In the Game of Thrones, you win, you die, or you live long enough to see yourself become the most hated figure in all the seven kingdoms. For a show that has established itself in our TV landscape through graphic depictions of violence, it’s surprising that one of the most hated characters on the series isn’t a Dothraki warrior or calculating politician but a woman born without power and vilified for trying to claim some of her own.
Cersei Lannister has earned a reputation on Game of Thrones and it’s not a good one. Over the course of six seasons she’s lied, manipulated, killed, and conquered in order to secure her place on the throne and her family’s long-held position of authority. She’s been ruthless in her determination and cruel in her realization of those goals, but her flaws, her treasons, and her treachery have been thrust into a harsher, more unforgiving light by fans of the series than that of her peers and for a simple reason: she’s a woman.
At its core, Game of Thrones is a commentary on power and politics. The show deals heavily in both, with a host of main characters using their storylines to illustrate how far they’ll go in order to see how close they can get to the Iron Throne. Petyr Baelish does it through assassination plots and uxoricide; Varys schemes from the shadows, dealing in secrets and orchestrating rebellions; Daenerys uses her dragons to rule by intimidation; and Jon Snow is happy to hack his way to King in the North, for a noble cause of course.
There are few, if any, truly innocent characters on the show, and for good reason: In order to survive in Westeros, you have to craft an armor forged through blood and betrayal. We’ve seen characters learn this the hard way as Sansa did last season with her marriage to that flaying psychopath Ramsay Bolton. For them, we reserve an ounce of pity and a measure of respect. Sansa, Daenerys, even Arya who gleefully served up her brother’s murderers in a special meat pie, are seen as underdogs; characters who were forced to do terrible things for the right reasons. Sansa earned her revenge against a man who tortured her; Daenerys is fighting for her birthright; Arya seeks justice for her family – the horrible acts they commit on their individual quests are ignored or, more often, celebrated because there’s a sense they deserve to win.
Cersei Lannister has never been given that kind of hall pass. From the beginning, the show laid the groundwork for the wife, mother, and queen to be hated by audiences. She was depicted as cold, heartless, and arrogant – a woman scorned by her husband who regularly indulged in an incestuous relationship with her twin brother and believed herself superior to everyone else. She was a narcissist, no one can argue that, but for some reason, her faults seem to weigh more heavily than any other man or woman on the show. Like Catelyn Stark, she fought dirty when it came to her family, but while Catelyn was praised for being protective, loyal, and strong, Cersei was labeled merciless, corrupt, a frigid bitch. She connived to enshrine the standing of her house Just as Littlefinger or Varys did, but whereas they were hailed as clever (if not skeevy) masterminds, she was power-hungry and devious.Cersei did no more or no less than plenty of other characters making a play for the throne on the show but the words used to describe her actions were unforgiving and void of understanding.
Take her husband, Robert Baratheon, who earned the title of king after mounting a rebellion against the Targaryens. He didn’t do it for power or because the Mad King enjoyed burning his subjects to a crisp, but because he coveted a woman that really wasn’t his. Whatever the true relationship between Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen was, Robert Baratheon’s claim on her only existed in his own mind and he was willing to wipe out an entire line, an entire kingdom, in order to retrieve what he thought was his. Once he got the throne, he squandered it, spending most of his time f*cking anything that moved and swimming in alcohol. He beat and raped his wife, a young girl given to him without her consent, openly pined for another, neglected his children, and often humiliated Cersei in front of her family and her court. Yet it is Robert we should feel sympathy for when Cersei orchestrates his death towards the end of season one. Her choice to kill her husband isn’t seen as the desperate act of a mother trying to protect her children – Robert was sure to find out about their true parentage from Ned before he kicked the bucket – or as a means of preventing further abuse by the man she’s chained to but as a cunning and conscienceless grab for control. He is the victim, a poor man past his glory days whose bravery and toughness is suited for the battlefield, not the throne room. He never wanted the power, he was just a witless pawn of those who did. It’s his callous wife who is to blame for his adultery — she was sleeping around too after all — and his ultimate ineptitude.
Most of the terrible crimes committed by Cersei reveal her fear and insecurity, not her insatiable lust for power. She murders her husband in order to seat her son on the throne; she arrests Ned Stark in order to secure that same son’s rule, in turn, securing his future and the future of her family. She tries her brother for murder believing he orchestrated the death of her child and she burned her enemies in the Sept out of revenge and the need to keep her only surviving son safe.
That her story can parallel a beloved character like Daenerys and yet garner none of the same adoration is telling. Both women were born into powerful families who controlled their destinies; both were sold to men in power; both killed their husbands (albeit for different reasons) and tried to seize their agency through power grabs – Cersei using her children, Daenerys using her dragons. They’ve both manipulated and murdered in order to maintain their rule; Daenerys literally mounted enemies on funeral pyres and crucified hundreds in the name of her cause. Yet when we think of noble characters we think of the Mother of Dragons, not the mother of three golden-haired children prophesized to die before their time.
For Cersei Lannister, power is just a means to an end. Born a woman in a patriarchal society, she’s been surrounded by it her entire life but never wielded any of it on her own. She’s watched the men around her, many of them incompetent, like her husband, or uninterested, like her brother, squander theirs yet chastise and brutalize her when she tries to do better. She’s forced to love a man in secret because he’s her brother – incest in the Game of Thrones world is at least mildly acceptable by some – and fiercely guard the children of that union from people who seek to use the truth about their parentage as an avenue towards the throne.
She makes the hard choices for her family and for herself, believing in her own abilities even when no one else does. She’s a murderer and a liar but those aren’t why we love to hate her. Cersei, like any woman who desires power, tends to be viewed through a sexist fog. It’s acceptable for women like Daenerys, Arya, and Sansa to gain power because they’ve suffered abuse in order to achieve it and because they fight for it under a banner of righteousness. It’s okay to forgive the men who’ve sacrificed their humanity for power – Jamie, who pushed a boy from a tower, Tyrion, who murdered his lover in a fit of rage, Ned Stark, who lied to his wife and idly endured the mistreatment of his “son” for years – because honestly, it’s what we’re used to.
George R. R. Martin drew from the history of English nobility for the series, which provides plenty of examples of men committing atrocities in order to attain and preserve their authority. Joffrey can torture a prostitute and Tyrion can kill his own father, and it’s par for the course — horrible, but not completely surprising. Their masculinity doesn’t offer protection but it does afford a sense of normalcy to their actions. But for a woman to do the same is something incomprehensible. A woman may fight back, as Sansa, Daenerys, and Arya do, but she may not plot; she may accept the mantle thrust upon her but not reach for it. Cersei’s actions are no different than the men she’s surrounded by and her reasoning is no less rational than the women positioned as her better-natured adversaries but she’s condemned for them all the same.
Even when she spirals into madness as she did towards the end of the show’s sixth season, Cersei still plays the game better than anyone else. She’s not psychotic like Ramsay Bolton or purely evil like the Night King – she’s just a smart, capable woman unafraid to make morally compromising choices in order to achieve her goals. There are plenty of women like her in the world which might be why we find it so hard to accept the things she’s done on the show but whether you love or hate her, it’s time to stop writing her off as purely evil, as too often happens women who don’t fit into prescribed notions of femininity. Cersei Lannister is a nuanced character, a complicated woman, a killer, a mother, and a ruler of men – maybe she does deserve to be hated, but she also deserves to be recognized for the flawed yet worthy figure that she is.