Breaking Gender Roles: Analysis Of Selected Characters In A Game Of Thrones


Gender roles in society suggest how every individual is expected to act, speak, dress, groom, and conduct themselves based on their biological sex. Whereas women are expected to behave in stereotypically feminine ways and be polite, submissive, and nurturing, men are expected to carry themselves in stereotypically masculine ways and be bold, dominant, and aggressive. The question of such gender based performances is related to ideas of gender identity in society, where certain codes of behaviour are assigned to the gender hence, is deemed biologically immutable and is recognizable through their physical essence. Judith Butler depicts this in the theory of ‘Gender Performativity’ and how every individual subconsciously performs their gender roles. George. R. R. Martin presents the stereotypical role play and rebelling the stereotypes in the siblings of Stark family in his first volume of “A Song of Ice and Fire” - “A Game of Thrones”.

The current paper seeks to analyse the four characters of the Stark family who are either conforming or defying traditional gender roles based on Butler’s theory of ‘Gender Performativity’ showcasing their gender dynamics which adhere to or challenge the existing gender norms of the society.


Judith Butler questions the pre-existing belief that gender specific behaviour is natural. She claims that pre-existing notions of femininity and masculinity are learnt and imposed upon individuals. Butler claims that an individual’s acts are determined by societal conventions thus, one must not assume that an individual constitutes himself but is a makeup of behaviour which has been learnt through gender stereotypes and kept in check through subtle and blatant coercions. Butler uses the word “performativity” which she states is not the same as “performance.” Rather, the term “performative” means for Butler an act that not only communicates but also creates an identity. According to Butler, “the act that one does, the act that one performs is, in a sense, an act that's been going on before one arrived on the scene.” She claims that “performativity of gender is a stylized repetition of acts, an imitation or miming of the dominant conventions of gender stating that gender is not inborn but learned and culturally formed. Performative acts of gender not only communicate to others the aspect of one’s identity, but construct that very identity”. These repetitive acts create a gender-specific behaviour by “reiterating and repeating the norms through which one is constituted”. Butler examines that gender norms vary widely both inter and intra-culturally and throughout historical periods stating that these norms are susceptible to change and given their constructed nature, they can change in any number of ways. Therefore, according to Butler, there is no basis to judge anyone’s behaviour with relation to one’s gender since there is no correct or incorrect gender specific behaviour.

A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones is set in the fictional Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and the continent of Essos in 297AD. The story revolves around the brutal dynastic encounters among the noble families for the coveted Iron Throne, while the other families fight for independence from it.

A Game of Thrones focuses on the family of Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark who is asked to become the king's chief to his king and old friend, Robert Baratheon. Ned is all set to find out who killed his predecessor, Jon Arryn, while trying to protect his family from their enemy - the Lannisters. He has managed to uncover the dark secret because of which the Lannisters murder Robert. Meanwhile, on the other continent, Viserys Targaryen, son of the 'Mad King' who was exiled by Robert Baratheon, seeks assistance from the Dothrakis alongside his sister Daenerys to claim the Iron Throne to which he is the rightful heir.

Judith Butler’s Gender Performativity

Robb Stark 

Considering Judith Butler’s Gender Performativity Theory, the character of Robb Stark exerts the stereotypical characteristics of the male gender. Originating in the Egyptian culture, the skill of Archery was devised for the purposes of hunting and warfare by men. In the introductory matter of the book, Robb Stark is shown as a skilled archer who is seen training his younger brother Bran in the same. Being the eldest Stark sibling, he is depicted responsible putting efforts in helping his mother and maintaining order during the feast with the Baratheon Royalty when his sister Arya misbehaves with his sister Sansa. Another stereotypical masculine characteristic of a brother’s protective behaviour could be seen when he becomes agitated noticing Sansa admiring Prince Joffrey Baratheon. His protective side is seen again when he gets angry on Theon Greyjoy for aiming the arrow near his younger brother Bran during their encounter with wildings. Being the eldest male sibling, Robb takes charge of the castle with Maester Luwin in his father’s absence. He exhibits the stereotypical characters of a man being portrayed as courageous, fearless, protective, skilled in fighting and strategy-making. Robb Stark is a character that is shown constantly conforming to the socially and culturally created typical notions of masculinity. After receiving a letter from Sansa, Robb calls his banners, marching to House Stark’s vassals to war exhibiting courage with decision-making abilities. He is also asked to win the war by his mother Cathelyn for Ned, Sansa and Arya’s sake portraying the stereotypical hero avenging his father’s death. Later we witness how Robb's army wins the Battle of the Whispering Wood with successful strategic decisions and is appreciated by everyone. These successes doesn’t only gain him respect but is an act of his masculinity being reinforced.

We see that Robb is declared as the only one king worthy of Umber’s respect who calls Robb, 'The King in the North!'. In this way, he fits Butler’s stereotypical masucline figure who conforms to notions of masculinity, performs the same with every win and is looked upon by the rest.

Bran Stark 

The character of Bran Stark is of a non-conformist to the stereotypical ideas of masculinity. In the beginning part of the book, he poses a question to his father, Ned Stark - 'Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?'. This can be seen as Bran’s attempt to fit into the expected masculine role defined by society i.e. brave and courageous. Butler says, “. . . if gender is constructed, it is not necessarily constructed by an ‘I’ or a ‘We’ who stands before that construction in any spatial or temporal sense of ‘before...”. Where Butler is saying that it is not upon the person to decide their gender but the surrounding. When Bran is taken with his brothers and father to witness his father execute a deserter from the Night’s Watch, we witness his non-violent nature. He is also ensured to view the execution or else his father wouldn’t like it as said by his illegitimate brother, Jon Snow. Later, his father discusses the execution with him and how someday, Bran will become Robb's bannerman. This shows how, from a young age of 7, the process of toughening the man has begun and how the people around him are consistently moulding his thoughts. Being surrounded by such thoughts, Bran dreams of someday becoming a knight of the Kingsguard, and is thrilled at the prospect of travelling by horse. He defeats Prince Tommen Baratheon in a sparring match in the courtyard and finds his masculinity being reinforced. Again, he shows his emotional and caring nature while leaving their house when he doesn’t know a way to bid farewell, or when they were given direwolf pups and he takes a lot more time in deciding what to name it. These aspects of gender state Butler’s claim that “gendered acts and gender identity do not exist without each other. Gender is an identity that keeps constituting itself.” She writes that gender should not be interpreted as a stable identity (Butler 1999, 179). Where Bran sometimes doesn’t act like his gender or follow the masculine notions of showing courage or skills at fighting, he is expected by people around him to act like it. To escape from the constant stereotypical expectations around, he climbs over an abandoned tower to hide his feelings of sadness when they are supposed to leave the house. He does this so that he won’t be judged for being saddened but be appreciated instead for climbing the height and risking his life - an act of courage and thrill.

Sansa Stark

The character of Sansa Stark follows a stereotypical feminine behaviour and hence, a typical female gender. She has a graceful demeanour in contrast with her younger sister Arya, who has masculine features. Sansa is depicted as a very graceful character with thick auburn, long hair who is excellent and knitting and sewing - a traditional activity undertaken by the girls. A courteous and dreamy young girl, Sansa loves music, dancing and lemon cakes who is made to believe that life could be like a song, with the existence of brave heroes and beautiful maids. From a young age, these traditional notions of femininity is imbibed deeply in her as we witness from her thoughts as well as her behaviour. When King Robert comes to Winterfell and proposes the thought of a marriage between Sansa and his alleged son, Joffrey, she is overjoyed by the idea. Throughout the visit, she is shown exchanging glances with her long awaited, handsome king. This implies the idea that she deeply believes in fairy tales and doesn’t put much effort in knowing her potential spouse but gets infatuated by the situations rather than the person himself.

At the King’s Landing, the young Sansa with a gentle and innocent demeanour is viewed as easily exploitable by the political players in Westeros - another general notion of typical girls being easily exploited. Due to her desperation to marry Joffrey, she fell prey to the evil strategic plan of others and betrayed her father to the queen, in the hopes that Cersei will allow her to stay and be the future queen. Like a typical lady, who can do anything to save her beloved, she blindly trusts Joffrey. When kept as a hostage in the capital, she denounced her father and Robb as traitors to the crown. When Joffrey torments Sansa by showing her father's head, Sansa tries to push the young king to his death regardless of what happens to her but the Hound steps in and thwarts her at the last second. Hence, her typical feminine characteristics that she displays leads her to failure and suffering at many levels.

Arya Stark

Butler says that the distinction between sex and gender shows that biological sex does not determine gender and Arya is the perfect example for this claim by Butler. Since childhood, she is very good at mathematics, enjoys horse riding, likes fighting and exhibits masculine features of bravery, fearlessness, unruliness and inelegance in terms of her behaviour. She does not like sewing and finds it very complex compared to her sister Sansa who is praised for her brilliant sewing skills by the people around. Arya looks at her brothers who are made to practice archery with jealous eyes. Being bold and unruly, she cannot resist and grabs the bow and hits the bull’s eye, showing her innate interest and skills as an archer. During the arrival of King Robert, Arya mingles with the commoners instead making graceful interactions with the Royalty. Arya is outspoken whereas Sansa tries to control her. During the feast her mother’s patience are put to test when Arya misbehaves with her sister by flicking apple pie on Sansa. This shows how her performative behaviour of masculinity puts others at an uneasy state. Others, including her mother hopes for her to fit into the stereotypical roles of women in terms of dressing, behaviour and acts. Arya names her pet direwolf after a warrior-queen, Nymeria. She calls the sword gifted by Jon Snow to her as ‘Needle’, stating that that is the sort of needlework meant for her. When Nymeria attacked Prince Joffrey Baratheon after he catches Arya duelling with Mycah, Arya throws rocks at her to shoo her away so Cersei will not have the chance to kill her. This shows how fierce and completely capable she is of fighting for herself when she is backed into a corner, unlike the submissive gender she is expected to be.

When Cersei's men come to get Arya during the purge of Stark from the Red Keep, Arya escapes the castle using the passage she had found earlier. While a local chap calls her ‘boy’, she corrects him by saying she’s a ‘girl’. Though it can be noticed that she was happy being called a girl, she did not want to follow the norms abided by girls.

Arya is a character shown incredibly spirited and very brave when need be. Her impulsive decision-making attitude saved her life. When she encounters certain people she has intended to kill she can often becomes reckless and frightfully violent, as evidenced by her brutal killing of the Tickler during the brawl at the Crossroads Inn. Even though she runs out through the passage she couldn't get out of the city since the gates are heavily guarded. She lives on the streets of Flea Bottom, catching pigeons and rats to trade for food - a tough life where a typical girl would be depicted seeking help, Arya helps herself. This shows how independent she is as a woman who is supposed to be dependent on the males.

Arya’s masculine notion is so strong to the point that in order to save herself from potential rapists, she disguises as a boy with short hair and wearing boy’s clothes. She defends her own sex, and acts like the other gender and this states Butler’s saying, “If sex and gender are radically distinct, then it does not follow that to be a given sex is to become a given gender.”


Gender Performativity can be seen through the eldest Stark brother, Robb Stark and the eldest Stark sister, Sansa Stark. These two characters subconsciously abide by their gender roles whereas Bran Stark and Arya Stark rebel against it and do not abide by the prescribed gender roles of society. 

16 December 2021
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