(Contains spoilers for Season 3 of the HBO series Game of Thrones)
EACH TIME A MAN in power misplaces his penis — Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner — we revisit the conversation about whether it’s possible to separate the personal sex scandal from the politician. Pundits argue that gossip should not win out over coverage of chemical weapons in Syria, but it’s not a zero-sum game. Power and masculinity affect and constitute each other. And no better way to remind ourselves of this truth, in the long dry spell before Season Four of HBO’s Game of Thrones, than by revisiting Theon Greyjoy’s penectomy, which, if nothing else, demonstrates that a man’s relationship to power and politics can’t be severed from his masculinity, even if the man is separated from his penis. Indeed, asking whether Weiner’s “Carlos Danger” alter ego would have played a role in city hall is like asking whether Theon’s behavior with Ros the prostitute bears on his decision to sack Winterfell: Each man’s sense of his own masculinity is part and parcel of the way he handles power.
Theon Greyjoy, on the show, is an heir to the hardscrabble, piratical, profoundly macho nobles of the Iron Islands. He can’t contend for the throne, but as a B-list character, he wreaks a fair amount of havoc in the War of the Five Kings by betraying the central Stark family when they allow him some power. The Starks are basically good guys, but by raising Theon as a bastard in Winterfell, instead of in his rightful place, they rob him of what he sees as his birthright, identity, and manhood. This chip on his shoulder drives his sexual insecurity, which in turn drives his terrible behavior, eventually leading to his torture and neutering.
The question that remains is whether GoT’s display of this violent act is itself, in some way, an act of bullying? Is Theon’s ordeal simply meant to emphasize — you can’t see this on broadcast? Or does the show have something important to say about power and the masculine?
Theon’s saga appears within a familiar post-Tolkien world, a version of what Umberto Eco once called “fantastic neomedievalism.” Westeros is a feudal, vaguely British place, with no cell phones and three dragons. It’s recognizably high fantasy, a genre once considered a sure-fire money-loser on mainstream TV. But the show is more than pastoral escapism and emphatically not a critique of modernity from the vantage point of a bucolic past. Westeros is no idyll: it’s steeped in brutal, backstabbing realpolitik. Still, like other high fantasies, Westeros plays into a contemporary longing for a more direct, unmediated, “authentic” life. “Authentic” can mean a reactionary, gendered longing for a world where men get to be “real” men. Or, in our current technological reality, so full of virtual interactions and deadlocked bureaucracies, “authentic” can also mean a world where power stands up and calls itself by name. We might see Theon, therefore, as a kind of stand-in for the modern, self-alienated viewer. His weaknesses, longings, and identity issues are important to a series fundamentally about gender and power — a series that cuts off his penis as part of a bid to be recognized as more than escapism, as a serious cultural force.
A close reading, then, of the dick in a box: Ramsay Snow mails Theon’s member to his father as a power play in the ongoing war. Snow wants to blackmail Greyjoy into withdrawing his soldiers from the north, which is now under Ramsay’s control. Lord Balon, a repellent and bitter old father, dismisses the grisly package and shows no interest in preventing the torture of the rest of Theon’s body. He knows that his son can no longer continue his bloodline. The penis is thus metonymically Theon’s name, and without his name and seigniorial function, Theon’s soul and limbs are of no importance to his father.
Lord Balon first abandoned Theon long ago, leaving him with the Stark family in a compromise intended to hold the peace. On the show, it’s not entirely clear how this adoption was intended to function — was it meant to punish Lord Balon by robbing him of his son while bringing the houses closer together? Or was the aim to hold the child’s life over Lord Balon forever more, as a kind of preemptive threat? Either way, the abandonment results in Theon’s deeply conflicted sense of self.
His sister, by contrast, is raised like a first son, and grows into a more noble person than both her brother and her father. Valuing her brother’s soul and the rest of his body, she “mans up” and sets sail with troops of her own to get him back. Ramsay’s package thus has the opposite of its intended effect: in a way, it makes Theon’s prick stronger. Theon can’t get Ros, a prostitute, to sleep with him for free (in direct contrast with Tyrion’s squire Podrick, of the house of Payne, whose dick is evidently so amazing that a whole group of whores feel compelled to spend time with it gratis). But Theon’s penis sets his sister’s troops in motion: detached from his body, it finally exerts some power and leadership on Theon’s behalf. Theon’s detached penis directly provokes a female warrior to take charge and lead her soldiers into battle in his name. Fantasy world, indeed.
Even before his torture, Theon wanted his life to feel different, more direct. The Starks treated him well. At least, they treated his physical body well. After Theon turns on the Starks and attacks Winterfell, he asks the tutor he grew up with, “Do you know what it’s like to be told how lucky you are to be someone’s prisoner?” He has a warm bed and money for the occasional prostitute, but he’s emotionally tormented. This crisis of identity is the source of his obsession with sex; away from the Iron Islands, he always already felt emasculated. He tells Ros, “I don’t want to pay for it” (she tells him to get a wife). With or without the fee, he will fuck the same woman. But like the self-alienated TV viewer on her couch, Theon wants a less mediated, more authentic ride.
Theon’s Winterfell prison, therefore, is a prison of the soul. The sentence that Theon lives out before he is tortured is not one of “unbearable punishments” but of “suspended rights,” as Foucault describes our modern penitentiary-based system. Foucault contrasts modern with feudal societies, which were defined by forms of spectacular punishment. Western civilization moved away from drawing-and-quartering to psychological evaluations and prison sentences. The body becomes “caught up in a system of constraints and privations, obligations and prohibitions.” The Panopticon replaces public torture. “From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights.” Foucault describes the alienating experience of living in this economy of distributed bureaucratic violence, surveilled by technicians, as a system that both constitutes and punishes the human soul.
In the feudal system, torture enacts and consolidates the power of the king on the body of the prisoner. In our regime, capital punishment is hidden away, while courts concern themselves with prisoners’ motives and mental states. Westeros therefore responds in part to a modern longing for royal decrees — even cruel ones — as an escape from Foucault’s false “utopia of judicial reticence.” Instead of secretive, hidden, distributed violence that attempts to control individuals’ souls, Westeros promises clear lines of power and a forthright relationship with individuals’ bodies — even if that relationship is violent.
Theon’s self-alienation both telegraphs and throws into relief that modern longing. In an hour that’s servicing at least eight major plots, the show spends an otherwise curious amount of time with young Greyjoy and his experience. But the show’s continuing interest in his desire for “authenticity” tracks the show’s interest in itself. Theon begins to sound not unlike HBO GO, HBO’s streaming service and hope for the technological future, which initially advertised itself with this tagline: “The story you could be watching is better than the one you’re in.” The ad campaign consists of people stuck inside banal, numb, modern situations — doctors’ waiting rooms, elevators with annoying people on cellphones, lunches with boring co-workers. These people are screaming inside, I am so not Robb Stark right now. This audience longs for the “authentic” experience that apparently only CGI, cable technology and graphic high-fantasy on demand can provide, and Theon too longs to be inside a better story. Theon is this audience’s proxy.
Like GoT for a modern fan, Theon’s torture is both a nightmare and an escape from an alienated, already-emasculated existence. Ramsay gets the information he wants out of Theon by being nice to him, like the Starks were. The torture is thus unnecessary, aesthetic. It’s deeply individualized and personal. Ramsay is a true sadist: he uses physical pain to obliterate the world of constraints, privations, obligations, and prohibitions. If what Theon wanted was for someone to pay attention and treat him as a Greyjoy, then his wish has been granted tenfold, for he is tortured because of his Ironborn name. Ramsay breaks Theon’s spirit by demanding that he call himself “Reek.” But, ironically, by going to such great lengths to efface the name, Ramsay validates Reek’s status as a Greyjoy.
Like Anthony Weiner, Theon doesn’t get into the game to hurt anyone necessarily, but he’s narcissistically obsessed with his own status and masculinity. That narcissism becomes a dangerous vulnerability. The mailing of his penis thus resonates as a comment on current technology. Theon’s dick in a box is a Westeros sext: both as a visual pun and as a comment on the consequences of longing for a more virile and unconstrained masculinity.
As a visual pun, the box also calls to mind a cable device. What’s inside that little black box? Theon’s dick. HBO GO promised a better, more immediate story. The atavistic thing in the box shocks the viewer out of any modern numbness and asks: Is this cable enough for you? The mailed penis is so visceral and terrible that it momentarily throws the viewer out of the story. It provokes us to ask whether this is entertainment, of what it means to visit this dark world for fun. Also Theon, who doesn’t want to pay for it, gets his due. If he is the audience’s proxy, his torture reminds modern internet pirates that those who try to get it for free will eventually be punished.
Within the distributed violence of our economy of suspended rights, distracted and narcissistic, we indulge our vexed longing for kings and swordfights, for the threat of winter instead of an incrementally warmer climate. Game of Thrones brings that longing into light. Ramsay doesn’t pretend to hurt Theon in the name of freedom (ahem, 24). Nor does King Joffrey claim to have bootstrapped his way to his position at the top. He doesn’t pretend that his family’s vast wealth is somehow the result of a level playing field. He’s a Lannister by birthright, he’s proud of it, and he’s motherfucking evil. Like a torturer who calls torture by its name and states plainly that he enjoys it, Joffrey is awful — but refreshingly, spectacularly, and obviously so. The question, with Game of Thrones, is whether a fantasy is just being indulged, or whether the show’s willingness to kill and torture its darlings consistently forces the viewer into more complex considerations of the nature of the fantasy.
Theon’s torture is not like Foucault’s drawing-and-quartering in the important respect that it’s private. It doesn’t function within the world of the show as a spectacle to reinforce the power of the king. Instead, it creates a fetishistic dynamic among Ramsay, Theon, and audience that emphasizes the show’s power over the viewer. After Ramsay cuts off Theon’s penis, he sits down and begins to eat something sausage-shaped. He cuts off a piece and holds it up. For a moment, both Theon and the viewer are led to believe that he’s eating Theon’s penis. Ramsay pauses, for a long nauseating second, before he says it’s just a sausage.
The nasty trick visually aligns the viewer, again, with Theon. Watching Ramsay from Theon’s perspective, the viewer is physically reminded of her own body, again forced into a self-reflexive assessment of Game of Thrones. Did I think he was eating a penis? How far will this show go? How far will I go? Was I so angry with Theon for betraying Robb that I wanted him to be tortured? For what am I being punished? Did I participate in this not-for-broadcast horror? Is this nausea the authentic experience I came looking for? What is it that I’m paying for by paying for cable?
Either that, or the viewer thinks that HBO is just torturing her because it can — exerting narrative power for power’s sake. The viewer feels then that while she is happy to entertain criticisms of masculinity, she comes to Westeros to escape, and this no longer feels like escape. Behind the torture scenes and the “Red Wedding” episode, she feels not an exploration of the nature of power but the callous hand of a calculating author. The viewer then gets up from the couch and says, “Oh, disgusting. Fuck you, Game of Thrones.”
Michelle Chihara is currently the Mellon Fellow in English at Whittier College, teaching creative writing and American literature.