TV giveth and TV taketh away. Over the course of a few memorable evenings of television viewing recently, millions watched as Arya (Maisie Williams) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendolin Christie) on the final season of Game of Thrones, lost their virginity to men. Meanwhile over on Gentleman Jack, an aristocratic female-bodied lord (played by Suranne Jones), took the maidenhead of her neighbor, Miss Walker (Sophie Rundle). I guess being mainstream means that queer viewers can switch channels back and forth between compulsory heterosexuality in the form of pre-war sex on Game of Thrones, and pre-modern butch-femme sex with a little patriarchy smashing thrown in for good measure on Gentleman Jack. While Miss Walker, the object of Anne Lister’s desire on Gentleman Jack, makes it clear that once she has tasted the forbidden fruit offered by her butch paramour, men become increasingly unappetizing, Arya, at least, on Game of Thrones, tries out heterosexuality only to throw it back onto the pile of “thanks but no thanks.” Brienne of Tarth, on the other hand, and hands are key here, seemed to be a true convert to the faith, although, given her partner, it is not clear whether she is in love with prosthetic sex or what Paul Preciado calls counter sexuality, or whether she was just waiting for the right man, as the sad stereotype goes. Arya was at least the aggressor in her disappointing sex scene with Gendry but Brienne of Tarth was all submission and virginal modesty. What do we think about the abundance of butches on television on Sunday nights right now and is there anything to celebrate here? Or, rather, is the masculine woman only trotted out on mainstream television as a form of titillation and sensation?
As Anne Lister, the eighteenth century masculine woman who conducted business and bedded local married women with equal gusto, Suranne Jones is (mostly) a marvel. Her wooing of her tremulous neighbor, Miss Walker, is a veritable lesson in the art of seduction and, after many a drawn out session of hand-holding and mutual exchanges of meaningful glances, Lister finally gets what she has been angling for – an invitation from Miss Walker to come for dinner…and spend the night!
It would be churlish to complain about watching such luscious scenes of playful and erotic queer flirtation play themselves out, however, quibbles are certainly in order. For, while I love Suranne Jones, who plays Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack as much as the next man, and I admire the way the series depicts her as a can-do, masculine butch, I wish we could see more…shall we say…results for all the erotic back and forth. Instead, at critical moments of encounter, particularly when a long and luscious, open mouthed kiss might be called for, we watch as the studly Lister diverts from her target at the last minute and begins to nuzzle her amour’s cheek! After watching a few of these scenes, my close reading skills confirm that either the lady or her lover is ducking out at the last minute so that in the place of deep lez smooching, we get way too much cheek brushing. And for the novices out there, no, cheek brushing is not a lesbian thing! After a few too many of these neck nuzzles, you, like me, might begin to wonder why TV wants to raise the erotic possibility of the armed and dangerous butch only to immediately turn her back into a pussy…cat.
Speaking of armed butches, let’s return for a moment to Brienne of Tarth, who, let me be the first to say, as a female knight in shining armor, surely deserved better than Jamie Lannister! While his prosthetic arm offers some interesting prospects for queer sex between a heterosexual guy (or, given his other lover, shall we say “family man”?) and a giant butch, Jamie seems clueless about his golden glove. The metal hand that he uses to cover over the site of his castrated arm, can easily be resignified as (what we queer theorists like to call) a lesbian phallus! Indeed, the shape of his prosthetic hand lacks imagination – imagine if the Lannister arm had been shaped like a dildo, not necessarily an anatomically correct one – how about a dolphin shaped phallus courtesy of a medieval Babes in Ye Olde Toyland? Or just a fist? With such a weapon on hand, I would have been willing to grant this union some credibility!
But, sadly, the quick and seemingly normal bedding of Brienne by Jamie, and the as-quick abandonment of her by the one handed bandit was disappointing for all who have followed her long character arc through many battles against precisely such men on behalf of much more appealing maidens! Sex aside, Jamie, the King Slayer, could have been an interesting friend for Brienne, indeed he recognizes her knightly qualities and approaches her as his equal. But queer relations is a real failing of Game of Thrones, and I say this as a fan, and so, the show’s heteronormative limit meant that we could not be treated to a straight man/butch friendship. Instead, the bond between butch and bad guy was all just grist for the old hetero mill, and so to bed…
Another butch in Game of Thrones left nothing to chance when it came to prosthetics. Before Arya gives Gendry her virginity, she commissioned him to make her a dragonglass weapon of some kind. The sketch she presents to him, indeed, an image much debated online in terms of its form and purpose, looks like nothing so much as a Paul Preciado style contrasexual prosthetic dick! I believe if we said it was a dildo and harness, we might have resolved one of the great mysteries of Game of Thrones – forget who will sit on the Iron Throne, which turned out to be a big anti-climax anyway, the question is who has the best weapon? While Jamie’s aforementioned metal hand is definitely a contender, Arya’s detachable weapon seems to have the edge on all the other valerian steel. And yet, despite long sequences in which Arya encourages Gendry to make this weapon for her, in the end, she does not use it to kill the Night King! This leaves the question open as to what the dragonglass spear might be used for!
Perhaps when Arya beds the eager Gendry, she was merely looking for a place to try out her dragonglass toy. And, as quickly as she sleeps with the lad, she realizes that heterosexual love is not for her– “that’s not me…I am no lady”– and she rejects her enamored suitor. Brienne of Tarth, on the other hand, having given up her blue-ribbon lesbian status to Jamie Lannister, seemed crest-fallen when the King Slayer rode off to be with his sister/lover in her hour of need. A quick summation of Jamie’s rather unappetizing sexual history – incest, child killer, etc. – should make viewers pause and wonder why Brienne is so often represented as the freak in this duo, but the hasty departure by Jamie suggests that his metal arm may not have measured up to the prothesis Brienne was expecting!
Like Arya, Brienne carries a big sword, her own Valerian steel (maybe Valerian steel is the medieval equivalent to silicon?) called “Oathkeeper.” In Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth, according to wikipedia is described as:
“…unfeminine in appearance, and is considered unattractive. She is very tall, muscular, flat-chested, and ungainly, with straw-colored hair and broad, coarse features that are covered in freckles. Her teeth are prominent and crooked, her mouth is wide, her lips are swollen, and her nose has been broken more than once. However, her large blue eyes are described as beautiful.”
Wow, like a straight man condescendingly paying a masculine woman a “pity compliment,” this description offers the beautiful blue eyes as the only compensation for crooked teeth and a broken nose. World to medieval fantasy writers – probably everyone had crooked teeth before about the 1980’s when orthodontics became a thing and hey, when you are fighting off rapists at every turn, you may sustain a broken nose every now and then. But of course, it is not what she looks like that makes Brienne of Tarth unappealing to men, it is her dogged, unrelenting defense of women and her unapologetic use of her size and her brawn.
Like most heterosexual narratives, Game of Thrones has little to no idea what to do with “Brienne the Beauty” as she is sarcastically called, and so, as the denouement approaches, she is thrown a couple of masculinist bones in the form of Tormund, who calls her the “big woman,” and Jamie, who is marginally more appealing because he seems to genuinely like her. Brienne’s love options had fans giggling with joy over the idea that the seemingly unattractive woman might, as one writer in Marie Claire puts it, “find true love.” Other clueless articles call her a feminist icon (maybe but feminist here is just a nice word for lesbian) but the whole lesbian thing is only addressed by a few smart .queers on social media. Hopefully there is fan fiction out there pairing Brienne up with an unarmed (as opposed to one armed, but nothing wrong with one armed either) lady.
Meanwhile, over in Halifax, circa 1803, Anne Lister, also known as Gentleman Jack, also unattractive and no doubt, also, if pictures are to be believed, featuring bad teeth and “swollen lips,” possibly even a broken nose, was despite her lack of conventional beauty, wooing and bedding ladies on the local estates. And in her spare time, she intimidates, harasses and tops local men in relation to the business of running her estate. Suranne Jones is a fabulous flirt and very good in this role which finally gives her room to express something other than toxic femininity (see her in Dr. Foster and Scott and Bailey). The ‘real’ Anne Lister (1791 – 1840) was an aristocratic lady lover who traveled around Europe bedding married women and then wrote about all her experiences in an elaborate code in her diaries! There is a tendency now to regard Lister as a “lesbian,” and this show makes that same mistake, but (reference LGT History 101) no such word would have been used during Lister’s life-time and the markers of Lister’s difference from other women concerned his/her cultivated masculine appearance and his/her desire for women. S/he did not understand herself to be part of a community of others like herself and s/he considered her partners to be women while s/he was something else, something closer to manhood.
The show Gentleman Jack is good fun — not good fun in the way that Game of Thrones is good fun with sex, violence and armies of the dead! — but good fun as in amusing and if not quite historically accurate, still insistent enough about Lister’s masculinity to offer some succor to those of us waiting for Arya and Brienne to find their own lady loves! And by the way, according to many fans of Game of Thrones, Sansa also might have been ready for some queer action and now that she is Queer/n of the North, I sincerely hope she finds it!
There were, indeed, plenty of opportunities for some authentic medieval tribadism on Game of Thrones, but neither George Martin nor the show runners on HBO had the know how or balls to really figure out how to tell a good story about masculine women with weapons. As Game of Thrones winds down and leaves us pondering big questions about sovereignty, rule, governance and war, and even bigger questions about dragonglass dildos, it is time to hope that someone, somewhere on line is bringing into being a fan/fiction universe where we can reimagine queer characters outside of their function as local color or titillation and see them as amazons, witches, bitches and butches.