Welcome to our final article on sex and gender issues in the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. We consider anything that’s happened thus far on the show, or in the Game of Thrones novel to be fair game, so don’t go crying “Spoiler!” if you aren’t caught up. And of course, if you haven’t already, make sure to go check out our previous articles in this series.
Though we’re disappointed to see the first season of Game of Thrones come to an end, the silver lining is that we finally feel comfortable tackling a subject we have wanted to take on from the very first episode: The vastly different ways in which two queens, Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, embrace their identities as women, and more specifically, as mothers.
We briefly mentioned last week that Cersei and Daenerys have several things in common, from the physical (both are beautiful women with light-colored hair) to the circumstantial (both married strong, violent men who made them queens). Once you scratch the surface, however, the similarities between the two quickly end, with each displaying a very different approach to navigating their medieval world as a woman.
From the very beginning of the show, Cersei has been ill at ease: With her husband, whom she hates, with her children, who are the product of incest with her twin brother, and especially with other members of the court. Cersei can’t even find true solace with her brothers, as she reviles her younger dwarf sibling Tyrion, and seems interested in little else about her twin Jaime aside from his cock.
What does hold Cersei’s interest is the “Game of Thrones” played by so many other characters in the series. It is clear that what Cersei truly wants is to rule the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, and that she’ll do absolutely anything to make it happen, including silencing those who know about her incestuous secret, bearing witness to a child’s murder, plotting the death of her husband the king and various other enormities.
Throughout, however, it is clear that Cersei resents her position, not as the most powerful woman on the continent, but as a woman at all. George R.R. Martin’s novel puts a finer point on it, but it is still clear from the television version of Game of Thrones that Cersei is endlessly frustrated by her limitations as a woman in Westeros society, as she constantly butts her head against them.
In a key scene in episode six, titled “A Golden Crown,” Cersei tries to goad her husband, King Robert Baratheon, into action while visiting a wounded Ned Stark. Her efforts fail, however, and she suggests that perhaps she should wear the armor while Robert wears the gown. Somewhat predictably, Robert responds with rage and violence, striking Cersei and bringing her back to the cold, harsh reality: She can never wear the armor, because she is a woman.
This is far from the only time when Cersei’s womanhood is portrayed as a weakness, however. Even her children, which should be a source of strength and power for a queen, are more a liability than anything else due to the fact that none of them are the true children of Robert Baratheon, and the discovery of that fact could lead to the execution of herself, Jaime and the children themselves.
Even when King Robert is gone, Cersei is still unable to draw strength from her children, as her son Joffrey is not only a cruel, vicious monster, but he is unpredictable and refuses to listen to reason. It is Joffrey’s cavalier decision to behead Ned Stark that not only fully commits the throne to a civil war with the North, but also renders it impossible for the Lannisters to bargain for Jaime’s return.
Cersei has a huge amount of things working in her favor: She is the daughter of one of the continent’s richest and most powerful men, she is stunningly beautiful, and she’s the Queen Regent of the Seven Kingdoms. But because she refuses to embrace her femininity, instead struggling to succeed on the same terms as men, she is not only unsuccessful at playing the “Game of Thrones,” but she is punished for stepping out of line.
Daenerys Targaryen, however, takes a far different approach to the “Game of Thrones,” because while Cersei’s story is one of denying who she is, Dany’s is one of accepting who she is becoming.
When we first meet Daenerys Targaryen, she is a beautiful but meek young girl, kept completely under control by her cruel, domineering older brother, Viserys. But once married to Khal Drogo, Daenerys begins coming into her own, learning how to harness the significant powers granted to her as a gorgeous woman.
Though it might appear demeaning and even an act of sexual violence to our modern sensibilities, the first time Daenerys harnesses this power is actually on her wedding night, when she is deflowered by Drogo. For the first time, Dany has something someone else needs, a bargaining chip that she can use for her own benefit. This is why she takes lessons in lovemaking from her servants, because the better she can please the Khal, the better a position she is in to get what she wants.
Finally, the dragon within Daenerys stirred and we began to see more of Daenerys accepting her role as Khaleesi. She made plans with Jorah Mormont, refused to obey her brother, barked out commands to Drogo’s bloodriders and even ate a horse’s heart to give strength to her unborn son.
By the end of the final episode, however, Daenerys’ child and husband are dead, and it would appear all of her power as Khaleesi has gone with them. But unlike Cersei, who chafes constantly at her role as mother, Daenery embraces it, using the flames from her dead husband and the woman who betrayed her to hatch three dragon eggs and literally walking through fire to get to the newborn beasts.
While we’ve been generally pleased by the adaptation of Game of Thrones from page to screen, there’s one major quibble we have with this final episode. In the novel, when Daenerys was found in the charred remains of the funeral pyre, she didn’t just have the three dragons crawling on her, she was actually feeding them the breast milk that was meant for her unborn son. In a very real and tangible way, these three dragons are her children and the new source of her power, and it’s regrettable (though perhaps understandable) that this wasn’t made so explicit in the television version.
Ultimately, the key difference between Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen is that while Cersei rages against the role assigned to her gender, Daenerys embraces it, drawing upon it for strength and power. While Daenerys ends the first season of Game of Thrones with three amazingly powerful beasts at her disposal, Cersei must watch, impotent, as her insolent son makes cruel and uninformed decisions, and her younger, dwarf brother heads toward King’s Landing to wrest control of the kingdom from the both of them.
We truly hope you have enjoyed our articles on Game of Thrones. With the show already approved for a second season, and the subsequent books in the series just as fascinating from a sex and gender perspective, we’re looking forward to coming back to Game of Thrones when it picks up again.
In the meantime, however, we are extremely excited about the start of True Blood’s fourth season this coming Sunday at 9pm on HBO. While that show is nowhere near as smart, tasteful or even coherent as Game of Thrones, it is even more heavily loaded with sex and gender issues, as you might expect of a vampire show that has Anna Paquin topless every other week. Even if you’ve never seen the show before, we hope you’ll watch and check back in with us next week!