Is Game of Thrones Sexist? Part 5: Arya Gets Genderqueer
By Alex Cranz
An eight part series examining sexism, misogyny and feminism in A Song of Ice and Fire. Due to the length of A Storm of Swords, the examination of the book has been divided into two parts. Enter into this series with the knowledge that each part only looks at a specific book and the preceding books. Calling me an idiot because of something that happens in A Dance of Dragons will only make you look stupid.
When we last talked, it was about the fairy tales Martin has weaved into his series, and specifically the ones that came to the forefront in A Storm of Swords.
But A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t critically-acclaimed because of fairy tales. The television adaptation doesn’t win Emmys because of fairy tales. The series isn’t ardently defended by a bevy of man-child fans because of fairy tales. It’s the grit that sways people. After years of Tolkien and Jordan and dry fantasy interweaved with chaste and wholesome heroes, A Song of Ice and Fire was a refreshing face full of grit.
These characters have teeth. Their world is dark and nasty and realistic in a way rarely portrayed in fantasy (at least back in 1996 when A Game of Thrones was first published). No one is safe in A Song of Ice and Fire; people die, great heroes are revealed as frauds, and little kids don’t get happy endings.
Poor Arya isn’t so much an exploration of the female experience in medieval times as she’s an exploration of identity. Her identity is fluid and changes as easily as the clothes she wears. In her, we see how tenuous the status quo can be. How malleable our innate selves are. Boy, girl, princess, wolf. She’s what she needs to be when she needs to be it, but her shifts aren’t a conscious affair. It’s a survival instinct. Like the chameleon turning brown to avoid the sharp gaze of a bird.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Arya’s sex is completely beside the point of the character. While other men and women in the books live and breathe by what’s between their legs, Arya thrives despite it. Her brother Bran and her sister Sansa are fully realized characters, dependent on their sex. Sansa is a princess in search of a prince and a woman devolved to her womb by politics. Bran is a boy, crippled and perceived as weak because of it, yet he still wants to be the embodiment of masculinity and rescue damsels and have great manly adventures with knights.
Their identities and their struggles are dependent on their gender. In light of their portrayal, Arya is entirely asexual. She doesn’t have romantic interests and she doesn’t want them. She’s also a little genderqueer. She gladly dresses as a boy, and through the course of the first three books she even sometimes forgets she’s a girl. But she’s also not a boy. She hates dresses and she likes fighting like a boy of Westeros would, but she also likes being a daughter and being openly affectionate (which is contrary to what is socially acceptable for boys in Martin’s universe). She often fights to remember that she is a female. Genderqueer has become a catch-all term for all those identities outside of binary gender, and I think it’s a term that perfectly applies to Arya. She’s Frankie-from-Skins-turned-mercenary-assassin. She defies traditional labels.
Her mother, on the other hand, finishes her journey as a cautionary tale. Martin is saying things with these books. He’s talking about power dynamics and exploring leadership. He regularly shows us how utterly idiotic it is to deny women power and how the best of characters can be fools.
Catelyn isn’t a fool. She’s smart and has that intuition that writers always give women. She knows instinctively that something is wrong–that her long ride to her brother’s wedding is a death march.
Where once she was Penelope, lacking agency outside her family, now she is Cassandra, telling all of Troy to be wary. And then she’s dead and her son is dead and the gutsiest moment in the series is flowing off the page in a gush of heartbreaking words and horrifically graphic imagery.
In those last few moments of life, one of the strongest women in the series goes mad with grief and mutilates herself after murdering an intellectually disabled man. Catelyn, like so many housewives, is a giver. She gives everything to her family. Money, time, respect, love. Her husband cheats on her right after their wedding and gives her an illegitimate child to raise, and she does so because that’s what a good and dutiful wife does.
When her husband is murdered, she stands by her son, offering counsel. When her sons are murdered, she breaks away from societal expectations and formulates her own plan to get her daughters back to her. It’s a sound plan, but one that relies on that “intuition” she has. The men around her immediately blame her actions on her grieving woman parts, assuming that she cannot possibly be rational after losing two sons. It’s horrifically frustrating to watch her brother, uncle and son scold her like a child and demean her for doing something that we, the readers, know is right.
Her husband’s death, her sons’ deaths, Robb’s reaction to it all – even the new daughter-in-law she gains – are bits of pressure on a Catelyn’s stalwart psyche. As everyone tells her to weep and be mad with grief, she keeps a level head and suffers the indignity of their words.
Because that’s what a good Westoros lady does.
When the Red Wedding occurs, Catelyn explodes. She’s been a pressure cooker, holding back her grief and rage, bottling it up so she could be pragmatic and help her living son to accomplish his goals. But as soon as the Freys slaughter her son, she cuts loose.
“You want to see crazy,” she seems to say. “Mad with grief, eh? A delicate woman incapable of rational action? Is that really what you want?”
The woman Catelyn becomes at the Red Wedding isn’t a simple product of murder. She’s acting out the role the men of the book have saddled her with. Digging into it with relish. This isn’t the real Catelyn Tully Stark; it is what the patriarchal world has forced her to be.
The Red Wedding and the fall of Catelyn Stark is one of George R.R. Martin’s purest condemnations of the patriarchy. In many ways, Catelyn ceases to be a character and instead becomes a symbol.
Daenerys, too, is a symbol. But where Catelyn is a symbol outside the book, Daenerys has become one in the book. From A Clash of Kings to A Storm of Swords, she’s changed. Grown. Over the course of this book, she becomes a legend as she moves through the cities of Slaver’s Bay, gathering a flock and burning slavers and becoming a threat to Westeros even leagues away.
Way back in A Game of Thrones, Daenerys learned that she would never be able to have a child. Her womb was irreparably damaged in her attempt to save Khal Drogo. In A Clash of Kings, she decides her dragons will be her children. Though she cannot nurse them, she can nurture them and guide and teach them. In A Storm of Swords, she expands the family to include every slave she frees. They follow her and call her mother and she washes, clothes and feeds them.
Her need for maternal fulfillment begins to consume her. No longer does she desire to be a strong queen who rules her people. Now she wants to be something more. A mother. And her first step is to free every slave. If ever you thought she went into her first marriage willingly, if you ever thought she wasn’t raped and degraded in those first few chapters of A Game of Thrones, here she makes it clear. She was a slave. Chattel bought and sold. The only thing that can compare to her desire to be mother to a new nation is her desire to see every slave she finds freed.
In Astapor, she sets men aflame after learning that the slaves Astapor creates are mutilated boys forced to burn their reproductive organs and kill puppies (in case you weren’t sure the puppycide is meant to make it clear that Astapor is evil). In Yunkai, she effectively brings the city to its knees with threats and stern looks. In Meereen, she uses guile to take the city from within.
And the through line of these conquests are the words she says. She’s “just a girl” who “knows nothing of the ways of war.” In each city, men come to her and hear those words and they believe them gladly. They deceive themselves. Daenerys plays on their assumptions, using their sexism against them. Brienne and Arya are transgressors – women who battle societal expectations to live life how they please. Daenerys is the opposite. Like Catelyn and Cersei, she lives within the confines of the world created by patriarchy, but where Catelyn is brow-beaten and defeated by it, and Cersei burns herself attempting to manipulate it, Daenerys, incapable of being burned, succeeds. She lives within the framework built by society and flourishes.