Is Game of Thrones Sexist? Part 3: Cersei Is A Bad Feminist
By Alex Cranz
This is an eight part series exploring sexism, gender and feminism in A Song of Fire and Ice. Beginning with the second part each section analyzes one specific book.
The first book is a diversion. It’s a rainy day inside. You shed a few tears, marvel at the size of George R.R. Martin’s testes and move on with your life. It’s not especially urgent. Nothing beyond an affection for the surviving characters carries you through.
And after that first book with the admittedly ballsy execution of Ned Stark can anything in the second book compare? Can it take us to those same emotional heights?
And move the story forward?
And improve on the first book?
Yes. The second book is perhaps the best in the series thus far. It’s tightly plotted and employs that sense of urgency the series so desperately needs. And it makes the magic of the world real–tangible. No longer is it just a series of stories Nan uses to frighten the Stark children. Dragons live, the dead walk, and shadows kill.
A Clash of Kings expands the world. It’s not just the road from the Wall to King’s Landing with a speck of high grass on another continent. Daenerys travels the length of the known world with nothing but desperation and three dragons to motivate her. Catelyn ingratiates the reader with the riverlands and the world the Tullys rule. Jon walks beyond the Wall and finds a land where unfettered anarchy has made the strong into monsters and the week into cravens. Bran discovers the world of the metaphysical where a boy and a wolf can become one and the crippled can fly over castles. And Theon guides us into the cruelest world of all, the Iron Islands, where a strong axe and a stiff male member command the attention of cowboy renegades.
You’ll find people often compare the Iron Island inhabitants with Vikings. They rape and pillage the coasts of Westeros and drink and abuse their women like extras in Vikings. Theon, as he glides back home in the bed of a ship captain’s daughter, makes a similar assumption. Iron Islanders drinks and rape and kill and that is all they value. He quickly learns that there is more to these men and women who spend their days and nights at the oars of longships. They’re may swear fealty to kings but there is a streak of individualism that runs through the Iron Islanders that’s positively American.
There is no culture as obstinately individualist as American culture. Our poorest states gladly scorn aid out of pride and our cowboys are universal symbols of the American spirit and desire for independence and self-reliance. The concept is so odd, so curiously foreign to Theon’s feudalism-inoculated mind that he finds himself teased not only by men of the Iron Islands, but by the women. Specifically his own sister, Asha.
Like American cowboy culture, Iron Island culture is almost slavish in its worship of the masculine. Asha, for all the effort she’s put into becoming the perfect heir for her father and leader for her brother and her people, is still a woman.
But Theon? Theon is worse. He comes from the sissified European proxy of Westeros. He wears ornaments he bought and he rides on ships he paid for. Asha is Ironborn and an individualist by nature, but Theon worships at the altar of feudalism where rights are born of blood, not action and where everyone answers to someone.
As horrible as the world of the Iron Islands is the patriarchal structures its citizens inhabit is nowhere near as socially and culturally confining as the that of Westeros. Asha isn’t humiliated for her choices. Theon even mentions that Asha’s not the only woman to willingly rape and pillage her way along the coasts. Sure she’s not a shieldmaiden beyond the Wall waiting to be raped and married (while insisting on equality because she carries a weapon). But she’s not a warrior woman in Westeros either.
Poor, poor Brienne. She’s just a bit player in the second book, but her life is a pit of despair. She’s been ridiculed in a way that makes the first twenty minutes of Never Been Kissed seem pleasant. Mercilessly teased because she wears armor and is hopelessly in love with Renly, the King. Also. She is ugly. REALLY ugly. Martin reminds of this every time she’s mentioned. Catelyn, one of the kindest characters in the series, experiences pathos over how ugly Brienne is. Like, she is sad for her. I suspect that if they’d spent more time together Catelyn would have developed a drinking problem just from being around Brienne’s face.
Her unattractiveness makes her a target for ridicule, but it’s her choice to carry a sword that really upsets the other knights. More importantly it’s her skill with a sword. Brienne isn’t just a woman playing dress up using her family’s money. She’s a better knight than most of the men she meets and the idea that a woman could be that skilled is absolutely repugnant to the men she meets. So they tear her down and comment on her appearance and when all else fails they mock her virginity and her harmless crush on her king.
When Renly is murdered and his guards rush in and find her weeping over the body they have two choices. To assume that she’s a true knight and believe her claims that magic killed Renly, or to assume that her woman parts sent her into a murderous fury. Naturally they choose the latter and she finds herself racing across Westeros under the protection of Catelyn Tully.
Catelyn becomes a surrogate mother to Brienne. She offers acceptance. Her acceptance, more than that of any king, will later become a driving force for Brienne. Where others treat her with scorn or disinterest Catelyn happily accepts Brienne for who she is (though not before shedding some tears over her homely appearance).
This idea of younger women seeking acceptance from older women is further pursued in the storyline of Sansa. Until late in the book Sansa seeks only two things, respite from Joffrey, and acceptance from Cersei. And in a sense, she finds it.
Cersei opens up to Sansa. It’s the first, and perhaps the only, time she ever truly reveals herself to another. She’s candid with Ned in the first book and frank with her sycophants in the fourth book, but here, with Sansa, sitting in a hall sipping wine and listening to the war being waged just beyond the wall, Cersei is truly honest.
It’s the first time the gender divide, so implicit until now, is voiced.
“Tears,” she said scornfully to Sansa as the woman was led from the hall. “The woman’s weapon, my lady mother used to call them. The man’s weapon is a sword. And tells us all you need to know, doesn’t it?”
Later she continues:
“When we were little, Jaime and I were so much alike that even our lord father could not tell us apart. Sometimes as a lark we would dress in each other’s clothes and spend a whole day each as the other. Yet even so, when Jaime was given his first sword, there was none for me. ‘What do I get?’ I remember asking. We were so much alike, I could never understand why they treated us so differently. Jaime learned to fight with sword and lance and mace, while I was taught to smile and sing and please. He was heir to Casterly Rock, while I was to be sold to some stranger like a horse, to be ridden whenever my new owner liked, beaten whenever he liked, and cast aside in for a younger filly. Jaime’s lot was to be glory and power, while mine was birth and moonblood.”
There’s that moment in everyone young girl’s life when she realizes she’s gotten a raw deal just because some other kid’s bits dangle more. Martin eloquently speaks of that moment, never before making the harsh realities of patriarchal society more clear, or more absurd. Jaime is a prisoner in a Tully dungeon and Cersei has orchestrated a coup and a war. Jaime is known as a murderer and a monster and Cersei is the beautiful queen of the Seven Kingdoms. But “when it comes to swords, a queen is only a woman after all.”
Cersei is the first character to genuinely note that power divide between genders and her words are filled with venomous rage that drives her to commit regicide in the first book. At first glances she’s the type of character that should make a feminist cringe. She sexually liberated, exhibits agency and resourcefulness and cleverness but does it all because she’s a self-hating woman. She’s the feminist that guys speak of with fear in the darkest corners of the internet. And she’s given up. She doesn’t strive to be more.
Like Sansa and Catelyn, Cersei meekly accepts her fate as the lesser sex and struggles to work within the walls built by society. During the suffragette movement? When women marched and starved and died for the vote? Cersei was sitting at home, getting sloshed on cheap wine and complaining about dirty suffragettes and the evil men who couldn’t shut them up. Catelyn would have sat at home cooing over her children and watching the movement from the windows of her home with a hopeful gleam. Sansa, at least in the first book, would have wondered why women even NEED to vote.
And by and large all three women are punished for it. Cersei is a tragic figure destined for doom. Her story is like watching a car crash in slow motion. Only time keeps her alive. Catelyn struggles within the role she’s been dealt and suffers only loss (the loss of Winterfell is especially potent and leads into her biggest struggles with sexism in the third book). And Sansa, Sansa freely gives herself up to an abusive relationship out of a desire to be “normal.”
That happens in the first book. When she still sees Joffrey as a prince and Cersei as a kind matron. It’s Sansa who reveals Ned’s plans. It’s her desire for a happy fairytale ending that sees her sister missing, her father dead and her brother fighting for a kingdom.
At the end of Game of Thrones Sansa has realized her mistake but she’s stuck in a castle full of vicious and abusive monsters, and none so bad as Joffrey. Her story in the second book is an all too familiar story of abuse. Her abuse is normalized by the new king and it’s horrific. Martin writes of every smack, every indignity, every threat of violence, with flare. Sansa’s existence is now sad and painful and horrifying, but for me what’s truly horrific is the fans’ reactions to her story in A Clash of Kings. People are delighted she’s abused. They swoon when the kindest of her abusers gets drunk and kisses her. “At last,” they say, “Sansa’s growing up.” It’s perhaps the biggest flaw in Martin’s book that his words can be misinterpreted so easily.
Sansa’s story, like Catelyn and Cersei’s, is a tragedy in slow motion. There’s nothing romantic about it and as in all cases of domestic abuse it’s never deserved. A thirteen year old girl accidentally gets her father killed and people are excited because a perverted little troll of a king has her publicly stripped and beaten. GROSS–also missing the point.
I tried to keep all my gross feelings reserved for Daenerys but the fans of the Sansa storyline really make me want to vomit a little.
And Dany boy? The nudist warlord of the desert? She’s shown marked improvements from the first book. The adolescent forced into marriage and willing to give it all up for babies has become a hardened leader. Her dragons are her children and her people her family. Yes she traipses across a desert with no plan or water and gets quite a few of her subjects killed. Sure, she bounces around Qarth fielding offers and doing all of nothing but boring readers to tears and providing Martin with opportunities to type the word “nipple.” All is redeemed when she accidentally goes toe to toe with a palace full of warlocks and wins. Her husband’s funeral pyre may have given her dragons but it’s the fire in the House of the Undying that sparks her rebirth. From here on out its impossible to see the meek child sold into marriage. Daenerys is now an adult, and a seriously awesome one.
Back in Westeros Arya is trying to be a boy to protect herself from rape. As in the first book Arya’s story is very much about identity rather than gender. And at her age (she’s not even a teen yet) the difference between girls and boys is fairly negligible. She exemplifies that in her asexuality. It’s the names and personae she wears as hats that matter–not what gender she identifies with.
Though there are times, when she remembers her kind and gentle and utterly feminine mother, that Arya is struck by how far away from the norm she’s gone. She finds herself wondering if her mother would even recognize her and if she could ever love her. It’s those sudden stark moments of regret that remind us that Arya isn’t a sociopath in training but a child living the thousand yard stare day in and out.