Tuesday, June 9, 2015

On Cersei

Spoilers for the book and speculation regarding (as yet unbroadcast) Season 5 Episode 10 follow.  Also note that while I will discuss both versions of Cersei (as she appears in the books and the show), I am primarily focused on show-Cersei.

So, is everyone pretty much creaming themselves for the Cersei's upcoming Walk of Atonement or what?  Those of us who read the books have known it was coming, the conclusion to one of the oddest and most cartoonish character arcs in the story: Cersei's transformation into a pyromaniac lesbian with penis envy and a side of paranoid schizophrenia.  The show has treated her more humanely--in fact, it always has.  Cersei is the one character who is more real and given more depth and motivation in the show than in the book: one of Season 1's great scenes was a wholly invented conversation between Robert and Cersei.  I wonder if this is due to the actress: Lena Headey is undeniably charismatic, and her portrayal goes a long way towards humanizing the character.  The screenwriters know they are creating scenes for her, specifically, to perform and I wonder if this has influenced how they write for her.  Whatever the reason, she is more in the show than the reductive dumb psycho bitch she is in the books.

Not that that's stopped us from enjoying seeing her locked in a cell, beaten with a ladle, and forced to lick muddy water from the floor.  Not that that's stopped us from positively salivating at the upcoming naked march through the city.  Time to see the slutbag get what's coming to her, right?

Well, no.

I've been struggling with GoT for a while now--I started to get uncomfortable in Season 3, sick to my stomach in Seaon 4, and finally fucking pissed in Season 5--and I'm starting to wonder whether I'll be able to watch the Atonement next week.  I take no joy in seeing Cersei abjected.

There's something people always seem to forget (or ignore?) when talking about Cersei and her motivations, and that is: she is literally a multiple rape victim.  For years and years.  This isn't subtextual; Cersei tells us as much way back in Season 1:
In the rare event that Rob leaves his whores for long enough to stumble drunk into my bed, I finish him off in other ways.
Just because it's "rare" doesn't mean it didn't happen; and just because--as I know some will argue--Robert's was "within his rights" by the standards of his fictional society doesn't mean that the acts weren't traumas for Cersei.  Consider it: Robert was cruel to her, humiliated her in public with his other women, did nothing to hide his contempt--and yet, at any time he chose, could and did still demand sexual access.  Sure, Cersei seems to have "negotiated up" from vaginal intercourse to, I suppose, oral sex or masturbating him, but that doesn't change the fact that she spent years living this way, the limits of her very body violable, subject to the moods of a repulsive and selfish partner.

What Cersei lives through is, as we understand it, both rape and a broadly abusive marriage.  We, in our enlightened and modern times that are 110% different from the world of GoT, recognize that rape often inflicts profound psychological wounds in addition to the phyical harms and that living in an abusive environment shreds your psyche.  Yet, no one seems willing to extend that understanding to Cersei.

Dany is raped repeatedly, but she responds in the decidedly boner-friendly way of shopping around for sex tips and learning to love the D.  Sansa is raped repeatedly, but we have been shown none of the emotional fallout: she pluckily works on an escape plan and trades little barbs with Ramsey until he decides to remind her of the violence of which he is capable (more upsetting, Sansa's rapes seem to function more as plot points in Theon's story than her own, but that's another post) .  Cersei is the only one who reacts to her rapes with rage.

Let's examine exactly what Cersei's crimes are, bearing in mind her history:
Killing Robert.  When you remember that Robert is, in essence, her years-long tormentor and rapist--and likely to be her murderer, as Ned is planning to reveal the nature of her relationship with Jaime--her orchestrating Robert's death takes on a rather different light.  We'd cheer if we saw Sansa poison Ramsey--but I guess the difference there is, Ramsey is so evil, but Robert was Ned's friend and therefore we're willing to extend him a pass.  But look at it this way: Sansa is trapped with her rapist who is likely to have her killed at some point; Cersei is trapped with her rapist who is almost certainly going to have her and her children killed.  What exactly were her options? Running to Casterly Rock, secretly and without being found and caught by the pursuers that Robert would have undoubtedly sent?  And to what?  Would her father have protected her?  Perhaps, for the Lannister name and the honor of the family, but perhaps not.  Fleeing across the Narrow Sea for a fugitive life in Essos?  Again, escaping Robert's reach is unlikely--we know that assassins have been on Dany's heels for years and years--and what life would they have?  The only career that seems to exist for unmarried women in the world is prostitution...and talk about jumping out of the rape-frying pan and into the rape-fire.  It's interesting, too, to compare Robert's murder with Joffrey's.  Both were committed to save a wife from violence.  Olenna makes it clear why she poisoned Joff: "You don't think I'd let you marry that beast, do you?"  It wasn't for any of Joff's other numerous crimes; it wasn't because he was a bad king; it was because Sansa told her that Joff was "a monster" who in time would assuredly have turned his cruelty on Margaery.  Olenna stepped in with poison to save her granddaughter.  Is this really, truly different from Cersei stepping in to save herself and her children from a man who had already subjected her to years of cruelty and would assuredly kill her? Robert's death was the act of a cornered person trying to survive.  But we liked Robert and we hated Joffrey, so even though the essential act is the same, Cersei is a bitch murderer and Olenna is a protective grandmother.
Incest.  While her relationship with Jaime is definitely gross and weird, you don't see hordes of online commenters cackling at the prospect of a humiliated Jaime stripped and forced to walk naked through King's Landing.  So this, we can conclude, is not one of the crimes that viewers want to see her punished for.

Being a bad mother.  Joff was a psychopathic nightmare, and obviously Cersei takes the blame for that, obviously and of course.  When a child is bad, it's always, always the mother's fault.  But....Tommen and Myrcella both seem to be rather well-adjusted--good, even--and Cersei doesn't seem to have been any less involved with their upbringing (Myrcella is considered sweet and good, even before going to Dorne), they just weren't brought up with the expectation of ruling the entire continent.  It would seem, then, that Joffrey's more Caligula-like tendencies spring more from his own diseased brain (if you subscribe to certain fan-theories, you might see them as genetic and unavoidable), the promise of the throne, and seeing his "father" Robert act as though the crown was a license to pursue whatever he wanted, rather than Cersei telling him that he was a very special little boy.
Being an enormous gaping whorehole.  Now, this one's funny isn't it?  Take a woman, put her in a world that does not respect her--or anyone like her--as fully human; educate her only to be weak and decorative; tell her that her only value lies in her beauty; give her no avenues in her life for growth, fulfilment or happiness; then be shocked--shocked--when she falls back on the one thing the world has told her gives her relevence and even transient, momentary power.  Cersei is, of course, wrong--the power that she derives from her sex is entirely illusory and fleeting and is precisely what dooms her before the Sparrows--but she's wrong because she's fallen what her world has told her.  Dany doesn't need to rely on sex anymore: she has her dragons.  Arya will never face that choice: her Faceless Man stepped in and directed her towards Braavos and a life as a magic assassin.  Brienne is physically powerful and, critically, has a father that allows her to be trained to fight, which may as well be miraculous in Westeros.  However, women in GoT who don't have the benefit of mythological creatures or fairy god-assassins have no other options.  It's interesting to consider Cersei, Margaery, and Sansa, isn't it?  Can you really say that they way they operate is all that different?  All trade on their sexuality to attempt to obtain influence and indirect power:
  • Margaery plays first to Joffrey's sadistic fantasies (Season 3, Episode 2, in which she gently strokes Joffery's "crossbow"), then to Tommen's gentler ones to secure her place, and her generally audience-approved Grandmother Olenna outright encourages her to use sexual manipulation as a tool to get ahead, and describes how she used her own "powers" to screw over her own sister
I wasn't originally meant to marry your grandfather Luthor, you know. He was engaged to my sister, your great-aunt Viola. I was to be given to some Targaryen or other. Marrying a Targaryen was all the rage back then, but the moment I saw my intended, with his twitchy little ferret's face and ludicrous silver hair, I knew he wouldn't do. So the evening before Luthor was to propose to my sister, I got lost on my way back from my embroidery lesson and happened upon his chamber. [...] The following morning, Luthor never made it down the stairs to propose to my sister 'cause the boy couldn't bloody walk. And once he could, the only thing he wanted was what I'd given him the night before. I was good. I was very, very good. You are even better. But you need to act quickly.
  • Just like Cersei, Sansa tries to use her sexuality to obtain influence--she was clearly banking on Littlefinger's desire for her mother to extend to her, and for Littlefinger to keep her from harm--and, just like Cersei, whatever "power" Sansa thought she held over men was a fiction.
Whatever slutbaggery Cersei is "guilty" of, all other women in the show--those who aren't saved by magic--are, because that is what their world tells them to do, and is the only apparent avenue for influence, however fleeting, that it provides.  So what is the difference?  Once again, it comes down to no more than: Margaery, the Tyrells, and Sansa are "good", and we like them; Cersei is "bad" and we hate her.  And as ever, the term "slut" is revealed as entirely subjective and without real meaning: it's simply a woman-hating term that can be thrown at any woman who is the target of that hate.  Hating Cersei, and Cersei alone, for "slutting it up" to survive makes no sense, and in light of the world in which she and--all the other women--live in, condemning her for it shows no understanding.

Getting Margaery and Loras arrested.  It's pretty clear what prompts Cersei's attempt to use the Sparrows to take down Margaery.  It all takes place in Season 5 Episode 3, though we have known since S05E01 that Margaery has been trying to plot a way to remove Cersei from the capital (Loras tells her that now that no one can enforce his engagement to Cersei, she will remain in King's Landing, to which Margaery replies, "Perhaps").  Early in the episode, we see Margaery's marriage to Tommen, cutting to their post-coital conversation, in which Margaery manipulates Tommen towards the idea of sending Cersei out of the city and stoking his fears of being always under her wing; in the very next scene, Tommen goes to his mother and repeatedly brings up her returning permanently to Casterly Rock...over and over.  She tells him there's nothing for her there, that she wants to remain in the capital, that her home is where her family is, but he's clearly not letting go of the idea.  Now, we all know that Cersei's desire to remain in the capital is more complicated that simple maternal devotion--she's ambitious, like most of the King's Landing cast, and in the same way that Margaery herself is ("I want to be the Queen")--but that, in and of itself, does not make her wrong or bad.  When Cersei goes to Margaery in the next scene, she walks in on Margaery discussing her sexual escapades with her son.  In a world where, we have established, sex is the essentially the only tenuous route to power that women have, this is a massive powerplay on Margaery's part.  "I'm sleeping with your son.  You're just his mother--useless.  We all know he'll choose me."  What we're looking at is a sort of manipulation arms-race.  Margaery has won the battle for the King's

ear, so Cersei has no choice but to look for an authority higher than the crown: the church.  Ultimately, what Cersei is fighting for here is agency--the ability to decide where she will live and what she will do, and not be sent away on someone else's whim to live out her years in the provinces, far from her children--and I don't have it in me to despise her for that. She's wrong to treat Loras as collateral damage in her struggle against Margaery, but again, that's not something that's unique to Big Bad Cersei: Olenna was more than happy to see Tyrion scapegoated for Joff's murder; Littlefinger is quite gleefully sacrificing Sansa for his own ends; Tyrion sent Shae away in a psychologically brutal when she became an inconvenience to his ambitions in King's Landing; Tywin regards Cersei very much as a pawn and uses her as such.  None of them come in for the hate that Cersei herself receives, and no one seems delighted at the prospect of seeing any of them publically and sexually humiliated.

When I think of Cersei, I think of the end of the opera Carmen.  Carmen is murdered to the sounds of cheering crowds watching a bullfight, and a clear link seems drawn between the two slain beings.  The metaphor holds for Cersei too: the bull is dangerous--deadly--and stupid compared to the men around it, blindly aggressive...but the bull has been tormented excessively before the fight even begins to get it to that state.   It's a sort of ritual annhilation that plays out over and over in art and literature.  I don't mean to argue that Cersei's the secret hero of the whole Song of Ice and Fire and probably Azor Ahai reborn, but rather, simply, a complex woman: bitter, rage-filled, tormented, raped, ambitious, maternal, wounded, trapped, jealous, and proud.  Cersei is not a "good person" by any means.  She is, by any conventional morality, a "bad person"...but so are the vast majority of Westerosi power players.  Why is it that Cersei is singled out for public, sexual, and highly gendered humiliation?  She is not merely a "bad person"; she is a "bad woman", and thus must be brought down, publically abjected, stripped of dignity, just a dumb psycho bitch after all.