Want Gender Equality? Watch Game of Thrones

CW: mentions of sexual assault including links to graphic videos

We can all agree that gender inequality is a problem. From the language we use to the amount we’re paid and the ways we understand our bodies – gender inequality is everywhere. But the good news is that there’s a really simple solution: everybody needs to read fantasy fiction. More specifically, we should be reading George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire and watching its television adaptation Game of Thrones. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the one with the dragons.

Whaaaaaaat?

That’s right, you’re secretly fighting the patriarchy every Monday night when you and your friends drink mulled wine and watch the latest Game of Thrones episode. Every time you slip one of Martin’s tomes into your bag you’re carrying a pipe-bomb that will blow misogyny to smithereens.

How could this possibly be?

Even though sexism is still rampant in Western cultures, feminism has done a lot of great things for women. The most important is broadening our understanding of what it means to be a woman: we can wear pretty much whatever we want, we can work in a wide range of jobs, and we’re free to read, listen to and watch pretty much anything without question.

At the same time, we’ve slowly seen more and more strong feminine characters in popular culture. Characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hermione Granger, Nyota Uhura and Wonder Woman have reflected and shaped Western culture’s growing interest in gender equality – showing that women can be fighters, thinkers, lovers, leaders, and anything in between.

Popular culture has played a big role in our appreciation of how diverse femininity can be. However, the same can’t be said for masculinity. We still have a really narrow idea about what masculine people can do, wear, say and feel, and unfortunately a lot of these ideas revolve around sexism, emotional repression, homophobia, alcohol abuse, invulnerability, and violence against women and other men. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of positive masculine traits presented to us – like being a father and fixing the printer – but the problematic thing is that masculine people are expected to continually tick all of these boxes. It’s hard to be a loving father, a sexy playboy, the bloke who can drink everyone under the table, and a star football player at the same time. Very few people can actually keep it up, which means that the vast majority feel like they’re not masculine enough, and that leads to things like violence. These behaviours certainly aren’t good for women, and they’re also incredibly damaging to the masculine people who do them.

So we’re in a vicious cycle: young people grow up with this very narrow and often unhealthy definition of masculinity. It’s then reinforced as they get older by television shows, books, video games and movies that only ever vary slightly from the strong, handsome and stoic mould. Because this is the only image we’re given of masculinity, masculine people have to recognise that they can never actually achieve manliness. To compensate they might bully other kids at school, they might drink themselves into oblivion at the pub every weekend, or they might rape one of their friends at university. And then they feel terrible because they’re human and they’re aware that they’ve hurt themselves and other people for a single moment in which they felt masculine enough. But it never lasts and the cycle goes on and on.

Fantasy fiction is a way to break free from this destructive pattern. A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones invite their audiences to abandon destructive masculine behaviours and embrace more beneficial actions like reading, working together to solve problems, and being part of an inclusive community. By making these practices acceptable and valuable in popular culture, fantasy novels encourage their readers to expand their concept of masculinity so that masculine people can readily access and adopt healthier displays of manliness. By broadening our understanding of what it means to be masculine in popular culture, fantasy fiction can help to shape the real world and real people.

So how exactly can this happen?

Firstly, it comes down to the way A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones depict gender. There’s been a lot of debate in academia about whether gender is natural or performative. Does masculinity come from a little blue box inside a man – his masculine essence? Or is it something we’re taught how to do throughout our lives and unknowingly repeat every day? This might seem too lofty a question to effect the real world, but it’s actually really important. If we believe, for example, that women have some kind of core femininity, it can be used to deny them their rights to drive, work and vote because that feminine essence might get in the way. But if gender is performative, we can recognise that the way we ‘do’ masculinity and femininity can be changed.

A Song of Ice and Fire frequently goes with the second option and suggests that gender is performative. We see this through the quest fantasy convention: the hero who leaves their home and goes on an epic adventure to save the world. In A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones that hero is Daenerys Targaryen, the mother of dragons and the dispossessed leader of an almost extinct dynasty in Westeros (the fictionalised medieval West in which the series takes place). Through Daenerys’ quest, audiences see how masculinity is enacted differently in different cultures. Among the nomadic Dothraki, she finds that masculinity is shown through an uncut braid and bells, which signal the wearer’s battle prowess. When she later travels to Qarth, she learns that crying is seen as a sign of civil masculinity: something that high-class men are expected to do in everyday conversation.

These examples are so different from masculinity in our real Western world that readers are shocked into a realisation: gender is done differently in different places. And if that’s true, then there can’t be a ‘natural’ masculinity that never changes and comes directly and exclusively from male bodies. Gender norms must be dependent upon time, place and history. And if that’s true, masculinity itself can change.

After setting up masculinity as something that can be adjusted, A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones encourage readers to reject certain masculine acts and value other ones. One of the big domains the series comments upon is violence, and the series invites readers to believe that violence is acceptable when it challenges harmful systems – like the patriarchy, misogyny and class. This usually happens when the traditional perpetrator/victim binary is reversed, or in other words, when minorities (like women, disabled people and people of colour) use violence against stereotypically powerful characters (usually able-bodied, white men). For example, the short-statured character ‘dwarf’ Tyrion Lannister murders his own father with a crossbow. It’s pretty gory, but it’s also immensely satisfying because Tyrion’s father was a patriarchal douche-bag.

But there are also times when A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones really encourage us to reject masculine violence. These occasions usually involve some kind of selfish violence – that which is used to gain sexual satisfaction, such as rape, or violence that’s used to show off a character’s masculinity. The rape issue is very contentious, and there is certainly a lot of rape in the television series and even more in the novels. But unlike in the ‘real’ world, these acts of sexual violence are always criticised. We see the long-term effects of rape and its effect on survivor’s lives, and we’re also encouraged to view rapists as monsters. That last point is quite literal; rapists like the incredibly tall and muscular Ser Gregor ‘The Mountain’ Clegane become Frankensteinesque creatures, and Ramsay Bolton, a torture-loving bastard-turned-nobleman, is continually referred to as a ‘monster’ with ‘evil in his blood.’ There’s no victim blaming or slut-shaming – sexual violence quite literally turns men into monsters.

The idea of masculine characters changing from one thing to another comes up again when you look at disabled characters. There’s a huge gap in our real-world thinking when it comes to disability and masculinity because the two identities seem to cancel one another out – we don’t see masculine people as disabled and we don’t see disabled people as masculine. But disabled masculinities often involve a lot of gendered behaviours that are far healthier than violence and sexism. In A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones there are a lot of disabled men – like Tyrion Lannister and the obese Samwell Tarly – who perform masculinity through their intellectual pursuits and knowledge. Then there are masculine characters like the legendary knight Ser Jaime Lannister, who learns to be chivalrous and respectful when his sword-wielding hand is cut off and he can’t use violence anymore. Through these characters, we’re offered a version of masculinity that’s healthier for everyone and makes the world a better place in the process.

Audiences also get a fresh glimpse at masculine possibilities through masculine women – characters with female bodies who identify as masculine and/or are mistaken for men. The fantasy genre has a long history of cross-dressed female characters, and in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones these masculine women are often used to show how masculinity should and shouldn’t be done. Take, for example, the warrior knight Brienne of Tarth: she’s one of the most noble and chivalrous characters in the entire series, and we’re encouraged to root for her because she’s marked as a fantasy hero through her quests and her magical sword Oathkeeper. In contrast, there are masculine women like the beautiful Queen Cersei Lannister, who continually wishes she were a man and enjoys dominating other people and using violence to get her way. Readers and viewers are encouraged to reject Cersei’s masculine behaviour because she’s positioned as a monstrous witch, whereas we’re encouraged to accept Brienne’s chivalrous masculinity because she’s coded as a hero. Once again, we’re being invited to place more value on a different but healthier type of masculinity.

So while masculine women and disabled men provide an example of different and more desirable masculine behaviours, A Song of Ice and Fire also suggests that a more fluid understanding of gender is the real way forward. In Westeros the only way to survive is to adapt to change, and we can see this in the context of gender. Characters like Daenerys Targaryen, the mother of dragons, is constantly adjusting her gender performance – from wearing masculine Dothraki bells with braids in her hair and commanding soldiers, to talking about her followers and dragons as if they’re her children and eliciting marriage proposals, Daenerys shifts from masculine to feminine to gain strategic advantages. Back in Westeros, the eunuch Varys easily slips between masculine and feminine in his spying duties, and the feisty Arya Stark has been a noble girl, a street urchin, a peasant boy and a servant, showing that class, as well as gender, must adapt. All of these characters move between masculinity and femininity, drawing on different gendered acts depending on their circumstances. Readers are invited to view their gender fluidity as a valuable asset in Westeros and the only way to win the game of thrones.

A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones invite readers to imagine a world where we understand masculinity in broader terms: where the healthier ways of ‘doing’ masculinity are held up as positive examples to follow in real life. We’re encouraged to replace domination with respect, aggression with intellect, and rigid gender roles with fluidity. The narrow and often harmful definition of masculinity is exploded open into a thousand possibilities, and real masculine people are given a far wider vocabulary with which to express their gender. With the lesser known but healthier masculinities that fantasy fiction promotes, we are given alternatives that will enable us to begin to break the destructive cycle in which people resort to more dangerous ways of showing off their manliness and hurting themselves and others in the process. Think about how many drunken fights, campus sexual assaults or suicides could be prevented if more people recognised that there are other, better ways to be masculine. And that’s the real magic of how we can achieve gender equality in real life: by looking to fantasy worlds with broader ideas about masculinity and using them to (re)imagine our gendered options.

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You just tasted a bite of PhD candidate Tania Evans’ thesis. The bite-sized thesis project would not be possible without the generous support of the ANU Gender Institute, you can learn more about the project here.