As described in chapter 3.2.1 “Men in Crisis”, there are many social issues in contemporary society that especially men struggle with and yet Andrew Kimbrell and Anthony Synnott will both argue that men are still often marginalized in for example legislation and healthcare, thereby treated as the disposable sex. Is this form of marginalization evident in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire? Are the male characters victimized by violence and death more often than the female characters? And is this an expected aspect of the male gender in Martin’s world, that men should risk their own well-being for the sake of protecting women, protecting their honor and personal image?
The world of A Song of Ice and Fire is a violent one. As the War of the Five Kings commences in A Clash of Kings (second volume), the Seven Kingdoms are torn asunder by war. In Tolkienesque fashion, the narrative follows the highborn families and members of nobility, whose deaths are often explicitly described. Both men and women are victimized by the war; however, the violence done against the male characters is much more frequent, and explicitly and graphically detailed. Throughout the series men die violently, including many of the main characters: Eddard Stark is decapitated, King Robert Baratheon is gutted by a boar, Viserys Targaryen is burnt to death when a pot of molten gold is poured over his head, Robb Stark is stabbed at a feast, Prince Joffrey Baratheon is poisoned and chokes to death at his own wedding, Tywin Lannister is shot by a crossbow while in the privy, Lord Commander Mormont of the Night’s Watch is stabbed by his own men, Sandor Clegane (the Hound) is cut down by soldiers-made-outlaws, Renly Baratheon is stabbed in the back inside his tent by a conjured shadow, Prince Oberyn Martell has both his eyes torn out and his head smashed while fighting Gregor Clegane (the Mountain), Prince Quentyn Martell is burnt to death by dragons… In addition are the males who suffer torture and mutilation, yet survive: Jaime Lannister’s hand is cut off, Tyrion suffers a sword stroke across his face, scarring him for life and Theon Greyjoy is tortured for months, has the skin peeled off his body and his penis dismembered.
In contrast, the violence done to the female characters is far less pronounced. Women are often threatened with violence but it is seldom carried out to any great effect, as when Sansa Stark is threatened by King Joffrey,
“Boros shoved a meaty hand down the front of Sansa’s bodice and gave a hard yank. The silk came tearing away, baring her to the waist. Sansa covered her breasts with her hands. She could hear sniggers, far off and cruel. “Beat her bloody,” Joffrey said, “we’ll see how her brother fancies –“
“What is the meaning of this?”
Suddenly Sansa was free. She stumbled to her knees, arms crossed over her chest, her breath ragged. “Is this your notion of chivalry, Ser Boros?” Tyrion Lannister demanded angrily” (2-442/3).
Rather than being beaten, Sansa is humiliated by having her body forcibly bared and she is soon saved from further embarrassment, brought to Tyrion’s chambers where she is treated with compassion and kindness. While there is much talk of rape in Martin’s world, not a single one is witnessed by the reader throughout the series. When captured by the Brave Companions, Brienne is threatened with rape and death multiple times, but in the end Jaime is the one to suffer when his hand is cut off. The closest equivalent to rape is Daenerys’ wedding night with Khal Drogo, but any disapproval from readers is brought on rather as a reaction to Daenerys’ tender age of thirteen and her subjection to an unwanted marriage rather than any sort of sexual assault. Considering the savage nature of the Dothraki horse tribes and their clear dominance over women, Daenerys’ new husband is surprisingly tender and patient,
“Dany was flushed and breathless, her heart fluttering in her chest. He cupped her face in his huge hands and she looked into his eyes. “No?” he said, and she knew it was a question. She took his hand and moved it down to the wetness between her thighs. “Yes,” she whispered as she put his finger inside her” (1-103).
As Leo Braudy writes in his From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity, war enforces like no other an extreme version of male behavior as the ideal model – one that is driven by physical prowess and the male proclivity for competition. Within George R.R. Martin’s universe, men are expected to risk their own lives for the sake of protecting women, following orders and doing their duty, thereby proving their own masculinity,
“Form up,” [Tyrion] shouted as he leapt to the ground. The gate moved under the impact of another blow. “Who commands here? You’re going out.”
“No.” […] Sandor Clegane wrenched off his helm with both hands and let it fall to the ground. […]
“Yes.” Tyrion faced him. […]
A sellsword stepped up beside him. “We been out. Three times. Half our men are killed or hurt. Wildfire bursting all around us, horses screaming like men and men like horses –“
“Did you think we hired you to fight in a tourney? Shall I bring you a nice iced milk and a bowl of raspberries? No? Then get on your fucking horse. You too, dog” (2-760).
Tyrion Lannister is usually a character driven by self-preservation and a healthy survival instinct and yet when placed in the middle of a siege, the dwarf mounts up and heads into one of his first proper battles because no one else is willing. This action indicates that even the most unlikely of men, who has never been adept at physical fighting or particularly interested in risking his own life, has the ability and the inclination to go to war. His bravery is also a very Tolkienesque indication that heroism can be found in the most unlikely of creatures, going against all customs of masculine heroism. This point is emphasized when Samwell Tarly, a fat and cowardly boy from the Night’s Watch, is the only character so far in the series to have slain a White Walker.
In regards to the main dimensions of gender roles in the series, it is arguably a central characteristic that many of the male characters are increasingly emasculated and gradually lose their dignity in one way or another, while the female characters mainly either gain empowerment or are powerful from the very beginning and manage to uphold that power. Eddard Stark’s authority declines as soon as he travels south and culminates in his execution; Jaime Lannister loses his sword hand and enters an identity crisis in which he attempts to redefine his lost masculinity; Theon Greyjoy is held captive and tortured until his entire identity has been stripped from him and he has forgotten his own name; Khal Drogo’s increasing feelings of tenderness towards Daenerys enables a sorceress to strike at him and kill him, because his guard is down; Viserys Targaryen is feared by Daenerys at first, but gradually she recognizes him to be whiny and ignorant and comes to pity him; and Tywin Lannister, the most respected, feared and brilliant tactical battle commander in the Seven Kingdoms is murdered while on the toilet in the most undignified of deaths.
In contrast, Arya Stark gradually liberates herself from the constraining gender ideals of her childhood and enters training to become an assassin and slay those who hurt her family; Sansa Stark loses any delusions she had growing up about chivalry in the real world and learns to survive in cruel and dangerous surroundings; Margaery Tyrell marries two kings and survives the death of both of them, managing to navigate the scheming royal court in King’s Landing; Cersei Lannister murders her oppressive husband and king, Robert Baratheon, and for a time rules the realm on behalf of her son, Joffrey; Melisandre, the red priestess, gains increasing levels of power and influence over Stannis Baratheon until he all but follows her every word; and Daenerys Targaryen is liberated from the constraining bonds of an oppressive brother and husband, seizes her own destiny and becomes master of her own universe like no other female character in the series.
The vast majority of victims of violence, mutilation, torture and death in the series are undoubtedly male, and at least when regarding war and combat it is expected of men to take the risk in order to protect women as well as children. Executions and torture are not something most of the male characters would let a woman suffer through. An example is Cersei’s walk of shame in A Dance with Dragons (book 5.2): she is condemned for murder, fornication and treason against the crown and her punishment is to walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing while enduring the harassment and ridicule of the people around her. Once the shameful walk has ended, she is absolved of all her sins and can go back to her life as it was. Humiliation and being sexually objectified seem to suffice as punishment for the women, while the men are simply unceremoniously killed, signifying a biased belief that men’s lives are disposable while women’s lives are too valuable to squander in such a manner.
In The Masculine Mystique, Andrew Kimbrell narrates some of the more radical opinions of feminists and misandrists. According to him, Women’s Studies have turned into a systematic attack on masculinity where they vocalize opinions like: “women empower themselves by realizing that all their troubles result from patriarchy”56. The gospel of misandry among radical feminists, the hegemonic masculinity ideal that men must uphold and the emerging custom of depicting men in the media as comical and ridiculous – these practices may be traceable in literary male characters. While misandry is less prevalent in the gender debate today, some of its notions have survived; for example the fact that some negative character traits have become automatically associable with masculinity, like cynicism, emotional detachment, self-interest, a strong drive for power and money, manipulation, intimidation, the act of seeking conflict rather than avoiding it, aggression, polygamy as opposed to monogamy, being sex-oriented as opposed to love-oriented, and being more willing to initiate war than women are57. This begs the question of whether the male characters in A Song of Ice and Fire are portrayed in negative terms to a lower or higher degree than the female characters.
I would argue that there are three female characters that can be described as ‘villains’ in Martin’s series. They are complex personalities whose actions provide them with a certain level of evil agency in the plot, while still facilitating a small level of understanding and sympathy on behalf of the reader. Cersei Lannister is ruled by her need to be recognized as an equal to the men surrounding her at the royal court, which in itself is an understandable sentiment. Unfortunately, her temper, ignorance and extreme demand for vindication whenever she feels wronged destroy any feelings of sympathy one might have for her initially. She manages to alienate all her true allies and surrounds herself with fools, effectively digging her own grave.
Melisandre, the red priestess supporting Stannis Baratheon, is ruled by her fanaticism and faith in a cruel and savage religion that demands human sacrifice,
“When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt to wake dragons out of stone. The bleeding star has come and gone, and Dragonstone is the place of smoke and salt. Stannis Baratheon is Azor Ahai reborn!” Her red eyes blazed like twin fires, and seemed to stare deep into his soul” (3.1-349).
The nature of this religion explains why Melisandre can be defined as a villain. She is no more or less than a fanatic willing to sacrifice for her god any man, woman or child by burning them alive.
Shae is the prostitute that Tyrion falls in love with; she then betrays him and he strangles her to death in a fit of grief and rage when he discovers her in his father’s bed. She is ruled, above all, by her sense of self-preservation; when Tyrion falls from grace she does not hesitate to leave him behind. From an objective perspective, self-preservation does not seem completely unreasonable considering Shae’s station in society and the struggles she faces to stay alive. The reason for one’s animosity towards her is that Tyrion is such a sympathetic character and anyone that harms him will likely lose the reader’s sympathy. The elements of villainy in each of these female characters are caused by very different motivations, making female villainy a multi-faceted and diverse entity in the series.
In contrast, almost all of the male ‘villains’ in the series are portrayed as such by the presence of either an inclination towards excessive violence, or a complete lack of scruples. These are the two main proponents of male villainy in George R.R. Martin’s narrative. The sheer amount of male characters that exhibit unscrupulousness is so great that this characteristic has almost become the norm for male gender in Martin’s series; and those who are not in possession of this trait stand out as an ‘other’, subordinate form of masculinity that is separate from the custom. Characters like Tywin Lannister and Roose Bolton are relevant examples of men who value unscrupulousness, ambition and cruelty; Tywin is provided with a slightly more complex character development than Roose when certain aspects of his childhood are revealed, which partly explain his brutality and ambitions. However, both men seem to be the embodiment of detached male cynicism and cruelty, as is shown in the following tale of how Roose Bolton met the mother of his bastard, Ramsay:
“I was hunting a fox along the Weeping Water when I chanced upon a mill and saw a young woman washing clothes in the stream. The old miller had gotten himself a new young wife, a girl not half his age. She was a tall, willowy creature, very healthy-looking. Long legs and small firm breasts, like two ripe plums. Pretty, in a common sort of way. The moment that I set eyes on her I wanted her. Such was my due […] This miller’s marriage had been performed without my leave or knowledge. The man had cheated me. So I had him hanged, and claimed my rights beneath the tree where he was swaying. If truth be told, the wench was hardly worth the rope. The fox escaped as well, and on our way back to the Dreadfort my favorite courser came up lame, so all in all it was a dismal day” (5.1-499/500).
Roose exhibits both a condescension for lower classes of society and an ingrained arrogance born of belonging to a higher station. He also expresses an almost psychotic lack of empathy and indifference to the emotions of others. The only quality of his that breeds any sort of positive feeling towards him is his brilliant tactical and political mind, which can only be admired for its single-minded determination.
Excessive violence is the other central proponent of male villainy in George R.R. Martin’s series. Characters like Joffrey Baratheon, Ramsay Snow, Ser Gregor Clegane (the Mountain), the men who cut off Jaime Lannister’s hand and almost every man residing on the Iron Islands – these male characters all let themselves be driven by aggression, blood thirst and dominance over others. Martin’s world is filled with men willing to kill for a word in the most savage of ways – and taking great pleasure in the act itself, which rules out the possibility that these men feel pressured into acting this way in order to confirm their hegemonic manhood. This savagery in the male gender is so pronounced in the series that it, similarly to unscrupulousness, borders on being depicted as customary male behavior. Refraining from giving in to this bloody aggression is thereby regarded as being a choice beyond the ordinary, something that resists the natural inclinations of masculinity.
The three female ‘villains’ I mentioned earlier (Cersei, Melisandre and Shae) each have sympathetic elements to their personalities – vulnerabilities, weaknesses and strengths. Similarly, the mostly sympathetic female characters have small elements of villainy in them, suggesting that George R.R. Martin has succeeded in creating three-dimensional and human female characters. Melisandre is the female character that comes closest to being portrayed in a stereotypical fashion; she embodies the traditional lethal temptress,
“Melisandre moved closer. “With another man, though… a man whose flames still burn hot and high… if you truly wish to serve your king’s cause, come to my chamber one night. I could give you pleasure such as you have never known, and with your life-fire I could make…”
“… a horror.” Davos retreated from her” (3.1-347).
However, the motivation that drives her is a fanatic religious belief, which is not solely associated with femininity in the traditional sense. Cersei Lannister’s treachery and deception are characteristics of the classic female villain, but the fact that she fails in all her endeavors and gradually manages to dig her own grave is not.
The negative portrayals of males, on the other hand, are closely related to stereotypes, because the preconceptions of masculinity are a main proponent in the identification of many of these male villains. They are cruel, unscrupulous, excessively violent and driven by self-interest and fail to exhibit any sort of vulnerability or humane behavior. Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain, is a principal example of the excessively violent and sadistic male monster who relishes bloodshed and the dominance of women,
“Elia of Dorne,” they all heard Ser Gregor say, when they were close enough to kiss. His deep voice boomed within the helm. “I killed her screaming whelp.” He thrust his free hand into Oberyn’s unprotected face, pushing steel fingers into his eyes. “Then I raped her.” Clegane slammed his fist into the Dornishman’s mouth, making splinters of his teeth. “Then I smashed her fucking head in. Like this.” As he drew back his huge fist, the blood on his gauntlet seemed to smoke in the cold dawn air. There was a sickening crunch” (3.2-401/402).
Almost all of the male characters (both main and peripheral) are driven in some way by their sexuality, either by being portrayed as men whose downfall is brought about because of their sexual urges or by being portrayed as sadistic sexual predators who feel no remorse at using, dominating and assaulting women. Robb Stark, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Khal Drogo and Ser Arys Oakheart can all be argued to have suffered from their sexual need. Robb Stark experiences a moment of weakness with a highborn virgin and is duty-bound to wed her, which invariably leads to his assassination after he broke off his existing engagement to a daughter of the proud and vindictive Lord Walder Frey. Jon Snow falls in love with a wildling woman who continually attempts to seduce him and finally succeeds, which results in an increasing respect for her people; consequently he is betrayed by his fellow brothers of the Night’s Watch because they feel he has become too sympathetic to the wildlings’ cause. Tyrion Lannister puts his trust in the prostitute, Shae, who betrays him after a lengthy affair. Khal Drogo, the brutish and savage warrior, is tamed and domesticated by Daenerys through sex and his resulting softness towards her enables a sorceress to move close and poison him. Ser Arys Oakheart is seduced by the Princess Arianne of Dorne and manipulated into kidnapping Princess Myrcella (Cersei Lannister’s daughter), which leads to his death. Cersei is portrayed as a master temptress, who utilizes her own sexuality to manipulate men who are unable to think straight when near her,
“He frowned. “The Wall is cold.”
“And I am warm.” Cersei put her arms about his neck. “Bed a girl and kill a boy and I am yours. Do you have the courage?”
Osney thought a moment before he nodded. “I am your man.”
“You are, ser.” She kissed him, and let him have a little taste of tongue before she broke away. “Enough for now. The rest must wait. Will you dream of me tonight?”
“Aye.” His voice was hoarse” (4-284).
Varys the eunuch is a very interesting character to examine from this perspective. He is a very mysterious character, whose true agenda stays hidden throughout the series, only to be revealed slightly as late as the fifth book. Not a single one of the other characters trusts him, because he keeps his motivations hidden from the world. Varys himself has commented that “[truly], no one loves a eunuch” (1-609) when Eddard Stark shows his distrust, which connects other men’s distrust of him to the fact that he has no reproductive parts. Because with no sexual urges he is free of the compulsions that force other men to act in accordance with their sexual needs. It makes him unpredictable, to which it inevitably follows that the other characters therefore are predictable.
Many of the males with villainous traits are identified as such because they lack a complexity that might provide them with a few redeeming qualities and enable the reader to feel a modicum of sympathy and understanding for them. An issue with many of the lesser developed male characters (those denied their own narrative chapters) is a lack of evolvement as the plot progresses. A character like Littlefinger is an example of this lack of development. He is present for most of the major events throughout all five books, always featuring as the puppet master playing political games with the utmost skill. He has a hand in most of the events that take place and therefore has essential influence upon the plot – and yet his personality undergoes no form of development whatsoever. He is the embodiment of the post-Industrial Age masculinity described by both Andrew Kimbrell and Anthony Synnott as valorizing success, profit, personal ambition and rags-to-riches. He is a firm advocate for a Machiavellian form of power, letting wolves and lions tear themselves apart while he lies in wait in his foxhole until the opportune moment.
It was interesting to watch his face. Lord Petyr’s father had been the smallest of small lords, his grandfather a landless hedge knight; by birth, he held no more than a few stony acres on the windswept shore of the Fingers. Harrenhal was one of the richest plums in the Seven Kingdoms, its lands broad and rich and fertile, its great castle as formidable as any in the realm… […]
Littlefinger took a moment to adjust the drape of his cape, but Tyrion had seen the flash of hunger in those sly cat’s eyes. I have him, he knew. “Harrenhal is cursed,” Lord Petyr said after a moment, trying to sound bored” (2-250).
This is one of the very rare moments when Littlefinger shows a hint of vulnerability; otherwise his detached amusement and sharp intelligence always stay in place. The only aspect of vulnerability indicated regards his childhood when he was in love with Catelyn Tully (now Stark) and challenged the much older and stronger Brandon Stark to a duel for her hand in marriage. Ever since that humiliation he has resented the traditional form of physical masculinity, instead valuing mental prowess and the art of manipulation. His boyhood, while providing depth to his character, is long gone by the time the narrative of the first book begins and Littlefinger’s nature stays the same throughout the series. He has one cause, personal ambition, and seeks it with single-minded determination without suggesting even a hint of emotion. The boyish love he once bore Catelyn Stark has transformed into a dark desire for her daughter, Sansa, and yet he is not ruled by that desire. Power and how to gain it is always at the forefront of his mind.
Khal Drogo, Daenerys’ horse lord husband, is a two-dimensional character lacking any sort of complexity. He is a marginalized figure who is only present in order to embellish Daenerys’ character. As soon as Dany’s personal empowerment enables her to evolve beyond what Khal Drogo can provide, he is killed in order to liberate her further from any constraining male bonds. Another two-dimensional character is Ser Alliser Thorne, a man of the Night’s Watch. The sole purpose of his presence in the narrative is to act as an antagonist to our hero on the Wall, Jon Snow. No such marginalized characters like these two exist among the females. Each and every woman in A Song of Ice and Fire, main character or peripheral, portrays both strengths and weaknesses, vulnerabilities, light and dark.
The fact that every one of George R.R. Martin’s stereotypical characters is male is quite telling. As soon as one moves away from the main characters in the series and starts focusing on the peripheral characters, it seems that Martin has developed his females more fully than the males. Undoubtedly Martin is aware that if he were to create a stereotypical or predictable female (one whose villainy, for example, was based entirely on traditionally feminine traits like frailty, excessive emotion and passivity) he would be criticized for it immediately. He has been very adept at creating fully developed and well-rounded females and seems to have forgotten to do the same for the males, whose peripheral presence fills out the vacuum with their lack of scruples, their excessive love of violence and their natural aptitude for cruelty.