On The Lannister Twins and Rape in Game of Thrones

2Power corrupts. So why is everyone so surprised that it leads to rape?

“Game of Thrones” has, from the very beginning, been an examination of power. Who has it, how you lose it. Different kinds of power, different routes to power, different conceptions of power.

Tonight it’s different. Tonight, Jamie Lannister raped his sister, Cersei. And because the show has always been about power, there has been A LOT of rape in it. It’s easy to forget that one of the most powerful characters on the show, Danaerys, was raped in the first episode. That’s sort of been swept under the rug by the show, to the point where she reminisced about it in the Season 1 finale.

A lot of our characters have been threatened with rape. There have been dodgy moments for Catelyn, Ygritte, and plenty of others, and downright “almosts” for Sansa, Brienne, and Arya. But only Ros had nonconsensual sex. And we haven’t really questioned whether the various prostitutes are actually having consensual sex, whether men and women in arranged marriages–especially women–are having consensual sex.

So, basically, rape has been present in this world all along. It’s embedded in the fabric of a world where so much depends on strength. In the real world, people have worked for years to break the silence around rape, but in Game of Thrones, there’s no silence, no stigma, nothing.3

But this scene wasn’t like all those scenes, where people got raped in backgrounds, where no one cared, and plenty of people barely noticed. Now, we’re all about to start talking about rape. And why? Other important women characters have faced this. It’s been happening on our screens for years. Why does the wrongness, the absolute horror, strike us so intensely about this scene (other than the plain old gross themes of incest and death)?1

Jaime. Here’s the ugly truth, laid bare: we’re not freaking out because Cersei was raped. We’re freaking out because Jaime raped her. Because a person we’ve known for years, who we’ve watched grow, laughed at, enjoyed–a person we like–has done something horrific.

We’re talking about non-consensual sex between two people who have been together for decades, who have had three children together, whose relationship has lately been under a lot of strain. And when the woman started making signals and frustrated the man, he raped her.

We’re talking about marital rape.

The reason the scene feels so different from all the previous rape scenes isn’t the rape itself: it’s the man who raped. Jaime isn’t a monster, beyond our ability to empathize with or like. He’s a human being, in a relationship that, twisted as it is, makes sense to us. And rape is part of the darker side of human nature.5

No one likes to talk about that basic truism: that men who rape are as horribly human as the rest of us. That they have motivations that may not be excusable, but are certainly understandable.

This is territory “Game of Thrones” hasn’t covered before, not in this way. It’s a damn gutsy thing for them to do, a painful thing–but they’ve covered infanticide, homosexuality in the medieval world, forced marriage, incest, rape, prostitution…the list goes on. Nothing is off-limits in this show, for better or worse.

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Joffrey is an Ass to His Mom

valar dohaerisGame of Thrones Ladies

In these recaps, I will (sometimes sarcastically) recount and analyze the lady characters of Game of Thrones. I will try not to spoil, but I will regularly allude to things that book veterans will know about, and occasionally a spoiler may pop up. You have been warned.

Cersei

“Facts become less and less important to her as she grows older.”

Cersei’s madness continues to progress in exciting new ways. Now she’s convinced that Tyrion will turn Tywin against her—seriously, how does Tywin not know that his twins have been fucking for decades?—and being a general drunk bitch to everyone. She and Margery are now in a competition for Joffery’s attention, for his power.

Margery and Cersei’s troubled relationship had an Oedipal flair in the books, and that same conflict is now becoming clear in the show. If you ask me or Sansa, Joffery’s attention is something to be avoided, but they both need his love to enhance their power. They’re walking a fine line, these ladies, between getting Joffery to give them power and giving Joffery power over them. Cersei is absolute shit at walking that tightrope, but Margery may yet be better.

Margery

Hugging orphans, walking in shit, eating with the Lannister clan—an average day in the life of Margery Tyrell. Still, the amount of agency she’s been able to wrest from her situation is quite asounding. She does what she wants to do and does not ask male permission. She made a friend in a nun, and insisted that the orphanage could rely on her personally for its support. She single-handedly began to shift the balance of power back to King Joffery. I like her style—I only wish she’d gone for Robb instead of Joffery if she had to have a king.

Sansa

“The truth is always either terrible or boring.”

Poor Sansa has nothing to do now but long for escape. Freed from Joffery at last, she has apparently taken to passing the time by making up stories about ships. It’s a typically constructive and helpful use of Sansa’s brainpower.

Sansa’s only talent in the game is her ability to dodge direct questions. Sansa’s playing of the game of thrones involves avoiding the truth as much as possible. Maybe that’s why she is so desperate to trust Littlefinger, and see nothing wrong with his interest in her: because they both avoid the truth. Given the weird territory that this plot is going, Sansa’s total lack of perception of Littlefinger’s interests makes perfect sense.

Shae

“Why should I make up a story when I know the truth?”

In Shae’s only scene, she refuses to play Sansa’s game of make-a-story. The game consists of Sansa creating plausible stories for ships, and Shae complaining about it.

As Petyr draws Sansa away, Shae and Ros have a chat, heart of gold to heart of gold. Shae refuses to take the bait when Ros suggests their both prostitutes, and shows a flash of her inner strength when she coolly says that she always takes care of Sansa.

Shae is one of the characters who are one-dimensional in the book and awesome on the show. I still rather like Shae, who has a raw fierceness to her that only Osha has in common. An important part of Shae’s character was highlighted in her scene: her refusal to imagine.

It’s not that she doesn’t have an imagination, it’s that she’d rather know the truth and deal with that.

Ros

“It’s not easy for girls like us.”

Ros has moved up in the world. She’s working for the Spider and running Littlefingers affairs—good for her. She even had a flash of non-prostitute character in this episode, when she remembered Sansa’s birth and the bells of Winterfell. As usual, there’s not really much to analyze here—but hey, she was introduced with all her clothes on, so that’s something.

Daenerys

“You’ll have a true Kaelesar when you prove yourself strong, and not before.”

Dany has talked a few Dothraki onto a ship, and she’s headed to buy an army. She doesn’t really want to, but as Jorah pointed out, she really doesn’t have any better ideas. That doesn’t make slavery a good idea, but it convinces Dany and she goes to look at slaves. How she’s going to pay for this army has yet to be mentioned, but as book readers know, it’s a cool scene coming.

Although Dany has survived all the shit the world has thrown at her so far, apparently she hasn’t proven herself strong. She is a queen, but she is not yet the conqueror she needs to become in order to claim her throne.

Melisandre

“I could have saved those men.”

Melisandre exercises her usual diplomacy and accuses Davos of stopping her from winning Stannis’s war. It’s strange: Melisandre’s craziness make her the most powerful lady in this world. She’s got more soldiers than Dany, more loyalty than Cersei, and more faith than anyone. It’s not a bad gig she’s found for herself.

Game of Thrones Finale: Fire will Rain

Game of Thrones Ladies—Season finale

There’s not a lot to analyze about the women of Game of Thrones in this episode. The finale is about a world that has been wracked by war, that has been filled with blood and death for a long time, and which is now beginning to right itself. That righting comes with the re-establishment of patriarchy, with Sansa and Margery being openly traded in the throne room, and with a general passivity among all King’s Landing’s women. But there are glimmers of irrevocable change, of women who do not care what the world thinks of them and are determined to be themselves.

Sansa, Shay, and Cersei

These three, who had such fantastic roles in last week’s episode, have one scene each in this episode. All of them accept that their lives are controlled by men, from Shay’s decision to stand by Tyrion, to Sansa’s developing relationship with Petyr, to Cersei’s continuing subordination to her father and son. In the south, the patriarchial system has regained stability.

Talisha and Catelyn

I hope I’ve spelled her name right! Talisha actually has no lines of her own in this episode, but she quietly becomes the queen in the North. Talisha has repeatedly shown her determination to be an actor in her own story, and her courage has made Robb want the same thing. Neither of them accepted the paths others laid out for them, and they will shoulder the cost of their choices together. A stroke of hope, of the system of trading women being called into question. Catelyn, in contrast,  is a member of the old power structure, and tries to convince her son that arranged marriages, that relationships begun without love, are stronger than the egalitarian passion he and Talisha are wrapped up in. These two women’s generational conflict is perhaps the best contrast the show has ever written.

Osha

There’s not much to talk about with Osha in this episode. She’s awesome, she’s cool with killing whoever gets in her way, and she’s chosen where her loyalties lie. Also, I’m really glad she’s not getting the boot like in the book.

Arya

Also cool, also capable of great things, but still more worried about getting back to her family. Arya’s just a kid who’s had to deal with way more than she should. And her power, like Dany’s is growing.

Brienne

I always found Brienne rather boring in the books, but damn is she cool here. Brienne smashes every single idea of femininity, refuses to conform to any of the roles her world has laid out for her. The best defense against this kind of subversion is mockery, and Jamie and the Stark men give her loads of it. And Brienne defense is to ignore the taunts, and channel her anger into astonishingly cool violence. Brienne’s awareness of her own challenge to male authority is constant, but unlike Cersei she does not hate and resent her sex. She shows repeated solidarity with women, pledging loyalty only to Catelyn Stark and determinedly giving the tavern girl’s a proper burial. She moves fluidly through masculine power structures without ever letting herself forget her own womanhood, and she doesn’t let anyone else forget her sex either. Her power allows her to turn the tables, to give the third Stark man the kind of slow death he gave the tavern wench.

Dany

I’m not even going to try to spell Dany’s full name. Unknown to the Westerosians, Dany is the greatest power player of them all. No one quite believes her power; Xaro uses her for his own ends, Dorothea betrays her, and even Jorah tries to get her to flee rather than rescue her dragons. The warlocks of Qarth try to tempt her with empty promises, with the domestic happiness she lost when Khal Drogo dies, with the illusion of her Iron Throne, underestimating her strength of character, her ability to keep from succumbing to these illusions. They think they can chain her and her dragons, literally tie her and her power to them for their own ends. And Dany exacts a price for those who try to use her, brutally killing the Warlock, Dorothea, and Xaro.

The Westerosians don’t know it, but Dany is going to do to King’s Landing what her ancestor did to Harrenhal. No one sees dragons coming, and Dany has three under her control. Magic is being used by the show as a metaphor for feminine power, and Dany’s dragon have brought women’s power back into the world to rain fire down on the country that thought they were dead forever.

The Ladies: Game of Thrones Episode 9

Cersei

“I’d rather face a thousand swords than be shut up inside with this flock of frightened hens.”

It’s an old rule of drama that terror and impending doom tend to bring out the best and the worst in people. Faced with the need to survive, a man like Tyrion can lead men into battle, a man like Lancel Lannister can kill someone.

But one of the things this episode of Game of Thrones did best was to show the layers of a battle like this, the ordinary soldiers puking in the holds and burning to death, and the women and children faced not with death on the field of battle, but with the prospect of becoming the spoils of war. Cersei and her flock of hens spend the episode huddled in the keep, waiting for news of their fate.

None of them can act, none of them know how to pick up a sword and fight. They sing and pray and hope, but Cersei knows that none of these things mean anything. Cersei is always determined to face the world the way it is, to deal with the bare bones of reality. She was raised that way, was raised knowing absolutely that she was locked into a position of helplessness, that her fate would be decided by others.

And as she becomes drunker and drunker, we see her cynical frustration, her hatred of the position she cannot escape, of what her gender is locked into. Her only weapons are feminine, are “what’s between her legs” and poison. She can order people, but there is almost nothing she can actually do. Faced with inaction, Cersei’s response is to try to face reality as it is, and kill her youngest son and herself in order to save them from the sack of King’s Landing. Cersei adores no one but her children, and to kill her son is the ultimate terrible deed, the worst possible sin. But Cersei plans to do it anyway, to save Tommen from what Stannis will do to him and to save Joffrey from death in battle.

Unable to lead the charge, unable to swing a sword, Cersei lashes out at the women around her and does what she can to protect her family. Cersei has never been the best player of the game of thrones, but faced with the hand she was dealt, a hand dealt solely because she was a woman, which could so easily have been her brother’s, she made the best choices she could think of.

Sansa

“Your sons will be killers someday. The world is built by killers. So you’d better get used to looking at them”

Sansa’s innocent foolishness was the heart of her character in the first season, but innocence and the pretense of it here proves to be her only weapon. Her backhanded comment to Tyrion, her attempt to manipulate Joffrey into getting himself killed, and her defense from the Hound: all of these are conscious uses on her part of her perceived innocence. Cersei may think that the only weapons a woman can wield are sexual, but Sansa uses the weapons at hand to save herself, and are the only thing standing between her and the loss of her self.

Sansa’s standoff with the Hound is one of polar opposites, of the virginal young girl faced with the scarred murderous man. The Hound believes that all men are killers, that the will and desire to murder are what make the world go around. Power comes from willingness to kill, which is why the Hound would never respect Joffrey or Tyrion. For him the world is built on blood, which is all that matters. But Sansa doesn’t believe that, is in fact one of the few characters who (spoiler alert) has yet to kill anyone. The hyper-masculine, blood-soaked world the Hound sees around him is not the only thing left. He couldn’t hurt Sansa because she had the power to make him see a part of the world he was blind to. In perhaps the most powerful feminine act on the show, the Hound leaves Sansa alone.

Shay

“No one is raping me.”

I’ve got to say, Shay drove me crazy in the books but I kind of love her here. Paradoxically, Shay is the only character not performing a role. Cersei is playing the part of caring queen, Sansa is playing the part of innocent maiden, but Shay the whore refuses to play anything.

Shay’s position is precarious, but she has the talent of fading into the background. She protects herself by not drawing attention to herself, which is exactly why Cersei’s calling her out is so threatening. Shay’s entire life is built on sex, but rather than selling herself to Stannis’s men she ties a knife to her calf.

It’s her honesty and fiercesness that make Shay so compelling, and her cold refusal to compromise them in the face of something like a siege that makes her strong. Somehow, in all her years of prostitution, Shay managed not to break the way Cersei and Sansa did.

The Ghosts of Harrenhal

Game of Thrones: The Ladies

Cersei: The beginnings of Cersei’s descent into alcoholism this week. I love Cersei, because she’s so desperate for power and so bad at wielding it well. It makes for an interesting character piece. I love the symbolism of her loss of Myrcella—it’s an extremely painful recognition that, no matter how much power she thinks she has gained, she can’t stop something as simple as her daughter being sold off. The system that condemned her to a miserable life is going to take her daughter from her. Cersei’s need for control, after having had so little control, makes her incredibly bad the subtle manipulations that a ruler has to excel at. Without that knack, which Tyrion displays so brilliantly, Cersei is left trying to wield power through force, through things like wildfire, but she can’t even control her own children.

Brienne: I’ve never liked Brienne, maybe because she is utterly driven by her relationships with men. There is no desire in her for greatness or glory, nothing that drives a person to knighthood—only a slightly pathetic adoration of Renly. Without him, she pledges herself to Cat because she has no one else. Eventually, she will attempt to avenge Renly on Stannis. Brienne is a good character, in that she is both uniquely strong and uniquely weak, but I think she remains fundamentally essentialized in the worst possible way.

Catelyn: The ever-practical Catelyn put in a good showing this week, but not much to analyze. She allied with Brienne out of convenience, not out of a real connection. They had to flee together, and now they’ll stick together for the moment.

Margery: A glimpse into the motivations of this lovely lady this week, as she told Littlefinger “I don’t want to be a queen. I want to be the Queen.” She is driven by a desire for power just as much as any man, perhaps more. She doesn’t seem to want control—she just wants the throne. She’s always seemed to me to be a “might have been” for Cersei, and nothing yet has shown this false.

Dany: Dany was faced with some difficult choices this week, and she did wonderfully. She is learned how to wield the power she has, as she sends Dorothea out to find information with her feminine wiles. Her proposal from Xaro was suitably unromantic, and far less greedy-Oriental than in the books. Dany’s main conflict at this point in the story seems to be how to balance personal relationships with power relationships. She can suggest that her servant women do things, but she does not order them because she does not need to. Xaro proposes to her a political match, one of mutual beneficence, not of love. The match is tempting because it offers an easy way to her power, an easy way to the Westeros. It is also potentially fraught because of this implied ease—there’s no way it can be this easy, and if it is, would it be worth it? Would Dany rule, or would Xaro? Finally, the conflict between personal versus power in her relationship with Jorah is the most difficult for her to deal with. Pretty much everyone knows Jorah is in love with her, probably including her, but what Dany needs from Jorah is an advisor. She needs the power relationship, far more than she needs or is comfortable with the personal relationship. Neither she nor Jorah know what to do, and the actors perform amazingly as they try to find the line between personal and power.

Arya: Is my favorite character this week, staring down Tywin Lannister better than Tyrion or Jamie ever could. Arya has been offered the power of life and death, and she uses it to destroy something evil. Where this will end up going…

Tyranny of the Petticoat

If you like your fictional women cool, complicated, and interesting, this blog is for you. The dynasty of the dames will be center stage here, as I will be posting reviews of books and television shows at least three times a week from this point on. Any good book, movie, or tv show should be able to stand up to a critical eye examining its gender dynamics, wouldn’t you think?

Why is it such a big deal that a television show is portraying “strong women characters”?  If the show has strong male characters, people just say it has strong characters! Have you been bothered by flippant comments about old books and movies that “it’s just a product of its time”? Have you ever been infuriated when you heard people say that badly written women characters don’t change the quality? Do you completely disagree with everything I’ve just said? Then feel free to argue, counter-analyze, and rage all you like.