An eight part series examining sexism, misogyny and feminism in A Song of Ice and Fire. This particular entry examines A Feast of Crows and previous books. Enter into this series with the knowledge that each part only looks at a specific book and the preceding books. Calling me an idiot because of something that happens in A Dance of Dragons will only make you look stupid.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

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For three books now Cersei Lannister has been a monster. She’s a conniving, murderous and incestuous creature who selfishly destroys lives and enslaves others for her own gain. Ostensibly cut from the same cloth as anti-heroine extraordinaire Scarlett O’Hara she’s always seemed to posses a certain degree of self-awareness that keeps her from being as endearing as Scarlett.

Both women are well aware of their status as second class citizens. They’re women in a world run by men. They use every tool available to a woman of their upbringing. They step on the backs of others to climb higher, ensnare men and women alike with guile and sex and will stab anyone in the back if they come between them and their goals.

They are royalty in societies that no modern woman would ever care to exist in. They’re unfamiliar with “a hard day’s work” or a life sans jewels and fine clothes. Both woman are bigots who gladly use people like chattel if they can get away with it.

But Scarlett O’Hara is an underdog. Her life has been wrecked by war and sweeping societal change. She is beaten down and then pulls herself back up again. Scarlett is a scrapper.

Cersei Lannister has some scrappy element to her persona in the first book as the wife of an abusive rapist, but then she goes and kills poor Ned Stark and becomes a monster in the eyes of the reader and the people of Westeros. When she willingly sides with Joffrey, the most monstrous character yet in the series, it’s clear she’s no true Scarlett. Scarlett could care less about children. She pops them out and quickly forgets about them–more concerned with wooing Ashley and scorning Rhett.

Scarlett’s feelings for her own femininity are matter of fact. She likes being a woman and has never quite considered being anything else.

But Cersei’s love for her oldest son is emblematic of her hatred towards her own gender. She is a woman and despises it. She sleeps with women to so she might feel like a man, and encourages her monstrous son so she might live her own fantasies of masculinity out through him. She often rejects her youngest son for being too “soft” and “woman-like.” She treats women as men treat women in Westeros and to Cersei the greatest insult possible is comparison to women.

So she’s Scarlett if Scarlett were a self-loathing misogynist.

A Feast of Crows finds her at the height of her power. Joffrey, her unwieldy oldest son is dead. Her father is rotting and the stench of his perforated bowels lingers over King’s Landing. She is now reagent for her easily controlled youngest son. Her twin brother is in command of her extensive armies and her enemies, at least seemingly, have been vanquished. Cersei has won.

But over the course of the book Cersei’s empire unravels as she descends into alcoholism. More than one essay has criticized this handling of Cersei. To some it seems that her descent into substance abuse and abject stupidity in A Feast of Crows comes from nowhere. That the vile lengths she goes to to maintain power in the book are out of character.

But here’s the thing, when you’ve finally gotten everything you want you have a tendency to be complacent and when you compound that with a lot of internalized grief over the deaths of a beloved father and a beloved son you’ve got a recipe for A Feast of Crows Cersei. She isn’t out of character in the book. She’s just finally able to show more of her true character. She was always conniving and murderous. She seduced her cousin to murder her husband and she killed a teenage girl once to make sure she didn’t marry her brother.

Cersei was never nice, but in A Feast of Crows George R.R. Martin pulls back the veil. We, the readers, have often given her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe because she’s beautiful, or she’s been victimized, or she’s a mother who clearly has a deep affection for her children. Whatever reason we’ve often ignored the glimpses of the true woman. When in the garden with Ned in A Game of Thrones we are presented with a fascinating woman. An heir to Scarlett’s mantle.

Beautifully shot, beautifully acted, and beautifully written. This scene remains a standout of the first season of the television adaptation.

We catch another glimpse of that woman during the Battle of Blackwater when she holds Sansa hostage and speaks of her suffering at the hands of a deeply entrenched patriarchy. And when her son dies in her arms we see a true and grieving mother. These glimpses are rare but powerful. They linger. To the point that this visage we are greeted with through the course of A Feast of Crows is alarming. She sends women off to be mutilated by a monsters. Surrounds herself with ineffective yes-men that fuel her ego and refuse to challenge her and, perhaps most alarmingly, she allows her hatred of Tyrion to consume her.

It’s the hatred of Martin’s ugly little hero that truly villainizes Cersei. She’s irrational and hysterical when it comes to her little brother. She’s driven mad by his very existence. Before we might have thought she had an angle for her hatred towards her brother. That it was all another bit of manipulation. But as her nastiness is exposed so is her madness.

Cersei isn’t Catelyn. She isn’t so punished by patriarchal society that she goes mad because of it. Cersei is just unapologetically evil. She’s the female version of Ramsay Bolton. A bad egg from birth.

And with Catelyn gone it falls to Brienne of Tarth to be the female counterpoint of Cersei. Brienne is ugly where Cersei is pretty. Noble and good where Cersei is evil. A transgressor of societal norms where Cersei is an enabler of them. The only thing the two women share is a passionate love for Jaimie Lannister.

A Storm of Swords turns Brienne and Jaimie into a convincing retelling of Beauty and the Beast in only a few chapters. A Feast of Crows asks us to join Brienne as she dreams about Jaimie and how dreamy he is. Her scenes in A Feast of Crows are little more than treading narrative waters. While the bulk of the book follows Cersei’s downfall a few chapters are given over to Brienne’s quest for the missing Sansa.

These chapters do little. We learn the details of the social bullying Brienne was once subjected too. We learn that she still really likes Jaimie and we’re reminded that she’s an extraordinary fighter (and for my money she’s got a magic sword and will end up being one of the dragon riders and holy hell I just realized this series was a fantasy).

We also are asked to join her on a journey of being an open transgressor of gender norms. She bravely wears armor and engages in sword fights. She quite honest about her lifestyle and she flat out refuses to live as anything but a kickass sword wielding woman who is very tall and apparently very ugly. Perhaps this is Martin’s way of putting men into a woman’s shoes. He shows us just how awful and uncomfortable it can be to rebel against the status quo.

Arya, meanwhile, has put aside many of her male disguises while living in the company of the Faceless Men. As an acolyte to a god of death and assassins she lives openly and honestly as a female. Her gender, in A Feast of Crows, is her one constant. But her gender is also never a focal point of her character. As in previous books Arya remains a character that has moved beyond identity through gender. She’s still the little genderqueer imp out to better herself and have her revenge on the people who’ve ruined her family. After the ever shifting politics and characterizations of A Storm of Swords it’s comforting to have Arya as such a true constant in A Feast of Crows.

Because Sansa, her sister, is not. She has changed. She’s all but forgotten her name in a quest for survival. She dyes her hair and cuddles a cousin who thinks of her as a surrogate mother. She is maternal and kind and lovely unlike every other female in A Feast of Crows. With Catelyn gone it falls to Sansa to represent the good points of a woman in a traditional female role. While Brienne and Arya and Daenerys are gender transgressors who remain fascinating heroes, Sansa embraces the stereotypes to survive.

And she suffers because of it. Her beauty and her kindness and her reluctance to speak out have made her into a “little bird” that sings for it’s supper. She has become Littlefinger’s plaything, but like any clever woman trapped by societal expectations–and swords–she’s got her own plot. Littlefinger, the cleverest character in the series, is manipulating her, but Martin makes it clear that Sansa too is manipulating him. She’s stumbling into becoming one of the craftiest characters in the series.

Others may be flashier  but my money is on Sansa to be the breakout awesome character of the last few books.

*I considered discussing Asha and Arianne in this essay but their stories, as they stand in A Feast of Crows are underdeveloped and incomplete. As such I’ll be talking about them in the final essay.

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