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Power is Power: Cersei Lannister

This post contains spoilers through A Dance with Dragons.

There’s no getting around it: Cersei Lannister is a horrible person. Although, thanks to the extreme cruelty of some of the series’ villains, she isn’t the worst character in A Song of Ice and Fire, she is ruthless and petty and cruel, and she appears willing to sacrifice anything (except her children) to bolster her own power.

Cersei is also the only “villain” character in A Song of Ice and Fire who  gets chapters from her point of view but isn’t redeemed or made likeable in any way. Although readers may have different reactions to Jaime in A Storm of Swords and Theon in A Dance with Dragons, the books certainly attempt to make them into compelling, sympathetic characters, but Cersei’s chapters in A Feast for Crows only confirm the idea that she is an unhinged, vindictive, selfish, and spiteful woman.

Yet Cersei is also one of the most intricate and interesting (if also detestable) characters in the series. We just have to dig deeper into her motivations to find the compelling details underneath.

Cersei is far from a feminist character. However, she is a fascinating character to examine from a feminist perspective, because her entire life (and much of her personality) is a reflection of the misogynistic nature of Westerosi society. She’s an ambitious woman who has had to fight against limitations her whole life, and who has been made hard, cruel and bitter as a result.

Even as a child, Cersei is portrayed as bold and haughty, bordering on cruel. She tormented Tyrion, fearlessly put her hand into a lion’s cage, and challenged a witch to tell her future despite how terrifying she seemed. Young Cersei seems rather magnificent — fearless and defiant, destined for greatness — but hampered, of course, by the fact that she’s a girl. She is the only Lannister child with ambition — Tyrion has the smart, Jaime has the arrogance, but she is the only one who wants power and success — and she is the one that the world is least likely to take seriously. While Jaime rakes in the glory (and later, the disdain) and Tyrion is left to his own intellectual devices, Cersei is used as a political pawn by her father, with no choice in her life. Despite considering herself to be almost the same entity as her twin brother, she is treated differently — as lesser — since birth.

Although the young Cersei seemed to have the scrappiness and rebelliousness of Arya Stark, she also, like Sansa, had dreams of romance. She dreamt of marrying Rhaegar, of being queen and mother to princes, of being powerful and beloved. But, like Sansa, her dreams are destroyed by the harsh reality of life for women. Although she does eventually obtain her dreams of queenship and something resembling power, her marriage to Robert is a debasement. She is sold off to a man who does not want her, who hits her, who hates her, all for her father’s political gain. And although she is determined to make the best of the situation, to stay close to Jaime and play her way to the top, she is deeply bitter and full of wounded pride, and this feeds into every aspect of her character.

She does, however, love her children, and will be fiercely protective of them. Apart from Jaime (who, she believes, is actually an extension of herself), they are the only things that she cares for.

One of her most interesting relationships is her cruel kind of mentorship to Sansa Stark. She does not feel sympathy for Sansa for being in a similar (if not worse) situation to what she herself lived through, but she does occasionally feel inspired to pass along twisted motherly advice to encourage Sansa to be tough and heartless enough to survive. Yet her experiences do not make her sympathetic to women in general. If Cersei survived and manipulated and came out on top, then other women must as well, and if they cannot — if they appear weak, like Sansa does in her eyes — then they are worthy of all the disdain that the world piles on them.

But Cersei’s greatest flaw, and the cause of her downfall, is that she has spent her whole life fighting for every little scrap of power and respect, and she does not know when to stop. She trusts no one. She clings to her power. She is spiteful and vindictive to ensure that no one challenges her, even on petty matters like the death of a direwolf who did nothing wrong. And thanks to the prophecy, and the shock death of Joffrey, she is incredibly paranoid. The more power she gains, the more vulnerable she feels, and she sees enemies in every shadow. She is unable to stop fighting and accept that she has won — that her son is on the throne, that she is Queen Regent, that others are trying to help her — because she has been playing the game of manipulation and sabotage her entire life, and she expects that everyone is waiting for the chance to tear her down.

And she has been playing that game, and become so paranoid, because she is a woman. Not because women are naturally more inclined towards manipulation and other sneaky means, or any such nonsense like that, but because these are the only paths to power that are available to her. She must use her intelligence, and her smiles, and her subtle schemes and string-pulling to fulfil her ambition, because if she pursues any direct course, she will be shoved aside. When people discover these manipulations, they disdain her for it. They despise her for seducing potential allies, or for controlling people with smiles and subtle threats, for playing the sweet queen and being a viper underneath, because these traits are both “feminine” and “un-feminine” — they are the way a woman plays the game, yet they are not considered proper behaviour for a good kind of woman. No good path is available to her, so she makes the best of what she has, dwelling on her pride and vindictiveness to survive.

And then, at the end of A Dance with Dragons, she is punished for her crimes. Punishment by humiliation, stripped naked and made to walk through the streets to show her weakness. It is a very gendered punishment, designed to punish her both for and through the fact that she is a woman. The scene is less about enacting a fair punishment and more about putting her in her place and making her see that she has no power compared to these other, male forces. Despite her struggles and her ambition, she is always a woman first, and that is always something people will disdain. But any attempt to “put Cersei in her place” is, by its very nature, misguided. Cersei will not bow to anyone. After her punishment, after pretending to be meek and accepting of their dismissal, she will be more than happy to build on her bitterness and enact revenge.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

12 thoughts on “Power is Power: Cersei Lannister

  1. Hi,

    I wanted to ask you about something that’s been confusing me for a while. When I watched Firefly, I found out that most people thought Christina Hendriks’ character – a wily woman who basically gets her way in any way she can, including by sex – was rather problematic. Honestly, I don’t know if I quite agree – yes, it reinforces women as sex objects, but does it really reinforce that so much as the men of that world seeing women as sex objects? Isn’t she in every other way a strong character?

    I ask, because in the line “They despise her for seducing potential allies,” you seem to have the same point of view. Do you, or are there some other factors here that make this more okay than that? And, basically, why?

    Thanks.

    1. To be honest, it’s been a while since I watched Firefly, and I’ve never thought too in depth about YoSaffBridge. She always struck me as quite a fun character – confident and manipulative, and more than willing to take advantage of the fact that everyone at first sees her as weak and in need of protection. I never got the feeling that the show viewed her as as sex object, because she was such a vibrant character in her own right, and she always seemed in control of everything she did.

      I see Cersei as a fairly horrible character, but one whose negative characteristics were magnified by the misogynistic world she lives in, and who uses whatever tools are available to her to get ahead. Christina Hendrick’s character is similarly willing to do anything to manipulate people, but it always seemed to me that society didn’t *force* to get ahead in this way. Playing people was just a huge part of the fun for her.

  2. I actually like Cersei because they drop all the pretense of everyone being complicated and have an actual bad guy.

    Yes, she has a sympathetic backstory, but that does not make her sympathetic. Yes, she has ambition, but she is always wanting more. She cares for her children, yet believed Joffery was the best choice for king. In many ways the hypocrite and maybe even dull compared to some others, I can’t help but like someone who doesn’t have all this pretense about her.

  3. I would love for you to do an analysis of the fathers of Westeros and how their parenting and political schemes shape their daughters. Tywin’s political agenda was clearly very damaging to Cersei, Ned seemed to be more hands off with Sansa than he was with Arya and I wonder if that was because of what happened w/ Lady?B/c Arya reminded him of his dear sister Lyanna? Or did he just relate to her more because of her more masculine qualities. Then there’s Balon Greyjoy and Brienne’s father, the both raise daughters who become warriors but for very different reasons. I think Sam Tarly’s relationship w/ his father is interesting since he was basically disowned for being too feminine.

    1. Ooo, that sounds like a really interesting topic! Thanks for suggesting it! My to do list is totally overwhelmed for the rest of the month, but I’ll definitely think on it and see if I can come up with anything next month. :)

      1. And Oberyn, don’t forget about him! 😀
        I love the way he raised his daughters, and even his own personality, and how de Dornish are so different from the other territories about powerful women and sexual freedom.

  4. I’m just now reading your ASOIAF posts, as I just recently finished the last book (whew), so sorry for the late comments…

    I have to say, I found the Cersei chapters to be supremely disappointing in “Feast for Crows”. I felt like with every other character, when you started to see through their eyes, they felt more real and deep, but on the inside, Cersei is exactly the same as she is on the outside. I always felt like whatever she was thinking was exactly what her enemies (eg. Sansa) would have expected her to be thinking. There’s the little bit about the fortune teller, but that struck me as a particularly weak motivating influence. She seems very shallow to me. Not exactly one-dimensional, but very predictable. I didn’t necessarily need to like her more (I never got to like Theon), but I would have liked to be more surprised by the inside of her mind.

  5. I think you’ve hit the mail on the head with the analysis of the character, very well done, I particularly enjoyed the comparison with Sansa, as I felt in her own twisted way, Cersei was trying to give Sansa some advice woman to woman especially when discussing things like marriage, her first blood and sex. Cersei has also indicated that she had the same romantic notions that Sansa had only to be cruelly disappointed which has made her into the hardened woman she is and in her own strange way she’s trying to tell Sansa whats in store for her, not that it makes her pity Sansa anymore. I think what also has to be taken into account is that Cersei simply doesn’t have the capacity to be an effective leader woman or not, Margery Tyrell has the intelligence and the cunning but also knows how to use her femininity to her advantage. Cersei lacks restraint and composure and when things don’t go her way, her reaction is that of a spoilt child who has been denied pudding at dinner.

    1. I will do! I eventually want to write about Asha, Melissandra, Shae, Margaery… but I want to reread the later books before I attempt it. Hopefully sometime during the GoT season this year!

  6. I was so glad and suprised when we got her chapters in the fourth and fifth book, I truly think Martin has brought out a lot of her complexities. Cersei’s POV turned her from someone I hated with passion to one of my favorite characters, my favorite female character, she is one of the best character I have ever had the pleasure of reading! I finally understand the character, the woman, Martin made her seem more multi layered, deep, moving and complex than ever, her arc is like a high Greek/Shakespearian tragedy (Oedipus, Macbeth/Lady Macbeth).

  7. I disagree on the love for her children part. Cersei doesn’t really love her children- she cares about them as soon as they become useful to her. Did she care that much about Myrcella or Thommen before Joffrey died? No. Does she want her children to become independent, good/just people? No. This isn’t what we would consider real, healthy love of a mother. She somehow loves them, because they are a useful tool and en extension of herself, like Jaime, but she’s not a good, loving mother imo.

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