In the medieval landscape of Westeros, there isn’t much use for a woman that doesn’t include her reproductive system. Highborn ladies are married off to men of comparable social stature, with the women having little or no say in the match. There really doesn’t seem to be much of a middle class, but one can assume that these women toil in the field or in shops or in the kitchens, while low-born women seem to automatically be destined for prostitution in one form or another. For the noble and merchant class, the role of women is to be fruitful and multiply, and of course the role of the lowborn women goes without saying. A woman who desires more out of life is mostly unheard of, and highly disapproved of as well.
That’s why I find that Cersei Lannister, as portrayed by Lena Headey on HBO’s Game of Thrones, is perhaps one of the most interesting characters on the show. While she has been forced to exist in the confines of her highborn Westerosi world, she doesn’t take it lying down. Married off to the boorish King Robert Baratheon, Cersei finds herself in a loveless marriage to a man who prefers drunkenly working his way through all the prostitutes in King’s Landing to showing her any respect, least of all providing her marital love and support. Some women would be devastated, others would resign themselves to the role of Queen Baby-Maker, but Cersei has other plans.
If you’ve read the books or watched the series, you know that none of Cersei’s children actually belong to Robert. You know that in fact, they belong to her twin brother, Jaime. While many people are instantly shocked and disgusted by the very notion of this incestuous relationship, from Cersei’s perspective, I believe there is an underlying method to her so-called madness. Cersei knows that she doesn’t want offspring with a man with such open disdain for her (he refers to the Lannisters, his wife included, as “yellow-haired shits”), but yet she doesn’t want to court disaster for the regency by engaging in an outside relationship. In her mind, the best way she can fulfill her role – on her own terms – is by choosing her brother as a mate.
But how is this an example of her feminism? It certainly would not even remotely be deemed as a feminist act in our time; however, looking through lens of the misogynistic, hostile world of Westeros, Cersei’s act is, indeed, bold. She chooses to build her family on her own terms, and love’s got nothing to do with it. Jaime Lannister is a safe mate, and he’s attractive, and getting caught in an incestuous relationship would be just as devastating for him as it would be Cersei. She holds the cards in this scenario, and she knows it. And in holding these cards, she furthers the very feminist notion of reproductive rights. The children society says she must bear will be hers, with a person she trusts, and who is of her own choosing. Does she love Jaime romantically? I would wager not. But she loves the children he helps her create.
Which leads into another facet of Cersei’s personality – her maternalism. She loves her children in a way that’s fierce, and with her whole entire being. She raises them on her own – for obvious reasons, Jaime can’t act as their father, and Robert certainly can’t be bothered to parent his children. As such, she almost takes on a single parent role, developing her children the best way she can. That’s why that in spite of the horrors her eldest son Joffrey perpetuates during his time on the throne; there is almost a feeling of agony for Cersei. She worked so hard to develop smart, efficient children with an innate ability to rule, only to see that work devastated by Joffrey’s (probable) insanity. But instead of allowing herself to be vilified as the mother of a monster, she quickly sets her younger son, Tommen, on his course to rule. Is this feminism? In the regard that Cersei won’t play the victim, yes. She’s a mother in mourning, but instead of allowing herself to become completely devastated, she immediately begins to prepare her family and her kingdom for what comes next.
We truly see Cersei’s feminism, though, when we view her dealings with her father, Tywin Lannister. Of his children, Cersei is the one that (although I’m sure he’d grudgingly admit it) he most trusts, and most confides in. To say he values her opinion would be an overstatement; I think he’s actually too egocentric to value anyone’s opinion but his own, but she doesn’t back down from forcing him to give her audience. She asks questions about foreign enemies, the state of the troops, the kingdom’s finances and who can be trusted (or not) within their own circle. She sits as Queen Regent on the Small Council, and gives her opinions on matters right along with the men. And, when someone on the Council steps out of line in her estimation (think Petyr Baelish and the “power is power” scene in the Season Two premiere, “The North Remembers”), she quickly shows them that the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules Westeros.
The fact that Cersei’s character is looked upon with such disdain by fans is surprising to me. Cersei is intelligent and cunning, and her desire to take part in Westerosi power play is on par with characters like Robb Stark and Jon Snow. Her wish to cultivate her power, and annihilate those who stand in her way while doing so, is really no different than what we see from Daenerys Targaryen, who is a perpetual fan favorite. For some reason, fans don’t see Cersei through the same sympathetic eyes as they see Daenerys, even though essentially they both are renowned for beauty rather than their obvious intelligence, were farmed off to men who could politically help their respective families the most, and have to work that much harder to be respected by the men in their company, simply because of their gender.
I think dismissing the value of Cersei’s character without fully studying her motivations against the male-centric tapestry that is Westeros is a premature judgment. Whether one loves her character or hates her, the strength she shows and her venerable political maneuverability are impressive, and well ahead of the time in which she lives. We see Cersei making decisions that are deemed harsh, sometimes even cruel, but I would venture that if a male character made those same decisions, perceptions would be different. The world she lives in is corrupt, adverse and misogynistic – she’s simply doing what she can to be viewed as a woman of power, rather than merely a woman of privilege.
Stephanie Clark is a writer living in the wilds of upstate New York. She resides with her beloved gentlemen offspring, as well as four cats, two dogs and one hamster. She enjoys watching and reading all things science fiction and fantasy, and is an avid collector of Doctor Who and Game of Thrones tchotchke. When she’s not engaged in writing or pursuits of geekery, she enjoys volunteerism and public service, particularly in the educational field. You can read more of her work here.