Sunday, April 6, 2014

Game of Thrones: Being A Princess Is A Rough Gig

As I've said before, Game of Thrones* is pretty much the damndest show. It indulges in soft porn exploitation along side some of the most interesting and well drawn female characters on television. Its racial politics are, to say the least, problematic. The dragons are a delight. All the business up at the GoT version of Hadrian's Wall (as well as, as Lindy West put it, the parts that are Wall adjacent), are so painfully dull, I can hardly bother to follow the plot points. It's War of the Roses fan fiction and it's one of the only modern dramatic portrayals of monarchy that actually understands how monarchy works. I might be bored senseless at The Wall, but the parts set at King's Landing is pretty much my favorite show ever.

Many years ago I wrote a play about the wives of Henry VIII, and one of the most important things I learned is that contrary to what all the fairy tales have been telling us, being a princess was a very rough gig. It's been pointed out that the heroines of most fairy tales are very much a peasant's idea of a princess, with their wish fulfillment and autonomy and princesshood as prize. I'm not saying that anyone's life was particularly easy in early modern and pre-modern times (it wasn't), but the privileges held by princesses came at an enormous price. They were used and valued as diplomatic chess pieces, often sent at a very young age to far away places, often to places where they didn't speak the language to live among people who might not care for them or may even be openly hostile. Depending on the individuals involved, they might or might not be expected to immediately have sex with a much older stranger whose language they might not speak very well. If things don't work out for whatever reason (that reason mostly being that you don't give birth to living sons), you will be completely blamed, with possible disastrous repercussions.

Game of Thrones does an extraordinary job of showing what being caught in that particular trap must have looked like and felt like. Some flail, some are lucky, some are doomed, some do their best to turn it to their advantage, some become monsters. In this post, I'm going to take a look at the various Game of Thrones princesses in the context of some possible real life counterparts. Needless to say, spoilers abound, if you care about that sort of thing.

Sansa Stark. Oh, poor Sansa. She obviously exists in the Game of Thrones universe to be used as a political pawn and as a receptacle of misfortune. Her situation was also a sadly common one for Medieval and Renaissance princesses - betrothed to someone important for dynastic purposes, shipped off somewhere far from home, and then (as they usually do) allegiances shift, the marriage is no longer advantageous and the princess is stuck. Catherine of Aragon faced a similar situation after the death of her husband Arthur - at sixteen she was stranded in England and mostly penniless. She had to beg for funds from the crown for food and fuel. One thing I really like about how Sansa is portrayed on the show is that she's so ordinary. She's a typical young teenager, who wants to marry someone handsome and kind and have a nice, happy life without particularly understanding what any of those things mean. She grew up observing her parents' mostly happy (arranged, dynastic) marriage and wrongly assumed that was how things inevitably work out, rather than seeing it as a happy, but hard won, accident.

The historical princess she most resembles is Elizabeth of York, I think - the Starks are the obvious Yorkish counterpart in the Game of Thrones universe and I'm assuming the resemblance is intentional. Daughter of King Edward IV and sister of the murdered princes in The Tower, Elizabeth grew up in the middle of the violent late stages of the Wars of the Roses as the Yorks and Tudors fought for the crown. After her Uncle Richard was killed in battle, she was married off to the newly crowned King Henry VII, uniting the two warring houses and launching the Tudor Dynasty. But, can you imagine it? Like Sansa, she was a great heiress (and had a far better claim to the throne than Henry) and married a man whose relatives had been murdering her relatives for years. But, here's the thing. Henry VII was a decent man, and by royal, late medieval standards it was a happy marriage. At the end of Season 3, Sansa was married off to Tyrion Lannister, a much older dwarf and son of the House that murdered most of her family. But, like Henry, Tyrion is a decent man, and for the first time in a long time, the person most responsible for her intends to protect her from harm. I have no confidence that things will stay remotely happy in the future (that would be boring, plotwise), but as they stand now, she is far better off than when she was betrothed to the odious Joffrey.

Margaery Tyrell is so much fun. I really hope she isn't murdered any time soon so we can see what it is exactly she's up to. She's an excellent example of a professional princess - one who grew up smart and savvy observing how government and power work, and in a society where women's only way of acquiring it is via marriage she does her best to work within the system to achieve her ends. Her family (as represented by her grandmother, delightfully played by Diana Rigg in full Maggie Smith mode) seems to be completely on board - much as the Boleyns were, embracing the fact that this clever, pretty princess is their best bet for achieving riches and glory. King Joffrey is an evil, creepy, deeply stupid little psychopath who won't listen to anybody, but Margaery just sweeps in and is pretty much calling the shots within minutes and making him like it. I have no idea if she is actually good and kind or if she just wishes to appear so in order to become both beloved and powerful, but either way, kindnesses get done.**

Both King Joffrey and King George II of the House of Bush bear resemblance to the unfortunate Henry VI. Henry was an objectively terrible King who spent his reign having nervous breakdowns and surrounding himself with greedy advisors who gutted the country while massively enriching themselves and letting the actual country they were supposed to be running fall completely apart. This lead to a long, bloody civil war with the Lancasters on one side, ostensibly lead by the young, foolish King Henry, and the Yorks on the other, the powerful northern dynasty who after years of insults and bad behavior on the Lancasterian side, were pushed to the brink. I'm sure this all sounds awfully familiar, but the point I'm getting to is this: with a weak, incompetent king on the throne, the Lancasterian side was mostly being led by Henry's extraordinary wife, Margaret of Anjou. Shortly after their marriage, Margaret proved herself one of the few people in the inner circle around the king who was capable, or willing to actually run the country. Her family was broke, but royal, saw an opening and took it. Within months of their marriage an 18 year old girl was more or less running the English government. I'm assuming this is what Margery is angling towards. A weak king could be a useful road to power for a smart, ambitious woman who wasn't able to achieve her goals in other ways in a repressive society that barely considered her human.

Cersei Lannister is my favorite. Her story is the story of centuries of unhappy princesses and queens. She is Gwenevere, Agrippina and Catherine de Medici rolled into one monstrous figure. In the book, she's pure evil, which is boring. In the show, she's gloriously complicated. Teenage Cersei was the most beautiful, the richest, the cleverest princess and she got to marry the new handsome King. Who was in love with a dead girl and didn't like or want her, so her power evaporated and she had to submit to a life of cold dislike and drunken marital rape. Her children (products of an incestuous relationship with her twin brother, something that was rumored - slanderously - about Anne Boleyn, too) became her life, and she continued to be the pawn of her powerful, difficult father. Poor Cersei, she just can't win. Unlike Catherine the Great of Russia whose family was either dead or hundreds of miles away, Cersei's is constantly looming over her shoulder, snatching whatever bits of autonomy or power she can manage to claim for herself. No one likes or trusts her much.

Cersei is so much like Catherine de Medici which is something I wouldn't wish on anyone, fictional or otherwise. Catherine was one of the richest heiresses in Europe and was married to the handsome, kind and popular King Henri II of France. Who spent their entire marriage essentially married to his mistress, constantly humiliating her. She plotted and schemed (and possibly poisoned) on her husband's behalf and then, after his death, on her childrens'. Much like Cersei, power eluded her because she lacked the talent for inspiring loyalty and trust in others and making political errors due to short sightedness or anger. The most fascinating part of Cersei's character is that she isn't really monstrous enough. I love the "you're a woman now" speech she gives to Sansa when she gets her period (and is therefore available to marry awful Joffrey), and Cersei basically admits that her son is a monster and the best Sansa can hope for is children to love. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the entire series is when Cersei's father informs her she's to marry a boy half her age for dynastic purposes. She's an accomplished, middle aged women whose son sits on the throne and she still can't escape the trap into which she was born, and seeing her fight uselessly against the bars of her cage is almost unbearable.

Of course, there are other princesses in the show, more than are contained by a decade or two of Disney movies. Daenerys with her dragons, wandering round the desert on her crusade to free brown people and reconquer a nation of strangers, Arya, who is pure fantasy wish fulfillment (but a really interesting one), poor Catelyn Stark who did what many real life nobles and royals did - settled down more or less happily and created a decent life for their children, and on and on. Unlike in Disney movies or in the dreams of peasants, princesshood was a cage with very narrow parameters that needed to be carefully negotiated. Women have always found ways to transcend them, even if that transcendence was limited, often through the church, or through finally claiming power in their own right as Elizabeth Tudor did. In both of those examples, marriage was the enemy. The trick was being both lucky and savvy enough to sidestep the boundaries, most accurately represented by the bonds of matrimony, but there was still no breaking them. Though, as demonstrated above, some women did live their lives happily and well, working within the parameters set for them, primarily by negotiating marriages of their choosing. Game of Thrones is a product of our world, not theirs, so it shows women like Arya possibly breaking free, something that was impossible in early modern Europe

*Please note: I read the first book and part of the second. I stopped because I was bored. I have found the show to be much more interesting than the books. If you want to argue or talk about the books this really isn't the place.

**Though, am I the only one who wonders if it was Margaery who actually shot Ros with the crossbow at Joffrey's bidding?