“I'm trying to get you to run my kingdom while I eat, drink, and whore my way to an early grave."
Game of Thrones’ King Robert Baratheon’s honest assessment of his motive for trying to tempt Ned Stark, his best friend and brother in arms, into becoming his Hand of the King effectively sums up his reign over Westeros. For Robert, the first king we’re introduced to in the TV adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, sitting on the Iron Throne was one long party that was for his benefit, and his benefit alone.
He won the Iron Throne in battle, proving his masculine credentials by fighting for the honour of a woman and killing Prince Rhaegar Targaryen in hand to hand combat. He reinforced them by drinking, fighting, hunting, jousting, sleeping with women who weren’t his wife and indulging in a little domestic violence. Essentially, he represented the worst of hegemonic masculinity while he lived.
In death, Robert’s legacy is more complex and the primacy of masculinity has caused untold damage.
The first season of the popular HBO show is a song of damaging masculinity. It established strict gender roles and enforced them without exception. Men were leaders, women were wives and mothers. It policed norms and rejected those who didn’t conform, pushing the cripples, bastards and broken things to the margins of society. It passed titles on to undeserving sons and made sure that violence could be an answer to everything.
Despite the emphasis Ned placed on honour, which ironically led to his demise at the hands of a boy with none, masculinity was toxic.
Joffrey is one of the most obvious products of damaging masculinity. He offers all the proof we need of just how much of a problem hegemonic norms are in Thrones. His sense of entitlement was grounded in the divine rights of men and kings but, far from using his hereditary powers for good, he used them for evil. From threatening his mother to killing prostitutes with a crossbow to chopping his future father-in-law’s head off and forcing his bride-to-be to look at it, Joffrey was an evil sociopath simply because he could be.
As a product of damaging masculinity though, Joffrey displays damaged masculinity. He’s neither brave nor chivalrous, relying on others for his victories and then claiming all the credit like a true coward. He has no power of his own because, despite being king after Robert’s death, he is reliant on his grandfather, Tywin, the man who hilariously sent him to bed without his supper with the reminder that “[a]ny man who must say ‘I am the king’ is no true king.”
Of course, Tywin was right. Joffrey was no king. Then again, neither was Tywin. He may have been the puppet master of Westeros, but his death provided an overt rejection of everything that was wrong with masculinity. The fact he should die at the hand of his rejected dwarf son, Tyrion, while on the toilet provided a fitting end to his reign of terror.
Now compare Joffrey to Jon Snow, the most likely male candidate for the Iron Throne. He is also an example of damaged masculinity. Excluded under hegemonic masculine norms, Jon’s identity was grounded in his status as Ned Stark’s bastard son. He was rejected by Ned’s wife, Catelyn, who freely admitted she couldn’t love him so he chose the Night’s Watch as an alternative. The band of broken men, pushed to the margins of society, gave Jon a home but also enabled him to become a threat.
Jon doesn’t subscribe to patriarchal norms, fighting the establishment, embracing the Wildlings and bending the knee to a woman. As the poster boy for a new form of masculinity, Jon sits easily beside powerful women rather than pushing them back down, a lesson hard learned when he refused to listen to “sister” Sansa’s at the Battle of the Bastards. He may be a product of damaging masculinity, but he has become the figure that can definitively reject it, especially given the convenient revelation that he is actually Rhaegar Targaryen’s legitimate heir.
Of course, Queens Daenerys and Cersei already reject it, but doing so from within essentially compounds the failure of damaging masculine values and heralds the need for a more equal society.
Whether the show can follow through in its challenge to traditional patriarchal masculinity instead of reverting to tried and tested tropes that would ultimately restore it remains to be seen. The now-legitimate figure of Jon Snow is the man that can ensure damaging masculinity is consigned to the past and reconcile damaged masculinity with new identities.
Jon Snow may know nothing ahead of season eight, but when the ice melts, all bets are off.