Brave, Gender-Bending Arya vs. Masculine and Mocked Brienne of Tarth

By Rochelle Keyhan on May 30, 2013 to Game of Thrones

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“Beautiful” girls can do whatever they want, and “ugly” girls are ridiculous for daring to want anything. The binary can be further complicated if you are a person of color. Forget it if you deviate from that rigid binary and are LGBTQ. Arya is a petite, adorable girl, expected to blossom into a beautiful noble woman. Brienne is larger, regularly derided for her lack of femininity, and mocked for even desiring to have a husband and a family. The juxtaposition of Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth highlights the two-headed coin of societal beauty standards and the objectification of women used as a tool to disempower.

However, ending the analysis there, writing them off as simple “tomboy” and “butch” stereotypes, does the depths of their characters no justice. Arya and Brienne do have a lot in common in that they defy gender-roles, are fierce warriors, and are women. However, the path they took to those similarities has been quite different, marked by a disparity in privilege and appearance.

ARYA:

arya

Arya is a tomboy who looks feminine while rebelling against that femininity as she experiments with her gender and how she wants to present it. She regularly asserts that she’s “a girl” when called a boy, and demands respect as a girl who can do boy things when she is derided as “just a girl”. She takes no interest in things she’s expected to be focusing on as a girl. She is driven by fairness and fierce loyalty to her family and friends.

Seeing the men around her with all the power, Arya views her femininity and proscribed gender role as a weakness that she actively rejects. Arya’s support network includes a father who sets up “dancing lessons” for her as a cover for fencing lessons, and a loving, wonderful half-brother in Jon Snow, who gives Arya her first sword, Needle. Arya explains why she names it Needle, “Sansa can have her sewing needles, I have a Needle of my own”, which can be read as a rejection of both Sansa and the role of “lady” being pushed onto Arya. The conflict in rejecting everything associated with and expected of her femaleness, but still always reminding people that she’s a girl, is that Arya is at once rejecting herself and asserting that part she has rejected. She is working through the complicated layers of her gender, and still has plenty of time to figure it all out.

Rejecting her beauty and her lot in life, she prefers instead to fight against social hierarchies, both along gender and class lines. Her position in society allows her this flexibility, and will also allow her to shift gears if she decides she does want to marry and embrace her noble lot in life. She is afforded more generosity around her gender-nonconformity because she is still classically beautiful, no matter how short she cuts her hair.

Arya’s character also has straw feminist moments where she cuts down things like sewing, marriage, and family-centered women, to name a few. When she so boldly rejects those options, she enforces a rigid line of standards for what a “good”, “empowered” woman should want, compared to what an “annoying”, “disempowered” woman might choose, perpetuating the patriarchy. Of course, this is reflective of her self-discovery as she works through her own gender and role in society. However, as a character making critical commentary on society and its valuation of women, she is covertly disempowering women herself in the insidious way modern day media and mainstream characters tend to do.

BRIENNE

Brienne_Bath

Brienne, on the other hand, is tall, less classically “feminine” in appearance, and lives in world where she is constantly being policed for her gender, and mocked for appearing masculine,. She is even called a virgin as if it were derogatory in world that values women’s chastity and implies no man would want to sleep with her. While she too defies classic feminine and womanly roles, her gender-bending is forced upon her by society, which doesn’t fully accept her womanhood because she isn’t beautiful or feminine enough. Brienne wishes for a marriage and a family in her future, but has accepted that it likely is not going to happen and has made the best of it.

This attack of her gender leaves her defending her womanhood, a part of herself she doesn’t resent as Arya does. The challenging of her womanhood is so pervasive that even her now-friend Jaime Lannister continues to make comments. It gets to the point that she has to stand up in the tub with Jaime just to prove which sexual organs she has, which somehow then legitimizes her womanhood already so regularly denied to her. Discarded by men, she chooses her own path, and it happens to be one similar to Arya’s. But unlike Arya, who is angry, mistrusting, and prone to violence, Brienne is loving, less jaded about people, and while good at her sword, not quick to react violently at every negative situation.

Brienne appears to be Arya, all grown up, but she’s not a cute little girl, and arguably never was. Brienne is a full grown woman, described as manly and treated as not representative of classic feminine beauty. 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.

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Both women are tremendous characters in The Game of Thrones, each with her own fan base. They both also have the makings of great leaders. Arya, a young woman, motivated by anger at and vengeance for the destruction of her family, and the desire to exact that vengeance through violence, is embarking on a typically masculine quest that everyone is rooting for her to win. Brienne more resembles a classic powerful woman in ways that make her almost a merger of Danaerys and Cersei’s best attributes. Brienne claims her power in the traditionally masculine role as a soldier, while also finding her motivation largely in love and the pursuit of justice.

I am secretly hoping they will meet, join forces, and empower each other!  On the one hand, I am hopeful that their fated meeting will happen as Brienne returns Jaime to Catherine Catelyn Stark, at the same time Arya can be returning to join forces with her brother Robert! On the other, I think their meeting needs to occur outside the traditional power structure of the seven kingdoms so they can develop a more equal partnership, not guided by their different positions in the hierarchy. They could learn a lot from each other while also finding community and solace in their similarities and differences.

What do you all think HBO has in store for these two characters? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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18 Comments on "Brave, Gender-Bending Arya vs. Masculine and Mocked Brienne of Tarth"

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It’s worth noting that Arya’s hatred of things like sewing, marriage, potential motherhood, etc – is less “straw feminism” and more “a child rebelling against the things she personally doesn’t want being imposed on her.”

I did try to make that point in the next sentences in that paragraph, that her rejection of Sansa is part of her self-exploration. But, as a popular character, her commentary is still directly rejecting Sansa, who then suffers pretty mightily in the show. While Arya is a strong character, the show has placed her in direct contrast with Sansa by making them sisters, and having Arya literally reject her choices and preferences, . It was done in a deliberate way to highlight Arya as the stronger, more preferable style of woman. So, it might be part of her self-exploration,… Read more »
I have not read the books and won’t until the series ends as its just too much fun to have to wait to see what happens next. (I am waiting to read the Charlaine Harris novels as well). Not that i have not been tempted. Trust me its been tough sometimes. While I like Ayra and am facinated by Brianne I think we are missing someone in this discussion. Namely the fierce and beautiful Dany. She started as just a pretty pawn in her brother’s crusade for the throne but has grown up and truely come into her own. Not… Read more »

The discussion in the article isn’t about strong women in ASOIAF it is about how their “gender-bending” roles are portrayed. Dany unquestionably embraces her feminine said and is not relevant to the thesis of the article.

You could read the Charlaine Harris novels without ruining True Blood, the two are almost completely different after book 1/season 1. GOT, though, yeah. Wait if you don’t want to be spoiled.

I totally agree about Dany. While I love so many of these women, Dany is by far my favorite. Check out my post from Wednesday about her and her feminist glory! http://hbowatch.com/danaerys-targaryen-feminism-for-the-iron-throne/

I love brienne character in the series, because it is so faithful, loyal, tender and strong men do not think it’s cataloged as by others. I do not think she is interested not prove that a woman, so in the bathroom, not showed itself to Jaime, but rather was furious at the insult to his oath of allegiance and parrots. I think she is well aware that not a body. When jaime tells “you’re not a hand,” she knows that actions define people. She as a woman neglected by society and cheated honorable seeking a destination. He could have stayed… Read more »
I really like this piece! I do think it’s interesting the way that HBO has portrayed these two characters, as it’s not necessarily “by the books.” In the books, Arya isn’t really beautiful, while not ugly, exactly, she does earn the nickname “Arya Horseface,” and the fact that she’s so frequently mistaken for a boy is because she actually does look like a little boy, rather than a little girl. The HBO-ified Arya is cute as a button & as of season 3, already beginning to sprout some visible curves, which is quite a contrast to book Arya. In reading… Read more »

Brienne in the books at least is described to be very very ugly. Teeth too big for her mouth, straw like hair and just large and out of proportion. I always gained the impression that it was hard to look on her, and felt a lot of pity for the hand she had been dealt. That her looks were more extreme than just being unnaturally tall and broad shouldered. For example how gaudy she would look when put in a dress… Means she had no feminine qualities at all which contributed to her discomfort.

Yes I remember the way she was described, but as I’d mentioned, these days we see models and actresses with large or crooked teeth, tall and mannish isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gods, look at the teeth on Megan on Mad Men or Sookie on True Blood, ugh. And conditioner can do a lot for straw like hair. I think it has a lot to do with the context in which the series is set. I agree with Rochelle, that she was probably perceived as, and made to feel ugly for not fitting the feminine standards of the time.

I agree, I don’t think she’s ugly at all. I was trying to convey that she is made to feel ugly for not being feminine enough. All your comments really make me want to go back and read the books for comparison!

Guys, I heartily agree that people should read the books in order to better understand the TV series, however, PLEASE TAG YOUR SPOILERS in comments. Some people may still be in the process of reading and accidentally reading a spoilery comment is just not fair to those who haven’t gotten all the way through the books yet.

**Moderator’s Note:: SPOILERS::: well, they are books. in the books, arya escapes from the hound and boards a ship to braavos using the coin and learns to change her face in the temple of the faceless god. Rob and his mother die. The hound dies. It’s called the Red Wedding. Joffrey is poisoned at his wedding feast and his brother tommen becomes king. Sansa escapes on the same night and goes to The Vale with Littlefinger under the guise of his bastard daughter. Jaime arrives in king’s landing right after the poisoning of joffery. the imp tyrion is accused of… Read more »

What a pointless comment, that is nothing to do with the article at all, just a painfully lacking synopsis of two and a half enormous books.

U are u ruining this for all other viewers

then read a book.

He/she did write that there are spoilers

I know. :)

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