Even in the modern world, far from the epic wars, dragons, lords, and ladies of Westeros, a woman is still told not to take up too much space. While what’s designated as “for girls” and “for boys” is finally, ever-so-slowly changing in 2019, those of us who grew up as young women in the ’80s, ’90s, and early ’00s still felt the pressures to be cute, petite, and not terribly confrontational. You could be confident—but not too confident that you make a man feel insecure. If you’re tall, you better also be runway-model-skinny. Don’t take up too much space in public or speak too loudly outside your home. All of these directives add up to a feeling that perhaps being yourself is just too much for the world to handle, so you better rein it in.
And then (and then!) Brienne of Tarth showed up on the world’s most popular TV show and shattered every one of those societal expectations with a swing of a sword and a grunt of victory as she knocked a pretty-boy knight down into the mud. It was glorious, and I’ve been here for Brienne, rooting for her, since the minute she arrived on the scene.
Even better than Brienne is the woman who brings the character to life: Gwendoline Christie stands at 6’3”, looks as utterly fierce and at home on the red carpet as she does wielding medieval weaponry, and has headlines written about her such as “Gwendoline Christie is 6’3” and will not apologize for wearing heels, thank you very much.” (1) That is awesome, good for her, and (2) do you see how headlines are written about tall women? These headlines are still couched in terms of fashion and accessories (so-called girly stuff! Wouldn’t Brienne be thrilled?) and the fact that she is doing something that makes her even taller, ohmigod. As if being any taller than your natural 6’3” is just insane. But if that’s what people are going to discuss, then by all means let’s discuss fashion and tall women (before we get to the good stuff).
The average American woman is 5’4” and the trappings of modern womanhood—clothes, shoes, and more—are sized to match. I am just over 5’10” and was taller than everyone in my entire class from a young age, where our uniforms were green and I was called “the jolly green giant.” Then I attended an all-girls high school, where I stood among the tallest yet again. Shopping was a nightmare. I wear a size 11 shoe, I’m curvy, and I could not easily find the cute ’90s looks that most of the girls in my class were sporting at dances and on dress-down days—we wore uniforms (not green ones) to school and thank the gods for it. Uniforms meant that I mercifully rarely focused on fashion in my everyday academic existence…but you still needed a wardrobe for all the rest. Going to the mall was a constant battle with both my mother and the merchandise, as tall/long sizes were few and far between well until after high school, skirts were often too short to be acceptable, and women’s clothing far too matronly for a 14-year-old girl. Internet shopping was not an option then (and it wasn’t for Gwen C. either, because she is five years older than I am). She also stands five inches taller than me, so girl, please take me shoe shopping and tell me all your fashion secrets.
I point all this out not to whine, but to impress upon you that when I was growing up, being a tall woman sucked. Not just from a sartorial point of view and from the perspective of “fitting in” (the drawbacks are obvious: you stand out no matter what, etc.), but also in how you view yourself—you feel too tall to be allowed to exist peacefully in world built around those many inches smaller. I felt like I was going to spend forever folding myself into too-small cars, banging my knees into things, and never seeing the top of my head in a mirror. At the time, being tall did not feel like an advantage. All my heroines were petite yet mighty, from Janeway to Scully to Roslin and back again. Until Brienne.
Clad in armor, fighting “like a man,” winning her many battles, and defending those she is sworn to protect with a fierce heart, Brienne herself seems forged in steel. She makes it clear early on that she is not sentimental, knowing that she is not conventionally attractive but also knowing that she is strong and deserves a place at the table because of what she can offer: her sword and her loyalty. She’d be an unusual character in any story, although warrior women have long held a place in mythological traditions, especially in British and Irish legend. However, their beauty is mentioned nearly as often as their fighting prowess, making Brienne stand apart from—and taller than—the rest.
Brienne keeps her hair cut short to prevent it from falling in her eyes in battle; she wears simple clothes when not in armor, and the only time she wears a dress in the series is when others force it on her. Enough about clothes, though: #AskHerMore, right??? It ‘s all too typical to focus on a woman’s clothes or hair, including those of us who write about Brienne or discuss the character in the media. Of course, George R.R. Martin conceived of Jaime and Brienne as a gender-swapped “beauty and the beast” pairing, with the man seen as beautiful and the woman as ugly. I think that goal fails to be met, however, when it comes to both their relationship* and Brienne herself. Their relationship goes much deeper than their individual appearances, and to reduce them to their looks doesn’t serve their strong and complex character arcs at all, as the two of them develop mutual respect and fight side by side, time and time again. This culminates in the moment when Brienne defends Jamie’s arrival in Winterfell, and his honorable desire to fight for the living—her words quite literally save his life, since Dany would just as soon see the man who murdered her father burn.
[*A late addition to this article: Brienne and Jaime’s relationship is now, as of the latest Game of Thrones episode, a sexual relationship as well. While the ‘ship sailed for many longtime Jaime/Brienne fans, of course it came crashing down an hour later because this. goddamn. show. The writers had her crying after Jaime in the courtyard of Winterfell as he decided to go back to Cersei (which could very well be to kill her—but whatever his true intentions, why be so hurtful, even if he didn’t want Brienne to follow him?) and as a viewer, I still feel pretty mad about that. She should have just knocked him into the dust—as she’s done to unworthy men all her life—and gone back to bed. Men write and direct this show, and let’s not forget it, ok?]
Furthermore, Brienne is not a “beast” in need of a transformation. Jaime grows to accept and admire (and maybe love?) her for who she is, and his reward is not her sudden, miraculous transformation into a conventionally attractive woman. She is beautiful in her own way, in part because of her strength and loyalty—which Jaime recognizes well before they are reunited in Winterfell to face the battle with the dead. Prior to her setting out to find Sansa and Arya and fulfill her oath to their murdered mother, Jaime presents Brienne with a set of armor that fits her properly and a rare sword that is the twin of his own sword, as they are forged from the same Valyrian steel of Ned Stark’s former weapon. With this gift, he marks her as his equal, with respect, knowing that she is far more honorable than he will ever be.
Prior to the most recent development, however, this final season has given us some key opportunities to appreciate Brienne and to give her the respect she deserves. The prelude to the Battle of Winterfell, titled “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” is a deep breath before the storm of an epic battle, one that the show has been building up to for all these years. The episode gives all its characters a chance to shine and have a moment—with Brienne in particular having the moment of her life.
Gathered around the fire, a motley crew brought together to make the final stand against the army of the dead, Tyrion mistakenly refers to Brienne as “Ser Brienne”—‘ser’ being a title only for knights. Tormund, a wildling who doesn’t know much of Westerosi society, asks why she isn’t a knight, since to him, it is obvious that is what she is, but of course “tradition” doesn’t permit women to be knights. “Fuck tradition!” Tormund declares (and of course, we all agree). Brienne is certainly a better knight than 90% of all the knights we’ve seen on this show—including a better knight than the only one that’s present for this conversation, Ser Jaime Lannister. Jaime, takes out his sword—the twin of her own, as mentioned above—and knights her on the spot. Never has Brienne looked so happy; I, for one, definitely clutched a pillow and cried tears of joy for her in that moment.
Game of Thrones is a show where the characters are rarely happy or joyful, since happiness doesn’t work well with the intense drama and existential threats that drive the plot. In fact, many viewers were convinced that Brienne’s death during the oncoming battle was inevitable, now that she’d finally achieved her dream of being knighted. Thank the old gods and the new, Brienne survived the battle with the dead despite holding the front line against a horrific onslaught. Watching Brienne screaming “STAND YOUR GROUND!” as a wave of dead soldiers pours across the snow, coming for her and everything she loves, is a moment that will live in my memory for quite a long time, indeed. The amount of sheer inspiration I take from her character easily tripled in that episode—and I already loved every single aspect of Brienne of Tarth.
Brienne has always owned her height, asserting from early on that “all my life, men like you have sneered at me. And all my life, I’ve been knocking men like you into the dust.” My height was not something I loved about myself until adulthood, and it took seeing someone like Brienne to make me equate female tallness with power instead of something to be uncomfortable or irritated with, at best. I’d guess that most tall men probably don’t worry about their tallness, likely seeing it from the beginning as an advantage rather than something odd or lamentable. I’ve found that when it comes to coping with terrible male bosses over the years, as well as the usual unwanted attention from random guys that women inevitably face, being someone that many have to literally look up to is now a source of confidence, rather than something that elicits an internal cringe.
In 2015, Christie appeared in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as Captain Phasma, clad head-to-toe in chrome stormtrooper armor and fighting for the Dark Side on behalf of Kylo Ren like the badass she is. Once again, Phasma’s height is clearly a distinct advantage in her line of work, as it is for Brienne of Tarth. Star Wars has not always been known for its diverse female casting, so seeing Christie as Phasma, an Imperial officer fighting for the Dark Side (the only female stormtrooper of rank we’ve ever seen and the first major female villain to be seen working for the Empire) shattered that particular glass ceiling. Seeing women take part in Star Wars should not be a A Big Deal, but even in The Last Jedi, most of the background actors were men. Things are slowly improving, and Christie alone is making huge strides, not only in adding gender diversity to typically male-dominated spaces, but also by challenging the notion that not only tiny waifs and doe-eyed damsels in lovely but impractical dresses deserve a place in these stories.
Looking ahead, I hope that Christie does not get typecast as someone who never smiles and is always wielding a weapon; she deserves the chance to flex all of her formidable acting muscles during what will hopefully be a long career playing all kinds of excellent roles. I feel that she has certainly paved the way for other actresses who don’t quite fit the standard Hollywood mold, especially in the SFF genre—notably, Mary Chieffo of Star Trek: Discovery and Elizabeth Debicki of Guardians of the Galaxy. I certainly wouldn’t be mad if Christie made a career of playing similar warrior/badass parts, but why not imagine a romantic leading lady who happens to be 6’3” and confident about it? My body is ready. As Tormund says, fuck tradition!
For now, Brienne’s much needed presence in this final season of Game of Thrones continues to elicit joy. If she doesn’t make it to the end of these final episodes, it is my hope that she goes out blazing in full battle-hardened glory. No one is guaranteed survival on this show, but if anyone deserves the chance to make her way in a new world, it is Brienne of Tarth. Perhaps she’ll have the opportunity to teach future generations of all genders to stand up straight, claim their power, and take charge of their own fate, in whatever form—society-approved or not—that takes. We all need Brienne to remind us how to deal with haters and how to work from a place of loyalty and be true to ourselves. Chivalry isn’t dead—it just has a new standard-bearer in the most unexpected form of Ser Brienne of Tarth.
Amy Imhoff is a digital content manager who left the cubicle farm in 2018 to launch her own business. She is a featured author, convention panelist, and podcaster in the geek realm, particularly on Star Trek, The X-Files, and Battlestar Galactica. Amy wears many hats in the writing world, from literature professor to tech researcher to branding expert. She loves to travel, enjoys all things British, and wants to save the planet while wearing cute shoes. Amy is based outside NYC, where she lives with her husband and two silly cats. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @lightstar1013 and work with her at www.amyimhoff.com.