By: Lo the Lynx and Rohanne Lily
- This essay often uses the term “non-cis” when describing Cersei to avoid giving her a label when she likely wouldn’t label herself
- We think it is important to mention who we are/our identities to contextualize the analysis and show how our lived queer experiences contribute to it. Rohanne Lily is a cisgender lesbian woman. Lo is a genderqueer trans person (who’d also describe their sexuality as queer).
- This essay is not about exploring whether Cersei’s attraction to Taena is genuine queer desire, and functions under the beliefs that 1. it is 2. that her sex scene with Taena is absolutely about her trauma with Robert and also her complicated same-sex desire/how trauma informs it. Co-author RL has already discussed this extensively in various places including The Learned Hands Podcast’s “Let’s Talk About Sex Part II” episode, Through The Moon Door’s “Gays of Thrones” episode, and Aemy Blackfyre’s “The Lioness and The Dragon Lady: Cersei Analysis” episode. This essay does not engage with arguments that she has sex with Taena exclusively as a way to know how Robert felt while raping her or only as a reaction to her sexual assault, without genuine attraction to Taena. Sex and power are inextriably intertwined, and not only Cersei but also many humans experience sexual desire in ways that are linked to desire for power/control far from limited to sexual dominance. This article also does not intend to glamorize or endorse the practice of sex without consent when discussing this scene, and the authors sincerely apologize and can revise if this was not clear in the essay.
As Pycelle once puts it, Cersei is certainly “a most uncommon woman.” Raised in the Lannister household by Tywin, Cersei experienced both immense socioeconomic privilege and immense sexism from a young age. She later was married off to King Robert, earning her one of the highest positions in the land and an abusive husband. All of this has resulted in Cersei having seemingly endless bitterness toward her social position as a woman. Due to her privilege she is more able to question the limitations of being gendered as “woman” because of all women in Westeros, she has the fewest other barriers to power and respect. As a member of the richest family in and the queen of the seven kingdoms, and as a white woman, essentially every other form of discrimination besides sexism does not harm her and in fact empowers her. Because her gender is the only thing different between her and a man in her exact social position, she is able to isolate it as the cause of her unhappiness and differential treatment, as opposed to, for example, a “lowborn” woman whose gender and socioeconomic class both disenfranchise her.
On several occasions, Cersei expresses how she wishes that she had born a man, and it’s clear that she resents the social position she has been put in. In our opinion, there are multiple ways of interpreting this discomfort and unhappiness with her assigned gender. One could see it as anger and resentment toward a patriarchal society which disempowers her and has hurt her through her life in many ways, including sexual abuse. Or one could see it as an expression of how she doesn’t identify with her assigned gender and that she could be read as a trans/gender nonconforming or at least a non-cis character. In this essay, we will explore both those possibilities in order to dig deeper into Cersei’s relationship with both her own gender and her place in society.
“A WARRIOR’S HEART”
In many ways, Cersei consistently “troubles” both Westerosi and contemporary notions of gender. As influential gender scholar Dr Judith Butler puts it, in order for one’s gender to be seen as coherent in the eyes of society, one’s sex, gender, and desire must match up in the way society expects (Butler 1990). To be a “real woman” you have to be born with a vagina, identify and act as a woman, and have sex with men. If you don’t fulfill those criteria, for instance if you’re a lesbian woman and/or a trans woman, you’re often labeled as not being a proper woman. In this sense, Cersei certainly troubles gender since she both has desires toward women and often acts in a manner that society would deem masculine, particularly that her main motivation is arguably gaining power. Just because you trouble or queer gender, however, doesn’t mean you are trans. You can obviously consider yourself to be a woman and have traits society codes as masculine, because society has a limited way of understanding gender. But trans people do of course also trouble established gender norms. A useful definition of what it means to be trans comes from scholar Dr Susan Stryker:
(…) people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender. Some people move away from their birth-assigned gender because they feel strongly that they properly belong to another gender in which it would be better for them to live; others want to strike out toward some new location, some space not yet clearly defined or concreatly occupied; still others simply feel the need to get away from the conventional expectation bound up with the gender that was initially put upon them. In any case, it is the movement across a socital imposed boundery away from an unchosen starting place– rather than any particular destination or mode of transition- that best characterizes the concept of ‘transgender’(…)(Stryker 2008, 1)
So, there are many different ways to be trans, but what can be said broadly is that trans people move away from the gender they were assigned at birth. You could also say that trans people (and non-binary, genderqueer, etc people) often disidentify with their assigned gender, having a felt sense of gender that instead aligns with another binary gender or as something beside binary genders. Co-author Lo the Lynx have written extensively about this topic before . What is important to note, however, is that not everyone who fits this definition of trans would see themselves as trans. As Lo has written about, some non-binary people, for instance, doesn’t use that term because they feel like it connotates identities and experiences that are far away from their own. Furthermore, some people might not like to label themselves at all.
So, how does Cersei’s experience and inner life match up with this definition of being trans? One of the more obvious ways is how she on several occasions describes herself using masculine terms, such as:
I am the only true son he ever had.(AFFC, Cersei II)
Lord Tywin’s eyes are closed forever now, Cersei thought. It is my look they will flinch from now, my frown that they must fear. I am a lion too.(AFFC, Cersei II)
It pleased her to think she made a better king than Robert.(AFFC, Cersei VII)
In these instances she describes herself as a son, lion (not lioness), and king. This hints at a masculine identification, and seeing herself as more masculine than feminine. On other occasions, she expresses wanting to be a man and having a “male” body:
“She hated feeling weak. If the gods had given her the strength they gave Jaime or that swaggering oaf Robert, she could have made her own escape. Oh for a sword and the skill to wield it. She had a warrior’s heart, but the gods in their blind malice had given her the feeble body of a woman.”(ADWD, Cersei I)
One part of what she expresses here is clearly about how she wishes she could wield more power in society, similarly to what she says in other instances:
“It is because I am a woman. Because I cannot fight them with a sword. They have Robert more respect than they give me, and Robert was a witless sot.”(AFFC, Cersei V)
But we would argue that there are hints of a deeper discontent with her assigned gender and her body in the quote from Cersei I in ADWD. This seems similar to the kind of emotions a trans or non-binary people might have about their gender and body, experiencing how one’s own felt sense of oneself clashes with other people’s perception of oneself (Stachowiak 2017).
Another interesting instance of Cersei’s masculine identification is when she thinks about one of the new warships that is being built, and how it has a figurehead in her likeness:
Another of the ships would be named Sweet Cersei, and would bear a gilded figurehead carved in her likeness, clad in mail and lion helm, with spear in hand.(AFFC, Cersei VI)
It is interesting to note here that this figurehead is created not just in her likeness, but how she would like her likeness to look. Here the figurehead is wearing mail, in what essentially would constitute cross-dressing in Westeros. When reading this, co-author Lo couldn’t help but think of this quote from trans activist Leslie Feinberg’s history book Transgender Warriors:
“Didn’t Joan of Arc wear men’s clothes?” I asked a friend over coffee in 1975. She had a graduate degree in history; I had barely squeaked through high school. I waited for her answer with great anticipation, but she dismissed my question with a wave of her hand. ”It was just armor.” She seemed so sure, but I couldn’t let my question go. Joan of Arc was the only person associated with cross-dressing in history I’d grown up hearing about. I thought a great deal about my friend’s answer. Was the story of Joan of Arc dressing in men’s clothing merely legend? Was wearing armor significant? If a society strictly mandates only men can be warriors, isn’t a woman military leader dressed in armor an example of cross-gendered expression?(Feinberg 1996, 31)
This topic is something Lo has explored greatly in relation to Brienne (see for instance this essay), but it seems relevant to Cersei’s story too. Cersei seems to wish to express herself in a more gender nonconforming manner, even if she feels limited in her ability to do so—note that she calles this weaponized, masculine version of herself “Sweet Cersei” to perhaps offset the figurehead’s subversion of feminine sweetness, or perhaps to mock that feminine expectation. There is also something to be said about the similarity to how trans and non-binary people in our own world might use different tools and clothing to embody their felt gender. For instance, a trans or non-binary person who is assigned female at birth might use a binder to flatten their chest or simply dress in a more traditionally masculine way. This can be a way to create a more masculine embodiment. So perhaps Cersei’s wish to dress in armor can be seen in a similar way, as her dreaming of a more masculine embodiment.
Another interesting example of where gendered embodiment is discussed is this quote from Cersei VIII, where Taena says:
It saddens me to see Your Grace so careworn. I say, run off and play and leave the King’s Hand to hear these tiresome petitions. We could dress as serving girls and spend the day amongst the smallfolk, to hear what they are saying of the fall of Dragonstone. I know the inn where the Blue Bard plays when he is not singing attendance on the little queen, and a certain cellar where a conjurer turns lead into gold, water into wine, and girls into boys. Perhaps he would work his spells on the two of us. Would it amuse Your Grace to be a man one night?”
If I were a man I would be Jaime, the queen thought. If I were a man I could rule this realm in my own name in place of Tommen’s.(AFFC, Cersei VIII)
Perhaps Taena has an inkling that Cersei might like the idea of turning into a man, and Cersei’s internal response confirms that she desires the changes it would bring her. The story Taena shares is also interestingly reminiscent of a real-world queen whose gender expression has fascinated scholars, Queen Christina of Sweden. Christina was queen of Sweden during the 17th century before she abdicated, converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, and moved to Rome. She was known for being very masculine throughout her life, and sometimes preferred to refer to herself as Alexander (Darling n.d.). Another obviously queer aspect of her life is that she was known for having female lovers. But what makes her interesting to consider in relation to the above quote from Cersei VIII is that she was interested in alchemy, which is what it sounds like this conjurer does (turning lead into gold being a famous alchemic goal). A goal of alchemy generally speaking is of course to transform one material into another, turn it into the perfection it has the potential to be. Something Christina was interested in doing with her alchemic pursuits was to change her body from feminine to masculine (Åkerman 2013, 184). As Åkerman notes, based on Christina’s own writing, she described herself as having a male soul in a female body (ibid, 191). She therefore wanted to change her body through alchemy, to transform it to reach its full potential. Christina’s writings even contain records of what she refers to as a prophecy that she was given, which told that she would be turned into a young powerful man called Alexander. As Åkerman notes:
Since Christina, as an ex queen in Rome, used the name Christine Alexandre/Cristina Alexandra, it seems as if the prophecy of this wonderful metamorphosis spoke to her dream of changing herself into a higher androgyne shape, perfecting herself. In this dream, the Aristotelian view of women as underdeveloped men plays a significant part, but also the alchemical vision of polarities and the perfection of that which is incomplete. It is clear that the idea of Christina’s transformation to Alexander is inspired from spiritual-alchemical ideas about rebirth through the exaltation of the body.(Åkerman 2013, 184) [Lo’s translation]
What Åkerman describes here about Christina resonates in interesting ways with Cersei’s story. For one, the process of changing one’s body through alchemy sounds quite similar to what the conjurer purports to be able to do. Now, Cersei herself doesn’t precisely express a wish to use this conjurer’s powers to change her body. But the suggestion of a wish is still there, and is manifest enough in Cersei’s behavior for Taena to bring it up. Furthermore, Cersei’s thought that if she was a man she would be Jaime merits interest when considering that she occasionally used to dress as Jaime as a child, which we will discuss further later in this essay. Another interesting parallel between Christina and Cersei is in how they both express similar thoughts about the contrast between their inner identity and their bodies. As mentioned above, Christina considered her soul to be male, while Cersei thinks this in A Dance with Dragons: “She had a warrior’s heart, but the gods in their blind malice had given her the feeble body of a woman.” (ADWD, Cersei I) So, it seems like both queens feel a disconnect between their identity and their body. Part of that might be due to internalised misogyny on their parts, but it seems to us that it’s not just that.
To be clear, comparing Cersei to Christina isn’t meant to imply that this is a purposeful parallel by GRRM, rather that it is interesting to compare and contrast these two figures. One clear contrast is of course that Christina willingly gave up the throne, something Cersei would most likely never do (although it should be noted that Christina continued to try to gain different types of political power throughout her life). But there are other interesting differences too. Christina was raised as heir to the throne (being her father’s only child) and thus got a typically masculine upbringing, clearly different from Cersei who wished she could have the type of upbringing her brother had. Furthermore, Christina often dressed in masculine clothing, while Cersei tends to very carefully dress as a proper noble lady is expected to. This leads us to another interesting aspect of Cersei’s relationship to gender, how she expresses it outwardly.
“I AM NOT YOUR MOTHER”
Generally speaking, when analysing the way Cersei expresses her gender, it she has learnt how to adeptly perform womanhood even while not necessarily identifying with it. Some examples of this are:
“Certain things are expected of a queen.”(ACOK, Sansa VI)
Bad enough I must wear mourning again. Black had never been a happy color on her. With her fair skin, it made her look half a corpse herself. Cersei had risen an hour before dawn to bathe and fix her hair, and she did not intend to let the rain destroy her efforts. (AFFC, Cersei II)(AFFC, Cersei II)
She had played the dutiful daughter, the blushing bride, the pliant wife.(AFFC, Cersei V)
As these quotes show, Cersei knows what is required of her, and often plays her part even if she resents it. One way of understanding this is through what Dr Sara Ahmed writes about womanhood, how it’s an assignment given to some, a task, and imperative.
No one is born a woman; it is an assignment (…) that can shape us; make us; and break us. Many women who were assigned female at birth, let us remind ourselves, are deemed not women in the right way, or not women at all, perhaps because of how they do or do not express themselves (they are too good at sports, not feminine enough because of their bodily shape, comportment, or conduct, not heterosexual, not mothers, and so on). Part of the difficulty of the category of woman is what follows residing in that category, as well as what follows not residing in that category because of the body you acquire, the desires you have, the paths you follow or do not follow. There can be violence at stake in being recognizable as women; there can be violence at stake in not being recognizable as women.(Ahmed 2017, 15)
As Cersei well knows, there certainly exists a risk of violence when residing in the category of woman, one just has to look at the abuse she suffered by her husband. Yet, she seems to realise that if she strays too far from the assignment she has been given, she faces risks as well. Arguably, what befalls her in the end of ADWD with her walk of shame is because she has strayed too far from the accepted path of womanhood (at least in the eyes of the men in power). So Cersei tries to balance on this seeming knife’s edge of both rejecting the assignment of womanhood, and not rejecting it too much, still making use of it.
Another example of her ambiguous relationship with her gender is her relationship to motherhood, and to the Mother. She is sometimes associated with the Mother, for instance by Catelyn:
”Does Cersei pray to you too, my lady?” Catelyn asked the Mother. She could see the proud, cold, lovely features of the Lannister queen etched upon the wall. (ACOK, Catelyn IV)(ACOK, Catelyn IV)
Yet, as Cersei herself says (to the Blue Bard): “I am not your mother.” (AFFC, Cersei IX) Through her selfish form of parenting, she rejects the position given to her of mother, of someone expected to be soft and caring. Another interesting passage of Cersei, gods, and gender comes from Jaime:
I thought that I was the Warrior and Cersei was the Maid, but all the time she was the Stranger, hiding her true face from my gaze.(AFFC, Jaime IV)
That Jaime likens Cersei with the Stranger is very interesting considering what the Stranger tends to represent. As Lo has pointed out elsewhere, the Stranger tends to be tied up with (among other things) gender nonconformity, monstrosity, and death. As the only genderless god of the Seven, the Stranger often represents liminality but also the abject. As feminist scholar Julia Kristeva might put it, the abject is that which is uncomfortably close to us (the subjects) but which is impossible to assimilate into ourselves (Kristeva 1984). The abject represents that which we reject for being unbearable and unthinkable, but still resides inside ourselves. For the subject to come into being, it needs to reject the abject which we see in ourselves, but also that which we see in others. For us to make sense as people, not just to ourselves but also to others, we must reject that which is abject, monstrous, weird. So that Cersei becomes associated with this abject genderless god in Jaime’s eyes is defenitly interesting. It’s clear that Jaime has started to not see her as the perfect woman anymore, but more as something strange. No longer the feminine maid to balance out his masculine warrior, but as the nonconforming strangeness that threatens to distable the neat gender binary. In that way, Cersei seems more similar to Brienne than a mother like Catelyn, who while she strains against gendered restraints, still ultimately seems comfortable with her womanhood. And as Lo has written about previously, the way Brienne gets positioned as a freakish abject by those around her is one of the reasons why she can be read as trans/genderqueer.
Now, even if one thinks some of the above mentioned trans aspects fit Cersei, it is in our opinion important to be careful when labelling someone as trans, be they a fictional character or a real historical person. There’s a big danger both in telling a trans person that they aren’t trans and that they simply dislike gender norms and telling a cis person they are trans if they dislike gender norms. One obvious thing to consider is how the language of trans, non-binary, or genderqueer wouldn’t be avaible to Cersei or someone who lived in the Middle Ages of our world. Still, research tells us that gender nonconforming people did live then, and maybe some of them would describe themselves as trans or non-binary if they had access to that language (eg. Bychowski 2018). As it stands, however, we can only make use of the vocabulary and concepts that we know. As Dr Sølve M. Holm puts it when writing about their work analysing historical trans autobiographies:
I regard (auto)biographical accounts as containing traces of events, bodies, feelings, actions, relationships, institutions, politics, and much more that existed in this period and made specific kinds of impressions on individuals, in relation to which they have acted. However, I do not regard any account as an unmediated representation of, or truthful testimony to, any of these phenomena. Rather, I perceive all accounts as articulations that are dependent on the concepts and narrative models available to the narrator and on the general socio-historical and specific local and temporal situation of their narration, including the narrator’s specific relation to the receiver(s) of the account and the conscious and unconscious intentions, hopes, and fears related to the telling.(Holm 2017, 70)
This way of thinking can be applied while analyzing Cersei too; she can only work with the concepts and narrative models that are available to her.
This leads us to reasons for cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) readers to be careful with interpreting Cersei as not being cisgender.
AGAINST INTERPRETATION: “I WOULD HAVE NO NEED OF ANY OF YOU”
One drawback of reading Cersei as non-cis is potentially committing the the same errors as Westerosi society by conflating strength/the desire to be “strong” as masculine and weakness/complacency with being seen and treated as inferior as feminine. As Race for The Iron Throne writes, to do this makes outward markers of gendered power congruent with lived experiences of gender, although her conception of masculinity does in fact extend to bodies as we will later explore :
Cersei doesn’t necessarily want to be a man, she wants to be treated like a man, with all of the privileges that come with being a highborn male. Cersei’s conception of masculinity is focused almost entirely on warfare (an interest she shares with Jaime) and inheritance (an interest that she does not share with Jaime, although it is one that Tyrion shares), as opposed to bodies.https://racefortheironthrone.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/chapter-by-chapter-analysis-sansa-vi-acok/
When I (co-author RL) initially read Monique Wittig’s work describing that “the lesbian is not a woman” because lesbians’ same-sex desire transgresses heteropatrarchal definitions of womanhood as heterosexual and passive, I simultaneously felt liberated in my rebel status and wondered “why don’t we expand our definition of womanhood to make it queer and more inclusive, instead of maintaining such a narrow definition of womanhood circumscribed by heteropatiarchy?” In a similar vein, reading Cersei as existing outside womanhood because she longs to transgress a conventional definition of “woman” threatens to reify the oppressive and arbitrary definition that causes her and many women so much pain. To say someone who resents her assigned sex and gender because her assigned sex and gender directly cause her experiences of trauma and powerlessness is therefore not a woman, potentially reinforces a binaristic prescriptions of gender that leads to violence against women, especially women who don’t conform to conventional definitions of womanhood.
One of Cersei’s most vulnerable moments illustrates how living in a world that inextricably links womanhood with trauma creates a dysphoria based more on wanting privileges men have and wanting to avoid the pain women suffer than wanting manhood or non-womanhood. When Cersei learns Myrcella has been placed into an arranged marriage with Prince Trystane of Dorne, she summons Tyrion to her chamber to let him know her anger. “Myrcella is my only daughter. Did you truly imagine that I would allow you to sell her like a bag of oats?” she asks him, before understandably insisting “I say that Myrcella will not be shipped off to this Dornishman the way I was shipped to Robert Baratheon.” In light of the A Feast For Crows revelation that Robert brutally raped Cersei, we can understand why learning her own daughter might share the same fate so deeply impacts her, for then “Cersei began to cry.” Tyrion “had not seen his sister weep since they were children together at Casterly Rock,” but she rejects his overture of comfort, replying to his assurance that “nothing will happen to Myrcella,” with:
“Liar,” she said behind him. “I’m not a child, to be soothed with empty promises. You told me you would free Jaime too. Well, where is he?”
“In Riverrun, I should imagine. Safe and under guard, until I find a way to free him.”
Cersei sniffed. “I should have been born a man. I would have no need of any of you then. None of this would have been allowed to happen. How could Jaime let himself be captured by that boy? And Father, I trusted in him, fool that I am, but where is he now that he’s wanted? What is he doing? ”(ACOK, Tyrion V)
When Cersei says she “should have been born a man,” we can interpret this as her saying she should have been born with the assurance that she would be taught to protect herself and her loved ones, not subject to being sold off to a rapist by a father who claimed to love her and having her daughter sold off to a stranger by a brother who poisons her within the same book and, at one point in A Dance With Dragons, expresses glee at the prospect of raping her. Under patriarchy, women have not been given the tools to protect themselves and have instead been made reliant on men who use and abuse them for protection. Small wonder, then, that Cersei should want to determine her own fate, to “sooner face any number of swords than sit helpless like this.” Cersei, in her position as even the most powerful woman in Westeros is a woman nonetheless, and has to rely on men to dictate her life’s path. Very little about her life is in her control no matter how hard she tries, and instead is always in the hands of men, even her own daughter’s fate, which she so desperately wants to be unlike the fate that led to her rape.
Without any reason to believe Myrcella won’t share the same fate, Cersei recognizes that just because of her genitalia, society does not let her protect herself or, by extension, her loved ones. Cersei therefore rages at men squandering their opportunities to fulfill their role as protectors, including self-protection (“How could Jaime let himself be captured by that boy?”). She fantasizes about how she could do a better job at serving herself if she had a man’s power than any man has done in serving her. Myrcella’s marriage makes Cersei have to confront how she’s been denied a chance at self-determination based on something as meaningless and arbitrary as what’s between her legs, and confronting how arbitrary and meaningless this is makes her finally cry. Writing off the pain and anger of a woman who resents this as them being less of a woman because she resents something that is unjust lets the men who create the patriarchal standards they rage against off the hook. As Soraya Chemaly writes in Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, anger and pain signals to women that their circumstances are unjust, and that society, rather than themselves, need to change:
In truth, anger in girls is highly rational…They acutely feel the very real disparate impact of limitations on their physical freedom and behavior. Feelings of anger become enmeshed in ideas about being ‘good’ and about beauty, bodies, food, relationships, and power. Experiences like these provoke frustration, depression, anxiety, and sometimes violence in even the most rational men.(Chemaly 2018, 22)
Thus reading her hatred of her assigned gender potentially reifies the misogynistic view of “anger [in women] as unfeminine, unnattractive, and selfish” (Chemaly 2018, xvi). It is our impression that cishet readers sometimes characterize Cersei’s rage at her treatment as a woman as non-cis/distancing her from womanhood itself because they cannot tolerate that many women “want a storm to match [their] rage,” and that this is part of women’s experiences.
Relatedly, automatically assuming Cersei is trans based on her hatred of womanhood and her internalized misogyny could incorrectly conflate misogyny with transmasculine identity. This therefore replicates the mistaken transphobic idea that people assigned female at birth who transition hate womanhood and women. Thinking Cersei is trans because she looks down on women, speaks of them hatefully, and sees herself as superior to all other women, could be in line with “gender-criticals” who assume trans people assigned female at birth are being anti-feminist or misogynistic by not aligning with womanhood (for more discussion on this, see for instance Carrera-Fernández & DePalma 2020). Trans identity is about more than just rejecting gender norms or suffering from internalised misogyny, something that Lo has written about previously.
“TO USE HER AS A MAN WOULD USE HER”
Some cisgender and heterosexual commentors—especially, but likely not coniceicentally men—have read Cersei as not-cis because she mentally assumes a male role during sex with Taena Merryweather. Yet this reinforces stereotypical and dangerous ideas cishet people have often imposed onto queer women to discredit their sexuality and fit it into binaristic heteropatriachal standards (see preface at the start of this essay for trauma discussion). As co-author Rohanne has discussed on numerous occasions mentioned in preface note, Cersei’s assumption of what she believes to be a “male” role during sex with Taena appears to be her way of rationalizing and justifying her same-sex attraction. Her desire to be a man in this instance is more accurately a desire to be able to freely feel and explore her attraction to Taena within a world that defines attraction to women as masculine. Cersei lives within a binaristic system in which only men can be “allowed” to desire women. Therefore, when Cersei finds herself attracted to Taena throughout the book, it is logical that she’d ascribe her desire to have sex with Taena as part of her gender envy.
Her attraction has no framework or language within Westeros, a world that does not have labels for queer desire. As Monique Wittig explored when she wrote that “the lesbian is not a woman,” queer women’s desire and sexuality inherently violates feminine gender norms and makes us gender outlaws. To deduce that Cersei is not a woman because she takes on an aggressive, dominant role during sex that the world she lives in defines as a male role is to legitimize oppressive notions of what women are and aren’t allowed to desire and feel. Defining Cersei’s sexual experience as simply her “wanting to be a man” overlooks the ways that all people use sex as playground for gender role exploration and power/control exploration. It is reductive in a similar way to the concept that a woman who enjoys penetrating other woman using a dildo/strapon is not cisgender due to this preference (this sentence is not meant to imply that women with this preference have the same trauma-informed mindset, goals, or disregard for consent as Cersei).
“I COULD HAVE BEEN THE SON HE WANTED”
And yet, as co-author Lo once said to co-author Rohanne in private conversation, people don’t necessarily need a “good” reason to be TGNC. To paraphrase Lo’s comment to the best of my memory, they might identify as such to break from gender norms, and their dysphoria might come from a desire to gain power rather than the traditional narrative of someone who transitions because they “feel wrong in their body.” As mentioned above in regards to the parallels between Cersei and Queen Christina, someone can experience dysphoria and wish they could have the social position of a man because it gives them more power in a patriarchal world. Someone can disidentify with the female gender they were assigned at birth and have internalised misogyny. Things are rarely straightforward or black and white, so it is absolutely possible that Cersei’s feelings about her gender comes from a mix of dysphoria, wanting power, and having been traumatised through her position as a woman.
One interesting instance to consider when trying to untangle that is how Cersei and Jaime cross-dressed as very young children, prior to Cersei’s gendered use as a political tool, arranged marriage, and rape. As a child, as she recounts to Sansa, she was confused at being seen as different from Jaime based on her assigned sex and gender:
…when we were little, Jaime and I were so much alike that even our lord father could not tell us apart. Sometimes as a lark we would dress in each other’s clothes and spend a whole day each as the other. Yet even so, when Jaime was given his first sword, there was none for me. ‘What do I get?’ I remember asking. We were so much alike, I could never understand why they treated us so differently.(ACOK, Sansa VI)
Cersei also thinks about this instance in her own point of view chapters:
Men had been looking at her in that way since her breasts began to bud. Because I was so beautiful, they said, but Jaime was beautiful as well, and they never looked at him in that way. When she was small she would sometimes don her brother’s clothing as a lark. She was always startled by how differently men treated her when they thought that she was Jaime. Even Lord Tywin himself…(AFFC, Cersei IV)
This childhood surpise and difficulty understanding the arbitrary construction of gender, based on the belief that she and Jaime were identical regardless of genetalia, feels different in nature from her bitterness at an older age about how her assigned sex and gender led to her disenfranchisement. In early childhood, Cersei could not possibly know the full implications of being gendered as a woman, but still felt deeply that being gendered as woman and thus treated differently from Jaime did not make sense and was unjust.
One could also read this instance as a form of disorientation, a sudden feeling of being unsettled. Disorientation can be experienced as the ground suddenly disappears underneath your feet, as if you are suddenly knocked off the path you were following. As Dr. Igi Moon writes, experiencing disorientation is often one of the first steps for trans/non-binary people to realising that they do not identify with their assigned gender (2019). Dr Signe Bremer also writes about how trans people might experience disorientation, and how this can be seen as quite central to the trans experience (2017, 43). Bremer describes disorientation as the embodied experience of gaining awareness of the outside world, while also recognising that one lacks a place in it. She also notes that being trans can be seen as an embodied experience of inhabiting the world uncomfortably, of not comfortably blending into the background of the world but sticking out like a sore thumb. This seems to fit with Cersei’s experience of gender, how she never seems quite comfortable with the gender she was assigned. Perhaps the experimentation as a child was what first made her experience this type of disorientation, yet given the environment she grew up in, she never had the opportunity to explore this much further.
Although Jaime had the same experience of cross-dressing, which begs more exploration from GRRM, he does not recall or express any feelings of discomfort with being assigned as male after experiencing the world as a little girl. He might be more comfortable with his assignment as male than Cersei was with her assignment as female because it gives him power, but that might not be the only reason that she feels more strongly than he does about their gendering. This points to the tension between recognizing the ways that someone is a gender outlaw while not forcing labels onto them, and the tendency to assume that cisgender people cannot act in gender-nonconforming ways.
To support the analysis we have presented here, we wanted to include comments from Atlas (@dirkapitation on twitter, https://translannisters.tumblr.com on tumblr), who writes:
“I don’t think Cersei was meant to read as TGNC, I don’t think GRRM understands what a trans narrative even is, but I do think that Cersei’s characterization in its questionable muddling-together of sexual archetypes is accidentally in some sense representative of certain dysphoric/GNC feelings. What really strikes me, as someone who’s encountered a ton of ‘woman in medieval fantasy universe wishes she were a man so her life would be easier’ characters over the years, about Cersei is that Cersei’s dissatisfaction goes beyond the pragmatic and into the realm of self-conceptualization. We see her feeling agony about not being able to enjoy sex in the body she has, we see her trying to compete with her father and brothers for masculinity, and most importantly (and most exploitatively written, unfortunately) we see her try to literally project herself through the body of the man in her life, to possess his body sexually as a gateway to possessing his body for her own.
We also see her and Jaime going through a sort of narrative ‘inversion’ where, in their actions, Jaime becomes what others see Cersei as (diplomatic, conniving, physically vulnerable) and Cersei becomes what others see Jaime as (impulsive, sadistic, implacable). This isn’t necessarily a trans narrative but I have a hard time not seeing it as gendered simply because the implication is that this isn’t actually a shift as much as who they both ‘truly’ were all along. They had to take on each other’s skin to survive, in a metaphorical sense. And ultimately *not* headcanoning Cersei as TGNC is feels reductive to me personally because it means GRRM ‘gets away’ with the penis envy trope – with portraying a woman wanting to possess a phallus as synonymous with a woman wanting instrumental power, with nothing else, nothing complicated, nothing sexual or relational or individual to it.”
To conclude then, there are many complicated layers to Cersei’s experience of gender. It can be read in several different ways, which we have tried to explore here. So what we really wish to emphasise is that it is important to be a bit careful when analysing Cersei, especially in regards to gender, and especially if you’re not queer/trans yourself. The issues that Cersei struggles with are very real and present in the lives of real queer and TGNC people, and that should be remembered.
Co-author Rohanne Lily’s fictional exploration of Cersei and TGNC identity: https://archiveofourown.org/works/30240012
Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.
Bremer, Signe. 2017. Kroppslinjer: Kön, transsexualism och kropp i berättelser om könskorrigering. Göteborg: Makadam.
Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.
Carrera-Fernández, María Victoria & Renée DePalma. 2020. “Feminism will be transinclusive or it will not be: Why do two cis-hetero woman educators support transfeminism?” The Sociological Review Monographs 68(4): 745–762.
Chemaly, Soraya. 2018. Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Rage. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Darling, Laura. N.d. “Kristina: King of Sweden.” Making Queer History. https://www.makingqueerhistory.com/articles/kristina
Feinberg, Leslie. 1996. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press.
Holm, Sølve M. 2017. Fleshing out the self: Reimagining intersexed and trans embodied lives through (auto)biographical accounts of the past. PhD thesis, Linköping: Linköping University.
Kristeva, Julia. 1984. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia. University Press.
Moon, Igi. 2018. “‘Boying’ the boy and ‘girling’ the girl: From affective interpellation to trans-emotionality”, Sexualities, 22 (1-2): 65-79.
Race for the Iron Throne. 2015. “CHAPTER-BY-CHAPTER ANALYSIS: SANSA VI, ACOK” https://racefortheironthrone.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/chapter-by-chapter-analysis-sansa-vi-acok/
Stachowiak, Dana M. 2017. “Queering it up, strutting our threads, and baring our souls: genderqueer individuals negotiating social and felt sense of gender.” Journal of Gender Studies 26(5): 532-543.
Stryker, Susan. 2008. Transgender History. Berkley: Seal Press
Wittig, Monica. 1980. “The straight mind.” Feminist Issues 1: 103–111.
Åkerman, Susanna. Fenixelden: Drottning Kristina som alkemist. Möklinta: Gidlunds förlag.