How Women Play The Game in “A Feast For Crows”: Part One of Five

I‘ve been wanting to put together a little exposé on the women of A Song of Ice and Fire for a while, and after reading and rereading and processing A Feast for Crows, I’ve got a few ideas that make sense. The fourth book in the series, AFfC is actually a wonderful entry for those, like me, who are drawn to women characters, as it’s nearly all about them. All the point of view characters except for Sam, Jaime and the one-offs (Jaime and the One-Offs, that’s a band name) are girls or women, all of them unique in their leveraging of power.

To that end, this blog series (which will run for five weeks, as I’m covering five characters) will explore the vastly different ways each character plays The Game of Thrones. It began as a single post, but I quickly discovered it was far longer than anyone would reasonably read in one setting. So I’ll do it as a serial, and maybe collect it all in one place afterward, for posterity.

I’ll repeat this for each entry, but this will contain SPOILERSOMG up through the end of A Feast For Crows. I think the spoilers for that book are fairly minor (though present), but if you haven’t read at least the third book, I’d stay away.

With that disclaimer, let’s get started.

Playing by the Rules ~ Cersei Lannister

I cannot let them see me cry. A woman may weep, but not a queen.

Illustration courtesy of arcticorset / M Pardo

Cersei Lannister. The woman everyone loves to hate — often unjustly, for many of the evil deeds ascribed to her (the crippling and attempted assassination of Bran, the execution of Ned Stark) actually had nothing to do with her. Still, no one can deny that Cersei is a, shall we say, enterprising woman. Lord’s daughter to ruling queen (regent, but don’t you dare add that modifier in her presence) in just a few years. Not bad.

The interesting thing about Cersei when set against the other women in the series is that her power derives completely and utterly from patriarchy. She marries King Robert at the behest of her father, serves as advisor for Joffrey, and then finally as guardian of the realm for young Tommen. An astute reader would expect this would make Cersei quite bitter, and the astute reader would be correct. Nearly all of Cersei’s major character flaws result from her living in — and being forced to wring the tiniest amount of power from — a male-dominated society. This is what tends to irk me about a lot of the hatred toward Cersei. Some of it is pointed — to be sure, Cersei is not all that likeable, and she’s not all that noble, and many of her actions, especially toward Tyrion, are inexcusable. But too much of the criticism is simple misogyny: “I hate that fuckin’ bitch!” without any recognition about why her mindset is so problematic.

At the best of times, she is thought of as a pawn by those around her, completely lacking control of her own destiny in even the most fundamental way. In A Feast For Crows, this changes drastically. Tyrion is gone, Joffrey (who truly is a little shit and deserves all the hate he gets), Robert and Tywin are all dead and can no longer lord their privilege over her. For once in her life, she is finally in control.

And Cersei just can’t deal.

Most of her life has been lived surrounded by enemies, even in her own family. This has led to a highly tuned and fairly ruthless survival instinct. That’s helpful during the times Cersei is actually threatened, but unfortunately, it’s also led to extreme paranoia and, well, short-sightedness. Let me expand on that.

When I first read A Feast For Crows, I was a bit disappointed in Cersei; specifically, in her decision to allow the Faith Militant (essentially Westeros’s version of the Templars) to reorganize. Up to this point, Cersei has been many things, but she has not been stupid. Allowing the Faith to create an entire army outside her control is stupid. I struggled with her characterization here for a long while, perhaps even thinking that Martin made something of a mistake when writing her. That’s when a fellow writer pointed out that the decision wasn’t purely idiotic, it was just myopic.

Ah, there we have it.

Cersei’s life of playing by the rules even when they’re stacked against her has made her intensely greedy. I do not mean greedy in the usual sense, that all she cares about is riches. No, Cersei is greedy in the game theory/algorithmic sense. A greedy player is one who strives to make the best play possible at any given moment without thinking ahead in the game. It’s a simple strategy, and often a losing one in most complex games. Think about chess; top players think three, four, perhaps ten moves ahead, and often the winning move is to play conservatively in the short term (even doing things like sacrificing pieces) for a long term gain.

This is something that’s beyond Cersei. Acquiescing to the Faith Militant squares her debt to the church, full-stop. Whatever happens tomorrow is tomorrow’s problem. This worldview makes Cersei the most inflexible of all the women I plan to cover, which is why, in the end, she’s the least likely to keep any real power. But this is the flaw that makes her very tragic (in modern parlance as well as classical), because for much of her life, that focus on surviving the here-and-now was a virtue, and it may have been the only thing that got her this far.

I could also go into Cersei’s use of sex as a resource, but I probably won’t, as that’s been dealt with enough. Suffice it to say that there’s nothing transgressive about her here. A woman using sex is conventional in this society, and Cersei uses what’s available to her. It is interesting that she uses her sexuality while condemning Margaery for the same thing, imagined or not, but oh now I’m off on a tangent, and I have more characters to deal with!

Next week, I’ll discuss Asha Greyjoy, the Daughter of the Kraken. I don’t want to give too much away, but consider that Cersei can be said to play by the rules of the Game, and Asha is almost her polar opposite in that regard.