“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 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, 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.
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!