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“You Win, Or You Die”: On the Women of Game of Thrones

Cersei Lannister is a dangerous woman. She is the wicked queen of HBO’s super series Game of Thrones, the would-be power behind the Iron Throne. She is bold, ambitious, and ruthless, and she operates at the heart of power, yet she is locked out by her gender. Cersei seeks to control the driving political narrative of the show, masterminding the death of her husband (the King) and installing her son as ruler in his place with the hope of commanding things herself from the sidelines. But it’s not as easy as all that. If you’re a woman.

She’s not the only one left out, of course, even in the ruling House of Lannister. Game of Thrones is a show in thrall to outsiderdom, and in the latest episode Tyrion, Cersei’s brother, drops a great line, quippily nicknaming his crew of siblings “the cripple, the dwarf, and the mother of madness.” To each their own flaw. The middle-generation Lannisters carry marginality right to the heart of power. They are all excluded: the true patriarchs are Tywin and Joffrey, grandfather and grandson (and they, it seems, are on their way out); centrality has skipped a generation. Cersei is the only one of the three who is not considered, by the values of Westeros, to be physically distorted. But she is a woman: her marginality is built into her body even as it conforms to expected norms.

Cersei is a mythic reference, a homonym of, and presumable homage to, Circe, Odysseus’ witch-lover in the Odyssey. Circe is a powerful sorceress who turns men into pigs, found living in an all-female household on the island of Aeaea. So far, so threatening to patriarchal order. But then Odysseus shows up. Circe becomes his lover and becomes ancillary to his purposes, kitting him out with a boat for his journey, essential information on navigating the straits of Charybdis and Scylla, and tips for gaining access to the underworld, herself vanishing from the narrative as he departs with the plotline.

This doesn’t seem like Cersei. She has her own unswayable desires and intentions, and exists at the heart of the plot, driving it onward. Surely, I thought, if she’s going to have an ancient namesake, it should be a tragic, not an epic, one. She’s more like Clytemnestra—the politically ambitious, sexually independent Queen of Argos in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, who murders her husband and seizes power herself as an act of revenge against his failure to protect their children (he sacrifices one of them to guarantee good winds to blow his ships to war at Troy). Like Cersei, she is a wronged wife grasping at power from a marginalized position; and like Cersei, her fierce maternalism is a defining characteristic. As well as her actual (fictional) children, Clytemnestra is mother to all the dangerous women of Western art who come after her. And she comes to a nasty end, of course. Instead of conforming to ancillary femininity, like Circe, Clytemnestra is murdered by her own son so that civic order can be established in Argos. She is the woman so dangerously powerful that Athenian democracy cannot possibly coexist with her in the world.

So who is Cersei? Is she Clytemnestra, heading for a bloody end, probably at the hand of one of those male relatives she so virulently defends (Lannisters, like Atreidae, like to keep it in the family)? Or is she Circe, the woman who looks like a dangerous threat to patriarchal order, but ends up tamed by it? Or does GoT offer its dangerous women another possibility altogether? 

One thing that Cersei has that her ancient predecessors lack is a language to describe her predicament. Equipped with a feminist perspective and a 21st-century lexicon to challenge gender norms, she is able to offer us a critique of her position in a language that we understand. “When we were young, Jaime and I, we looked so much alike even our father couldn’t tell us apart,” she says to Sansa during the siege of Blackwater. “I could never understand why they treated us differently. Jaime was taught to fight with sword and lance and mace, and I was taught to smile and sing and please. He was heir to Casterly Rock, and I was sold to some stranger like a horse to be ridden whenever he liked.”

Cersei knows her Gender Trouble. Acutely aware of her confinement within socially-constructed gender norms, she links them smartly to gendered economic practice, and to women’s lack of bodily autonomy in her world. In Westeros, Cersei notes, a woman lacks both freedom to choose her sexual partners—though she claims this anyway, in secret—and to defend herself in battle.

Her counterpart, in many ways, is Arya. Arya, too, verbalizes her dissatisfaction with the gender role assigned to her; she, too, wants to play with boys’ toys. “I don’t want to be a lady,” Arya avers to her father in the first season, requesting sword-fighting rather than sewing lessons. “I should have been born a man,” says Cersei, as she waits indoors while the men fight for King’s Landing. Cersei refuses female companionship, saying she’d “rather face a thousand swords than be shut up in here with this flock of frightened hens” as she waits out the siege, and rejecting offers of friendship from both Margaery and Olenna (with whom she seems to see eye to eye in many ways). Arya, too, spends all of her time with male companions, and it is when she announces that “most girls are idiots” that Tywin Lannister remarks how much she reminds him of his own daughter: Cersei.

But Arya doesn’t actually want to be a boy; apart from a brief spell of cross-dressing disguise on the road, she’s quick to correct people who mis-gender her. For her, being a girl doesn’t have to mean being trapped into being a lady. And for all her postmodern gender consciousness, Cersei doesn’t believe it’s possible to escape the rigorously defined gender roles Westerosi elite society designates, projecting her own sense of constriction onto Brienne in the latest episode: “You are Lord Selwyn Tarth’s daughter,” she says. “That makes you a lady, whether you want to be or not.” Cersei is stuck with being a lady; Arya finds a space in the world to forge a different kind of identity. As Sarah Mesle observes, Arya commands sword and needle.

Arya cultivates an alternative identity for herself at the margins of both narrative and political world. Like Circe, she quits the main plot; unlike Circe, she neither becomes ancillary to someone else’s desires, nor disappears. By abjuring the terms of the game itself (both politics and plot), she finds a way, as Philip Maciak notes, to “win win win.” Cersei never wins. Like Clytemnestra, she exists too close to the mechanism of a power, and it won’t let her advance. She is near to the winning—and sometimes she even orchestrates it—but always on behalf of a nearby father, brother, or son. Arya explicitly rejects this form of indirect agency. When she asks her father whether she can be lord of the holdfast (instead of her brothers), and he tutors her in her likely future (marriage to a lord, sons who will be lords, etc.) she simply says, “No. That’s not me.” She departs the plot.

So perhaps for the women of Westeros, leaving the main plot line needn’t mean dropping out altogether. Perhaps, for them, tragic ending and epic vanishing do not present an either/ or scenario. But sticking close to the center just isn’t going to work for them. Arya wins by refusing to play the Game of Thrones, by refusing to participate in a centralized plot line or centralized politics, at which she (and Cersei) can only lose. Cersei sticks with it. But it’s Cersei herself who tells us what happens to those who play but don’t win the Game of Thrones: “You win, or you die.”


Nadia Connor is a writer based in London.


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