How ‘Game of Thrones’ showrunners ruined one of their best female characters

In the books, Cersei Lannister is ruthless and primarily motivated by power. Showrunners changed her motivations drastically.

(Helen Sloan/Lily illustration)

Spoilers ahead up to the end of season 6 and “A Dance with Dragons.”

When an interviewer asked “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin how he writes women characters so well, he famously answered:

“You know, I’ve always considered women to be people,” he said.

That’s it. That right there is how you write female characters in literature. You treat them like people. It’s a simple answer, but holds so much truth and it’s something that many writers struggle to do.

When assessing the depiction of female characters, all I ask is that women are given the same range of emotions and care given to male characters. Women don’t have to be simultaneously gorgeous, intelligent, and strong Mary Sues. They just have to be real.

In the HBO show, one of Martin’s most deliciously evil characters, Cersei Lannister, is absolutely spayed. In the novels, Cersei is ruthless, lustful and tangentially maternal. In the show, Cersei’s main motivation is protecting her children. A noble motive, but it’s just not an accurate reflection of the character and how little she cares for others.

One of my favorite Cersei lines comes from the first novel, when she is speaking to Ned Stark:

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground,”

Cersei is very aware of how the game is played, and she’s just as invested in winning as the openly ambitious and scheming Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. Over the course of the novels in her quest for power, Cersei plots to have her husband, brother, and daughter-in-law killed, among others.

Cersei clashes with her father, Tywin Lannister on the small council when her son Joffrey is king. When Tywin insists that Cersei marry to form stronger alliances with other houses, she fights back in this scene from “A Storm of Swords”.

‘“Three children is quite sufficient. I am Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, not a brood mare! The Queen Regent!”
“You are my daughter, and you will do as I command.”
She stood. “I will not sit here and listen to this — ”
“You will if you wish to have any voice in the choice of your next husband,” Lord Tywin said.
…. “That is so very kind of you, Father,” Cersei said with icy courtesy. “It is such a difficult choice you give me. Who would I sooner take to bed, the old squid or the crippled dog boy? I shall need a few days to consider. Do I have your leave to go?””

In this scene, you see a woman who wants to take charge of her life and be above a pawn in the marriage game. She wants to own her title as Queen Regent. She seems rather unsentimental about her children and refuses to do what her father wants.

The showrunners brush these kind of harsh comments aside, in one of the after show interviews with the showrunners, David Benioff says, “One thing you have to admit about Cersei is that she loves her children.” Well, yes. But like a classic narcissist, Cersei loves her children as an extension of herself.

You could argue she is deeply bonded to her twin brother, Jaimie, in a kind of twisted love, but that narcissist Cersei is attracted to her twin should say something about whom she bonds with and why.

Cersei’s lust for her brother is in full force even after their son is poisoned. Jaimie comes to see Cersei, who is at her son’s tomb, and has sex with her brother not far near her son’s coffin. In the scene, she gives clear and enthusiastic consent, telling him:

“”Hurry,” she was whispering now, “quickly, quickly, now do it now, do me now,”

After they are done, book Cersei is concerned with how it would look to her father:

“This was folly,” Cersei pulled her gown straight. “With Father in the castle….Jaime, we must be careful”

As this scene played out in the show, Cersei is seen tearfully over her son’s coffin: “He killed our, son, our baby boy” Cersei tells Jaimie.

Jaimie calls Cersei hateful and forces himself on her.

“Not here, stop it stop it,” Cersei pleads with him. “It’s not right, it’s not right,” she said as he pulls her to the ground.

The exchange, which was met with internet outrage from the night the episode aired, robs Cersei of her agency in the act. She was a willing partner in the book, and was raped on the show. The worst part is that the showrunners and director didn’t even realize they had filmed a rape scene.

The showrunners refuse to portray Cersei as someone who would be callous enough to willingly have sex in such an inappropriate context. They want to preserve her as this medieval mama bear dead set on protecting her children, instead of the cunning and loveless sociopath she really is. She’s exceptionally despicable in a world full of despicable people.

When her younger son, Tommen is king, Cersei is in a constant power struggle with him and his wife, Margaery. She manipulates Tommen, and won’t let him sit in on routine small council meetings.

“Cersei did not mean to give it up until Tommen came of age. I waited, so can he. I waited half my life. She had played the dutiful daughter, the blushing bride, the pliant wife….If Margaery Tyrell thinks to cheat me of my hour in the sun, she had bloody well think again,”

Cersei is close enough to power in “A Feast for Crows, she can taste it. She won’t let anyone get in her way, certainly not her daughter in law or her son. Tommen is portrayed as having a gentler spirit, willing to be molded into someday being a good king, but Cersei wants nothing but to hold him back.

Other characters in the novel see Cersei for the callous woman she is. She depicted as terrifying, unpredictable and a powder keg ready to explode.

Tyrion on Cersei: “The longer Cersei waits, the angrier she’ll become, and anger makes her stupid. I much prefer angry and stupid to composed and cunning,”

In season 6, the show moves beyond the books and Cersei closes out the season having killed half of King’s Landing’s most powerful people by wildfire. We don’t have the book interpretation of these events to compare, but here’s what showrunner David Benioff had to say about the events and the deaths of her children.

“I think the idea of Cersei without her children is pretty terrifying,” Benioff said. “It was the one thing that really humanized her, you know, her love for her kids. And as much of a monster as she could sometimes be, she was a mother who indeed really did love her children….And now all she has is power.”

But isn’t power what Cersei was after in the first place? Was she ever really there for her children or did she just see them as pawns and speed bumps on her own path to power?

While the show runners see Cersei as broken without her children, I see her as more like herself than ever. Here is what Cersei told Sansa Stark about love:

“Love is poison. A sweet poison, yes, but it will kill you all the same,”

While Cersei in the novel is greedy for power and lustful for her brother, the version the showrunners have of Cersei is that she is ruthless because she loves her children, not in spite of them. I think that had her children lived longer than they did and started acting of their own accord, it’s entirely possible that the lioness would have eaten her cubs.

I’m not sure why the show runners would so drastically change Cersei’s motivations, except that they have antiquated views of what motivates women, and that’s primarily the sexist notion that women can only be motivated by their maternal instincts and not the full spectrum of emotions men experience.

With Sunday night’s premiere, it will be curious to see what Cersei will do now that she’s claimed what she always wanted. How will the showrunners handle having five women in powerful roles? We can only guess.

Reporter’s note: thanks to the A Song of Ice and Fire wiki for helping jog my memory of these quotes and plot points.

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