Cersei Lannister has persistently lied and murdered her way through Game of Thrones’ seven seasons. She has concocted hateful schemes and brutal demonstrations of power, but firm morality isn’t something Game of Thrones does well, and Cersei is made up of so much more than her violent acts. She is mostly a victim of shitty circumstance and near constant abuse. Cersei Lannister is never feelingless. If anything she feels too much, even if that feeling is most often hatred (at least outwardly so). More than her hatred, she feels desperate love for her children and Jaime and all-consuming fear of losing her own autonomy, both of which in turn lead to an even stronger form of hatred. She may be cruel, but every Game of Thrones character is. They live in the clutches of a violent, cataclysmic, lethal war. As Lena Headey said in an interview with Mashable: “I don’t play her as a villain, I don’t set out to do that consciously, I just play a woman who is a survivor and will do exactly what a man would do — which is, you know, murder somebody when you’re in a war. Maybe just not directly.” She is as violent as she is damaged.
I am a lioness. I will not cringe for them.
Since her youth, Cersei has been commodified and objectified by nearly everyone around her. Losing her mother at age four, her closest points of reference were Tywin and her brothers. Therefore, the primary understanding she has of herself is through the men around her. As she tells Sansa during the Battle of the Blackwater: “When we were young, Jaime and I, we looked so much alike even our father couldn’t tell us apart. l could never understand why they treated us differently. Jaime was taught to fight with sword and lance and mace, and l was taught to smile and sing and please. He was heir to Casterly Rock, and l was sold to some stranger like a horse to be ridden whenever he desired.” When Tywin orders her to marry Loras Tyrell, her face first lights in anger as she informs her father that she is the Queen Regent and not some broodmare for him to marry off. Seconds later, it dissolves into a desperate sort of sadness as she begs him, “Father, don’t make me do it again please.” She is very much aware of the way she is perceived by the men in her life and she despises them for it. Cersei’s young marriage to Robert Baratheon was mostly composed of his abusive, callous manner and his disregard for her. Her killing him for the sake of her children and her own sanity can perhaps be justified, even if twisted, especially thinking upon the scene where he hits her in front of Ned Stark for speaking out of turn or her description of him drunkenly raping her on their wedding night. And let’s not ignore when Jaime raped her in front of Joffrey’s body in the sept. It is definitively my least favorite scene in the entire series and is deeply painful to watch.
When she speaks to Oberyn Martell about Myrcella, who Tyrion had sent to Dorne, he reassures that they do not hurt little girls in Dorne. Her response (filled by her own experience): “Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.” Cersei is as fiercely protective of her children as Catelyn Stark is of her own, or as Daenerys Targaryen is of her dragons—even if shortsighted. She is unfailingly loyal to them (even if Joffrey’s behavior is shockingly cruel) and would watch Westeros burn without a second thought if she believed it would keep them safe. Each of their deaths is lethal blows to the softness she possesses. Each crumples her a bit further. Each reminds her of the fatality of love, and of her fate as told to her by Maggy: to watch her children live and die and to have her power overthrown by a younger and more beautiful queen.
She never forgets a slight, real or imagined. She takes caution for cowardice and dissent for defiance. And she is greedy. Greedy for power, for honor, for love.
It is hard for me to understand how someone could fail to see the complexities of Cersei’s character. She has never been the sort of one-dimensional sociopath that Ramsay Bolton was, even her most horrible acts have been motivated by her desire to protect both her children and herself at all costs. Many of the shows fan-favorite characters have committed similarly murderous acts, yet they remain beloved because their motivations are understood as more sympathetic than Cersei’s. Even her twin brother Jaime, who is similar to her in almost every way, is seen as a much more redeemable and loved a character than she is. Cersei, of course, has understood these double standards her entire life and sees how things fall around her differently because of her gender.
Jaime and Cersei have parallel stories as the beautiful yet arrogant and cruel children of Tywin Lannister who do horrific things and suffer traumatic downfalls. Jaime loses his sword hand after being captured by the Starks and passed around between his enemies. Cersei endures her Walk of Atonement as a result of her sexual crimes/sins. While Jaime being stripped of an element of his masculinity humbles him and makes him more redeemable to the viewer, Cersei being shorn of her hair and forced to walk naked through the streets in an effort to rob her of her feminity only causes her to shut down and become even more defensive (which is, by the way, a reasonable response from someone who has experienced sexual abuse and trauma her entire life). It is interesting to me that while they both actively engage in their incestuous relationship, Cersei is the one who suffers the deeply traumatic consequences; In all of their experiences, Cersei emerges more and more broken, while Jaime escapes relatively unscathed.
I waited, so can he. I waited half my life.
Cersei’s vendetta against Margaery is based on a very real fear of losing her children— especially Tommen—and her fragile autonomy. Her choice to detonate a massive stash of wildfire under the Great Sept of Baelor is both an act of vengeance and a way to prevent the Faith Militant from taking control of her body again. Even her relationship with Jaime is an attempt to reestablish control over her body, which has been objectified as an instrument of sex and breeding since she was a child. Each of the endeavors to humiliate her would have most men in the show (especially Jaime) reaching for their swords. Most of them engage in pointless fights over honor and power, yet Cersei is in many ways shamed for her retaliation because she is a woman. She is often called catty for picking apart her enemies with harsh words, yet Ned Stark and Littlefinger’s duel over Catelyn Stark is not considered childish. Cersei is very much unaccepting of the sexist demands thrust upon her and refuses to see the throne as off limits, she is violently determined. (This shouldn’t come at with the price of her feminity. The choice by the show’s creators to keep her hair short is an aggravating one in its implication that at least one of the women fighting for the throne—and the one who happens to hold the throne at the moment—has to have masculine qualities.)
Her desperate seeking of power is at least partially an attempt to counteract the powerlessness she has felt her entire life. The way she treats power and craves it, her experiences in court and in politics, and her fear-turned-hatred and paranoia cannot be extricated from experiences as a woman. Her flaws are inescapably highly-scrutinized because of her feminity and her unwillingness to bend towards what Westeros asks her to be. She will not make herself more palatable but she will not sacrifice who she is as a woman either. If Jaime was in her place, I think that he would be much more beloved than Cersei is, simply because of his easily consumable masculinity. Even with all of her cruelties and her convoluted sense of justice, Cersei Lannister remains my favorite and most adored character.
I will conclude this with a quote from A Feast for Crows, the fourth novel in A Song of Ice and Fire, which I think encapsulates Cersei Lannister perfectly: “She had played the dutiful daughter, the blushing bride, the pliant wife. She had suffered Robert’s drunken groping, Jaime’s jealousy, Renly’s mockery, Varys with his titters, Stannis endlessly grinding his teeth. She had contended with Jon Arryn, Ned Stark, and her vile, treacherous, murderous dwarf brother, all the while promising that one day it would be her turn.”
For a visual character study of Cersei Lannister, check out my video here.
All gifs are sourced from Tumblr.
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Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.