Welcome back to our series of articles on sex and gender issues in HBO’s Game of Thrones. If you aren’t caught up on the show, then you might want to clear out your DVR before reading any further, as there are spoilers a plenty coming up. Also, if you haven’t already, make sure to check out our previous articles on Arya Stark, prostitution in the world of the show and the depiction of Renly and Loras’ relationship.
As the first (awesome) season of Game of Thrones rushes to a close, the series has taken a step back from sexual politics to focus on a succession of physical confrontations, the most notable of these being the war between the Starks and the Lannisters. Not surprisingly then, this most recent episode, “The Pointy End,” was almost completely devoid of sex (aside from the hordes of Dothraki riders preparing to rape their new slaves, of course). But even without an extended woman-on-woman sex scene coupled with an expository monologue, the show is still rife with sex and gender issues.
A character that we have yet to discuss is Varys, the Seven Kingdoms’ Master of Westeros and a longstanding member of the King’s council. Varys has a florid, almost flamboyant presence, but one of his defining characteristics — and one that the show is careful to always keep in the forefront of our minds – is that he is a eunuch.
Despite his flowing robes, almost fey mannerisms and hairless appearance, Varys is very clearly not a woman. And yet he lacks the genitalia and sexual urges that would make him a man. So, Varys occupies a strange, in-between place in the world of Game of Thrones, and is exempted from the constant battle of the sexes that takes place on the show.
This would seem to put Varys at an advantage over both sexes, as unlike women in Westeros, he is free to hold any station he can, and unlike most men, he can never be brought low or undone by giving into sexual urges. However, the eunuch’s “neither fish nor fowl” sexual identity actually manifests itself as a handicap. Varys lacks both the powers of open seduction and coercion exhibited by women in this episode like Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, as well as the brute strength and power seen in the Dothraki riders and Lannister household guards. Even more damaging, however, is that Varys is looked down upon as a necessary evil, and somehow less than human.
Of course, Varys’ patronizing, know-it-all demeanor and his status as a professional gossip do nothing to help his reputation in King’s Landing. However, I would argue that the causal relationship works the other way, and that Varys became the Master of Whisperers because he is so reviled and impotent.
Like many characters on the show, Varys is actively trying to control the continent of Westeros, or in the parlance of A Song of Ice and Fire, is a player in the game of thrones. Without the power of seduction, unable to wield a sword and incapable of siring offspring to support him, Varys must resort to other methods to bend the Seven Kingdoms to his will. Naturally, these include lies, subterfuge, the spreading of rumors and even treason, as seen a few episodes back when it was revealed that he is somehow collaborating with and/or protecting Daenerys Targaryen despite his public actions to the contrary.
Most characters in Game of Thrones are very clear about their desires and motivations, but Varys’ agenda remains clouded in mystery as we come ever closer to the end of the show’s first season. In fact, in the most recent episode, Ned Stark was driven to ask the eunuch point blank who it was that he served. But Varys replied with a non-answer, saying knowingly, “The realm.”
Unlike other characters that seek only to serve themselves or their particular house, Varys claims to have the actual kingdom’s best interests at heart. This recasts his dishonesty and near-constant betrayal as some kind of noble pursuit, with the eventual preservation of the Seven Kingdoms justifying whatever Varys must do along the way to make it so. But what kind of trust can be placed in a man that is loyal to no one and nothing but an abstract idea, such as the unification of a fragmented feudal society? Could it be that this is just one more blind set up to conceal Varys’ true motivations?
There’s another, thematic read to Varys’ claim that he serves the realm, however, that when taken in concert with his unique sexual status, could be even more telling. The phrase “I serve the realm” can be interpreted in two similar but distinct ways. First, it can be read, as we did above, to mean that Varys serves the ruling government of the realm. Another interpretation though, would be that Varys serves everyone in the realm, and as seen by the wide gulf between ruling nobility and their “smallfolk” in the world of Game of Thrones, that isn’t always the same thing.
So, we are left with two different reads of Varys as a character. Is he a scheming manipulator with complex, maybe even nefarious plans known only to him? Or, is he a benevolent planner, willing to get his hands dirty in the name of the greater good? The first possibility would have Varys’ using his outsider status like an assassin’s dagger against those who stand in his way, while the other would see him position it as a shield for the realm as a whole. What is remarkable about the character that author George R.R. Martin has created in Varys is both that the two possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive and that they both involve him drawing upon the same source for his power: His status as a eunuch.
Though they have fallen out of favor more recently, eunuchs and castrated men have long been a fixture in fictional literature. Traditionally, they have only been portrayed in one of two ways, however: Either a treacherous scoundrel or a courageous stalwart. The first possibility arises in fictional worlds where masculinity is an unequivocal good. Thus, the lack of “full” masculinity makes the eunuch evil and treacherous, like a scheming villain that acts as a foil to a manly hero. When eunuchs are portrayed in a flattering light, however, it tends to be in fiction that sees male sexual desire as a sin or form of weakness. In these works, the character is typically brave and loyal, such as a eunuch entrusted with the care of a male protagonist’s household.
In many works of fiction, the portrayal of a eunuch typically depends upon an author’s view of a masculine sexual identity and its accompanying urges, but as anyone familiar with the Song of Ice and Fire books or television show is aware, Martin offers his audience a much more nuanced look at sexual identities. The author tweaks the traditional eunuch stereotypes by having Varys embody two seemingly contradictory ones simultaneously, making him an extraordinarily complex and ambiguous character in the process.
It remains to be seen in the Game of Thrones television show what Varys’ true motivations and goals are, as he continues to play both sides (perhaps against one another, or maybe not). I welcome the ambiguity in his characterization, however, as he is an excellent example of how Martin has appropriated and subverted fantasy genre tropes in the service of his dense, character-based narrative.
Do you have something from the show that you’d like to see discussed? Then let us know in the comments below. Then, make sure to check back in the coming weeks as we continue to look at sex and gender in Game of Thrones, airing Sunday nights at 9pm on HBO.