The concepts of sex and gender are often misconstrued to be similar entities. Sex refers to a person‘s biological status and is typically categorized as male, female, or intersex. Gender, on the other hand, refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person‘s biological sex.
Behaviour that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender-normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender non-conformity.
Judith Butler, in her book Gender Trouble, speaks of gender performativity, where she argues that gender is something we perform. She says, “The misapprehension about gender performativity is this: that gender is a choice, or that gender is a role, or that gender is a construction that one puts on, as one puts on clothes in the morning, that there is a ‘one’ who is prior to this gender, a one who goes to the wardrobe of gender and decides with deliberation which gender it will be today.”
Concepts of gender in Game of Thrones
In Game of Thrones, gender is a primary subject. Like established before, we now have a clear understanding of the difference between biological sex and gender. But during the medieval times, the lines were rather blurred. A biological male was expected to show inherent masculine characteristics and was expected to engage in heterosexual intercourse. On the other hand, a biological female was expected to show inherent feminine characteristics and engage in heterosexual coitus. Homosexuals, in the middle ages, were not considered to be a distinct kind of person- rather homosexuality was considered as a kind of act, like adultery. However, in the TV show, we see Loras Tyrell, a knight who exhibited all the masculine characteristics, was very skilled in combat; yet he was a homosexual man. Even if the people knew/suspect of his ‘unnatural interests’, they would subtly ignore it by passing him off as a butch man who couldn‘t possibly be interested in other men. His love interest throughout the show is Renly Baratheon. Both of them fulfill society’s ‘masculine’ expectations, yet clearly, they are lovers. This depiction is more subtle and hinted at, in the books, and shown more openly in the TV series via a wide range of scenes where we find them in bed together.
Societal notions of gender in GRRM’s narrative
Similarly, in the medieval ages of Game of Thrones, the notion of a third gender does not exist. If a biological male is seen to exhibit feminine characteristics, he is seen as a defect, an abnormality, rather than a third gender. Brienne of Tarth is a perfect example of a biological female who exhibits rather masculine characteristics, like being a knight and interested in swordsmanship. She is an anomaly from the traditional passive gender behavior expected of a woman. Lord Varys, on the other hand, is a eunuch. He had his phallus cut off when he was young, and therefore by society‘s standards did not have the ability to portray any masculine traits anymore, and is considered feminine and harmless. In George R. R. Martin‘s narrative, the society is extremely phallocentric, hence it is no surprise that even though Varys rose to a little bit of power in the small council, and he is widely mocked about his absence of a phallus by his friends and foes alike. While he is never considered as a threat, Varys’ loss of manhood has led him to master his ways of gathering knowledge. Since his sexual appetite cannot get the better of him, he is more skilled in his politics and is very subtle about it. “When I see what desire does to people, what it’s done to this country, I am very glad to have no part in it. Besides, the absence of desire leaves one free to pursue other things,” he said. A similar case is that of the Unsullied, the group of warriors who were castrated so that they could be better soldiers, devoid of any sexual distractions.
So we can see that the loss of one‘s manhood has stark different effects on different men. While it empowered Varys and the Unsullied in their field of work, without his phallus Theon lost his own identity and became an obedient slave. This encourages us to ask a question, so what is it that ‘makes’ a man? His desire for a phallus, or ownership of one? Are they still a ‘man’ when their societal notions of masculinity are challenged?
Gender appropriation in modern society