Cersei Lannister deserved it.
That was the crux of my friend’s argument. After all, this was the woman responsible for Ned Stark’s death; for the death of King Robert Baratheon. She has tortured and mistreated any number of characters. She is the one who appointed the High Sparrow to the position of High Septon and reinstated the Faith Militant, giving them the authority to bear arms and dispense justice. Really, she’s just reaping the consequences of her own self-serving and short-sighted actions.
It’s her own fault. She had it coming. She was asking for it.
This type of reasoning is the sort of victim-blaming that people often apply to those who are raped—“She said yes when he asked her out. What did she think would happen when she wore that outfit? She shouldn’t have been there at that time of night.”
While Cersei may be the undisputed perpetrator of many crimes, her “walk of atonement” in Games of Thrones season 5, episode 10, “Mother’s Mercy,” was not about justice, it was about shame. It was a walk that she did not willingly consent to, but instead was forced to endure. It was about robbing her of her power, her dignity, and her respect; a graphic portrayal of the physical and emotional rape of women that has become troublingly mundane in the world of Westeros.
I can only imagine that if Ned Stark were still alive, he would not have approved. In the very first episode Eddard executes a man of the Night’s Watch for desertion. The setting is private; just a few guards, trusted advisors, and his sons attend. He allows the man a moment to speak and have his final words; a courtesy that is not required. Despite the cowardly nature of his offense, the man is not looked upon with judgment or disgust, but rather the cool, dispassionate gaze of justice. He is given respect and treated with a regard towards his shared humanity. Afterwards, Ned approaches his youngest son Bran and tells him, “You understand why I had to kill him…The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”
The underlying message is clear: male (hetero)sexuality is acceptable, but female sexuality must be punished.
Compare this to Cersei’s treatment at the hands of the High Sparrow. The justice he metes out is inherently hypocritical. Her crime is adultery, an infraction that women are punished for but that men are free to flaunt. Even Loras is being punished for “buggery,” as opposed to sex outside of marriage. This double standard is so widely accepted that when Cersei states, “I was lonely and afraid… with a husband whose whoring…” the High Sparrow interrupts her with a curt, “His sins do not pardon your own.” The underlying message is clear: male (hetero)sexuality is acceptable, but female sexuality must be punished. This double standard is epitomized by the differences between Cersei’s walk and the High Septon’s walk in Episode 3 after being outed at Little Finger’s brothel by a group of devout sparrows.
Firstly, the High Septon’s indiscretions do not carry the same social censure as Cersei’s because it is common knowledge that men engage in sexual activities outside of the bonds of marriage. There is no shame in this as a man, other than getting caught with one’s pants down. The focus is on the High Septon’s sanctimony rather than his sexual proclivities. This is emphasized by the amused way in which his actions are greeted; the first reaction to his bared body is a giggle. Furthermore, the sparrows call him “sinner” instead of yelling out “shame,” keeping the emphasis on his hypocrisy rather than his denigration. One individual does yell out a subdued, “Shame on you.” However, there is a complete lack of of any slut-shaming, no one calls him a whore or a pervert, nor does anyone hurl their chamber pots or food at him. He isn’t imprisoned or forced to confess and neither is he stripped of his power or position. Rather, he is immediately returned to office and free to lay his grievances at the feet of the High Council.
Additionally, Cersei’s walk is less about justice than the High Sparrow’s own personal vendetta to bring those in power low. As he tells Lady Olenna in Episode 7, “You are the few, we are the many. And when the many stop fearing the few…” The High Sparrow desires to impose his will—or the will of the Seven—over Cersei; to have her acknowledge her lack of power. If this were truly about justice then Cersei wouldn’t be the only one making a walk of atonement—Lancel would be by her side. As Olenna notes, “Half the men, women, and children in this foul city break the laws.” In fact, Cersei’s walk does nothing to “atone” for her crime. To atone means to become reconciled, to bring into unity or harmony. Walking through the streets of the capitol naked while the crowds jeer and yell insults does nothing to make amends or reparation; again, it is about shaming and reducing her social status.
Finally—and perhaps most tellingly—the High Sparrow does not carry out the sentence. Rather, it’s the stern-faced Septa Unella who trails behind Cersei, ringing the bell and proclaiming “Shame.”
This distances the High Sparrow from her punishment. He becomes just another onlooker as opposed to an active participant. Thus, it’s not his judgement but rather the Gods’ judgement that is being meted out; a facade as disingenuous as is his utterance of “the good people of the city”—the same good people who will later fling their chamber pots at Cersei, waggle their privates at her, and hurl derogatory invectives like bitch and slut her way. Ned understood that swinging the sword meant taking responsibility for one’s actions; accepting the weight and consequences of one’s decisions. The High Sparrow shirks this responsibility by having someone else do his dirty work. This is representative of a larger trend within Game of Thrones that uses women to enact violence upon other women, often at the behest of men.
(A few other examples include: Ros violating Daisy with a stag’s head scepter while Joffrey threatens her with his crossbow, the brothel owner in ‘Mother’s Mercy’ providing Meryn Trant with “fresh” girls to abuse, and Myranda’s killing of Tansy and her later threat to disfigure Sansa while keeping the important bits for Ramsay. Note to the writers: having women enact violence upon other women does not make these actions any less mysogynistic or more palatable.)
The reaction to Cersei’s walk has been disheartening. There are those who blame her, saying that she brought this on herself, arguing that although her treatment felt “excessive…viewers understood that she was really being punished for her long history of heartlessness, stretching back to her complicity in the execution of Ned Stark in Season 1” (NY Times, ‘Game of Thrones’ Finale, a Breakdown in Storytelling). As though being slut-shamed is somehow an equitable punishment for the death of Ned Stark.
Cersei’s walk of atonement was a forcible violation of her personhood designed to turn her into an object of derision and abuse. That type of violation is never acceptable nor justifiable. Arguing that Cersei brought this punishment on herself shows exactly what is wrong with our current culture of rape and our understanding of consent.
Of course, there are also those who say that this will provide motivation for her character, who try to play it off by saying that ‘at least she will get her revenge.’ As Esquire writes, “We can already picture Ms. Lannister in season six: angry, vicious, and retaliating.” Yet, what does revenge achieve? Perhaps there is a moment of satisfaction, a brief respite where a petty tyrant gets his just rewards (think Joffrey), but then another one comes along (Ramsay), and another (The High Sparrow), and another. Revenge ultimately provides no relief in a society governed by the self-evident truth that, “Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.”