i’m such a fool i actually deleted this post and had to re-type it and re-post it. still love me?
more waffly thoughts on queenship and the ‘male gaze’ in asoiaf
Having written about “masculinity” (well, one form of it: knighthood) previously, I just wanted to write about “femininity” in ‘ASOIAF’ as well (it’s like everytime I write an essay on medieval literature I have to make a corresponding ‘ASOIAF’ post).
I think the male gaze in ‘ASOIAF’ is twofold: the gaze of the characters within the books but also the slightly problematic authorial gaze. Here, I want to discuss the former. Women in medieval literature are always discussed in the most hyperbolic terms essentially because they’re being described from the perspective of the men who look at them: hence why every other maiden Chrétien de Troyes writes about is the most beautiful woman to ever draw breath. I think we get a comparable (thematically if not quantitatively) level of projection upon women in ‘ASOIAF’. For example, the first time we ‘see’ Cersei (in a Jon POV chapter) we’re told she is as beautiful ‘as men say’ (or something to that effect). We’re not just told she’s beautiful, we’re also told that’s the way she’s perceived.
I think this idealising of the male gaze particularly comes to the forefront when it comes to the potential Queens in ‘ASOIAF’: Cersei, Dany, Sansa and Margaery (and Arianne to an extent). Even though, Cat is described as beautiful as well, I think her looks are less integral to her plot (though it is interesting how much importance she places on her husband’s gaze – her final words at death are ‘not my hair. Ned loves my hair.’) I think the most beautiful women in the book are often the potential queens because it’s a way for the men in the series to put them on a pedestal, carve them into remote, enigmatic, goddess-like creatures. Men like Robert and Robb and even Stannis are idealised as warriors and their military prowess (a crucial aspect of masculinity) is what makes other men accept them as sovereigns. For the women, its often their beauty that makes men fall at their feet and serve them (maybe not the same way thirteenth century troubadours prostrated themselves to the ‘Queen’ but even still). Even Dany, despite possessing dragons, isn’t a particularly warrior-like figure – we never see her on the battlefield.
The problem with this of course is whilst it makes sense to idealise a Queen Consort in this way (after all it is her King and his Hand who do the actually ruling), it becomes problematic when one idealizes a Queen who wishes to rule out of her own volition in this manner (part of the problem Cersei runs into in ‘AFFC’). Part of the idealisation of women in medieval literature involves stripping them of their voices – turning them into lovely, silent, static figures. The basis of masculine power is the voice – it is through the voice that Kings command and knights achieve greatness through the retelling of valiant deeds done (even more so than the actual doing of them) ergo in stripping women of voices, they are stripped of political power. (Doesn’t Helene Cixous even say that language is itself an assertion of male hierarchies). Therefore, the “ultimate” woman is one “who is seen, not heard” (the Guinevere figure in medieval literature, I guess).
In order however to rule, the women of ‘ASOIAF’ need to reclaim their voices. It’s the reason I love Cersei so much – society is constantly telling her how she should behave and she is constantly refusing with an emphatic “Fuck you”. Does this make it impossible for her to function as a Queen in Westerosi society? Undoubtedly. But does it also make her an incredibly sympathetic character and a brave one too? To my eyes, absolutely.
Of course, what happens when Cersei tries to enter the male arena of power and politics, she becomes an ugly figure and in ‘ADWD’, her beauty loses its potency (perhaps even becomes non-existent altogether for men no longer perceive her as beautiful). Ironically, in trying to create her own power-base, Cersei ironically destroys the only power she possesses: her looks. In “borrowing” traditionally male qualities, Cersei becomes hideous – her position is no longer fixed within the court structure as someone’s wife and Queen Consort or someone’s mother and Dowager Queen, her position is now fluid, between the sexes and therefore a threat.
(To be honest, I have always felt Brienne is in a similar position. She may be as unattractive as she is said to be but I think a significant part of the male repulsion directed towards her is because she has broken with “convention” and attempted to occupy a “male” niche in society. Projection forms an integral part of medieval literature – not for nothing do you never see a hunch-backed dwarf as a hero – and I think that’s what happens to Brienne – in terms of social mores and roles, she is a hybrid who disrupts the fabric of convention that frames everybody else’s behaviour – so physically she becomes a kind of ugly hybrid as well).
So Cersei’s attempt to gain “male” power and her failure to recognize how important the male gaze is to her own power doom her bid for the Iron Thrones. It’s interesting to think how Sansa and Margaery are going to work around that problem – particularly as they seem to stick to conventional “female” roles more closely than Cersei does. (But is that only a result of their extreme youth? Will they reach a “fuck it” as Cersei did with her marriage to Robert?)
Cersei dismisses Sansa as a fool but I think she uses traditional femininity quite cleverly (as an “armour” as she herself says) and by donning the façade can observe the game being played from behind a courtier’s mask. So far, Sansa’s life has been dictated by men – she’s constantly being acted upon by the likes of Littlefinger and has continually conformed to how she “should” behave. I am totally rooting for Sansa to become Queen (and Queen in her own right) but often within the patterns of Westerosi behaviour and society, I don’t know how feasible that it is. It will be interesting to see which path she chooses – Cersei’s road of saying ‘fuck it’ and refusing to adhere to what’s expected of her or Margaery’s of finding a more subtle power within typically ascribed social roles.
As ever, this is incredibly inarticulate and rambly and doesn’t cover Dany (or Arianne) in much depth and if you’re still sticking around, you deserve some kind of (edible) prize. Would love to hear other people’s thoughts on this topic and the different routes to power available to women in ‘ASOIAF’.