Mon
May 5 2014 12:30pm

A Matter of Perspective: A Defense of Cersei Lannister

After last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, “First of His Name”, I can finally write an article I’ve been wanting to for a while—a defense of Cersei Lannister. From the very beginning, viewers (and readers) have been explicitly instructed to despise Cersei. Starting with an ice-cold glance upon her arrival at Winterfell in the pilot episode, and then her ordered killing of Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, in the second episode, Cersei did little to gather a supportive following from the audience. But I would argue that her forced execution of Lady is actually the worst thing she does in the series. And now that show-watchers know that Jon Arryn was not murdered by Cersei, or any Lannister for that matter, but rather by Littlefinger and Lysa Arryn, I can prove that all of this fighting was the result of two other women—sisters—who with their sheer incompetence, ruined Westeros.

Those two sisters are Lysa Arryn and Catelyn Stark. Lysa killed her husband, the Hand of the King, and told Catelyn that the Lannisters did it. Catelyn, despite full awareness of her sister’s lunacy, blindly provides the spark of war when she captures Tyrion Lannister. From there, the dominos fall quickly, starting with Jaime’s attack on Ned in King’s Landing and ending with Ned’s head being held above the Sept of Baelor by the human embodiment of filth that is Janos Slynt. And yet, despite that the cause of all of this madness starts with the two Tully sisters, it is Cersei that comes off horribly. Cersei did not kill Ned, she merely played the game of thrones better than him. She didn’t want him to die, and smartly offered him the option to join the Night’s Watch, thus ensuring no northern backlash would result. Cersei almost singlehandedly prevented war, had it not been for Joffrey and his sadistic, bloodthirsty urges. Had Ned taken the black, Robb never raises his banners or goes to war, he never spurns Walder Frey, and he never hears the Lannister’s regards. Furthermore, Winterfell doesn’t burn, Maester Luwin and the rest of Winterfell’s inhabitants don’t die, and Theon can still enjoy a lunchtime sausage without being emasculated. It’s easy to digress into what-ifs, and I fear I might be doing that right now, but coming back to Cersei—had she successfully abolished Ned to the Wall, she’d be the woman who diffused the ticking time-bomb that is Westeros.

There is a theme that follows Cersei—the only two things in the world that she wants are considered “wrong” by society: power and her brother. Cersei must live every day of her life surrounded by men who get whatever they want, while she is denied the only things she wants.

Cersei is a tragic hero. She is also a product of her environment. In a world governed and created by men, women have little hierarchical reach. Credit is due to George R.R. Martin here, as despite creating a world ruled by men, he often makes women the more competent characters: Brienne, Cersei, Arya, Daenerys, Ygritte, Margaery, Olenna. But it’s a sardonic type of power granted to these women (excluding Daenerys and Ygritte, who live in societies more open to female empowerment), and it shapes Cersei into the standoffish, internalized woman that she is. Also take into account how close Cersei is to power, without actually being able to wield it. It’s like being permanently cold while everybody around you is running on the beach, feeling the warmth. Look at the world from her point of view. She’s the oldest child of Tywin Lannister, the most powerful man in the seven kingdoms. Her father is Hand of the King, but the biggest role she’ll ever have is being the girl who gets to hold the king’s hand. All of that faux-power is not nearly enough to quench her thirst, and rather than respect her for desiring power, we hate her. And at the same time, we love or respect other power-cravers such as Tywin, Tyrion, Littlefinger or Varys.

Further proving her status as a tragic hero, Cersei is prohibited from publically embracing the man she loves. You can’t choose the person you love, and Cersei happens to love her twin brother, but this is deemed unnatural. Our society rightfully considers incest an abomination, but in Martin’s fantasy world, it wasn’t always looked down upon. The preceding royal family, the Targaryens, thought it customary to wed brother and sister. This serves as just another metaphorical slap in the face for Cersei, as she’s so close to what she desires, but in reality couldn’t be further away. Additionally, she resents Jaime to a degree because she considers the two of them to be mirror images of each other, with just a few different parts in different places. But it’s these different parts that drive a fork in their roads almost immediately after birth. Where Jaime is fitted for armor, Cersei is fitted for dresses. Where Jaime learns sword-fighting, Cersei learns needlework. Cersei wholeheartedly believes that if she were born a man, she’d have everything she wants. Jaime’s permanently-content attitude irks Cersei because she’ll never be content with her status.

Her tragicness continues with her forced marriage to Robert Baratheon—an abusive man she rightfully hates. It’s this hate that repeatedly drives her into the arms of Jaime, although she admits she did initially love Robert when they were first arranged together. But when Robert drunkenly yelled out Lyanna Stark’s name while consummating their marriage, she realized her love would never be reciprocated. She was right, and Robert not only failed to love his wife, he beat her, raped her, and whored himself out right in front of her. Yes, she organized the plot to kill Robert. But fans opt to see this purely as regicide rather than as a beaten and abused woman killing her tormenter. It’s just another example of the power of perspective; since we’re instructed to dislike Cersei from the beginning, we vilify her when in reality she’s a victim. It’s sad too, because there are far too few instances where characters triumph over their tormentors in this series, and Cersei did just that. Only nobody sees it that way.

In the beginning of the book series, we don’t get to see either Cersei or Jaime’s points of views. This leads to immediate hatred aimed at both of them. But then, in the third book, A Storm of Swords, we start reading from Jaime’s point of view, and almost immediately, we start to hate him less, and by the end of the book, Jaime is a fan-favorite. This doesn’t happen to Cersei. And it’s a shame, because what makes Martin’s work so great is that he toys with our minds, turning the man who pushed a boy out of a window into a man we root for. Cersei never gets that treatment. Once again, in typical Cersei fashion, she’s deprived of something she deserves.

A note about this article: it was written after Game of Thrones 4.05 “First of His Name” and for the sake of show-watching fans, no events that occur after this episode were discussed. Please keep comments spoiler free. Thank you.


Joe Brosnan is an editor and writer for Criminal Element who graduated from Marist College. He spends his time obsessing equally over the Game of Thrones series and the New York Giants, and is only now realizing how weird it is to write in the third person. You can follow him on Twitter @joebro33.

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6 comments
1. courtney
So pushing Bran out the window was less horrible than ordering Lady be killed?
Joe Brosnan
2. JoeBrosnan
@courtney: Cersei didn't push Bran out the window, Jaime did.
3. Brittany
It's really disappointing that you felt the need to throw Catelyn and Lysa under the bus in order to make Cersei look better. "Everyone hates Cersei but look, these women are way worse!"
4. Onetwo
I love Cersei, she has her reasons for her actions, and she is treated unfairly by other characters. No wonder she seeks power, when she is brought up to be used as a political tool with nothing to say for herself. I wouldn't say she's a hero though, her actions are too egocentrical..
Please don't blame Catelyn for the war though, in her entire storyline she only ever did what she thoght to be the truly right things to do. Her son was almost killed, it was only natural that she wanted jusice. Futhermore, she had no idea that Lysa was so mentally unstable before she got there, already with Tyrion in tow..
5. MaryJanice Davidson
Nope, nope, nope! I liked your article a lot, though I disagree completely. And I think it's great that you tackled a controversial stance for a controversial character, but Cersei neither needs nor deserves our sympathy. (Book spoilers ahead!)

(spoilers)

She killed her best friend when they were just children. She sexually and physically abused Tyrion when he was a baby and she was eight (Oberyn tells Tyrion that he saw Cersei "twist your cock until you screamed" when he was a newborn). At those points in her life, she wasn't enduring Robert (I agree that as a husband, at best he could only be endured). She grew up rich, never missed a meal, went to bed every night warm and safe right up to her wedding night. Granted, Robert was a drunken asshat, but Cersei was a monster long before she married one.

A not-nearly-complete list of her awfulness: she raised a monster by turning a blind eye to ALL his character flaws. We can't blame Robert for Joffrey; he had next to nothing to do with the little psycho. That's all on Cersei.

Speaking of Joffrey: cheating on the king is punishable by death. It's treason. Not only did she pass off incest babies as the king's, she took every care (opinion is divided if she had an abortion or killed the baby right after birth) to eliminate Robert's children by her, threatened to have one of his bastard daughters killed if she was brought to King's Landing, and turned a blind eye to Joffrey's bastard-slaughtering campaign. Yes, we can't choose whom we love, but most of the time we can absolutely choose who we have sex with. Cersei chose Jamie again and again and again.

Power games: she can't resist them. ("Seize him. Cut his throat. Wait! I've changed my mind. Let him go...power is power.") Kidnapping and having Tyrion's whore beaten...and screwing it up because she had the wrong whore beaten. (I could write an entire rebuttal on how stupid she is, but I'm too busy with the rebuttal on how awful she is.) Remember: this is a girl who physically and sexually abused a newborn when she was 8, and killed her best friend when she was 10. She was always playing power games, long before Robert came along, long before any of the reasons you cited as proof she's just a misunderstood l'il cutie.

Her refusal to honor debets to the Iron Bank lead to a country-wide economic crisis. With one act, she dooms Westeros to what could be a decades-long economic depresssion. Worse, far worse for someone who is supposed to rule, she's got no knowledge of history, leading to the disastrous decision of reinstalling the Faith Militant, a huge factor in her downfall.

Her great love for Jamie? It only lasted as long as she saw him as an extension of herself. The minute he wasn't perfect (minus a hand), her love died. Before that, though, she was cheating on him, on the great love of her life (who, by the way, has never been with anyone but Cersei). I'm not talking about Robert; she had no choice but to have sex with the king her husband. She didn't have to have sex ith Lancel, with the Kettleblack, with anyone who she could get to do her dirty work. But she did. Because awww, poor Cersei's so misunderstood.

When she's not playing power games, she's lying. When she's not lying, she's arranging the beating and torture of the innocent: Alayaya is just one example from the above paragraph. Far worse, she handed her maid and Falyse Stokeworth over to Qyburn to be tortured to death for the crime of no crime. NO crime.

She then framed Margaery for adultery (punishable by death, Cersei of all people should know the penalties for cheating on the king!) and, as of the end of A Dance with Dragons, Margarery was going to be tried for same. Cersei's downfall (at the end of Feast for Crows, as well as Dance w/Dragons) is deeply satisfying, but more than that, she's 100% in a mess of her own making. Not a victim. Never a victim.

She isn't a terrible ruler because she was born into a bad family and bad things happened to her. She's a terrible ruler because she's an awful, awful person and, frankly, not especially bright.

Poor Cersei? Nope: poor Westeros!
6. w
I don't like Cathlyn, but she didn't start the war. The seeds of the war were Cercei's bastards by Jaime. The truth would have come out one way or another and there would have been war sooner or later.

Cercei was just another pawn in the GOT, like Ned and Catelyn and Lisa and Tyrion etc. The idea for Ned to take the black came from Varys, that to capture him when he made his move came from Littlefinger, who was the one who negotiated with Slyn.

She's no more or less a hero than any other characters and GRRM doesn't instruct anyone to hate her anymore than any other character.
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