A Song of Changing Genders: A literary gender analysis of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, focusing on the shifting identities of masculinity in postmodern society
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BRIAN RUSSELL GRAHAM
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George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire has managed like few other publications of that genre to breach the boundary between fantasy and mainstream literature, essentially because of the TV-show, Game of Thrones, which has become a major cultural phenomenon in recent years. Critical commentators of the novel series have mainly vocalized praise of George R.R. Martin’s portrayal of gender in the series. However, the scholarship I have encountered focuses almost exclusively on the feminine perspective of the gender discussion and makes very few remarks on the male perspective. This thesis is a means to fill that gap in the scholarship by exploring the male characters and masculinity in the series.
Similarly to how the scholarship on femininity has examined whether George R.R. Martin is enlightened in regards to gender, I have investigated the same; determining to what extent Martin has been able to create complex and dynamic male characters that faithfully represent the identities of masculinity in our postmodern society.
My theoretical approach is based on defining contemporary forms of masculinity in our postmodern society and consequently connecting these forms to George R.R. Martin’s series. I have chiefly been influenced by two masculinity scholars, Andrew Kimbrell and Anthony Synnott, who both argue that men have been and still are struggling through various social crises caused by the pressure of having to uphold the ideal of hegemonic masculinity – a form of masculinity that expects men to dominate, succeed and never exhibit vulnerability. In fact, men fall victim to social crises at such a rate that, arguably, our society may not be based on the principles of a patriarchal system any longer. The extent to which women’s issues are still the main focus of gender debates in the media today, which is at odds with the social reality, suggests that men are now the gender to be marginalized and ignored by society.
My analysis of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire isfocused on the interpretation of two main male characters, Eddard Stark and Jaime Lannister. They represent two very different forms of masculinity: Eddard embodies the traditional and unchangeable male from a pre-capitalist age defined by feudalism, chivalric ideals and utterly unambiguous lines between masculine and feminine. Jaime embodies many aspects of the postmodern male, who is shaped by complexity, constant evolvement and deep uncertainty of his own self-identification. Eddard’s premature death in the first volume, A Game of Thrones, symbolizes the end of chivalry and of traditional perceptions of gender roles. Jaime struggles to uphold the hegemonic ideal of dominance, unscrupulousness and emotional detachment – his failure to do so is regarded at first as the quintessential emasculation. However, his ultimate acceptance of his new form of masculinity, which incorporates both heroic courage and emotional vulnerability, seems the embodiment of George R.R. Martin’s ideal of what a man is capable of becoming in postmodern society: a man willing to reveal his vulnerabilities and flaws, relinquishing his hold on a dogma of dominance and unavoidable inadequacy, and therefore becoming empowered by accepting who he really is.
Following the two in-depth characterizations of Eddard and Jaime is an investigation into whether George R.R. Martin is equally as enlightened with his less developed characters as he has turned out to be with his mains. I have come to find that in these peripheral characters, George R.R. Martin’s gender enlightenment falters. The males are victimized by violence and death far more often and in more explicit detail than the females – and this is mostly regarded as the natural way of things in this universe. In addition, while female villainy is a versatile and diverse concept in the series, male villainy is caused almost exclusively by two traits usually associated with men: unscrupulousness and pleasure at excessive violence. In George R.R. Martin’s series, these two personality traits are so commonplace that they are ultimately portrayed as naturally ingrained aspects of masculinity.
In conclusion, while George R.R. Martin mostly deserves the praise he has received for his gender enlightened characterizations, he falls short of the ideal when regarding his peripheral, less developed characters. In these male individuals are found stereotypical attributes, a lack of complexity and high level of victimization not seen in the females. This marginalization of the peripheral males remains chiefly unvisited by the current scholarship on A Song of Ice and Fire.