Brienne the Bully
What has Game of Thrones done to Brienne of Tarth?
The show has run into trouble with changing its female (and, to a lesser extent, male) characters several times before. Catelyn was reduced to the “nagging mother of the king” stereotype, Lysa and Selyse have become “just plain crazy,” and Cersei has been maligned not for her cruel acts, but for her rejection of Jaime. But I must admit, the changes to Brienne have been puzzling me the most. Because, unlike those other characters, I don’t think the show is suggesting that we shouldn’t like Brienne, or changing things to simplify her character. Brienne, it seems to me, is supposed to be given a likeable and sympathetic write. While the drama of her story is on pause, she’s meant to be the one with smile with in a comic relief subplot. Yet if that’s the show’s goal, it’s failed pretty utterly.
Because Brienne in the show is mean.
We’ve seen hints of this before, when she’s insulted Jaime and told him he was acting “like a woman” by whining, but this attitude has become particularly stark in recent episodes, when she interacts with Pod and (to a lesser extent) Hotpie. Brienne struts through these scenes with a near constant eye-roll, dismissing and belittling Podrick’s attempts to help her, apparently unable to bear interaction with anyone she deems unworthy of her. She’s incredibly rude, she’s ungrateful, and although her snarky lines are played for laughs, the result is pretty darn unlikable in my eyes.
Where is the sweet Brienne who wants acceptance after a lifetime of mockery? Where’s the Brienne who is determined to be a true knight, which to her means being kind and honorable and noble above all? Where’s the Brienne who feels protective of Podrick and hates any cruelty in the world? Why are we stuck with this snarky, angry, almost arrogant warrior woman instead?
It seems to me that the show is attempting to make Brienne into more of a Strong Female Character (TM). The kind who won’t take nonsense from anybody and has a sassy comeback for every scenario and is Not Like Other Girls. But Brienne is fundamentally incompatible with the Strong Female Character stereotype, since the SFC is meant to be super sexy, with revealing armor and skinny arms that could never actually lift a longsword. To counteract this, the show has also tried to squeeze Brienne into a less commonly seen Super Masculine Woman stereotype. She’s gruff and bad tempered. She rarely expresses kindness towards others. She never expresses any emotion or attitude that might be associated with femininity, like loneliness or sadness or concern.
The two tropes are crappy on their own, but combined, the result is a mess. She’s snarky and defiant, but she’s also brusque, so it comes off not as jokey or a “good comeback,” but as rude and mean-spirited. She’s not only sharp with arrogant characters like Jaime, but with sweet and innocent characters like Podrick. She struts like she knows best about everything, but then makes fundamental errors, like telling strangers about her search for Sansa Stark and failing to even know who Sansa’s relatives are.
Of course, both of these tropes are oversimplifications of Brienne as she appears on the show. It has to follow her general plotline, which means that she does get to express a softer side in her love for Jaime. But even this “softer side” has been twisted by recent episodes. It’s not that she now sees the worth in Jaime despite what he’s done before. It’s that he has proved himself worthy of her affection — something that characters like Podrick have yet to do. Instead of her default state being “caring and considerate,” with an exception for Jaime because she thinks he’s an oath-breaking murderer, her default state is “uncaring and dismissive,” with an exception for Jaime because he’s proved to her that he’s worth more than other people.
Brienne would probably be more able to get away with this if she were attractive, and especially if she were an attractive male character. We enjoy snark when it’s attached to a winning smile and a devil-may-care attitude. Arrogant jerks can be fun to watch. But I don’t think the difference between, for example, season three Jaime and season four Brienne is due to the viewer‘s differing response to “hot overconfident rude male character” and “ugly overconfident rude female character.” I think it’s all in the writing. Jaime’s rudeness is fun, because he presents it as fun. Sure, he’s a jerk, but he’s smiling. There’s something charming about the attitude, and when things get serious, he gets serious and more understanding too. Yet that doesn’t happen with Brienne. She’s not given that fun kind of flippancy, as though an unattractive female character can’t get away with being flippant. She’s blunt and rather mean and 100% genuine not-joking when she speaks, and so instead of being the more likeable kind of rude, she comes off as someone that no one would ever really want to be around, on or off screen.
And those changes make no sense to me. She’s obviously still one of the characters that we’re supposed to like, but they’ve taken all her likeability away, as though any likeable traits are incompatible with her quick character summary of “tall, muscular warrior woman.” In the end, it stinks to me of an anti-girlish, “not like other girls” attitude. It’s better to be cruel and dismissive than sensitive and caring, because sensitivity is girly trait, and who would like or believe in a female character who was girly and who carried a sword?