Brienne of Tarth, also known as Brienne, Brienne the Beauty, or Brienne the Blue, is one of the more popular female characters of the series, and one of the more physically distinct. From her first appearance in the novels Brienne is described in a very prominent manner, as George R.R. Martin introduces her as a female knight who struggles to walk the line between being a woman and being masculine. As Brienne’s struggles with this are so clear and conflicted within the series, she makes an excellent example of gender subversion and how women have difficulty breaking away from set sex roles.
‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ (1949: 281). De Beauvoir’s simple statement holds a great deal of power and meaning, especially when applied to Brienne. Biologically speaking, Brienne is a female: her physical form is one of a woman (no matter how ugly a woman Martin paints her as). Yet Brienne’s gender is male. She is a knight, she dresses as a man, and she demands equality in her rights (most notably in her challenge to a man who wished to marry her that she would if he could beat her in single combat her, resulting in her defeating him), which is most unusual for the time period and relating to the status of women in the novels. Her prowess and confidence in battle is as great any other knight in the novels – yet still she is mocked, belittled and otherwise shunned by her peers. It appears that Brienne did not become a woman as De Beauvoir predicted, and instead opted for ‘Embracing her masculine traits, Brienne directly defies her place in society and asserts her power through her sword and fearlessness, as a role outside her gendered caste.’ (Keyhan 2013). From her first introduction, Catelyn Stark is horrified to learn that Brienne is a woman, after having watched her fight ruthlessly in an enormous melee and emerged the victor with her Morningstar. It is interesting to point out that initially Martin deceives the audience into believing Brienne is a man. During the description of the fight he refers to her in male pronouns, and as such the reader gains a large amount of respect for Brienne before her true identity is revealed. Such a trick on the audience enables them to break down the sex and gender barriers much more easily. Had Martin introduced Brienne as the ugly female warrior without showing her skill, she would not have been taken seriously, and nor would she stand out amongst a field of male knights quite so much.
Martin makes Brienne ugly for the sole reason that he does not want her to be an object of desire. She is not a ‘woman warrior’, who enchants men on the battlefield. She is a knight: genderless, protecting and fearless. ‘Her features were broad and coarse, her teeth prominent and crooked, her mouth too wide, her lips so plump they seemed swollen. A thousand freckles speckled her cheeks and brow, and her nose had been broken more than once.’ (Martin 1998:312). Brienne is indeed unfortunate looking, but that she has risen to such a status (becoming part of the King’s esteemed Rainbow Guard, something few knights achieve) indicates that she is able to overcome all the hardships directed towards her, including the scorn of her peers, the disappointment of her father and her isolation from other women. It is also possible that as ‘the situation for women, with Westeros’ unbending gender roles, rampant prostitution, and ubiquitous culture of abuse and rape, is obviously much worse’ (Wohl 2012), Brienne inadvertently escaped from this life of immense hardship and lack of power through her genetics. Brienne’s lack of femininity in her appearance allowed her the chance to take another path, one that deviated from the usual roles of women but simultaneously allowed her to establish herself as a man in a world that scorns gender subversion.
Martin’s deliberate description of Brienne as an unattractive woman relates to the Male Gaze Theory (Mulvey 1973). Brienne is looked upon as sexually undesirable, and so the audience view her as such in accordance with the theory. First and foremost Brienne is known for her features, and her lifestyle choices and battle skill second. It seems as though the appearance of the characters is the most important factor in their relationship to the audience, rather than their personalities. This is reflected onto the other female characters as well – Martin tends to describe Cersei, perhaps the most notorious female character, as incredibly beautiful before he launches into her latest manipulative scheme. By making her beautiful first and evil second, it warms the reader to her despite such awful characteristics. With Brienne, making her ugly first and good second, it enables the idea that only beautiful women can be ‘good’ irrelevant, as these two characters prove that the polar opposite is true, at least here. If anything, the Male Gaze here views Brienne as an equal male character, rather than focusing on her sexuality. Martin makes it clear that Brienne is not to be regarded with any form of desire, and as such, the audience view her in the same category as the male characters.
However, considering the implications of the Male Gaze on Brienne’s character, it is interesting to note that the other characters (as opposed to the audience) treat Brienne as inferior. They mock her repeatedly, despite knowing her skill as knight, and when she is captured with Jamie Lannister, her captors make threats to rape her. Bringing up this inherent threat to the female side of Brienne reminds us that despite all of her attempts to become a gendered male, she cannot escape her female biology, and the other characters are unlikely to forget this either. However, that Brienne’s sexuality is only discussed here in such a negative term again repels the audience from thinking of her as a sexualised being. Considering that the males of the novels have a fixation with Brienne as a woman (particularly in the sexual sense), it is interesting to note that her fellow females treat her a kind of hybrid that they cannot tolerate, thus leading to further isolation as Brienne falls out of touch with both gender groups. ‘Rather than an exclusive tactic of masculinist signifying economies, dialectical appropriation and suppression of the Other is one tactic among many, deployed centrally but not exclusively in the service of expanding and rationalizing the masculinist domain.’ (Butler 14:1990). Butler argues that the male viewpoint of a specific trait or character can have a much wider circle of influence than originally intended, thus leading to great suppression and gender based power over those who opt to break from the pattern of the norm. Despite this, Brienne retains her male gender in the face of such inherently female threats. She holds her own, if with difficulty at times, but overall she maintains her status as a gendered male. The rape threat incident truly highlights how Brienne has managed to achieve such a level of gender subversion that no other character does in A Song of Ice and Fire. She establishes herself as a man, and maintains this in the face of scorn, difficulty and hardship.
Considering the amount of effort Martin puts into establishing Brienne as a gendered male, it is interesting to note that she retains a more feminine slant to how she conducts her personal relationships. When first introduced, it is obvious that Brienne is deeply in love with Renly Baratheon – however, she is mocked for such a fact, which could indicate that on some level the other characters have accepted her masculinity and thus see her affection towards Renly as homosexual. Brienne’s interactions with other women, however, immediately place her back into the awkward situation of being regarded as a woman and yet asking to be treated as a man. No better example of this is Brienne’s relationship to Catelyn Stark. Brienne becomes her ‘sworn sword’, and acts every inch the gallant knight, defending Catelyn and later going on to search for Catelyn’s missing daughters. All of the interactions between the two places Brienne in a distinctly masculine light, and Catelyn learns to treat her with the same respect as any knight, allowing Brienne to relax into her preferred gender role. Her relationship with Catelyn is her only true contact with another woman who treats her equally, which makes it unique, especially as Brienne and Catelyn seem to form an almost mother-child bond at times, with Brienne holding Catelyn in highest regard and obeying her without question, while Catelyn feels affection for this woman she sees as being shunned from her ‘true’ world and wishes to help her in any form she can. This bond of genuine respect between them builds more sincerity into their interactions, and further helps develop Brienne as a character, rather than trying to force through her gender subversion choices, which in turn makes it easier for Catelyn to accept Brienne as a man, something she initially finds difficult. Yet with time and greater knowledge of Brienne as a person, rather than a sex, Catelyn learns that Brienne is a knight, and this cannot be changed. Her acceptance is a milestone for Brienne, as few women accept her for who she is without mocking or scorn, indicating that gender subversion is indeed possible in this highly gender-role led society.
Brienne spends more time around males and seems more at ease in their company, most likely because she has adapted herself to fit into their hierarchy and is therefore more comfortable in holding herself there, rather than circumnavigating the rules of the female world she dislikes. The best example of this is Brienne’s relationship with Jamie Lannister. Although they begin as prisoner and captor, eventually their relationship evolves into one of respected, mutual companionship, with Jamie going so far as to entrust Brienne with his sword Oathkeeper, saving her from rapists and his own men. Similarly, Brienne defends Jamie during their time together, and they become honest friends. This relationship is particularly interesting as it is one of the very few examples of Jamie Lannister treating a woman as both an equal and a friend, without a hint of sexual desire or misogyny. Even during a scene where they share a bathouse together, there is no sexual tension between the two. Brienne’s masculine gender could well be the cause for this, as Jamie sees past her as a biological woman and learns to view her as the knight that she is. Here, Brienne’s gender subversion is truly realised, and she earns her respect in being viewed as an equal. As time passes and Brienne becomes more prominent within the novels, the audience accepts her more and more as a gendered male, and the characters around her also seem to take on this too, accepting her slowly, although with grace, allowing Brienne to finally achieve the masculine gender role she desires with ease and respect
Brienne is a fascinating character with A Song of Ice and Fire, and her hardships and choices along the way, as well as her personality, make her one of the most memorable characters in the series. Brienne’s immense popularity within the television show Game of Thrones reveals that audiences are not only willing to accept so called gender-bending females, but that they wholly excited and ready for them in the media landscape. Brienne’s male gender marks that females do not need to use their sexuality in order to establish themselves, and that she eventually earns genuine respect and honour from the other characters only makes her triumphs better earned. Brienne is not the first female character to subvert gender roles, but she is most surely one of the most recognisable and one of the most popular to do so. Her rise to fame only proves that audiences are more accepting of ‘different’ women these days, and it can only be hoped that media producers will begin to explore more gender subversion in women with the same level of success as Brienne of Tarth.
Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge: New York
De Beauvoir, S (1949) The Second Sex Trans. Parshley, H.M. London: David Campbell Publishers ltd.
Keyhan, R (2013) Brave Gender Bending Arya VS Masculine and Mocked Brienne of Tarth < http://hbowatch.com/why-we-love-brave-gender-bending-arya-but-we-dont-really-notice-brienne/> [2.8.2013].
Martin, G. R.R. (1998) A Clash of Kings. Voyager Books: UK
Mulvey, L. (1973) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Available on <http://artsite.arts.ucsb.edu/~arts1a/outlines/Visual_Pleasure_Mulvey.pdf> [24.6.2013]
Wohl, D (2012) Is Historical Accuracy a Good Defense of Patriarchal Societies in Fantast Fiction? <http://www.themarysue.com/sexism-in-historical-fantasy/> [2.8.2013]
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