Like most characters on Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister has done a lot of terrible things. She enabled horrific acts by her sociopathic son, Joffrey; she slept with her brother, Jaime; and worst of all, she blew up an awful lot of people and a significant chunk of King’s Landing in last season’s explosive finale. But even before her decision to reduce her foes and hundreds of innocents to rubble, she was often reviled as one of the most deplorable villains on the show.
Cersei’s notoriety is notable in a series where nearly every significant character has committed at least one or two horrific acts, and where several main characters have been serial killers and torturers for whom sadism is its own reward. Cersei has never been that sort of one-dimensional sociopath, like Joffrey or Ramsay Bolton, hell-bent on doing evil for its own sake. If anything, her worst acts have been motivated by her love of her family and her desire to protect them and herself at all costs.
The perception that Cersei is especially villainous, particularly by Game of Thrones standards, is also at odds with how actor Lena Headey approaches the character. “I don’t play her as a villain,” said Headey in an interview last year. “I just play a woman who is a survivor and will do exactly what a man would do — which is, you know, murder somebody when you’re in a war.”
Nor is Cersei alone. Most of the show’s fan-favorite characters have resorted to murder and brutality at one time or another: Tyrion’s strangulation of his former lover, Shae; Jon’s lethal betrayal of Ygritte and the Wildlings; Daenerys’s crucifixion of more than 150 former slave owners in Meereen; Arya’s grotesque decision to feed Walder Frey a pie made from the corpses of his sons. Yet these characters remain beloved and largely perceived as heroic, because we see their motivations and situations as complicated and sympathetic.
Even Game of Thrones characters marked as villains have been redeemed by a similar emotional nuance: Jaime, who murdered a king and threw a small child out a window to protect his incestuous relationship, ultimately rescued Brienne and revealed a sort of honor behind his misdeeds; the Hound, who murdered Arya’s childhood friend Mycah, showed a softer side by protecting Sansa and Arya from danger; and Theon Greyjoy, who betrayed his adoptive family and laid siege to Winterfell, was ultimately portrayed as a pathetic figure who desperately wanted to prove his masculinity and earn the love of his father.
But where Jaime’s revelations of emotional complexity and vulnerability helped transform the incestuous child-maimer into a fan favorite, his twin sister Cersei hasn’t fared quite so well. While, as Headey suggests, Cersei’s misdeeds are no more horrific than those committed by other GOT characters in the midst of war, she nonetheless ends up bearing the brand of villainy in ways they don’t. Cersei, of course, has observed this double standard all her life, and how differently shame and power fall on her shoulders because of her gender.
Cersei has always seen Jaime as the male version of herself, a sort of control variable in the great gender experiment of their lives. All of his success, power, and glory represent the alternate life she could have and should have had, if only her gender had not condemned her as high-born chattel. As she tells Sansa during the Battle of the Blackwater, shortly before her marriage to Joffrey: “When we were young, Jaime and I, we looked so much alike even our father couldn’t tell us apart. l could never understand why they treated us differently. Jaime was taught to fight with sword and lance and mace, and l was taught to smile and sing and please. He was heir to Casterly Rock, and l was sold to some stranger like a horse to be ridden whenever he desired.”
Many of the points on their journey through the series seem parallel. Both begin as beautiful, arrogant children of privilege who commit terrible acts and later suffer horrific trauma — for Jaime, the loss of his hand, and for Cersei, her Walk of Atonement. These traumas are tailored to rob them of masculine and feminine notions of value, respectively: The great swordsman Jaime loses his sword hand after being captured in battle, while the great beauty Cersei is shorn of her hair and forced to walk naked through the street for her sexual “crimes.”
These experiences are a huge part of why their paths diverge, and why Cersei remains in the “villain” camp for many viewers and characters alike while Jaime can be seen as something closer to a hero. In the aftermath of Jaime’s disfigurement, the ultimate jock of Westeros is humbled for perhaps the first time in his life, and finds his way to redemption on the way back to King’s Landing with Brienne by learning to both ask for and give help and empathy. Cersei, on the other hand, responds not by opening up but by shutting down and becoming even more defensive and paranoid — an understandable response to sexual trauma from someone who has experienced a lifetime of it.
Although some of the hatred directed at Cersei (both by characters in the show and fans of it) pertains to the selfish and politically foolish decisions she makes, from her initial embrace of the Faith Militant to her destruction of the Tyrell alliance, her experiences in the halls of politics and the way she practices power cannot be disentangled from her experiences as a woman. While Jaime shied away from political clout, perhaps because it was always on offer and he had nothing to prove, Cersei has desperately sought it out, at least partly as a remedy for the powerlessness she has felt throughout her life. Nor has it ever truly provided security: Even after she ascended to the most powerful position in Westeros as Queen Regent, she still was not immune from the traumas that have haunted her life — from being “sold to some stranger like a horse” to Robert Baratheon drunkenly raping her to the Walk of Atonement itself — all of which were caused, or at least not prevented by, the men closest to her.
Cersei’s most villainous choices originate in this primal sense of deprivation and fear, her need for enough power to protect both her family and her brittle sense of autonomy. Even Cersei’s relationship with her brother is an act of rebellion that allows her to reassert control over her own body, which is otherwise treated as a tool for sex and birth to be controlled by men. Her vendetta against Margaery is similarly related to a fear of losing the two things she cares about most: political power and the love of of her sons.
After Cersei completes her cruel Walk of Atonement and returns to the Red Keep, she is immediately excluded from political decision-making and told to sit “with the other ladies of the court.” All of this is a humiliating affront to her position, and the precise sort of thing that would make someone like Jaime reach for a blade. Indeed, countless men in Game of Thrones engage in counterproductive fights over masculine notions of power and honor — including Jaime’s arrogant daylight attack on Ned Stark, and Littlefinger’s ill-fated duel over Catelyn — while Cersei’s desire to undermine her own rival is deemed catty because the players happen to be women wielding words and not swords.
However, Cersei’s fears are not mere paranoia. Her own son, the pliable King Tommen, is ultimately swayed against her by Margaery and the High Septon, declaring an end to the tradition of trial by combat that might have exonerated her. Cersei’s eventual decision to “choose violence” against the Faith Militant soldiers who try to take custody of her body again — and her decision to reduce her enemies to ash by detonating the gigantic stash of wildfire under the Great Sept of Baelor — is an act of both vengeance and self-preservation by someone who has been systematically stripped of her dignity, power, and trust in the people around her.
Vengeance and self-preservation are consistently lauded as motivations for other similarly imperfect characters, including the king-slaying Jaime, the turncoat Jon, the boyish assassin Arya, the brutal conquerer Daenerys, and the kin-killing Tyrion — all characters who evince power in traditionally masculine ways. Why do those same qualities look so much worse on Cersei? If we swapped Jaime into her place and put a sword in his hand, would he elicit the same dislike? Or as Cersei has long suspected, are her flaws indelibly colored by her femininity in ways that she will never be able to escape, in her world or in ours?