Demeter (or Ceres in the Roman tradition) is the Greek Goddess of the harvest. Other traditions describe her as ruler of the poppy, a guardian of the underworld, and, more generally, mother Earth. Sometimes she is depicted in flowing robes holding grain. Other times she is vengefully bringing about the first winter. She is perhaps most famously known as the mother of Persephone.
Many of us are familiar with her daughter’s tale. Persephone is abducted by the God of the underworld, Hades, who wants her to be his wife. He forcefully brings her to the underworld. Abductions and rapes were common among the Greek Gods, and this was not depicted negatively in the original story. This act causes her mother Demeter so much grief that she stops all life on the planet from growing, and places the fate of ole humanity in the crossfires. The King of the Gods, Zeus, eventually manages to broker a deal between Hades and Demeter where they split custody of Persephone 50–50. This tale becomes a mythological explanation for the change of seasons. Persephone spends half her time in the underworld (winter), and the other half in the world of the living (spring).
If we look at the tale from Demeter’s perspective, however, we see the story as a mother bending heaven and Earth to protect her child. Even though by the misogynistic standards of Greek lore, Hades is in the right, Demeter’s love for her child propels her to take direct action; something that women of the period would normally be shunned for. Hades kidnaps her daughter, and she holds the entire world of man hostage. She is willing to let all of humanity die to get her daughter back, and it (mostly) works. In the process, she demonstrates how much a patriarchal society believes a mother should be willing to sacrifice to protect her child: she should be ready to give up everything.
In the modern day, this is called the Mama Bear trope, and as we have just demonstrated, its legacy is thousands of years old. The phrase’s contemporary origin comes from the meme that bears are generally passive in the wild, but if you provoke them, they will attack. Likewise, the patriarchal conception of feminity portrays mothers as passive, but if you get between them and their children, they will do everything within their power to destroy you.
We see this trope viscerally on display in season eight of the hit fantasy show Game of Thrones, which is one of the biggest successes in the world right now. When we look at its last season, all of its chief antagonists are not only women, but mama bears who have gone mad after losing their children. The show’s overreliance on this mysognistic trope has quite frankly tainted its overall message.
Mama Bear Cersei
The first mama bear is Cersei of the House Lannister. The Lannister family is perhaps the most Machiavellian noble house on the entire fictional continent of Westeros. Their informal slogan is that “A Lannister Always Pays His Debts.” This saying is as much a rallying call for revenge as it is one for paying people back monetarily, and no Lannister is more ruthless than Cersei.
Cersei goes to great lengths to maintain power. She is the product of decades of abuse and cruelty, and has learned to turn that cruelty right back around on those who would oppose her. She forces Ned Stark to make a false confession for treason to protect her family’s hold on the Iron Throne. She aligns herself with a religious fundamentalist to combat her enemies. She blows up the Great Sept of Baelor — which is one of the holiest sites in the Seven Kingdoms — to remove said fundamentalist once he gets too power-hungry. Like any good helicopter parent, there are no barriers she will not cross to keep one of her children on the throne.
For the first sixish seasons, her key emotional drive is her children. In scene after scene, we see her love for them, even as her hatred for the rest of humanity intensifies. She ships her daughter Myrcella off to Dorne to protect her from the politicking of King’s Landing. Cersei seems genuinely concerned for Myrcella’s safety, even pushing her father Jamie to retrieve her once her welfare in Dorne is at risk. Cersei is perhaps the only person who mourns for her sociopathic son Joeffrey’s death following the Purple Wedding. She also demonstrates an overprotectiveness with her child Tommen when he marries Margaery Tyrell. Although this concern is partly strategic, it also seems to be genuinely maternal. She, without a doubt, loves her three children.
When we look at many of her actions, they specifically relate to preserving her children’s power. She imprisons Ned Stark because he learns that her children are not the product of her union with High King Robert Baratheon, but her brother Jamie Lannister. She kills Robert Baratheon to halt any retributions on his end. She kills (most) of Robert’s bastard children to stop any would-be challengers. The thing this mama bear is most afraid of is not an external force like an invading army or an abuser, but the truth. She is protecting her children from the reality that they have no claim to the throne. She is fearful that if the truth about her children is ever revealed, then they will be killed. We learn in season 5 that for years she has been haunted by a prophecy about the death of her children from a witch called Maggy the Frog:
“You’ll be queen, for a time. And comes another, younger, more beautiful to cast you down and take all you hold dear. The king will have 20 children. And you’ll have three . . . Gold will be their crowns. Gold, their shrouds.”
Everything in this prophecy comes to pass: Robert turns out to be a philanderer who has no children with Cersei (e.g., The king will have 20 children), she instead has children through her brother Jamie and pretends they are Roberts (e.g., And you’ll have three), Danerys takes Cersei’s throne (e.g., And comes another, younger, more beautiful to cast you down and take all you hold dear), and her three children die (e.g., Gold will be their crowns. Gold, their shrouds). Cersei is so motivated by stopping this prophecy that it’s suggested to be the reason for her hatred of the character Margaery Tyrell — another person she blows up in her attack on the Great Sept of Baelor. Cersei tries so hard to protect her children from this prophecy, and it ends up backfiring spectacularly. Her last child Tommen commits suicide after witnessing the Great Sept explosion.
Once her efforts fail, and all her children die, the show suggests that Cersei’s last tether to her fellow man is severed. She decides only to focus on accruing power for power’s sake. As she says in the first episode of season seven:
“Should we spend our days mourning the dead — mother, father, and all our children?…I loved them. I did. But they’re ashes now and we’re still flesh and blood. We’re the last Lannisters, the last ones who count.”
Cersei truly stops giving a fuck at this point in the series. She openly flaunts her incestuous relationship with her brother Jamie. She offers Euron Greyjoy her hand in marriage for naval support. Essentially, fucking for an army. She even refuses to send her troops up north to stop the Night King — a malicious entity that wants to destroy all sentient life in the world — so that she could be in a better position militarily against challenger Daenerys Targaryen. The loss of her children makes her a one-note maniacal villain, and that’s frustrating for someone who showed such an adept ability to navigate the game of thrones in prior seasons.
Mama Bear Daenerys
The second mama bear is Daenerys Targaryen, who, for most of the series, is cast as the show’s hero. Dany, as fans lovingly refer to her (or did, anyway before the carnage of the second to the last episode), fled King’s Landing following Robert Baratheon’s successful push to take the throne from her late father Aerys II, the mad king — a man who tried to burn King’s Landing to the ground. She ends up in exile on the continent of Essos (an orientalist fantasy east of the continent of Westeros). She starts out as an abused slave, and eventually frees herself, and goes on to amass a large army to retake the Iron Throne.
Dany has no biological children, but she does have many metaphorical ones. The first and most obvious are her dragons (I would be shocked if you had not seen the meme “Where are my dragons?”). In the last episode of season one, she walks into the lit funeral pyre of her late husband and comes out with three living, fire-breathing dragons. In her royal title, she refers to herself as the mother of dragons from that point onwards. She also refers to them as her children in multiple lines of dialogue.
Her other metaphorical children are her subjects. Dany spends much of her story arc in Essos “freeing” slaves. The first military asset she acquires are the Unsullied — an enslaved group of soldiers she purchases from the Nakloz. Dany commands her soldiers to kill the Nakloz immediately after this purchase and then frees the Unsullied, who with their newfound freedom decide to serve Dany, the person who just bought them (yeah, we don’t have the time to open up this can of worms).
Dany then uses the Unsullied to free many of the slaves in the aptly named Slaver’s Bay, which is composed of city-states of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen. She also subjugates the Dothraki hordes (which are also a very racist depiction of the east). This campaign of emancipation is intensely maternalistic. The title her new subjects refer to her as is Mhysa, which is Old Ghiscari for mother. While former slaves such as Missandei claim that they follow Dany by choice, this dynamic is very autocratic. She is not just their ruler, but their metaphorical mother figure — the woman who birthed them into the world as freed people.
There is nothing Dany won’t do for her children. She goes to great lengths to keep her dragons from harm. She personally monitors their eating habits. For example, when they are in the North in season eight, she shows great concern when they aren’t eating enough food. When the slavers of Nakloz want her dragons in exchange for the Unsullied, she has the Nakloz killed. She demonstrates the same maternal protectiveness Cersei’s did with Myrcella, by locking her dragon’s away when they become too big to roam the countryside. When she closes the door on her dragons, we see that it pains her.
With her subjects, she demonstrates time and time again that ending slavery is not just a gimmick to gather troops for her Westerosian invasion. For over a season she stays in Mereen to govern the freed lands and to stop the institution of slavery for good. As she says in episode five of season four:
“I will not let those I have freed slide back into chains. I will not sail for Westeros…I will do what queens do. I will rule.”
When she finally travels across the narrow sea to the Seven Kingdoms, she doesn’t abandon her former territories. She leaves behind in Meeran, her lover, Daario Naharis of the Second Sons, so her reforms can remain in place. She may be misguided and authoritarian at times (what GoT leader isn’t?), but she also does care about implementing positive social change.
That’s what makes the shift in the last season puzzling for so many fans. In the second-to-last episode, Dany becomes the show’s primary villain. She uses her dragon Drogon to burn the city of King’s Landing to the ground, accomplishing what her father, the mad king, never could. People have speculated many reasons for this perceived break in her character arc. Some have pointed to her autocratic past of burning and slaying her enemies without mercy. Others have mentioned the genetic component — Targaryen’s are the product of generations of incest. More still, have brought up the misogynistic mindset of the show’s creators. Another way to look at this shift is that she falls into the same sexist narrative trap as Cersei — a mama bear who stops caring about the world once her children die.
In the last two seasons, many of her metaphorical children are killed off. Her two dragons, Viserion and Rhaegal, are slain in battle. Her chief consort Missandei is beheaded by Cersei’s minion Gregor Clegane. Countless Unsullied and Dorthraki soldiers perish in fights against the Night King and Cersei. The people she loves, her children, are being killed in droves.
There is another shift; however, that also deserves mentioning, and that’s her relationship with her subjects. The men and women of Westeros do not perceive her as an emancipator. She is distrusted by native Westersosians such as Sansa Stark and Varys. They see her as a foreign invader — a person who has never lived in Westeros and is trying to subjugate it with foreign forces. Her outlook is perceived as imperialistic, arguably rightfully so, and what we see in these final episodes is the death of her maternal image.
She is not their Myhsa.
She is a conqueror.
In the penultimate episode, “The Bells,” Daenerys concludes that the people of Westeros will never love her. This causes her to remark, more to herself than anyone else, “Let it be fear.” As in, if her subjects won’t love her, then she will burn their world to the ground until they submit. If she can’t be the mother she imagines herself to be; then their world will crumble.
This move is not only bad writing, but incredibly misogynistic writing as well.
When Demeter Loses
When we look at the surviving female characters on the show (e.g., Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth, Yara Greyjoy), none of them are clamoring to take on a maternal role. Most of them have rejected all vestiges of feminity outright, and are fully realized warrior archetypes. They are brave soldiers, pirates, or assassins who have cast aside feminine signifiers for masculine ones. That’s not bad on a person-to-person basis, but on a macro level, it says something about how this show views femininity. The showrunners consider it as toxic and misguided. For example, John Snow being “one of the guys” is depicted as a sign of leadership, but being the Queen Mother (as both Cersei and Danny both strive to do) is a sign of despotism.
The closest we get to a powerful example of feminity is Sansa Stark (aka the Lady of Winterfell), and she has not taken up power directly. Instead, she has chosen to govern behind the scenes through her brother, John Snow, who she campaigns to become King of the North. If she manages to obtain power by the end of the series, then it will because both of her brothers Bran Stark and John Snow are elsewhere.
Westeros is a patriarchal society, and it’s natural that motherhood would tie into some of Game of Thrones story arcs. It seems strange, though, that the two major female contenders left standing, are not only evil, but evil because of the loss of their maternal image. The loss of their children pushed these mama bears down the road of darkness. Their fear of losing their children, both real and imagined, shaped them into terrifying caricatures of the mama bear trope.
There is something deeply unsettling with this outcome. Cersei and Daenerys are Demeters whose gambit with the Gods never paid off. Zeus doesn’t come to negotiate a deal, and instead, winter continues indefinitely. They are women defined by the loss of their maternal nature, and that has left them bitter and genocidal. Although this certainly was not what the creators consciously intended, the overall message seems to be “losing children causes mothers to go crazy.”
From the start, Game of Thrones has been criticized for its poor handling of female characters. In its final episodes, it proves most of those fears correct by reinforcing some of our society’s worst stereotypes about women.
There is only one response to this mess:
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