Cersei Lannister: Unfairly Treated by Audiences Everywhere

5 Jun

I’ve been increasingly bothered by my male friends’ reactions to several female characters on TV recently, most notably: Marnie from Girls, Cersei from Game of Thrones, and Betty from Mad Men. Their extreme dislike of these characters is often coupled with their adoration bordering on idealization for male characters in the show, flawed though those characters might be. This phenomena immediately reminded me of the oft noted fact that female politicians and business leaders are demonized in ways that their male counterparts are not.

There seems to be a link between political vilification of women and character vilification– and I think it’s connected to power. Consider, for example, the beautiful “ice queen” and mother of the king, Cersei, from Game of Thrones.

This picture was taken from a top ten most evil characters list. For real. She ranks ABOVE her son who tortured two strippers and his queen to be.

George R.R. Martin apparently treats Cersei much more harshly in the novels, and the TV show really tries to humanize her. I’ve heard (I haven’t yet read the books) that we don’t get her back-story  until book 4, whereas in the TV show Cersei constantly talks about her past. The TV show depicts Cersei as bitter about the limited role women can play in the period. Cersei laments that she was not born a boy, noting that her gender created a gulf between her and other male Lannisters. Because she is female, Cersei was “sold like a horse at auction” to a drunk who hits her, cheats on her, and humiliates her publicly and often.

Though her father, a hard and calculating man, was quite harsh with her, Cersei displays a loyalty for her family that is briefly disrupted in her assassination attempt of her brother, Tyrion– and arguably, this can be seen as an attempt to protect her son. In a show where family members often become enemies when the throne is up for grabs, this is unique.

Despite this rich back story the creator of the show, George Benioff, noted in “‘Game of Thrones’ Queen: Lena Heady Lights it up in a Dark Role,” that most actresses saw Cersei as wholly evil. It took actress Lena Heady to finally humanize her on screen:

“We had seen a number of excellent actresses, but everyone had interpreted the character as an emotionless ice queen. Lena took her in a different, stranger and more interesting direction. In her hands, Cersei embodies endless contradictions. The queen can seem both ruthless and fragile, often in the same scene. She can exhibit extreme cruelty but also utter devotion to her own children.”

Though the HBO series tries to show a nuanced, complex character by introducing Cersei’s back story early and by casting Heady, most viewers insist on seeing Cersei as a ruthless, evil woman. This could be because she is partially responsible for the crippling of the young Bran Stark, who saw Cersei in bed with her brother, Jamie. Still, Jamie does the actual pushing-Bran-out-the-window act– not Cersei. So why does she catch all the blame?

Now I’m not saying that Cersei is a saint– she is sleeping with her brother and cheating on him occasionally with other male family members. But let’s explore this further. Why is everyone so concerned with her sex life? Her husband cheats on her ALL THE TIME, in front of her face, and has, like, a million children with various strippers.

Yet I’ve heard time and time again that it’s acceptable because he is the king, and that’s what kings do. Or, even better, because “Robert is a warrior, not a king. So it’s understandable that he’s a terrible ruler.”

Are we seeing the double standard here yet? Because Robert is the king, he is allowed to sleep around and treat his queen like crap. But if the queen finds solace in the arms of someone else, someone who is there for her when she is scared or in pain, she’s evil. Makes perfect sense. And I don’t think it’s just our culturally constructed hatred of incest– this is issue is absolutely gendered.

***Side Note: This is just further evidence for my theory that “historical” or “period” dramas force us to operate in their outdated morality systems rather than emphasizing how far we’ve come as a society or emphasizing that the morality system is wrong. But that’s for another post.***

I’ve also heard people compare Cersei to Catelyn Stark, a woman who was arranged to marry Ned Stark and learned to love him. In a world where arranged marriages are expected, people just have to make the best of it! But somehow, that responsibility is entirely on Cersei rather than Robert, and this argument doesn’t take into account that Ned is a much less brutal and nasty man than Robert. Moreover, the argument is just plain medieval— Cersei has no obligation to be faithful to Robert, and hating her for not doing so is ridiculous.

It seems that Cersei’s sexuality is highly connected with viewers’ dislike of her character. It also seems as though her desire for power and security through spying and secrecy is looked down upon in ways that Tyrion’s games are not. Moreover, Cersei is “crazy” whereas Joffrey is just in-bred and stupid. Double standard, anyone?

This ends my post on Cersei’s character, but I’ll be exploring Marnie from Girls next week, and hopefully Betty Draper from Mad Men after that.

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14 Responses to “Cersei Lannister: Unfairly Treated by Audiences Everywhere”

  1. caitliniam June 5, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    Great points! I look forward to reading the one about Betty Draper. I can never quite decide how I feel about her character.

  2. storiesbywilliams June 5, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    Having read both the books and a loyal viewer of the show, I got to say that I disagree. For one, the show and the books are quite consistent, they both give Cersei her say from the beginning and let her explain why she is bitter and so ruthless. But I don’t see how that redeems her. People seem to mistake her backstory as an attempt to redeem her when in fact it just seems like self-pity on her part.

    She has been having an incestious affair with her brother the entire time she was married to Robert, yet she complains about how he cuckholds her. She claims the role of Queen Regent was thrust on her, but she maneuvered her way into it and killed many people to do it. She’s also needlessly cruel to Sansa whom she constantly abuses even though she claims to feel some sort of kindred relationship with her. And when the peasants begin to starve and get restless, she basically says “screw them, I don’t care!”

    And then there’s her power-hungry nature. Sure, she was born a girl and therefore not entitled to power, but that doesn’t excuse her ruthlessness. Her attitude is consistently “if you get in my way, I’ll kill you”. She did this to John Arryn, to Ned Stark, to Tyrion, and all so she could have her son on the throne and manipulate him to get her way. And it was all out of some sense of entitlement and vendetta.

    So really, where’s the sympathetic nature? Yes, she’s endured mistreatment and sexism but how does that excuse her narcissism, her cruelty, or her arrogance?

    • Caitlin Garzi June 5, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

      I agree that Cersei does do terrible things– and she shouldn’t be excused for those things because of sexism or mistreatment. But, the point I’m trying to make here is that often people make her out to be the embodiment of all evil, or as being this monstrous succubus, when there are other (male) characters who do equally terrible things.

      I mean, take Joffrey. I personally think he’s a psychopath and loves other people’s pain. But I’ll say this, and people will point to his upbringing– putting the weight mostly on Cersei, and rarely on Robert. Cersei never seems to get that benefit. I do think that people unfairly treat Cersei’s character, really loathing her in ways they don’t loath male characters for similar actions. So that’s not to say she isn’t detestable, just that people seem to respond to her character more strongly and more negatively than they do to other, equally villainous characters.

      • storiesbywilliams June 5, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

        Who is saying that? If these are your friends saying it, I would say “shame on you! Joffrey’s even less sympathetic than his mother!” But aside from that, there is a reason she’s seen as the embodiment of evil. She is the scheming center of the Lannister plot to dominate the Seven Kingdoms in the story and the one who is constantly working against the sympathetic characters – i.e. Ned, Sansa, Tyrion, and even Jaime (spoiler!)

  3. Hepburn3 June 5, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    I agree with you on your assessment about the hate and the double standard applied to the character Cersei Lannister.
    I find it ridiculous but I think that hate for her speaks to the greater fear that some men may have about women deep down. We are not to be trusted and are evil… this goes back to blaming Eve for EVERYTHING, Adam gets off scott free as just being tricked by Eve.
    As for the character on the show Girls, I do not watch that show and have no interest in it at all, but as for Betty Draper, I do not hate her, but then I do not really like her, I feel the same way about her as I do Roger.

    • Caitlin Garzi June 5, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

      “I find it ridiculous but I think that hate for her speaks to the greater fear that some men may have about women deep down. We are not to be trusted and are evil… this goes back to blaming Eve for EVERYTHING, Adam gets off scott free as just being tricked by Eve.”

      Exactly, Hepburn. I even had one male friend say that women like Marnie are the reason some men hate women. It’s like… really? We can’t see both sides of her story? Or how male characters in her story are some how complicit?

  4. Susi April 29, 2013 at 2:23 am #

    Do you know what it is? It’s that a lot of fans have read all of the books and Cersei deteriorates into such an intensely evil character who does such truly awful things that it is at times hard to read her chapters. I think that has affected how we/they see her on the show. I am fascinated to see how Lena handles these future scenes. Should be good viewing!

    I’m not excusing Robert at all, I think most people see him as a pretty terrible excuse for a person and a king.

    • Caitlin Garzi November 14, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

      I finished the books over the summer and so I finally feel ready to respond to this… I think she does become “intensely evil” only at the point where she hands over power to the creepy tortuous doctor (that doesn’t give too much away, right?). I think that is pretty much the most evil thing she’s done, and that’s more “negligent” than “embodiment-of-evil” a la Ramsay Snow.

  5. Marcus November 13, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    I see your point and agree with the double standard thing to a great extent, but I don’t believe people only hate Cersei out of sexism. People are affraid of her essential destructiveness as well.

    If you think through her actions, you will smell a pervasive bitterness, a destructive poor self-esteem that tarnishes everything around her and that, for me, is scaring to the bone. She is as gloomy as Stannis, but smarter and without all that whitchcraft serving as a disguise. It’s not only that she is not quite a saint – Cersei is dangerous even to herself.

    Again, you’re right when you say that people are not that harsh on Stannis, for example, who killed his own brother, and I give you that. Nevertheless, I don’t think it is a good idea to make a feminist idol out of her, or to say that she would be much happier in a world where women had a more active role. It was not medieval society that made Cersei like that – it was her flawed, disfunctional character, which might be explained by a lot of things including lack of affection, lack of female roles, genetic predisposition, or that amount of unpredictability in human destiny.

    There are two main differences between Cersei and other bad guys in GOT. First, she has a loathing against almost everything, including herself most of times. Second, she has no apparent weakness. Connecting to her is harder for the public.

    • Caitlin Garzi November 14, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

      I hope you don’t think I’m making a feminist idol out of her just by pointing out that men respond more aggressively to her character than to similarly evil male characters in the show!

      The point is that while we might hate Ramsay Snow, Stannis, his Tywin Lannister or Jamie (but I hope no one hates Jamie!!) everyone hates Cersai MORE.

      Also, I agree with you that she has no easily identifiable character flaw, which might make it harder for viewers to categorize her. A lot of what she does seems random, like a cornered lion. She just lashes out when she feels like she’s losing power.

      But looking back, it’s interesting that Cersai has zero allies in the GOT, while everyone else always has at least one loyal person on their team, even if it is an underling. Whether that’s because of “sexism” within the show (characters don’t see a woman as a worthy ally) or because of her own perverse tendency to drive everyone who loves her away, I don’t know. Thoughts?

      • Adam November 21, 2013 at 11:17 pm #

        Interesting discussion! I’d love to jump in, but let me disclose my frame of being; I’m male, I like Cersei (as a character), and I’m going to focus mostly on GRRM’s Cersei (including spoilers up to book 5).

        To me she is a tragic character. I don’t think she is less capable than Tyrion and Tywin because of her sex, instead I think she is less capable because of her paranoia, fierce love for her children, deep resentment of those around her, and huge arrogance. All of which are justified; she sees enemies in every shadow because of the eerily accurate prophecy she heard; she loves her children because they are the only family that hasn’t used or abused her (except perhaps Jaime); she is resentful because she feels she is capable of leading but isn’t being given a fair chance; and she is arrogant because she is beautiful.

        Unlike Cersei, Jaime was lucky enough to have his source of arrogance cut short (pun intended). This brought him to grow in a way we haven’t seen from Cersei. I hope we’ll see the same for Cersei. I do think GRRM will give us more reasons to like her. He tends to make us hate someone just to make us like them—before he cuts them down… (e.g. the Hound, though me thinks he may not be dead).

        I want to add that I don’t think Cersei is a feminist character. While she is acutely aware of the patriarchy around her and how the world views her, she isn’t really promoting the feminine as being valuable or fighting to change the system (except perhaps for herself). She seems to loathe most other women and I think she’d be more interested in simply changing her sex and joining the hierarchy than changing it.

        Brienne is a feminist character, not because she is strong, but because she defies her gender roles AND carries a deep respect for the feminine qualities others exhibit (such as her respect for Cat). Even her love of Renly seems more rooted in the feminine traits he exhibits (empathy and kindness).

        Ned Stark is also a feminist character because he encourages and enables both his daughters to express their gender roles differently. Arya and Asha less so because, like Cersei, they have no respect for women and just want to be men.

        The Faceless Men, despite their name, are probably the least discriminating. Despite their engendered name and god (Him of Many Faces), they are quite the egalitarians.

      • Hepburn3 November 23, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

        Excellent points Adam! : )

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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