Performativity and the Feminine Warrior: The Case for Feminism in Game of Thrones

by Elizabeth DiEmanuele and Emily Groleau

Despite its penchant for gratuitous nudity and sex, is HBO’s Game of Thrones rejecting our traditional understanding of the male hero?

Despite its penchant for gratuitous nudity and sex, is HBO's Game of Thrones rejecting our traditional understanding of the male hero?

We see in medieval-inspired series’, such as with the fantasy-driven Lord of the Rings or the traditional Robin Hood, that the hero is a warrior, a masculine figure of strength, courage and honor. He overcomes obstacles and ensures that good triumphs. But this hero is always a manit is he who holds the sword, masters the bow, slays the dragon, and wins the fair maiden. Even in those moments of female strength it is the masculine that overcomes, such as with Eowyn in Lord of the Rings, a woman who masters the sword but is tamed by her inherent desire for love. There is hardly a classic series out there where the woman embodies both the attributes of female understanding and masculine strength.

There seems to be a new trend in literature and pop culture, especially with the growing hype of Game of Thrones, the series and the HBO adaptation. Brienne of Tarth defies gender normativity in her embodiment of the male warrior. She is a hero, not a feminine figure waiting to be rescued. Even in The Hunger Games franchise, Katniss is the capable warrior, not Peeta, her ongoing love interest. She acts bothered when the stylists do her makeup or hair; she is also an ambivalent participant in a love triangle, of which she is the center. 

Judith Butler – Author of Gender Trouble

But, before we continue in our analysis, we must first distinguish what we mean by “the masculine” and “the feminine.” While man and woman are biological labels that we assign to a sex, the masculine and feminine are more abstract ideals. As Judith Butler argues in Gender Trouble, gender is a role that the Self acts. It is a construction, not an essential part of one’s identity: “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…” Butler calls this idea “performativity.” Just like an actor or actress who plays a role on a stage, a Self performs a gender construction. A man can embody the feminine, just as a woman can embody the masculine. These are choices that a Self makes, rather than choices that biologically determined.

When considering the masculine and the feminine, there is a binary (or opposition): masculine/feminine. Traditionally, the masculine has been regarded as superior while the feminine is all that the masculine is not. If the masculine embodies strength, the feminine embodies weakness. If the masculine is logical, the feminine is illogical. These work with other ideas such as unemotional/emotional, independent/dependent, paternal/maternal and so forth. It all sounds quite dull, to say the least. And unfortunately, traditional fantasy and medieval-themed literature and pop culture phenomena, only seem to affirm these stereotypes. Hence, why we need women like Judith Butler to break the ideological constructs.


It all gets more complicated when we throw in human expectation. A man who cries or shows strong emotions may be isolated for breaking the mould of what constitutes as “normal.” A woman who has courage and holds the sword, as we see with Brienne, becomes the brunt of cruel humor. Even in North American society, when two men hug there oftentimes needs to be a joke of some sort made to reaffirm their masculinity—i.e. the bromance. Why not friendship? When the media released that it would be Jennifer Lawrence, a more athletic woman to play Katniss Everdeen, people criticized her weight, stating that she was not “small” enough, frail enough, even to play such a physically demanding role. What is it about society that demands a fulfilment of these gendered expectations?

Which is why we love Brienne. While Game of Thrones may be criticized for its portrayal of women, particularly through explicit prostitution and sex, there is something to be said for Brienne. She may be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman, but there is no doubt about her physical and mental embodiment of masculinity. She’s broad-shouldered and towers over her male counterparts. She even defeats them in battle. She’s bound by a code of honor. She is the modern-day knight. But, she is a woman playing the masculine, a point which is affirmed over and over and over. Unfortunately, her womanhood is often reduced by her unconventionality. She does not fit the mould and the other men note this. At many points in the series, men state that she will never get married as she is not a woman worthy of desire. Yet, we as an audience are quite aware of her desire for love. Why can she not have both? Why must she only embody the masculine or the feminine?

Complicating this double-standard is arguably the character of Jaime Lannister. As those who watch or have read the series knows, he and Brienne develop a strong bond of friendship and respected partnership. Notably, Jaime possesses qualities of both the masculine and feminine. He is a skilled swordsman, coined as the ‘Kingslayer’ for killing King Aerys in the last war. However, he seems to embody more of the feminine. Physically, he has fair hair and blue eyes, the twin of one of the most beautiful women in the Kingdoms. Whereas, inwardly, he is deeply dedicated to a monogamous relationship with the woman he loves. This latter point starkly contrasts the other men in the novels, who are content with prolific sexual encounters.

Supporting Butler’s assertions of society imposing gender normativity on individuals, the HBO series and the novels make certain to establish Jaime’s masculinity before revealing these more feminine attributes. An example of this is when Cersei and Jaime have an argument about the fate of Bran Stark, a boy who witnessed their incestuous affair and was crippled as a result of it. During the argument, Jaime crudely refers to future disputes over the matter as being “the war for Cersei’s cunt.” She slaps him, which emphasizes his emotional distance from the feminine. There are also several references to his “sword” and “sheath” within the first moments of his introduction. However, when he loses his sword-hand, we begin to see more of his feminine nature, such as his intense feelings for Cersei and his subsequent disgust over Cersei’s sexual betrayals. As Butler might argue, he is stripped of the “prop” (sword) that defines his masculinity. Without the sword, he no longer has the means to perform the masculine.

Returning to the question of ‘why’? Why must Brienne only be allowed to embody the masculine or the feminine? Why is it that Jaime is less of a man after losing part of his masculinity? Considering Butler, we could say that this is a matter of performance. You can only perform the masculine or the feminine at a time. Yet, Butler might argue that you don’t have to perform one of these all the time. So, why is it that others expect gender to be as static as sex? Could it be fear? Think of Brienne. She is one of the strongest, fiercest, and most honorable warrior-figures within the series. Or, could it simply be the need for definition and categorization? Could it be the need for tradition?

Regardless, the fact that we can even ask these questions of the series only evidences its potentially subversive portrayals of what it means to be masculine or feminine; and, how these figure into our own societal expectations of sex. What do you think?


A Comprehensive Guide to Feminist Theory: 20 Essential Reads

By Elizabeth DiEmanuele

There is more to feminism than the, nowadays, simplistic “equal rights among the sexes,” or the inaccurate assumption that the feminist is a ‘man-hater’. While the latter is a product of the extremism that follows every significant civil rights movement, it is, unfortunately, the memorable argument that arises in the anti-feminist debate. However, contrary to much popular belief, feminist literature is much more complicated than the simple opposition of feminist (man-hater) or non-feminist (man-lover). Looking at society in all its complexity, the feminist theorist puts a magnifying glass to the economies of everyday action, voicing a need for awareness, and in some cases, a need for change.

Unfortunately, most feminist literature remains hidden from everyday society. Often tedious, feminist literary theory can be inaccessible and perhaps, elitist, in its complex use of language and analysis. As Gloria Steinem once said, “Nobody cares about feminist academic writing. That’s careerism. These poor women in academia have to talk this silly language that nobody can understand in order to be accepted.” With an absolute love and respect for the extremely accomplished and wonderful Gloria Steinem, it seems there is a need to repair the disconnect between the masses and academia. Feminist literary theory is important because, like any study of injustice, it exposes the illogical format of the arguments that support prejudice and discrimination. Furthermore, it provides a point of reason—and thus, understanding—for those who are unaffected. Here is a list of essential feminist theory reads, with some brief analysis for your awareness.

  1. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

“Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for at least twenty years of their lives.”

The key word in the above quotation is “taught”; women are taught by society to act, speak and think they way they do. In this way, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, one of the first works in feminist philosophy, takes a liberal stance on feminism. Challenging essentialism, the notion that women are inherently docile and weak, Wollstonecraft argues that it is patriarchal society’s limitation of women’s education that makes them inferior. While the man may be physically stronger, his soul and the woman’s soul are derived from the same Creator. Thus, his and her moral substance is equal.  It is the choice to deny women access to education that creates such a power imbalance. Using this argument, Wollstonecraft maintains the notion that men should view their wives as “companions” in their mutual equality. Although it is arguable that this work is not feminist, as the word never occurs, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication is the first step towards a feminist movement, voicing the injustices done to women in a logical and accessible way.

  1. Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1851)

“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”

As an anti-slave speaker, Sojourner Truth’s speech garnered wide publicity in the early 1860s, during the American Civil War. Like Wollstonecraft, Truth stresses the need for equality among the sexes. She does so through valorizing the experience of the woman and asking questions that expose the flaws in the ‘man-superiority argument’. Truth’s strong use of rhetorical questions and sharp examples creates a compelling speech in favour of the innate equality of women.

  1. Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884)  

“The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.”

In his analysis of gender oppression, Friedrich Engels founds Marxist feminism. As he argues, a woman’s subordination is a sociological issue. Engels analyzes sexual morality, including the societal pressures on women to be pure and virginal in relation to the severe punishments they experience with adultery. He connects this pattern to the capitalist development of owning private property. In relation to the nuclear family, marriage to a pure, submissive woman is necessary for a man, as it ensures child legitimacy and later, inheritance. Engels further parallels this relationship to that of the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Considering this relation, a woman’s subordination is a struggle of class that is enforced because it secures capitalist desires.

  1. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)

“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross–roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.”

“A Room of One’s Own” is an extended essay that centers on the idea that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Using this argument, Woolf suggests that there are fewer works of literature by women because of their lack of property and finances. A woman requires financial independence in order to produce creatively. Reminiscent of Wollstonecraft, Woolf asserts the need for women to gain access to education to further their independence. Her famous fictional figure, Judith Shakespeare (Shakespeare’s sister), plays on the notion that a woman with Shakespeare’s talent could have existed, but her lack of education prevents society from ever knowing of it. In addition, Woolf also stresses the need for a gynocentric literature that embraces the woman’s perspective. She chronicles a list of accomplished women authors, such as Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and George Eliot. In doing so, Woolf creates a canon of women’s literature that embraces the woman’s voice in its truest form.