How Game of Thrones Failed Its Female Characters in Adaptation, Part Two: Cersei, Dany, & Shae
Welcome, welcome, welcome to part two of my breakdown of the differences between the female characters of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire. (If you missed part one, you can find it, and eventually all the other parts, at that link!)
Thank you all so much for your comments in the first post; it was fun to read and makes me excited to write about the men of series after I’m done with the ladies. Now, I found that in writing about Cersei, Dany, and Shae that, in the case of the first two, the difference between the book and television versions really comes down to personal taste.
There are really good aspects to both the GOT and ASOIAF versions of Cersei and Dany, so in addition to breaking down some of the changes the show made, I’m also just going to give my two cents about how I feel about the characters overall.
Shae, however, makes my blood boil, so there is a lot of rage there.
Lena Heady should have gotten an Emmy for Game of Thrones already, and it is my deep hope that she will when the series ends. While her performance as Cersei has always been good, the way Cersei is written in the show has always been softer than book series, which seems odd to say considering how much of a dark badass she is, but it’s true. In earlier seasons, some of the terrible things she did in the books were given to Joffrey instead, plus the show actually gives her a heart and some sense of realizing how wrapped Joffrey is.
GOT Cersei is the one who gives sad monologues to build empathy with Cat about their dead children, even though book Cersei gladly aborted all of Robert’s children out of spite and hatred for the man who raped her throughout their marriage. GOT gives us scenes of Cersei and Robert laughing together about how their marriage keeps the kingdoms together when Cersei is the one behind his death and poisoning.
Even though book Cersei is responsible for the killing of all of Robert’s bastards, the beatings of sex workers (Alayaya in the books/Ros in the show) and cosigning all of Joffrey’s behavior, the first two things are given to Joffrey as ways to make him even more evil, and the latter is made so that Cersei is “aware” that Joffrey is bad, but that he can’t ruin the memories she has of him as a sweet boy.
Are these changes better? Honestly, it depends on whether you enjoy Cersei as a more complex villain or an over-the-top one.
For me, I find the show version of Cersei to be better written, because book Cersei is such a disappointment by the time you get to Feast for Crows. For so much of the series, you think Cersei is a really smart, capable person, and then you realize she has been failing upwards, and it’s hard to forget that again. I mean, she uses wildfire to burn down the Tower of the Hand because it’s where Tywin died. We get an insight into Cersei’s paranoia that makes her so tedious as a character that, after a while, you can’t help but find it humorous.
Plus, one of the biggest departures is that the show does think that Cersei loves Jaime, on some level anyway, when really there is only one person Cersei Lannister has ever “loved” romantically, and that was Rhaegar Targaryen. Hell, she drew a picture of herself and Rhaegar on a dragon together, and Jamie got jealous about it, so she had to lie about it. She craves power.
However, what makes Cersei interesting to me, in whatever version you pick, is what a fantastic example of internalized misogyny she is. I think this passage from Jaime’s POV, about his sister, sums it up:
His sister liked to think of herself as Lord Tywin with teats, but she was wrong. Their father had been as relentless and implacable as a glacier, where Cersei was all wildfire, especially when thwarted. She had been giddy as a maiden when she learned that Stannis had abandoned Dragonstone, certain that he had finally given up the fight and sailed away to exile. When word came down from the north that he had turned up again at the Wall, her fury had been fearful to behold. She does not lack for wits, but she has no judgment, and no patience.
Cersei wants to be a ruler in her own right—she wants to be queen, not queen regent—and she wants to be her father’s true heir, not be second fiddle to Jaime simply because he’s male. She’s the eldest, and she wants to be all the things Jaime and Tyrion couldn’t be for Tywin. However, Tywin is a sexist tool-bag and doesn’t see any value in his daughter outside of her vagina.
Especially in the show, Tywin is depicted as painfully, rigidly conservative, reminding Cersei of her duty to “breed” for House Lannister. Cersei, as a result, doesn’t resent men; she resents women. She doesn’t want to empower other women; she wants to empower herself to abuse others. Therefore, she seats herself next to powerful men and abuses any woman who could threaten her: Sansa, Margaery Tyrell, and Dany.
GOT Cersei is a version of ASOIAF ‘s Cersei who is fascinating as a character, but also so stripped of anything redeemable that you can’t really root for her because there is nothing likable about her, save her blind ambition. Book Cersei also isn’t as badass as GOT Cersei, who revenge poisons the Martells. That Cersei you can really enjoy.
Daenerys ‘Dany’ Targaryen:
Dany, as a character, is heavily debated. Is she a good ruler? Is she an egomaniac? Is she the princess who is promised or the Mad King: Part 2? One of the things about Dany’s character is that the show’s changes towards her have been small, but they add up, starting with her getting raped by Khal Drogo in the show.
I’m not going to act as though the book version of the relationship of Drogo/Dany is “healthier” because, regardless, it is not a consensual marriage, and Dany is only fourteen being married to a grown-ass man. However Dany may feel about Drogo in canon does mean we, as the viewers, need to excuse it. Throughout the books, Dany is often very conflicted about what to do next. She is very young, not experienced, and is often sexualized by the men in her life who claim to want to help her.
Dany and Tyrion are similar in being “responsible” for their mother’s childbirth deaths, and enduring the resulting ire of their older siblings. While Viserys is definitely shown to be cruel and wicked in the show, one of the things I remember most from the first books was not just him disrobing Dany, but twisting her nipples as a threat of punishment if she failed him.
She is thirteen years old and her being sold in this political marriage is supposed to be the beginning of Viserys’ reign, but it is truly her beginning. Throughout the first book, we see Dany grow within and while it’s sold well with Emilia Clarke as Dany, there is just a lot of powerful imagery that is erased for the more obvious bombastic shorthand of awesome scenes of naked Dany in fire that is endemic to all of Dany’s storyline changes.
As for the question of “Is Dany a good ruler?” I think neither medium says she is a perfect leader, and from the very beginning, her biggest flaws have always been her empathy, lack of cultural understanding, and having truly shitty advisors. Dany has a good heart, noble intentions, and despite her dragons, is often the only woman who can command power in that space. She is an underdog—more so in the books than the show, due to her age—and I think that where the show does Dany massive disservice is that it often strips her emotions away.
Dany is lonely, isolated, and someone who has learned love from some really fucked up men in her life. One of the moments that I always felt said a lot about Dany was in Chapter 23 of Storm of Swords, when she takes her handmaid, Irri, as a lover but feels guilty about it, because she doesn’t want to use Irri as a bed slave. Compare that to Cersei’s sexual relationship with Taena of Myr, where she’s just Cersei’s toy and that’s how she likes it.
Throughout her journey, Dany is always afraid she is not good enough or wise enough to rule, constantly comparing herself to the only rulers she’s ever known, Drogo and Viserys, who are both brutes. Dany doesn’t want to be that. She wants to be good, and she wants to inspire true loyalty, but she’s also not prepared to rule. She realizes this in Storm of Swords, when the council she had previously installed in Astapor gets killed off. She stays in Meereen out of a sense of responsibility, but also because she needs to see who she is as a ruler first, before taking over the seven kingdoms.
A Dance with Dragons is when things start to get really … out there for Dany’s storyline, mostly because George R.R. Martin is not finished telling it, so the show has decided that Dany’s whole conflict will be “Is she the Mad Queen or nah?” And it’s like … nah.
Dany, for her many, many faults in both series, is not bloodthirsty. She wants revenge at times, just like literally everyone else, but she has a very annoying conscience. Even though she wants to kill the Sons of the Harpy, she can’t make herself kill any hostages. When Xaro Xhoan Daxos (who is not killed in the books) comes and offers her thirteen ships if she departs for Westeros immediately, she realizes that all of her freedmen who stay behind in Meereen will either be enslaved killed.
Because she can’t take them all with her to Westeros with only thirteen ships, Daenerys refuses the offer, and Xaro declares war on Meereen. For better or worse, Dany feels responsible for people and does not like to cause pain intentionally. She’s willing to marry Hizdahr zo Loraq for her people because he claims he can put a stop to the ongoing murders.
The show wants there to be much more darkness inside of Dany than there already is. She’s naive, not cruel, and whether you like her or not, it’s annoying how the show wants to make her the villain for using dragons in warfare when they are (a) her greatest weapons and (b) she’s not having them actually kill civilians like Cersei. No one questions whether she is a monster more than Dany herself, and it takes away all of her autonomy to make her just be incompetent and bloodthirsty just so she can get mansplained by Tyrion how to do things.
Ugh … Okay, Princess, you can do this. You have been angry about this for several years. Just let it go.
Everything about Shae is endemic of what happens when you want to create “empowered” female characters in an adaptation, while not changing their ending and also whitewashing the situation revolving their relationships with other characters. When television Shae is introduced in Game of Thrones, she is mysterious, snarky, but also kind, with a true love for Tyrion and Sansa Stark. She was definitely the “cool girl” of Westeros at the time, and I went with it, but my suspicion was that, for all of this positive re-writing of her character, it was all going to fall apart when the narrative was done with Shae’s storyline.
And that’s exactly what the fuck happened.
In the books, Shae is a young prostitute who was sexually abused by her father, who ends up with Tyrion and Bronn on their way to King’s Landing. Tyrion, throughout the three books, falls in love with her and plays petty fuckboy mind games to make her think her position within his affections is under attack, because Tyrion is deeply insecure when it comes to women.
There is a lot about examining Shae that requires getting into Tyrion and the changes made to him (which we will get to another time), but for the sake of simplicity, I will just say that Tyrion is not a black and white character. He is someone who is brilliant, but also insecure. He is marginalized because of his dwarfism, but due to his wealth and sex, he has privileges, and he uses that privilege over women especially. There is a bitter entitlement to sex that Tyrion sometimes has, and part of his mind-games with Shae is trying to keep her in her place, but also not wanting to scare her away.
Unlike in the show, book Shae doesn’t give a damn about Tyrion. She is a sex worker and a teenager, having just fled an abusive life. She is just trying to survive. Her relationship with Sansa is minimal. She certainly doesn’t protect her or say she would “die for her.” She is a servant at the mercy of men and nobles, who see her as an expendable person. Tyrion can’t protect her fully from Tywin, and at the end of the day, Tyrion put her in harm’s way by bringing her to King’s Landing, knowing that his family could hurt her.
In the books, there are two black female characters from the Summer Islands: Chataya and her daughter, Alayaya. Chataya owns a brothel in King’s Landing, and Alayaya pretends to be the prostitute Tyrion is seeing when he really going to see Shae. As a result of this pretense, while Tyrion is recovering from Blackwater, Alayaya is kidnapped by Cersei and flogged before being sent naked and bleeding out to walk from the Red Keep to the Street of Silk. Oberyn later describes Alayaya as “exquisite, despite the stripes on her back.”
That’s why, when Cersei offers her a knight to marry, she takes it, because Tyrion’s power is not stable. He can’t protect her from his family. Tyrion wants to control Shae, and her betraying him wasn’t just a personal attack, but it was also a loss of control due to another woman.
On the surface, I can see the appeal of wanting to make Shae and Tyrion’s story tragic for the show—to make it a love story. However, that only does harm to Shae. As soon as Sansa and Tyrion get married, Tyrion starts acting weird around her, and where Shae was once supportive, she becomes vindictive. Her act of betrayal is no longer just about survival. It’s about getting “revenge” on two people she “loved” but who she felt wronged her. How does that make Shae a better character, especially with how it changes the whole context of her sleeping with Tywin in the end?
In the books, it is just another way to show how Shae’s body is passed around and to highlight Tywin’s hypocrisy. In the show, it is a further betrayal of Tyrion’s love, which … sure. Fine.
I was going to talk about Ros too, but really, Ros was a wasted character, and the fact that we got her instead of Chataya and Alayaya is a waste.
Alright, that’s it for part two! Can’t wait to read your thoughts below and see you next time when we talk about the women of Dorne, because man, talk about point missed.
[Author Note: Sorry about that Chataya error, I 100% thought I wrote it the right way, so I apologize for that. The Jaime error is just a full on my bad for forgetting to double-check, it’s been a while since I’ve re-read the books so sometimes I forget the different spellings. I’ll make sure to triple check next time. Thank you for letting me know!]
Part Three: The Women of Dorne (featuring Margaery Tyrell)
Part Four: The Lannister Brothers
(featured image: HBO)
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