Men’s movement scholars like Andrew Kimbrell and Anthony Synnott have argued that men today are struggling with the expectations of past ideals; by examining statistical data to do with social conditions in contemporary society it does express that men are in some sort of crisis. They fall victim to a range of different social issues at a much more serious rate than women, like various illnesses, work accidents, military deaths, crime and violence, substance abuse, unemployment and homelessness. According to Andrew Kimbrell and Anthony Synnott, this crisis has been brought about by the demanding expectations of a hegemonic ideal that has become impossible to uphold. This ideal demands from men limitless success in almost every aspect of their lives and the constant concealment of weakness and vulnerability. The extensive pressure imposed upon men (by women, by other men and by themselves) has resulted in social issues that are negatively discrepant towards them.
The continued struggle for equal rights for women is still highly visible in the media and the gender debate today. But if men are indeed in such crisis, how can our society still be patriarchal in nature? For countless years, the masculine ideal has been associated with hegemony and the oppression of nature, of other men and of women. But the cold facts of men’s position in society suggest that masculinity today is defined by a confusing mass of contradictions, opposing attitudes and, above all, crisis. Postmodern society seems to no longer be determined by the principles of a patriarchal system.
Social conditions are often visible in the various productions of the arts. It used to be that women in fictional literature mirrored the oppression and marginalization of women in real life. Now that social conditions seem to be shifting, it has been worth asking in this thesis whether the gender perspective in literature has done the same.
Several scholars and a score of critics, fans and literary commentators have all researched the female gender perspective in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, while the aspect of masculinity in Martin’s series has not been awarded a similar focus. This thesis has been written with the aim of rectifying that apparent gap in the scholarship. Since it has already been concluded by many that George R.R. Martin has managed to create empowered and subversive female characters in a literary genre usually defined by feminine generalization and simplification, I have asked myself whether Martin is equally as enlightened regarding the male characters in his series. I have defined gender enlightenment as the creation of complex and dynamic characters that represent some aspect of real life, of contemporary society, and have analyzed two main male characters of the series based on these criteria.
Eddard Stark’s character is the embodiment of tradition and the pre-capitalist male who values the virtues of a feudal society of inheritance and social hierarchy. As George R.R. Martin’s universe is increasingly identified by postmodern ideals of personal ambition and the pursuit of success, Ned Stark’s outdated principles and beliefs are unable to save him, as his authority and dominance gradually decline in this new world defined by rules he does not understand.
Ned’s outdated perspective on gender is heavily influenced by chivalry and the past ideals of romance, when men were honorable knights and women were gentle ladies. While Ned’s intentions are noble, as he regards women as beings to be cherished and protected, in practice his actions are suggestive of suppression and infantilization. When attempting to protect his wife, Catelyn, he unwittingly belittles her by robbing her of agency and concealing her part in the events taking place. Catelyn’s own behavior only reinforces this oppressive relationship, signifying that she is equally as supportive of traditional gender roles as he is. As static as Ned is in regards to values of honor and duty, he is equally as immovable concerning gender roles; men and women answer to strictly different manners of conduct to which there is a complete lack of ambiguity.
At first I saw it as a sign of complexity and development in Ned’s character, when he decided to proclaim himself a traitor who plotted to remove Joffrey, the rightful heir, from the Iron Throne. When this rigidly honorable and exceedingly righteous man decided to lie and discard his own honor for the sake of protecting his children I interpreted his loss of honor as the culmination of his decline. His personal crisis and inner turmoil constituted the complexity I was searching for in a three-dimensional and dynamic character and my interpretation of him was influenced by this belief. However, after analyzing Jaime Lannister’s character and learning what complexity in Martin’s series really is, I realized how static and unchangeable Ned Stark is. Sacrificing his own life and legacy to protect his family constitutes the highest of honorable actions, which means that he in fact does not change at all throughout the first book but retains his honor until the very last. Rather, I have come to realize that his premature death is the most significant aspect of his character. He dies two-thirds into the first volume and it is George R.R. Martin’s deliberate choice for this plot development to symbolize the death of tradition and the end of comfortable certainty of fixed gender roles, as new rules of society and definitions of gender move into position. Ned represents the man who is unable to adapt to the new age.
In contrast, Jaime Lannister is a highly complex and dynamic character who is a much more reliable representative of postmodern masculinity. Therefore, he is infinitely more interesting when aiming to answer the problem formulation of this thesis (and the length of Jaime’s analysis reflects that interest). One’s initial impression is that he manages to uphold the hegemonic ideal of a masculine self; he is largely a victorious warrior, handsome and charismatic, and so emotionally detached that he finds amusement in all experiences of life, no matter how dire, because he is above all indifferent to all the events taking place. But once he is given a voice of his own in the third volume of the series this veneer of amused indifference starts to crack; and it shatters completely when he loses his sword hand, and his masculinity and entire identity with it. Prior to losing his sword hand, Jaime struggles against exhibiting any of the ‘softer’ qualities of humanity that have usually been associated with femininity. His feigned indifference, constant amusement and emotionally detached behavior are all a means to conceal his anxiety at having his masculinity called into question.
The calculated and unscrupulous nature of his father, and the sadistic nature of the king he was sworn to protect, result in Jaime’s early divergence from the traditional ideals of chivalry as he realizes that men rarely live up to these ideals of honor and justice. The condemnation that Jaime must suffer through after killing the king is reminiscent of the condemnation men in modern society have had to endure in the past few decades as the gospel of misandry was introduced by radical feminists. Jaime’s disillusionment and consequent, defiant response is to become the coldhearted and cynical personality that they all believe him to be: the Kingslayer-persona. Here George R.R. Martin suggests that misandry indeed breeds the very behavior that it condemns.
Losing his sword hand is the most crucial turning point for Jaime. This act symbolizes the end of his hegemonic masculinity, his identity (his occupation) as a warrior and his Kingslayer-persona. The consequent period of emasculation and crippling powerlessness almost succeeds in claiming his life, but the nearness of a woman saves him. Despite her manly appearance, Brienne awakens Jaime’s sexuality and helps to reconnect him with his lost masculinity. She also awakens in him long-dead chivalrous urges to protect her and others unable to defend themselves. He finally accepts an inner longing to reclaim his honor and to be acknowledged as someone other than the Kingslayer.
But the process is a complicated affair. Vacillating between his Kingslayer-persona and the new form of masculinity emerging within him, Jaime struggles to find purchase in his new identity as an emotional man and this movement back and forth is a testament to the complexity of his character. It symbolizes the dynamic nature of masculinity in our postmodern society where the boundaries between genders have shifted, converged and transformed and men are struggling to define themselves. Gradually, Jaime learns to accept his new form of masculinity. The development of his character signifies a critique of the hegemonic ideal, by pointing out its flaws and arguing that a man can be courageous, strong and heroic and show emotion and vulnerability without it diminishing his self-identification as a man. I believe that Jaime’s character constitutes George R.R. Martin’s ideal of what a man should be, or rather what he is capable of being, in a postmodern society where masculinity is a vague and ambiguous term.
In addition to examining two of the main characters in the series, I decided to investigate whether George R.R. Martin was equally as enlightened in the portrayal of his more peripheral characters, as I have found him to be in his main male characters. I had a presumption that he might not be as attentive to the pitfalls one must avoid when creating gender relations in his peripheral, and therefore less developed, characters. In the past, Feminist Revisionism managed to facilitate cultural and social change by revealing literary traditions and their underlying social tendencies. Inspired by this practice, I have therefore attempted to point out possible issues in George R.R. Martin’s series that might, down the line, similarly facilitate social improvement for men.
I have come to find that in the more peripheral male characters, Martin’s gender enlightenment falters. Men are victimized by violence and death at a far higher rate than women in the series and it is often regarded as the natural state of the world that it should be so. The males are expected to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of protecting the women, as when Tyrion Lannister rides into battle when no one else will, into a situation that seems all but hopeless – his act is portrayed as both heroic and right, as he embraces the ingrained courage within himself. The violence against men is described often and in great detail, while violence against women rarely progresses beyond a threat. Consider the fact that Jaime Lannister’s hand is cut off on the first day of their capture by the Brave Companions, while Brienne is threatened with rape every day without it ever coming to pass.
Female villainy in the series is a multi-faceted and varied concept, caused by diverse and individual elements of the female characters’ personalities. In contrast, male villainy is almost exclusively caused by either a lack of scruples or an enjoyment of excessive violence; these two traits have become largely associated with men after many negative portrayals from radical feminists and, in fact, in George R.R. Martin’s series these traits are so commonplace that they have become naturally inherent aspects of masculinity in these peripheral characters. In addition, there are examples of some highly simplified male characters with no trace of development or real depth. Khal Drogo, the horse lord husband of Daenerys Targaryen, is an overly masculine and almost animalistic character who rarely speaks and exists solely to embellish her character. Once Daenerys has no more need of him he is removed from the narrative and she is able to evolve beyond his primitive world.
In conclusion, while the peripheral female characters also show depth and complexity, the peripheral male characters are largely lacking of these elaborative aspects. Their presence seems rather to fill up the background with their pleasure at excessive violence, lack of scruples and natural aptitude for cruelty. In this publication of Martin’s, which has been chiefly praised as a work of gender enlightenment, men have still been marginalized to a certain extent, a fact which has remained mostly unexamined by scholars and other commentators so far. That said, George R.R. Martin has succeeded in creating diverse and dynamic main characters, both male and female. In the character of Jaime Lannister he has embodied many of the struggles that men face in postmodern society as they attempt to define their own identities in a society with continuously evolving gender roles. A Song of Ice and Fire is an excellent example of the development of complex gender roles in a genre acknowledged for the lack thereof – but there is room for improvement!