The Silencing of Catelyn Stark

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Catelyn Stark is one of the major point of view characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. She’s the character with the second most chapters in A Game of Thrones. She has more chapters in the first three books than Daenerys. And she certainly has more focus than Robb Stark, who never has a POV chapter — we see his story entirely through Catelyn’s eyes.

Not that you’d know that from watching the show. If you exclude one out-of-character speech about Jon Snow, Catelyn has probably had less than ten lines this season, and none of them have had any real bearing on the plot. What happened? Why has Catelyn Stark been silenced?

The answer to me seems simple but depressing: Catelyn Stark, as the mother figure, simply doesn’t matter.

Please note: this post contains MAJOR book spoilers through A Feast for Crows.

I’ve talked a little bit before about the way the show has been erasing Cat’s emotional story arc. Her discovery that Bran and Rickon are dead, murdered by Theon Greyjoy, was a major turning point for her character. It’s a major reason why she released Jaime Lannister and attempted to exchange him for her daughters. It fills her with anger and the desire to see Theon dead, but also hardens her resolve that the war must end.

The decision to release Jaime remained in the show, but the reason behind it was taken away, turning the desperate, anti-war action of a grieving mother into something that seemed irrational at best. Robb’s reaction has also been changed, as he blames his mother, is furious with her, and treats her as a traitor. But considering the circumstances in the show, can we blame him? Her only reason is “I didn’t feel like it before, but I felt like it now.” Book readers may agree or disagree with her decision, but the text makes clear her thoughts and why she did it. The TV adaptation handwaves away her thoughts and reasoning, so that the only obvious option that remains is to disagree with her and condemn her. She is transformed from a complicated and sympathetic perspective character into the stereotype of the interfering mother who is too overcome by emotion to understand strategy and know her place.

But at least last season, Catelyn was involved. It was impossible for her not to be. The writers may have erased a lot of her motivations, but Catelyn has a distinct story of her own, as she goes to parley with Renly, sees his death, brings back Brienne, and frees Jaime. She cannot possibly be taken out of the story without many other plotlines falling apart.

Not so this season. As far as I can recall, she spends the entire third book in the same vicinity as Robb. She has conversations with him, is involved in the decision to marry Edmure to the Freys, must deal with her father’s death, and on and on, but these things either don’t affect the plotline outside of Catelyn herself and or can be done with a focus on other characters. And so her role is erased. To the show, Catelyn doesn’t matter. She’s not a character with her own emotional plotline. She is just a feature of Robb’s story, and as Robb is currently around, she’s not even needed for that.

And so she sits in the background of scenes. The last time we had any focus on her this season was in the second episode, when she gave Talisa a long speech about how terrible she is for not loving Jon Snow enough, and how everything that is happening to her is punishment for that. In that speech, all of her complicated emotions and motivations are reduced to the unfounded criticism that she’s a horrible character because she did not care for Jon. Some readers get this interpretation from the books, but it’s just one interpretation, and one that, I believe, fundamentally misunderstands Catelyn, how she acted around Jon, and the importance of her character. The show erases that by putting the words into Catelyn’s own mouth, making it the only interpretation that we can reasonably have. And since then, Catelyn has done almost nothing. Karstark says that she was as reasonable for the murder of the Lannister boys as he was, and she does not respond. She warns Robb not to kill Lord Karstark and suggests taking him as a hostage, but Talisa immediately joins in, and makes Catelyn’s usual argument for her. More boys will die until the war ends, she says, and Robb needs the Karstarks to do that. Catelyn is merely present in the scene. Her role in the narrative is taken over by Robb’s love interest, because love interests, we all know, are far more worthwhile than mothers.

In the books, the war of the boy king is Catelyn’s story, subverting tropes of the dashing young hero who beats the odds and triumphs over all. She adds an emotional level to the story, as the mother who worries for her children, but she’s also a strategist and deeply pragmatic. She’s one of the few figures who realizes that they’re not merely playing at war, and understand what that must mean. In the show, however, Catelyn is merely the mother of the king, and no one wants to see what the mother is thinking or doing when the true hero is elsewhere.

And this creates major problems for the show in the future. This both is and isn’t Catelyn’s final season. We’re hurtling towards a day when Catelyn will watch her son and all their allies be murdered, before being killed herself. We’re also hurtling towards her reappearance as Lady Stoneheart, the brutal figure blindly fixated on vengeance, killing everyone she can get her hands on. After Robb dies, he is mentioned occasionally, and the war for the North continues with Stannis and Jon and Jeyne Westerling, but Catelyn is the character with continuity. She’s the character with the ability to shock us, to break our hearts, and to continue to influence the world. And this only works because we knew Catelyn so well before her death. Stoneheart’s obsession with vengeance is only shocking because we know how careful and reasonable Catelyn once was. Her lack of mercy, and her brutal treatment of Brienne, are in blunt contrast to her previous sympathy and understanding. Yet none of this will work based on her character on the show. Her resurrection will be less shocking, because this season, it’s been fairly easy to forget that she exists at all. If we do remember her, we can think of a rash, interfering mother, someone who declares that they must “kill them all,” someone who was too coldhearted to even love poor, motherless Jon Snow. In this world, Lady Stoneheart seems a natural progression of Catelyn’s character.

In short, the TV show has turned Catelyn into every trope that the books attempted to subvert. She is the interfering mother, the wicked stepmother, the female character who puts her emotions above common sense. And when she can’t fill any of these roles — when she would need to simply be a character like any other — she is shoved into the background and replaced with boy kings, love interests, and even her newly introduced brother.

The only role that she hasn’t yet filled is the Evil Queen. How lucky that this trope will come along soon enough. In it, she can be both stereotyped and silenced, as the wicked crone whose words must be interpreted by others.

20 Comments on The Silencing of Catelyn Stark

  1. Foxessa
    May 9, 2013 at 4:14 pm (2 years ago)

    One can hope that the forthcoming BBC War of the Roses program, based on Philippa Gregory’s Plantagenet novel, The White Queen (part of her historical fiction series, The Cousins’ War, will do better. The entire pov is that of a woman, Lancasterian Elizabeth Woodhull, King Edward IV’s Queen; her mother, Jacintha, has an enormous role in this novel, as well as in the series as a whole — even an entire novel to herself.

    The books aren’t all I’d like them to be — the first person narrator’s voice sounds almost the same all the way through the books, even though we have different figures; the concerns are the same; they play the same tricks for the survival of self and children. Also, they are only about the most powerful and wealthy individuals. They are interesting nonetheless, as the author attempts to convey a picture of the women who played roles in the long War of the Roses.

    Reply
    • Rhiannon
      May 10, 2013 at 11:26 am (2 years ago)

      I haven’t read the books (still working through her Tudor series), but I can’t wait for this series! Hoping it doesn’t disappoint.

      Reply
  2. Haizea
    May 9, 2013 at 6:10 pm (2 years ago)

    It seems to me, lately, as the show takes more of its own turns and more original scenes, it’s starting to fall back on the overused female stereotypes and tropes that the book seemed to subvert. I understand it’s tempting for a tv adaption to this, like “oooh let’s do it like that, it’s more dramatic and easier to show onscreen”, but it’s also the things we are getting tired of seeing. I mean, Catelyn reduced to the annoying mother controlled by feelings, Shae seems to get motivated by jaelousy, Brienne is the “not like other women” archetype… Also that Meera and Osha are casually fighting like to archenemy teenage girls, which is sorta funny since it’s about skinning rabbits and hunting, but yeah.

    Reply
    • Rhiannon
      May 10, 2013 at 11:36 am (2 years ago)

      I agree. I understand that it’s difficult for them to film the series as it is in the books (I think GRRM said he partly set out to write something that was unfilmable, after spending years constrained by TV budgets), and some of the changes mean that they have to come up with new relationships, like Meera and Osha. But I wish that they would pay more attention to who the characters actually are, rather than the archetypes they skirt away from. Most of the actresses seem to have lots of eloquent thoughts on their characters, even if they haven’t read the books… I don’t see why the writers can’t give them the same consideration.

      Reply
  3. Mark
    May 9, 2013 at 7:41 pm (2 years ago)

    Its a shame. I blame season 2. They cut her story for the most part and replaced it with a generic love story (Talisa/Robb) that has been done a hundred times before.

    I dont think the showrunners really understand some of the characterizations and motivations in the books. In season 2 Arya and Jon Snow didnt even get a character arc because the showrunners decided to change things. While the scenes were not bad, they amounted to nothing. There is no reason given to why Jon should be loyal to the Night’s Watch since he spent most of his time with Ygritte while she made some really good points as to why the NW sucked. Arya has been given the role of Sansa, which means she has become an observer who takes no actions. Brienne is a badass knight instead of being like Sansa with a sword. Showrunners even said they consider Stannis a straight up villain which is why he spends most of his time listening to people burning like the Mad King. Tyrion lacks his cruelty. Robb is ruled by passion instead of honor like his father. They made Jaime a kinslayer in season 2 for some reason too.

    Reply
    • Rhiannon
      May 10, 2013 at 11:33 am (2 years ago)

      It really seems like the showrunners are falling back on tropes and archetypes for all the characters, which is beyond frustrating. It especially seems like they’re making the female characters more “badass” and less morally grey. I felt that part of the reason Arya’s story was lacking in the second season was that her developing ruthlessness and cruelty was underplayed. Kind of like how most of the evil things Cersei does in the books are now being attributed to Joffrey. Meanwhile, Jaime in the second season was more of a straight-up villain character, rather than the rash, morally grey figure in the books. It didn’t make any sense to me.

      Reply
  4. Laura T
    May 10, 2013 at 9:03 am (2 years ago)

    Not much more to say other than that I completely agree!

    Reply
  5. Bonnie
    May 11, 2013 at 5:10 pm (2 years ago)

    Thank you so much for this! I totally agree. I feel like the writers of this show may have some internalized misogyny. It really feels that way when I watch Catelyn’s progression (or lack thereof) in the show. Or even how in the books Robb is really kind of a mama’s boy and in the show he’s more like “Idiot woman, you have ruined my plans!” Not to mention how so many characters in the books that are really traditionally feminine, Jeyne Westerling or Shae, but are strong characters anyways, are instead made into much more masculine characters with more of a masculine strength. Which is super annoying because it’s like TV is once again telling me that if I want to be a badass female, I must act like a man but look like a lady.

    Reply
    • Chai Latte
      May 12, 2013 at 9:43 pm (2 years ago)

      Seconded. Book!Robb would have fallen on his own sword before he backtalked to his mom the way Show!Robb does.

      Reply
  6. Chai Latte
    May 11, 2013 at 6:32 pm (2 years ago)

    THIS to infinity. THANK YOU. You’ve said what’s been on my mind for quite awhile. I cannot believe how horribly the show has treated Cat. X_x Changing things for adaptation is one thing, complete and utter character assassination (Cat’s speech about how everything is her fault because she couldn’t love a motherless child–made NO sense at all and was oddly superstitious for such a usually pragmatic, realistic-minded character.) So. Disgusted. It’s like the show’s writers can’t fathom that mothers are, well, people, and have foibles and screwups and moments of total awesomeness, just like anybody else.

    And the overly simplistic treatment of Cat has had another consequence–I do not like or sympathize with the show’s version of Robb. He comes off as a selfish hypocrite, and I can’t imagine that I’ll shed any tears during the Red Wedding, like I did for Book!Robb. I’ll munch on popcorn and go ‘Huh’ and go about my business.

    Reply
    • Rhiannon
      May 13, 2013 at 11:13 am (2 years ago)

      It’s really disappointing that when I think of the Red Wedding, I mostly think, “Oh, well at least that nonsense will be over.” I was pretty neutral about Robb in the books, although I can understand why other people loved him. But in the show, I find him fairly insufferable.

      Reply
    • ana
      January 7, 2014 at 3:38 am (12 months ago)

      realistic? in the books she was extremely superstitious. which is why she wanted Ned to go to the south with king Robert and be his hand because she feared Robert would be mad and the dire wolf was killed by the stag when they found the dire wolf pups. she took it as a sigh and she knows that ned doesnt believe in signs and that worried her. she also blamed herself for bran’s fall because she prayed for Ned to leave bran in the north with her and then bran falls and is forced to stay in the north with her so she felt she caused it. it was in the chapter where Jon tells her “its not your fault” she yells at him and says that she doesn’t need his “absolution, bastard”.
      shes not all that realistic so dont blame anything on the writers. you’re also forgetting that grrm also writes for the show so i dont think he would allow for such a drastic change if it altered a characters fundamental personality like religion. the writers cant just up an decide that ned believes in the seven gods. that would be too altering. catelyn was superstitious in the books. lets leave it at that.

      Reply
  7. Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette
    May 12, 2013 at 2:30 pm (2 years ago)

    There may be a secondary, not-quite-as-sexist reason for this transformation.

    MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS HERE, FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO HAVEN’T READ THE BOOKS UP TO THE FOURTH INSTALLMENT!!!

    Remember how the nerds screamed and writhed when Edard was sent to the hereafter? Imagine what they’re going to do at the end of THIS season with the Red Wedding!

    It’s going to be hard enough when boy toy and estrogen bait Rob gets the axe. Imagine what would happen, then, if this season developed Cat’s character any further: the female het brigade would be hit with a double whammy when the Freys cut everyones’ throats.

    The producers made a decision that was doubly based on sexism when they decided to tell the war’s story through Rob’s eyes. First of all, they wanted another cute young man in the cast to draw in the folks who like that sort of thing (probably imagined as women). Secondly, they probably said “Well, we can’t have a middle-aged mom be the main pov character in the north. People would hate that!”

    This decision set them up for the double whammy which they’re desperately trying to defuse right now by pushing Cat into the background while bringing Daenerys and other female characters more to the front. If they had focused on Cat AND Rob in this season, viewers would be absolutely baying for blood after the Red Wedding. Something’s gotta give beforehand and, obviously, Cat is it.

    This is a sexist decision, but not quite for the reasons you mention above. It’s sexism mixed in with laziness, because writing a boy action hero is much easier than writing a heroic mom. Martin is a good and competent writer, with a lot of time to develop characters. Thus he makes a great investment in Cat and we don’t even notice the fact that the war is told from her viewpoint because we’re so wrapped up in her.

    T.V. writers, however, have a couple of weeks to knock a story together and their audience has a notoriously smaller attention span. They thus look to the end of the season, at most, and are constantly balancing audience demographics in their mind while writing.

    Frankly, I think these guys are just scribbling themselves into another corner, however, because when Cat comes BACK from the dead, all of us who read the books applaud and go “Yeah! Nothing like a momma’s revenge from beyond the tomb! Go, Lady Death!!!”

    When she’ll come back in the T.V. version, however, it’s going to seem odd, out of place, and somewhat gratuitous, because we won’t be fully invested in her emotional commitment as a widow and a mother of (presumably) dead children.

    Reply
    • AJD
      May 21, 2013 at 2:47 pm (2 years ago)

      …When Cat comes back from the dead, all of us who read the books applaud? I though we all go ‘oh my gosh, that’s horrible, look what kind of monster death and revenge have twister her into’.

      My mistake, I guess.

      Reply
  8. whome
    May 12, 2013 at 3:39 pm (2 years ago)

    I agree with all of this, and am so sad and angry about how they totally botched this character. It’s obvious they don’t get why she exists in the books and they don’t care to make that statement that this is about the hero king’s MOTHER, not the hero king!

    Reply
  9. Sydney
    May 14, 2013 at 5:32 pm (2 years ago)

    Bless you for this. She’s my favourite fictional character of all time, and it breaks my heart to see her cut out.

    Reply
  10. AJD
    May 21, 2013 at 2:53 pm (2 years ago)

    I strongly disagree with your opinion on Cat’s release of Jaime. I thought it was portrayed much *more* strongly as reasoned and rational in the show than in the books. In the books she releases Jaime because she’s freaking out about Bran and Rickon’s reported deaths, but it doesn’t actually make sense as a rational decision. In the show, she releases him because Karstark and his men are rioting and about to kill him, and if Jaime were killed Sansa’s life really would be endangered, so releasing him really is the only way to protect her daughters.

    Reply
  11. Melis
    May 29, 2013 at 1:43 pm (2 years ago)

    Yup. Agree with all of it.
    I’d like to add something though. When the third season started airing, I noticed how Catelyn was pushed into the background and I was sure that even in the Red Wedding, which is narrated from her point of view, she would be marginalized. That they would present the RW from Robb’s or Talisa’s pov’s and completely ignore Cat. Because it’s more interesting to see Talisa fighting with a bow than a mother going mad over the death of her child. -.-
    Also I hate what they’ve done to Robb’s storyline but that’s another matter :P

    Reply
  12. Clóvis
    December 10, 2013 at 8:59 pm (1 year ago)

    This post is brilliant! Catelyn is my favorite character in the novels, and I’ve been more and more upset by how she’s been handled in the show.

    Reply
  13. lauren
    August 25, 2014 at 8:16 am (4 months ago)

    Thank you for writing this. This expresses why I was so heartbroken with the show come season 2. As a reader of the books, the whole reason I fell so hard and rooted for Robb Stark’s character was because of his mother not in spite of which is what D&D have written her as. Now with no Lady Stoneheart and complete disregard of Arianna Martell I have finally given up on the show and now am just waiting for GRRM to finish the series.

    Reply

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