For disempowered female characters in Game of Thrones, revenge is a symbolic act of asserting agency. It can be done quietly and intimately, like Ellaria Sand murdering Myrcella Lannister with a poisoned kiss; it can be done loudly and publicly, like Cersei blowing up the Great Sept—with hundreds of people trapped inside.
In Westeros, revenge mostly operates within the feminine realm; when women are denied other avenues of empowerment, revenge levels the playing field. But in popular media, what kind of women are permitted revenge, and why are some acts of vengeance more acceptable than others?
During the 1970s and 1980s, the rape revenge horror sub-genre became popular and established formulaic conventions: a character is sexually assaulted and tortured, survives the attack, regains her strength, and then takes revenge on her rapist(s) through torture, murder, or both. Films such as I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Last House on the Left (1972), and Ms. 45 (1981) were lambasted for their sadism and graphic violence, but also found a following amongst feminist viewers who identified with victimized women taking back their power. The genre continues to evolve and thrive today, with classics such as Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004), Thelma and Louise (1991), more recent films such as Elle (2016,) and Netflix shows like Jessica Jones.
While Game of Thrones is not primarily concerned with rape revenge, there are many subplots featuring women seeking vengeance because they were raped, abused, or had family members murdered. I often think of Cersei—my favorite character, and one of the most hated on the show—as enacting an elaborate rape revenge narrative in the context of high fantasy. And while the show has been rightly criticized for sexist content, I also see mutilated, abused, and raped female bodies as a depressing and realistic consequence of misogyny. Just as we shouldn’t look away from victims of violence in the real world, we need to pay attention to them in Westeros.
Played by Lena Heady, Cersei acts out of a desire to get even with those who make her feel small or have sexually harmed her: a husband who beat her and used her sexually, a religious leader who sexually humiliated her in public, and a father who underestimated her intelligence and used her as sexual chattel. This is not to say Cersei lacks other motivations for committing acts of violence and revenge against others. She does not solely focus her rage towards men who have sexually violated or marginalized her. She feels entitled to rule by her birthright and expresses a Machiavellian understanding of political power. However, her understanding of gender inequality is poignant.
“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,” Cersei bitterly tells Sansa Stark during Season 2’s magnificent Battle of the Blackwater scene.
“Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls,” Cersei sadly but matter-of-factly reports in Season 4 while speaking of her daughter—who, like her mother, has been sold to secure a powerful alliance.
Even as a mature woman—and newly widowed—Cersei’s father Tywin swoops in to arrange a marriage for her in Season 5: “You’re still fertile,” he tells her. “You need to marry again and breed.”
“I am Queen Regent, not some broodmare!”
“You’re my daughter! You will do as I command and you will marry Loras Tyrell…”
“Father, don’t make me do it again. Please,” Cersei whispers, violently shaking her head like a frightened child. In this scene, her steely resolve crumbles for a split second, and we see how devastating robbing someone of her agency can be.
Unlike Cersei, Sansa’s journey towards revenge does not begin with her family. She is transformed by an abusive courtship with Joffrey in which he emotionally and psychologically torments her and sustained rape and torture at the hands of Ramsey Bolton. When we see Sansa in the premiere of the most recent season, she is not the naive, romantic child who betrayed her family for love. She is not the broken girl Cersei mocked during The Battle of the Blackwater. She is instead the woman who fed her rapist to his own dogs after telling him: “Your words will disappear. Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.”
This season, after Sansa’s experiences with extreme patriarchal violence, she seems to be reflecting more on how she can assert herself as well as stay safe: “Everyone who’s ever crossed [Cersei], she’s found a way to murder,” Sansa tells Jon Snow.
“You almost sound as if you admire her.”
“I learned a great deal from her.”
Observant viewers have even noted Sansa’s most current hairstyle is modeled on Cersei’s long locks. Given that Sansa is struggling with trust issues and frustration at not begin treated like an authority—problems Cersei has also struggled with—the physical mirroring connects the two women in a new, intimate way.
While Cersei’s and Sansa’s revenge narrative plays out largely as responses to patriarchal abuses, Arya Stark is out to avenge her family’s deaths. We’ve been groomed to root for her since the beginning of the show; she’s suffered the loss of her family and has had to make her way in the world by her own wits and the kindness of The Stranger. She’s trained in the art of subterfuge and murder, she has a kill list, and she assertively makes her dreams of revenge reality. It’s easy to cheer her on as she kills her enemies, since she keeps getting away with “clean” murders that only harm “deserving” victims. She’s also young, feisty, and endearing—a tidier feminist symbol, more easily consumable.
But as Hillary Kelly noted in “Why Do We Still Root for Arya Stark?,” has Arya simply become “a psycho pixie bent on elaborate, gleeful revenge?” Would we cheer so readily for Arya to poison an innocent person who happened to get in the way of her grander plans to cross all the names off her kill list? Would we feel as much rage towards her as we did towards Cersei when she blew up the Great Sept and watched smiling from the window? Does the fact that Arya is not on a rape revenge crusade affect how we feel about her?
Perhaps Cersei’s acts of revenge are less tolerable for audiences because viewers do not see her—or do not want to see her—as a victim of ongoing patriarchal violence. I spoke with cultural studies scholar Dr. Leah Richards, and she noted that in media and popular culture,
The ambivalence of audiences’ responses to rape victims connects to society’s discomfort with rape revenge. The sentiment is ‘these women should just quietly get over it or die’ because the dishonored female body can be disturbing.
By refusing to see Cersei as a victim of patriarchal violence that has colored her entire worldview, it’s easier to hate her. And while Cersei has chosen to participate in furthering patriarchal violence, I can’t help but root for her as she goes about achieving her garish goals. She doesn’t hide her “dishonored” body; in fact, this season Cersei has gone out of her way to display it, even allowing her servant to peek into her bedchamber while unabashedly telling her to change the sheets. Meanwhile, Jamie is in full view—their forbidden relationship exhibited.
In this final season of Game of Thrones, we finally see how long-term effects of sexual violence manifest. We see how trauma lingers and informs characters’ decisions, relationships, and ideas about revenge. Cersei finds power and control in revenge; she also gets off on inflicting pain on those who have wronged her. After being put in charge of Winterfell, Sansa seems to thrive. However, when Bran tells Sansa about seeing the night she was first raped by Ramsey Bolton in a vision, she folds like a fractured bird, showing us she is more vulnerable than she appears. Theon Greyjoy, who was castrated and tortured, suffers from extreme post-traumatic stress and ends up jumping ship at a crucial moment, too overwhelmed to help his sister. And in her highly anticipated speech to Jon Snow, Daenarys makes sure to emphasize her sexual assault as something she has had to overcome to reach her potential as a leader: “I have been sold like a broodmare, I’ve been chained and betrayed, raped and defiled. Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith… in myself.”
As the show quickly moves towards its conclusion, we are left with a striking, if disturbing, message. Revenge may be sweet; it might make one feel powerful; it may also be an exercise in futility. Even if Arya kills everyone on her list and Cersei basks in the glow of another carefully planned murder, elsewhere in Westeros, little girls are still being hurt.
Image credits: Feature image © Helen Sloan/HBO, image 2.