proposed diagnostics criteria and medical treatments that have influenced trans health care worldwide way into the 21st century (Krieg 2013). It should therefore be noted that while Benjamin did a lot for the transgender community of his time, many trans scholars and activists today criticise the way his work is still used today (eg. Krieg 2013).
Even while this was all happening, queer and trans communities were being formed both in the U.S. and other parts of the world, taking up more and more visible space. Or rather, some did. As Susan Stryker notes, while many white suburban trans people organised discreetly in private, trans people of colour in urban settings were often decidedly more visible (Stryker 2008, 56). One example of this was the drag ball subculture emerging in several American cities. But another example is of course the increasing activism and resistance shown by especially poor queer and trans people of colour. The most famous example of this, which has often been called the start of the modern LGBTQ+ movement, is of course the Stonewall Riots in 1969. There queer people, the majority being poor and/or people of colour, fought back against police brutality, racism, homophobia, and transphobia.
But Stonewall wasn’t the first such instance, a very similar one happened at Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin neighbourhood San Francisco in 1966. As Stryker describes it:
One weekend night in August- the precise date is unknown- Compton’s, a twenty-four-hour cafeteria at the corner of Turk and Taylor streets, was buzzing with its usual late-night crowd of drag queens, hustlers, slummers, cruisers, runaway teens, and down-and-out neighbourhood regulars. The restaurant’s management became annoyed by a noisy young crowd of queens at one table who seemed to be spending a lot of time without spending a lot of money, and called in the police to roust them- as it had been doing with increasing frequency throughout the summer. A surly police officer, accustomed to manhandling Compton’s clientele with impunity, grabbed the arm of one of the queens and tried to drag her away. She unexpectedly threw her coffee in his face, however, and a melee erupted: Plates, trays, cups and silverware flew through the air at the startled police officers, who ran outside and called for backup.
(Stryker 2008, 64-65)
As Stryker notes, a variety of societal factors impacted the outcome at Compton’s Cafeteria, one of the main ones being that the residents of the area were very socially disadvantaged on several levels. This was especially true for trans women who often had very few options both regards to where to live and where to work due to discrimination. They were also often harassed by police, often being arrested for selling sex, regardless if they did so or not, and were then mistreated in a variety of horrible ways. But by 1966 some changes had begun happening, and the inhabitants of the area had begun to organise in a variety of ways, including getting involved in anti-poverty activism. One consequence of this organising was the formation of the organisation Vanguard, an organisation mostly made up of “young gay hustlers and transgender people.” (Stryker 2008, 70) Being formed in the summer of 1966, this was the first known queer youth organisation in the U.S. Considering this background, it’s not surprising that the queens at Compton’s Cafeteria had enough of the police’s harassment and decided to fight back.
Yet, with the increasing trans activism across the U.S. there came a backlash too, of course. This happened in a variety of ways, but one I thought especially worth noting is the backlash within the feminist movement. The opposition to trans people in feminism can be said to have started in the early 1970s, with some feminists arguing that trans people should not be welcome in feminist spaces, and trans women especially should not be welcome in women-only spaces (Stryker 2008). By the late 70s, this view was being expressed by feminist scholars as well, with for instance feminist theologian Mary Daly calling transsexuality a “necrophilic invasion” of women’s spaces. But it was perhaps another scholar, Janice G Raymond who would leave the biggest mark on anti-trans feminism, influencing people for decades to come. In 1979, Raymond published her book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male where she, among other things writes “I contend that the problem of transsexualism would be best served by morally mandating it out of existence.” (quoted in Stryker 2008, 109) She also writes the following about trans women (TW sexual violence):
Rape, of course, is a masculinist violation of bodily integrity. All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women’s sexuality and spirit, as well. Rape, although it is usually done by force, can also be accomplished by deception. It is significant that in the case of the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist, often he [sic] is able to gain entrance and a dominant position in women’s spaces because the women involved do not know he [sic] is a transsexual and he [sic] just does not happen to mention it. (…) Because transsexuals have lost their physical ‘members’ does not mean that they have lost their ability to penetrate women—women’s mind, women’s space, women’s sexuality.
(Raymond 1979, 134)
Raymond’s argument is basically that not only are trans women not women, but by “appropriating” female bodies they exploit women. And if trans women want to join women-only spaces, that is a violation. If this sounds familiar, it is because many anti-trans feminists use similar arguments today as well. It is as hateful and untrue now as it was then.
I will stop here, at the beginning of the 1980s, with trans people fighting back against oppression, and their oppressors fighting them in return. In many ways things have of course changed since then, we have more legal equality in many countries, but in other ways, it feels like we are stuck in the same type of backlash again. Globally, the situation for trans people is currently getting worse again (Pearce; Erikainen & Vincent 2020). There is increased societal backlash against trans people in many places, and anti-trans legislation is also being introduced in many countries. We are also in the middle of what Pearce, Erikainen and Vincent call the “TERF-wars”, with anti-trans feminism running rampant. In many current debates, it is claimed that trans identities are something new, just some trend that young people are following. I hope that this essay has helped make it clear that this is most definitely not the case. Across the world, we have evidence that gender diverse people who don’t fit into Western binary gender norms has always existed. Even if one would just focus on the West, there is evidence as far back as the Iron Age that gender nonconforming people existed. There is evidence of medieval trans people who lived and died, as another gender than they were assigned at birth. And in modern times, we have had access to gender-affirming treatments for trans people for a hundred years. Trans people are not a trend, and we will not be erased.
This essay was edited on March 31st 2022 to include a reference to a post by Dr Liisa-Rávná Finbog (2022).
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“Dear companion”, “friend”, “favourite”, “her true love”, “lover”… There are many terms used to describe queer relationships in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, some of them more explicit than others. In honour of Pride Month, I decided to take a deep-dive into the queer characters of Fire and Blood, to see how queerness is presented in this in-world history book. Since this book is written from a maester’s perspective, it provides an interesting opportunity to examine what might be considered the sort of general views on sexuality and queerness in Westeros. Therefore, I will here analyse how queer sexualities are portrayed in Fire and Blood and compare that to how sexuality was understood and described historically in our world.
But first of all, what examples of queer sexuality are there in Fire and Blood? Well, there are quite a few, but for the purposes of this essay I will focus on Rhaena Targaryen and Laenor Velaryon (and their respective lovers), while also briefly touching on Jeyne Arryn, Sabitha Frey, and Alysanne “Black Aly” Blackwood. I will begin by describing their stories before shifting over to discussing the history of sexuality in our world, and then finally asking myself what this all says about how queer sexualities are perceived in ASOIAF and how it compares to our world.
The queer canon
Rhaena Targaryen, daughter to king Aenys I, was described as a quiet child. She preferred spending time with her dragon to for instance coming to court. Fire and Blood also describe how she found her “favourites” at an early age, and that at age twelve:
(…) Rhaena made her first true friend in the person of her cousin Larissa Velaryon. For a time the two girls were inseparable… Until Larissa was suddenly recalled to Driftmark to be wed to the second son of the Evenstar of Tarth. The young are nothing if not resilient, however, and the princess soon found a new companion in the Hand’s daughter, Samantha Stokeworth.
(“Three Heads Had the Dragon: Governance under King Aegon I”, page 57 of Fire and Blood)
From this quote we can infer that Rhaena and Larissa had some sort of close relationship, perhaps a teen romance of sorts, which was ended when Larissa was married off suddenly. It also seems possible that Larissa was married off so suddenly because of Rhaena and Larissa’s relationship. However, Rhaena did find a new partner in Samantha Stokeworth, and this relationship would continue for many years to come. Something else worth noting about this time is that further on in Fire and Blood, it is remarked upon that Rhaena’s mother, Alyssa, was aware that there were rumours about Rhaena’s close relationship to her companion. Alyssa was therefore keen to prevent the same to happen to Rhaena’s sister Alysanne:
Her sister Rhaena’s penchant for showering an unseemly amount of affection and attention on a succession of favourites, some of whom were considered less than suitable, had been the source of much whispering at court, and the queen did not want Alysanne to be the subject of similar rumors.
(“A Surfeit of Rulers”, page 154 of Fire and Blood)
It is not entirely clear exactly what rumours surrounded Rhaena, but it seems as if her closeness to her female “companions” was seen as unseemly generally speaking. Rhaena did have many so-called “favourites” through both her youth and later life. These included the previously mentioned Larissa Velaryon and Samantha Stokeworth, but some other ones mentioned are Alayne Royce, Melony Piper, Lianna Velaryon, Cassella Staunton, and of course Elissa Farman. But even while Rhaena had all these “favourites”, she still married a man, her brother Aegon, aka Aegon the uncrowned. With him she had two children, the twins Rhaella and Aerea. However, Aegon was killed by his uncle Maegor the Cruel, and Rhaena had to flee. For a while she hid on Fair Isle, where she had some allies, but eventually Rhaena was forced to marry Maegor (partly due to threat to her daughters). After some time of further warring, Maegor was finally ousted as a king and Rhaena’s younger brother Jaehaerys claimed the throne. Rhaena then returned to Fair Isle, and married the second son of house Farman, Androw. However, it is said that while Rhaena found her “true love” on Fair Isle, that love was not Androw but his sister Elissa Farman. It is noted that Elissa’s father had wanted Elissa to marry, but that she had “scared off” any suitors. She was quite obviously more content to spend her time with women.
For a time, Rhaena resided on Fair Isle with her husband and a number of her so-called “favourites”. In fact, Rhaena and her companions (Samantha Stokeworth, Alayne Royce, and Elissa Farman) was sometimes called “the Four-Headed Beast” because of their closeness. Eventually, however, they had overstayed their welcome, and were forced to move. Through negotiations with her brother, the king, Rhaena got possession of Dragonstone and moved there with her ladies. After a while on Dragonstone, Elissa Farman got restless, however, and after arguing with Rhaena she ended up sailing off (stealing some dragon eggs in the process). Not long after, tragedy struck Rhaena and her partners again, when Androw Farman in an incel-like move decided to poison all Rhaena’s ladies out of anger and jealousy. After Rhaena finally found out what he had did, he decided to kill himself. After his death, Rhaena fed his body to her dragon. However, Rhaena’s life didn’t exactly improve after that, in fact it continued being quite tragic. Her daughter, Aerea, wasn’t content staying on Dragonstone, and argued fiercely with her mother about this. Eventually she decided to fly off on Balerion. This ended in tragedy, with her eventually returning gravely wounded and dying. After all this tragedy, losing her partners and child, Rhaena’s sister Alysanne had this advice to give:
‘You are still a young woman. If you like, we could find some kind and gentle lord who would cherish you as we do. You could have other children.’ This only served to bring a snarl to Rhaena’s lips. She snatched her hand away from the queen’s and said: ‘I fed my last husband to my dragon. If you make me take another, I may eat him myself.’
(“Jaehaerys and Alysanne: Their Triumphs and Tragedies”, page 253 of Fire and Blood)
And so, it happened that Rhaena instead retired to Harrenhal, where she lived out her life in solitude.
Moving forward into the future, I would next like to turn to Rhaena’s great-great-great-nephew, Laenor Velaryon. Laenor was the son of Rhaenys the Queen Who Never Was (but should’ve been!) and Corlys Velaryon and was betrothed and later married to Rhaenyra Targaryen. When the match was proposed some objections were raised, as Fire and Blood tells us:
Laenor Velaryon was now nineteen years of age, yet had never shown any interest in women. Instead he surrounded himself with handsome squires of his own age, and was said to prefer their company. But Grand Maester Mellos dismissed this concern out of hand. ‘What of it?’ he said. ‘I do not like the taste of fish, but when fish is served, I eat it.’
(“Heirs of the Dragon: A Question of Succession”, page 372 of Fire and Blood)
It seems as if Rhaenyra had heard the same tales of Laenor, because she was against the match as well:
The princess knew much and more about Laenor Velaryon, and had no wish to be his bride. ‘My half-brothers would be more to his taste,’ she told the king.
(“Heirs of the Dragon: A Question of Succession”, page 372 of Fire and Blood)
What Laenor’s views on the subject was is not mentioned, but nonetheless, the two were married after pressure from the king. During the tournament to celebrate their wedding, Ser Criston Cole (rumoured former lover of Rhaenyra) decided to target both Ser Harwin Strong (rumoured to be Rhaenyra’s new lover) and Ser Joffrey Lonmouth (Laenor’s “favourite”). This resulted in the death of Ser Joffrey, albeit not until after he had lingered for several days in unconsciousness. Fire and Blood notes how Laenor spent every hour of those days beside him and wept bitterly when he finally passed.
Ser Joffrey was, however, not Laenor’s last partner that is recorded in Fire and Blood. It is mentioned that he eventually found a “new favourite” in a household knight called Ser Qarl Correy. Furthermore, it’s noted that Laenor apparently seldom shared the bed of his wife:
Septon Eustace says they shared a bed no more than a dozen times. Mushroom concurs, but adds that Qarl Correy oft shared that bed as well; it aroused the princess to watch the men disporting with one another, he tells us and from time to time they would include her in their pleasures. Yet Mushroom contradicts himself, for elsewhere in Testimony he claims that the princess would leave her husband with his lover on such nights and seek her own solace in the arms of Harwin Strong.
(“Heirs of the Dragon: A Question of Succession”, page 373 of Fire and Blood)
While the account given here is contradictory, this is by far the most explicit reference to queer sexuality in Fire and Blood, with words such as “disporting”, “pleasure”, and “lover” being used. As hinted at in this quote, Laenor and his wife Rhaenyra were never very physically intimate, yet they seem to have had some sort of mutual understanding regarding this. They did have three children during their marriage, Jacaerys, Lucearys, and Joffrey (many suspected these children were actually the children of Harwin Strong). According to Fire and Blood, the youngest child was named Joffrey as tribute of Laenor’s former “favourite”. Unfortunately, even if this seemed to be a happy-ish arrangement, Laenor did not get a happy ending. He was killed by “his friend and companion” Ser Qarl Correy after the two had been “quarrelling loudly” according to Fire and Blood. The motive for the killing remains unclear, with sources differing. Mushroom suggests that Ser Qarl was payed to kill Laenor, perhaps by Daemon Targaryen. Septon Eustace suggests that jealousy Ser Qarl’s motive and that: “Laenor Velaryon had grown weary of Ser Qarl’s companionship and grown enamoured by a new favourite, a handsome squire of six-and-ten.” (“The Heirs of the Dragon: A Question of Succession”, page 379 of Fire and Blood)
Even after his death, the rumours surrounding Laenor’s sexuality would play a role in the politics of Westeros, however. Part of this was of course the fact that most people doubted that Rhaenyra’s children were by Laenor. This was used as an argument against Rhaenyra claiming the throne. Fire and Blood also describes another way that Laenor’s sexuality was used as propaganda against his side of the family, when describing how Ser Criston Cole argued against Rhaenyra claiming the throne after king Viserys’ death. Cole mainly focused on the unfitness of Rhaenyra and her second husband, Daemon Targaryen, but he also hints at his views on Laenor:
Ser Criston Cole spoke up. Should the princess reign, he reminded them, Jacaerys Velaryon would rule after her. ‘Seven save this realm if we seat a bastard on the Iron Throne.’ He spoke of Rhaenyra’s wanton ways, and the infamy of her husband. ‘They will turn the Red Keep into a brothel. No man’s daughter will be safe, nor any man’s wife. Even the boys… we know what Laenor was.’
(“The Dying of the Dragons: The Blacks and the Greens”, page 396 of Fire and Blood)
It’s interesting to note here that Cole suggests that Laenor was interested in “boys”. I’ll get back to this later when I do further analysing, but it is worth noting that the rest of Fire and Blood doesn’t really provide much evidence of him being interested in “boys.” Before his marriage to Rhaenyra, when he was 19, it is said he enjoyed the company of squires of his own age. Both of his named lovers, Ser Joffrey Lonmouth and Ser Qarl Correy seems to be of his own age. The only instance that would suggest an interest in “boys” is if we believe Septon Eustace theory about Ser Qarl’s reason for killing Laenor, that he had found a new favourite in a sixteen old squire. Laenor would have been 26 himself at this time, so as modern readers we might very well think this age gap is inappropriate. However, it seems unlikely that the characters of ASOIAF would think such a difference was problematic if it was a heterosexual relationship. So, it seems more likely that Cole is just accusing Laenor of being predatory because Cole is bigoted.
Before wrapping up this description of queer sexualities in Fire and Blood, I want to discuss some of the queer women that we meet during The Dance of the Dragons. One of these is Lady Jeyne Arryn, who was also referred to as The Maiden of the Vale. When the Dance begins, she was thirty-five, unwed, and the ruler of the Vale. Early during the conflict, Prince Jacaerys went to treat with her, and the sources differ in their description of this:
Mushroom tells us that this famous maiden was in fact a highborn harlot with a voracious appetite for men, and gives us a salacious tale of how she offered Prince Jacaerys the allegiance of the Vale only if he could bring her to climax with his tongue. Septon Eustace repeats the widespread rumour that Jeyne Arryn preferred the intimate companionship of other women, then goes on to say it is not true.
(“The Dying of the Dragons: A Song for a Son”, page 415 of Fire and Blood)
It seems more likely that Jeyne and Jacaerys came to a diplomatic agreement, as is suggested by Grand Maester Munkun, but it is interesting to note these two differing accounts of Lady Jeyne’s sexuality. We are not told much more about Jeyne Arryn’s sexuality through the book, besides the fact that she never married, and this telling passage about her death:
Forty years of age, she perished in the Motherhouse of Meris on its stony island in the harbour of Gulltown, wrapped in the arms of Jessamyn Redfort, her ‘dear companion.’
(“The Lysene Spring and the End of the Regency”, page 669 of Fire and Blood)
Here we again see that she had a female “companion”, familiar language at this point. Lady Jeyne Arryn was not the only queer woman on that side of The Dance, however:
Amongst their supporters were two extraordinary women. Alysanne Blackwood, called Black Aly, a sister to the late Lord Samwell Blackwell, and thus aunt to Bloody Ben, and Sabitha Frey, the Lady of the Twins, the widow of Lord Forrest Frey and mother to his heir, a ‘sharp-featured sharp-tongued harridan of House Vypern, who would sooner ride than dance, wore mail instead of silk, and was fond of killing men and kissing women’, according to Mushroom.
(“Aftermath: The Hour of the Wolf”, page 572 of Fire and Blood)
In this passage we learn a few interesting things about Sabitha Frey in particular, for instance that she had been married to a man, had a child, yet liked to kiss women (and enjoyed more masculine coded pursuits in general). Later, we find out a bit more about Black Aly and her connection to Sabitha:
Huntress, horse-breaker, and archer without peer, Black Aly had little of a woman’s softness about her. Many thought her to be of that same ilk as Sabitha Frey, for they were oft in one another’s company, and had been known to share a tent whilst on the march. Yet in King’s Landing, whilst accompanying her young nephew Benjicot at court and council, she had met Cregan Stark and conceived a liking for the stern northman.
(“Aftermath: The Hour of the Wolf”, page 586 of Fire and Blood)
This suggests that Black Aly had a relationship with Sabitha Frey, and that people thought they were both gay (being of the same “ilk”), but that this was considered disproven when she eventually started her relationship with Cregan Stark. Black Aly did eventually marry Cregan and had several children with him.
The queer history of our world
So, now that we have discussed some of the queer people in Fire and Blood, how does that compare to (depictions of) queer sexuality during the Middle Ages in our world? Well, what we must first realise is that people have conceptualised both sex/gender, sexuality, and sexual acts differently through the world and its history. For the purposes of this essay, I will mainly focus on Europe since that’s the main inspiration for ASOIAF, but even in Europe, the understanding of sexuality has varied widely historically. During Ancient Greece, for instance, it was considered perfectly acceptable for an adult free Athenian-born man to have sex with anyone from a lower social status than him as long as he was the active (penetrative) party (Mottier 2008, 9). So, he could sleep with women, but also slaves and immigrants of any gender, and younger men. A man who broke this norm in some way, however, was seen as abdicating his position as a man, and actually risked losing his citizen status. Interestingly enough, the Ancient Greeks didn’t have as many opinions about female queer sexuality (it’s not recorded as much at least). The notable exception is of course the descriptions that can be found in the poet Sappho’s work, which often describes love between women (Mottier 2008, 12). To the extent male writers of this time discussed women having sex with women, it was mostly in disapproving or contemptuous ways.
With the further influence of Christianity on Europe came new sexuality norms, however. Generally speaking, sex was seen as sinful, especially because its connection to “original sin” and humanity’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Mottier 2008, 18). However, the Church would accept sexual intercourse within the space of the marriage, but only for reproductive purposes. This generally led to same-sex relationships being condemned, but through the Middle Ages it varied widely how much people engaging in such relationships were actually punished (Mottier 2008, 22). In fact, one could argue that the Middle Ages were a better place to live as a queer person compared to later historical periods. As researcher William E. Burgwinkle puts it:
Though it might surprise many, the Middle Ages are emerging as a kind of queer utopia, a historical period in which institutional state regulation as we know it hardly existed, in which marriage practices were not yet controlled entirely either by state or church and varied widely by class and region, in which same-sex segregation was a norm, particularly in intellectual communities, and in which love stories between men were common, if covert. Texts, both literary and historical, actually spoke of same-sex eroticism, albeit it in a derogatory way, referring to such relations as sodomy, bougrerie, or heresy. Over the course of 1000 years, (c. 500–1500), when almost any sexual act or impulse which did not focus on sex exclusively in terms of procreative potential was branded as sodomitical, all readers conveniently find themselves in the same crowded boat, cast out one and all as sodomites. When that sodomite’s every thought is ripe for interrogation, as we see in many of the major penitentials and theological works, we arrive, however proleptically, at that magic moment when the inviolable modern status of hetero and homo as polar opposites simply dissolves. (2006, 79)
What is interesting to note here is that while same-sex relationships would be seen as sodomitical, so would a variety of sexual acts between men and women. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, it varied quite a lot how harshly these norms would be enforced by either the state or the church. Something else worth noting that Burgwinkle mentions is that based on a lot of historical records, it seems as if people engaging in same-sex relationships were mostly described as committing a sinful act, similar to other acts one could commit. As famous French philosopher Michel Foucault put it when discussing the history of sexuality; before the 18th century, the sodomite was seen as someone who committed a specific sinful or criminal act, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the homosexual started to be conceptualised as a specific type of person (Foucault 2002 , 64). This modern view of homosexuality saw the homosexual person as someone with stable identifiable characteristics, someone who could be classified (or diagnosed) by psychologists or sexologists. The sodomite of medieval times was just someone suspected of a forbidden act, possibly a repeat offender, but that was it. But the homosexual of modern times was a type of person, a part of a different species, as Foucault puts it. However, just because we in contemporary times tend to see sexuality more as a stable identity, and conceptualise it in terms of psychology, biology, etc, doesn’t mean the older ways have been completely rejected (Mottier 2008, 48). People still discuss sex/sexuality through moral and religious lenses and see same-sex desires as something you can, and should, just chose to not act on, to avoid doing a morally wrong act. These different conceptualisations of sexuality exist parallel to each other.
Similarly, some researchers have questioned if we can be sure that all people during the Middle Ages understood sexuality in the same way, as act, not identity (eg. Goldberg & Menon 2005; Roelens 2017). It’s important to remember that what can be gleaned from official sources such as court documents or other written historical accounts might be very different from what everyday peasants thought, for instance. One fascinating example of this is described in an article by Jonas Roelens, which examines the sodomy trial in the town of Bruges (in what is now Belgium) in 1618 during which two women were accused of several sexual and moral transgressions. Roelens argues that, based on the court transcripts, it seems as these women saw their sexuality as a more stable form of identity than one might expect. As he says:
While I do not want to portray Mayken and Magdaleene as “premodern lesbians,” I do want to highlight that there have always been individuals who preferred same-sex relations over “heterosexual” ones and were very much aware of this long before the “homosexual as a species,” to use the theorist Michel Foucault’s resonant phrase, came into existence. (ibid, 12)
So, while society at large might not have understood queer sexualities as some sort of fixed identity, individual people might have understood themselves like that. Roelens also points out that this trial is interesting because it concerns two women, which gives some insight into contemporary understanding of female sodomites, or rather how difficult it was for society to understand such people. Many people had a hard time imagining how two women could have sex with each other, and to wrap their heads around it some even imagined that one of the women had to be a “hermaphrodite” or possibly possessed by the devil. As Roelens notes, this difficulty of understanding sex between women also led to Medieval societies generally focusing less on female sodomites than male sodomites, since it was assumed that sex must involve penetration, so sex between women wasn’t fully recognised. Therefore, sodomy trials involving women were generally less common, even if they did exist. Furthermore, as discussed above, male sodomy wasn’t prosecuted at all times either (Mottier 2008, 22). How problematic male sodomy was perceived to be depended in large part on the circumstances; for instance, sexual relations between a king and his lover was seen as problematic, but a similar relationship between men of other social classes might not condemned in the same way (Burgwinkle 2006). In the case that Roelens describes, it seems as if the trial occurred partly because the situation became a very public affair (one of the women’s husband told the court about it after he was accused of horse stealing, and rumours were spreading through the area). The accused sodomy had also interfered in married life, with one of the women leaving her husband for her lover. This is in line with how Medieval courts often focused on crimes that somehow disrupted the norms of marriage (Foucault 2002 , 60).
The queer analysis
So, how does the queerness in Fire and Blood compare to our world? I think the first thing worth pointing out is that Fire and Blood seems to be using a modern conceptualisation of sexuality, rather than a medieval one. I say this because it seems as if queer sexuality is seen more as something that is indicative of someone’s identity than just as an immoral/illegal act. To paraphrase Foucault; in Fire and Blood queer people are seen as part of a species, not just repeat offenders. This can be seen in several instances, for instance in how people viewed Laenor’s sexuality. It seems quite clear that most people were convinced he was only interested in men, as Rhaenyra said for instance:
The princess knew much and more about Laenor Velaryon, and had no wish to be his bride. ‘My half-brothers would be more to his taste,’ she told the king.
(“Heirs of the Dragon: A Question of Succession”, page 372 of Fire and Blood)
Most people seemed to view his sexuality as a sort of stable characteristic of him as a person, not just seeing his sexual behaviour as wrongful acts. The notable exception is Grand Maester Mellos, who argued that even if someone doesn’t like fish, they can eat it when served. But that more seems to be a result of him being ignorant and homophobic than it being indicative of how sexuality is generally perceived. As mentioned previously, it is also possible that several different conceptualisations exist parallel in a society, and even in our world we see people making similar arguments as Grand Maester Mellos, that someone should just choose not to be queer. Another instance that indicates that sexuality is conceptualised similarly to our modern view is when Ser Criston Cole argues that Laenor was a danger to boys, saying that “we know what Laenor was.” (“The Dying of the Dragons: The Blacks and the Greens”, page 396 of Fire and Blood) This quite obviously casts Laenor as a specific type of person with specific identifiable characteristics. What Cole says here also clearly plays into the stereotype of seeing gay men as predators, and a danger to children (eg. Mottier 2008, 107). This idea is quite new historically speaking and is in large part of conservative anti-gay propaganda from the 1980s. That is to say, while both the paedophile and the homosexual person were seen as problematic before then, they were not connected to each other in the minds of the public until quite recently. This very idea relies on seeing queer people as a specific type of person with specific traits, which then these bigots argue include being a predator.
When it comes to the queer women, I would argue that they too are seen as part of a specific type of people. The clearest example of this is how Sabitha Frey is described, with it being said that she preferred kissing women, and people speculating that Black Aly was of “the same ilk” as Sabitha. Sabitha being of a specific ilk indicates that people see her sexuality as a stable characteristic. Black Aly is clearly suspected of the same, but this is seemingly dismissed after she gets into a relationship with Cregan Stark. I would argue that this is an example of how bisexual people are often seen as stopping being queer if they get into a heterosexual relationship, which is of course untrue. But that the people of Fire and Blood assumes this does once again indicates that queer people are seen as a specific type of people, if Black Aly can be seen as not being part of that type of people. When it comes to Jeyne Arryn, it is interesting to note how she’s accused of two different types of sexual “misconduct” by Fire and Blood; Mushroom says she was a highborn “harlot” who slept with men, while Septon Eustace notes the rumour that she preferred the intimate companionship women. Both of these behaviours would be seen as sinful in the eyes of the medieval church of our world, and most likely the Faith in Westeros too. But regardless, the description of Jeyne preferring the intimate companionship of women once again points to sexuality as a stable preference and characteristic. It is interesting to compare this to Rhaena; Rhaena is consistently described as being closer to her “favourites” than her male partners, and Fire and Blood clearly outlines how she had female partners since she was a teenager. This indicates that her sexuality is seen as consistent, a part of her identity, that she’s not just seen as a repeat sodomite. However, we do not find not the same descriptions of her sexual behaviour as with the other characters I’ve mentioned, nothing about kissing women, having intimate companionship with them, or having same-sex lovers (as with Laenor). One possible explanation for Rhaena’s sexuality being less explicitly described than for instance Laenor’s could be that queer women’s sexuality have generally been less understood than queer men’s sexuality (Roelens 2017). Sex between women were simply not recognised as sex, as people assumed that sex must include penetration. As a contrast, Laenor is described as having a lover and it is quite clear that he slept with men. Sabitha Frey is described as kissing women, but I would still argue that this is less explicit than Laenor being described as “disporting” with his lover. It does seem as if description of queer women’s relationships focuses more on their companionships than their sexual acts, which is described more explicitly with queer men.
Another interesting aspect to note is the degree same-sex relationships are prosecuted legally in Fire and Blood. In my reading, I could find no instances of someone being prosecuted or convicted of anything relating to having a same-sex relationship, and this would be a contrast to medieval times in our world. The podcast Learned Hands came to the same conclusion in one of their episodes, noting that it doesn’t seem as if same-sex relationships are illegal in Westeros (2020). However, as they point out, this doesn’t mean they aren’t stigmatized, and it does not mean that they are protected by the law. It does seem like the Faith of the Seven would disapprove of same-sex relationships since they think sex should happen between one man and one woman in order to produce children, as Learned Hands point out in that same episode. But as we learn in Fire and Blood, the Faith loose the right to put people on trial quite early in the Targaryen regime. So, it would seem as if even if they wanted to, they couldn’t legally prosecute people for same-sex relationships. They might preach that it’s sinful, but they can’t put someone on trial (at least during most of the time I’m covering here, and they honestly seemed too busy before to bother with same-sex relationships when there was Targaryen incest and Maegor being Maegor to consider). Still, the crown might have chosen to enact laws prohibiting same-sex relationships, but if those exist it doesn’t seem as if they are enforced. This can be seen as being consistent with how medieval courts didn’t always chose to prosecute sodomy, as I’ve mentioned before. When they do prosecute, as in the case Roelens analyses (2017), it might be because the sodomy clearly interfered with the marriage. I would argue that this in line with another point that Learned Hands make, that the point of sexuality during the medieval times was producing legitimate heirs. As long as someone’s queerness isn’t interfering with that, the crown won’t care. And for the most part, the queerness didn’t interfere in the instances I have looked at. Rhaena, Laenor, Sabitha, and Black Aly still married. Jeyne didn’t, which is described as causing some issues with inheritance, but she didn’t stray too far from the accepted path in other regards, so this seems to have been mostly accepted.
The queer conclusions
So, what we can see here is that there are loads of queer characters in Fire and Blood, and generally speaking their sexualities are described more similarly to how modern society view sexuality than medieval society would. That would indicate that that’s how the character in ASOIAF generally see it as well. But what does that mean? Is that bad? I wouldn’t necessarily say so. As I’ve argued elsewhere, ASOIAF is George RR Martin’s world, he can do as he pleases. It also makes more sense for him as a modern writer, writing for a modern audience. For instance, if we all have a common understanding of queer sexuality as being a part of someone’s identity, we can be sad and angry on behalf of the characters forced into heterosexual relationships. If we all assume that Laenor, for instance, is gay we all get frustrated when Grand Maester Mellor says that he should chose to ignore that and sleep with women. In this way, GRRM can implicitly criticise the bigotry and ignorance of the characters in world, and the same type of bigotry that exists in our world. Which he often seems to want to do, as Shiloh Carroll has pointed out: “(…) A Song of Ice and Fire examines contemporary concerns or anxieties while placing them in a far-distant past, allowing the reader to consider them at a distance.” (Carroll 2018, 7) In that context it makes absolute sense to use a more contemporary understanding of sexuality.
It is also interesting to note that, similarly to a lot of medieval contexts in our world, the crown and the Faith of Westeros doesn’t always seem that interested in prosecuting same-sex relationships. They might not approve, but as long as it’s not too obvious or provides too big of an obstacle, they seem to chose to ignore it. That’s obviously a long way from acceptance and equality, but as some researchers have pointed out about the Middle Ages, it’s also much better than other historical periods. It’s suboptimal, but not as terrible as it could be.
Burgwinkle, William E. 2006. “Queer Theory and the Middle Ages.” French Studies: A Quarterly Review 60(1): 79-88.
Carroll, Shiloh. 2018. Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.
Foucault, Michel. (2002/1976). Sexualitetens historia 1: Viljan att veta. Translated by Birgitta Gröndahl. Göteborg: Bokförlaget Daidalos AB [This is the Swedish translation of L’Histoire de la sexualité I :La volonté de savoir/The History of Sexuality I: The Will to Knowledge]