Everyone loves a hero, but we worship a good villain. Strong women come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, and sometimes that means looking up to a character who has no interest in being your role model. All this month, we're presenting Not Your Shero, a series that celebrates anti-heroes, villains, and all the women way too busy wreaking havoc to save you.
On Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister is cunning, cruel, and cold. She knows it, and she apologizes for nothing. She has done truly evil things, without pause or issue, and no sensible person would look to her as a hero or role model.
Cersei Lannister is not that. But we have more in common with her than most of us would readily admit. Because Cersei Lannister is that rare irredeemable yet understandable character: the Bitch. The Bitch is cruel, sometimes deliciously and wonderfully so (like Olenna Tyrell) and sometimes darkly, hideously, without hope of redemption or eliciting a hint of sympathy in viewers. Cersei somehow walks that line in a way most women don’t get to, thanks to the stellar work of actress Lena Headey. We understand Cersei, we feel for Cersei. We still hate Cersei but we’re also rooting for her, just a little bit.
From the start, we know her as an incestuous monster, casually complicit in attempted child murder. It just goes on from there. She is unbothered by the notion of killing to get her way out of a sense of family nobility. Her children are dead, her life is in shambles, and she keeps grasping for some sense of control in a world where she is increasingly powerless. She is sexual in a way that seems purely her own—she is not out to seduce, she just wants what she wants and will have it. She can wither with a side-eye, destroy with a simple look. We understand her motivations but that doesn’t mean we excuse them.
She is one of so few characters in film or television allowed to be this way, to be a Bitch. And, of course, she is punished for it.
Cersei’s famous walk of shame to atone for her sins is an inherently female experience. Stripped naked, your sexual history laid literally bare for all to see and to judge, to hate, to attack, this is an all-too-common aspect of womanhood. By being unladylike, by being loud, by being a bitch, we incur shame and aggressive loathing far beyond that earned by our male counterparts.
All men must die, but the women must be shamed and dehumanized. From Daenerys’s wedding night rape to Sansa’s wedding night rape to Cersei’s funereal rape to the moment when the nude body of sex worker Ros was shot up with arrows by Joffrey, the female characters on Game of Thrones are routinely assaulted and brutalized for the furthering of a male narrative, as an indicator that the abuser is either beyond saving (Ramsay, Joffrey) or needs to be saved, of course by a woman and the affection he feels entitled to (Khal Drogo, Jaime Lannister). Over the course of the show following their attacks, Daenerys and Sansa are hardened by their experiences, made less naive and colder, ready to exact vengeance in some way shape or form. Only Cersei avoids the “rape made me a badass” trope by never faltering—this was always her way. Instead, Cersei gets the opposite treatment—her rape seemed designed to show us she’s not as strong as we think, that she’s weak.
And that’s why this show has faced such pushback for its depiction of sexual violence. Rape is a narrative device used to put a woman in some kind of place, to literally knock her down, sometimes to pull her back up again but sometimes just to leave here there on the floor, holding the hand of her dead child. It should go without saying, but assault is not our radioactive spider bite. Time and time again, assault is used by men as this origin story for greatness, as though they know no other method of providing humanity to a female character. She must be stripped naked and put on display—while being conventionally attractive, of course—so that we know she’s vulnerable. As though we couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise.
In a world like this, a world not so different from our own, we see the appeal of the Bitch. Because no one else is looking out for us. When our bodies are up for literal grabs, when rape is considered character development, when our own traumas are used against us or presented as some act necessary to further a plot, time and time again, at what point do we stop idolizing heroes and begin siding with the one just out to survive?
Everywhere they hurt little girls. From the fires that burn us can be born a Mother of Dragons. But sometimes, what emerges from the ashes is a Bitch, one who no longer feels anything but contempt for the world that caused her pain.
And honestly, can you blame her?