This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Youth Ki Awaaz. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Game Of Thrones And The Fluid World Of Medieval Gender

More from Youth Ki Awaaz

Juanita Feros Ruys, University of Sydney

With Games of Thrones back on our screens, the question of the gender roles it depicts and promotes continues to be hotly debated.

Some commentators excuse what they see as the blatant misogyny of the series by noting that author George RR Martin could hardly have written female characters otherwise while being true to the historical context of the “Middle Ages” (at least as it is popularly envisioned).

Others are happy to compile lists of powerful female figures on the series and applaud the way they “destabilise” traditional gender roles.

Yet there is not a female figure on Game of Thrones who does not have a medieval counterpart, whether an actual historical person or a character from a literary text that enthralled audiences for centuries. So let’s look at these:

Strong female leaders?

Daenerys Targaryen, Game of Thrones. © Home Box Office, Inc.
Daenerys Targaryen, Game of Thrones. © Home Box Office, Inc.

Game of Thrones has Daenerys Targaryen, the only surviving child of King Aerys II Targaryen; the Middle Ages also had female rulers, some hugely successful (Elizabeth I of England), others less so (Mary Queen of Scots, who was executed at the behest of Elizabeth, her first cousin once removed).

At one point, the power structures of Western European countries were perceived as so female-centric that it led Calvinist Scotsman John Knox to pen the virulent anti-feminist pamphlet, The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women (1558).

Power-hungry incestuous sisters?

Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones. © Home Box Office, Inc.
Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones. © Home Box Office, Inc.

Game of Thrones gives us Cersei Lannister, the widow of King Robert Baratheon and Queen Regent of the Seven Kingdoms. The Arthurian legends gives us Morgan Le Fay, who sleeps with her brother King Arthur and bears from the union Mordred who will eventually be Arthur’s doom.

Women who dress as knights and fight men in battle?

http://www.kommunicera.umea.se/hemma/mathias/
Painting, c. 1485. An artist’s interpretation, since the only known direct portrait has not survived. (Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Paris, AE II 2490). Wikimedia Commons

Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth are two of the most popular female characters on Game of Thrones, but they have a long way to go before they can rival the enduring fame and admiration excited by the historical Joan of Arc (1412-1431) who led French armies against the English towards the end of the Hundred Years’ War and was executed by the English in 1431.

Records show that the Inquisitors who interrogated Joan were as much concerned with her transvestitism as with her claims to hear angelic voices and devoted a great deal of effort into convincing Joan to give up her masculine attire, a step with which she never complied.

Yet Game of Thrones never even approaches the slippery and surprising world of gender manipulation and redefinition that are a feature of medieval spirituality.

Indeed, Game of Thrones, for all its quasi-medievalism, is completely lacking in a major segment of the medieval world:

The monastic

Game of Thrones notes the existence of religion, and of religious leaders – some even female (Melisandre, a priestess of the Lord of Light) – but it does not represent the massive proportion of the medieval population that devoted their lives to religious service.

Melisandre, Game of Thrones. © Home Box Office, Inc.
Melisandre, Game of Thrones. © Home Box Office, Inc.

Medieval Western Christianity proved adept at multiplying gender positions, rendering them fluid, and refiguring gendered embodiment in ways that made an identification with one sex and its “properly” aligned gender difficult, if not redundant.

Although monasticism was a strictly sex-segregated undertaking, it was, paradoxically enough, also productive of some extraordinarily complex and fluid gender formulations. Nuns were exhorted by the men tasked with their pastoral care to be “virile” in their faith, and to surpass even men in the strength of their devotion.

Meanwhile, male monastics cultivated “female” virtues such as humility, aware that in the topsy-turvy economy of New Testament Christianity, based as it was on the willing sacrifice of Christ, being humble, gentle, and patient of suffering was also particularly manly.

We know from manuscript evidence (British Library, Cotton Julius E.vii) that nuns enjoyed stories of women who showed their devotion by undertaking male disguise and living undetected as monks for their whole lives.

Saint Wilgefortis in the diocesan museum of Graz, Austria. Wikimedia Commons
Saint Wilgefortis in the diocesan museum of Graz, Austria. Wikimedia Commons

The bearded female saint Wilgefortis proved popular in late medieval iconography: this young woman was martyred for her refusal to marry and her joyful acceptance from God of a full beard in order to avoid this fate.

While monastics deployed gender identities in innovative ways in regard to themselves, even the gender of the Christian Trinitarian God came under consideration with both male and female mystics contemplating the motherliness of Christ.

Male mystics such as Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) saw themselves suckling at the breast of the Virgin, and feminist critics such as Karma Lochrie have commented on the vaginal imagery of the wound in Christ’s side to which male clerics were so devoted and to which they would envision themselves pressing their mouths.

The 14th-century female mystic Agnes Blannbekin claimed to have received the foreskin of Christ in her mouth in her celebration of the Eucharist and described its taste as sweet as honey.

The world of medieval spiritual gender was powerfully fluid and productive, with performativity the key. Game of Thrones might offer some interesting, and even compelling, female role models in its medievalist worldview, but perhaps contemporary viewers would be more shocked by the gender permutations at play in the “real” Middle Ages.

This article is part of The Conversation’s Religion + Mythology series.

The Conversation

Juanita Feros Ruys is Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Centre at University of Sydney.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Read the original article.

You must be to comment.

More from Youth Ki Awaaz

Similar Posts

By Atypical Advantage

By Ritwik Trivedi

By Ecochirp Foundation

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below