Cersei Lannister: NOT an example of a sanitized angry lady.
I love all Arthurian film and tv adaptations. Love them. Even the worst ones (lookin’ at you, ‘King Arthur’ 2004) have some of the original story’s natural charm and merit. However, there is one annoying trend I have noticed. None of the women are anywhere near as badass or angry as they are in the original literature (except in Tennyson, where no one is angry, and everyone is really really tedious and moralising. Sorry Alfie T., but it’s true).
Morgan le Fay, quintessential sidelined angry lady who is up to all kinds of angry revenge-related capers in Malory is invariably fitted into the safe little box of dangerous sexy seductress in film and TV versions. In ‘The Sword of the Valiant’ she is typically comedy horny lady trapping knight (Gawain who is BTW her nephew but, you know… whatever) in her tent, in ‘Excalibur’ she is a little better, but really more totally bonkers than angry. Perhaps most irritatingly of all, the 2001 TV adaptation of ‘The Mists of Avalon’ tried so hard to make Morgaine likeable that she lost all of her righteous anger, and all of her power. Though Julianna Margulies made a sensitive, very sympathetic Morgaine, the adaptation from the book glossed over all of her more morally ambiguous deeds. The message is that a woman who behaves “badly” can’t be liked, won’t be liked by film and TV audiences. You can just about get away with it in a book, but not on screen.
Worst of all, of course, is Guinevere. In Chretien de Troyes Lancelot she’s constantly dissatisfied with her lover, bitchy, manipulative and demanding. And awesome. She don’t take no shit, you guys. In Malory, she rides into battle beside Arthur, makes a lot of important political decisions, and manages to nag her way out of a terrifying rape scenario. She’s fiery and headstrong and determined. She, like Chretien’s Guinevere, is also wild and jealous and demanding. She’s a powerful woman, and the history of readers of Malory and Chretien have proved that this is not always likeable. And what do we see when we see Guinevere on TV? Something entirely different. Marion Bradley sidelines her in ‘The Mists of Avalon’ understandably, but in the book she has a kind of attractive coldness about her. In the TV adaptation, she is a pouting wide-eyed ingenue, devoid of any kind of agency. In ‘King Arthur’ she gets to do a bit of fighting, but Keira Knightly, great beauty though she is, hardly embodies strength and military competence, and besides more emphasis was given to her hanging out in the bath and making moon eyes at Clive Owen. In Excalibur she barely speaks except to protest her innocence. We don’t see jealousy , or power, or plotting, or scheming, or brains or even any kind of real, raw emotion. TV and Film executives still think that this is distasteful, and we won’t want to watch women behaving this way. A man who does so is a man of strong and noble emotions. A woman is hysterical.
Thank God for Claire Underwood and Cersei Lannister. I truly hope that these two women – bitches who get shit done – presage a turn in our film and TV culture that allows women to be angry, to be powerful and to be independent. Allows us to like women because we respect them, because we are interested by them, not because they are “nice”. I truly, truly hope that this will mean that in the future we will be able to see the glorious women of Arthurian legend in all their various aspects. We will be allowed to decide whether we like them or not, not just to see them in the witch/maiden/whore roles that previous adaptations have tended towards. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, because we all deserve to see it.