As Bad As She Wants to Be: Cersei and Female Power in ‘Game of Thrones’

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As Bad As She Wants to Be: Cersei and Female Power in ‘Game of Thrones’

Tyrese Coleman

Unbound by respectability and maternity, the character is flipping pop culture female revenge narratives.

In anticipation of the Game of Thrones’ season seven premiere on July 16, I made an unpopular declaration on Facebook: I confessed that Cersei Lannister is one of my favorite characters. I said this with no preface, no specificity, as in “on Game of Thrones,” because I meant what I said. Cersei Lannister (played by Lena Headey) is one of my favorite characters. Period.

As villains go, she’s up there with Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty and Bellatrix Lestrange from the Harry Potter series—again, two female characters I hate to love. Cersei, however, is way more deadly and, as of late, way less morally motivated.

That lack of moral motivation is one of the reasons why I love her fierce, hedonistic brutality. Cersei Lannister—formerly Queen Consort of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, then Queen Regent and Queen Mother, and now Queen of the Andals and the First Men—needs no one to like her or agree with her tactics. She does what she wants, takes what she wants.

And now, released from the burden of children and family, Cersei is free to exact revenge and destroy her enemies at will.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Who are those enemies? An entire system rooted in patriarchy that titled her as mere chattel, underestimated her, and labeled her as nothing more than a “horse to be ridden” whenever her husband desired.

In rejecting this system and destroying all who oppose her, Cersei eschews the dominant female revenge narrative in film and television: specifically, that children, family, men, and an injured ego—gender-based assumptions related to perceived “female” desires—are the main reasons a woman would fight, exact revenge, or seek power.

For six seasons, Game of Thrones viewers have debated Cersei Lannister’s actions and motivations, pushing her story into one or more of the acceptable boxes typical of female revenge tales. At different times throughout her history, Cersei seems to have embodied them all.

The most common female revenge narrative centers around rejection: women getting back at philandering men. Psychotic thrillers, such as The Crush or Fatal Attraction, use this trope. Diminished to a sex-crazed, clingy maniac, the revenge-seeking woman is a sad and pathetic person ultimately just looking for love and attention. These stories also appear in comedies like The First Wives Club and She-Devil. The best terrible movie ever, She-Devil stars Roseanne Barr as a disenfranchised, homely ex-wife making her way through a list of goals designed to ruin the lives of her ex-husband and the woman who stole him from her, played by a pink and waspy Meryl Streep. Both genres rely on gendered, male-centered cliches that women are emotionally unstable, vindictive, and driven to action only by jealousy.

Other female-revenge plots involve righting a wrong: killing a brutalizing man as in Thelma and Louise or sparking a murderous telekinetic rage against bullies in Carrie. Often, the female avenger seeks to destroy those who have harmed her family or children. Kill Bill is the iconic use of this device, where Uma Thurman’s character, Beatrix Kiddo, wakes from a coma and, thinking that her baby is dead, decides to murder everyone involved in the hit that separated her from her child.

Beatrix is ravenous with vengeful desire, but she still operates within the confines of a typical moral code that dictates women can only kill under a particular set of circumstances. Circumstance one: A man (in this case, Bill) dictates the killing. And circumstance two: to avenge the murder of someone close to you as evidenced by her acknowledgment of Vernita Green’s daughter’s potential future vendetta for killing her mother. Beatrix is the movie version of Arya Stark, lethally counting down a list of victims who get what they deserve.

In fact, all the main female characters on Game of Thrones function within these archetypal scenarios. Olenna Tyrell and Ellaria Sand seek revenge against Cersei for killing their loved ones. Sansa Stark exacts revenge on Ramsay Bolton for torturing her. Daenerys Targaryen burns alive a woman who causes the death of her husband, Khal Drogo.

And in previous seasons, Cersei also acts within the confines of these conventional storylines. She drugs her cheating husband’s wine, ultimately causing his death. She orders the murders of his illegitimate children, attempting to ensure that Robert Baratheon’s offspring die with him. She tries to have her brother Tyrion killed on numerous occasions because she believes first, that he killed their mother in childbirth, and second, that he kills her son, Joffrey. Cersei so wonderfully says, “I choose violence,” and Cersei deals with any potential threat to her brother-lover, Jaime; her father; and her children with that decision in mind.

But, at the end of the sixth season, there is a marked shift in Cersei’s motivations. Before her Walk of Atonement, Cersei appears driven by an extreme loyalty to her family. She tells Joffrey, “Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy.” Then she is imprisoned and tortured. She is forced to display the shame of her naked body, which houses all her sins—a concept derived from the Biblical sin attached to all women for Eve’s betrayal.

Cersei is sinful because she is a woman, because she desires power and ambition, because she chooses her sexual partners, because she enjoys these things, because she acts like a man. Two of her children, Joffrey and Myrcella, are dead. Her remaining child, King Tommen, has rejected her like the rest of society has; he sided with a younger more beautiful woman, Margaery Tyrell, who can provide him with sex, which even Cersei acknowledges is the best weapon in a woman’s arsenal. Cersei tried to fight within the confines of her station, but by the end of season five, the shackles of responsibility fall away as she walks naked down the streets of King’s Landing.

Blowing up the kingdom’s highest temple, the Sept of Baelor, at the end of season six, is not only an act of revenge against her traditional enemies, but it is also an act that destroys her own family, killing off the new Lannister patriarch and leading to Tommen’s suicide.

Her family’s rejection—and decimation—provides Cersei a certain freedom. Once relieved of the burden of motherhood and family, she is free to destroy anyone who opposes her. Her real enemy is the society that made her become a mother in the first place. This patriarchal society forced her to throw aside her desires to allow men to pursue theirs. Now, she ignores patriarchy and tradition, and in fact, burns its greatest temple down to ashes. She is relieved to take power once denied to her. This is the purest form of revenge.

In “Dragonstone,” the first episode of season seven, we see Cersei stalking a newly painted floor map of the Seven Kingdoms. She symbolically crushes each rebellious state, every named enemy, beneath her feet. Enemies surround her in all directions, yet she is gloriously smug inside her studded, armor-like black leather gown. She is transformed into her true state: the conqueror she always saw herself as but was not allowed to become. Cersei wants to build a dynasty. Jaime asks her who this dynasty is for since they have no more children. She unconvincingly responds, “A dynasty for us.”

Jaime and Game of Thrones fans know that the dynasty she truly wants to build is one only for herself. In fact, I believe this has always been the case, yet her love for her children and family stood in the way. A woman murdering and conquering for the sake of murdering and conquering, not for the sake of her children or any other kind of revenge, is revolutionary.

Ambitious women are sinister, not to be rooted for or trusted. This is the framework that defines Cersei’s villainhood. However, it is not why she is a villain. She’s a villain because she kills with no remorse and kills the honorable, traditional hero types. This alone should make her a villain.

If Cersei were a man, there would be no caveats about that status. We would not be working as hard to put her desire to conquer the world into boxes of understanding and traditional motivation tropes. Stripped of her children, her husband, and her family, Cersei is left with only her core, a core blazing with her truest desires. Or, to put it as plainly as she said, “Power is power.” And power is the sweetest revenge.