So, in the most recent episode of Game of Thrones, “High Sparrow”, Margaery and Tommen had sex. They consummated their marriage, they did the do, she made him a man. Whatever. It was sex, it was unambiguous, it was…. problematic.
How old is Tommen? The actor who plays him was sixteen at the time of filming, but that means nothing. In season one, his age was stated as eight, so if we assume that each season in show time is a year in Wes-turd-ros time (an assumption that has its own problems but that’s the assumption they seem to want me to make, so I’ll go with it) that mean a little more than four years have passed, which would make him…. twelve. Maybe thirteen. Myrcella is fifteen (in the show), and it’s kind of important that she’s older than him, so he must be, at most, fourteen. Let’s aim for moderation, as we should in all things, and assume he’s thirteen.
How old is Marg Boleyn? Well, Natalie Dormer is thirty-two, but I sincerely doubt her character is suppose to be that age. But she’s also clearly not the sixteen of her canon counterpart. Most people seem fine with the assumption that she’s in her mid-twenties or so, but in any case, it’s clear that she’s emotionally and physically a fully mature, grown woman, as well as a woman who is being portrayed as quite sexually experienced.
So we’ve got a thirteen-year-old and an adult in her mid-twenties, having sex. Having sex as a means for the adult to coerce and manipulate the child.
This is abusive.
I’m not going to waste my time arguing about statutory rape, or plain old rape, or sexual abuse, or the difference between those terms or their applicability to this situation, because it really doesn’t matter. No matter what you call it, this situation is CLEARLY not an healthy expression of sexuality and it’s CLEARLY a case of a character, a child character, being exploited.
And this is bad enough, but to really explain why I find this development upsetting I’m going to have to discuss at some length the fundamental differences between the relationship between Margaery and Tommen as presented in A Song of Ice and Fire and how it’s presented in Game of Thrones, and the function of the relationship in those two works, because it’s just one more example of how this television show consistently fails to display the sensitivity and nuance of its source material.
Margaery Tyrell in the novels is the only daughter and fourth child of Mace Tyrell. She is sixteen and she is a secondary character that provides two functions: to be a serial virgin bride and political commodity, and to be a focal point for Cersei’s growing paranoia. She believes Margaery to be the “younger, more beautiful queen” from Maggy the Frog’s prophecy, and she is determined to remove that threat.
Margaery herself, as a character, is rather opaque to us. It’s kind of hard to tell if she’s just a silly teenager who likes to hang out with her friends and listen to happening harp music, or if she really is the scheming Queen Bee that Cersei thinks she is.
She was certainly consciously involved involved in manipulating Sansa when the Tyrells thought they could use her by marrying her to Willas, and Margaery certainly dropped Sansa without a thought after she was no longer useful. Margaery was also probably aware of what was going down at the Purple Wedding, given that she and Joffrey were drinking out of the same chalice and she didn’t get poisoned. But other than that, we almost always see her through Cersei’s POV, and Cersei has a tendency to paint her in the worst light possible.
“Later, after sweets and nuts and cheese had been served and cleared away, Margaery and Tommen began the dancing, looking more than a bit ridiculous as they whirled about the floor.
The Tyrell girl stood a good foot and a half taller than her little husband, and Tommen was a clumsy dancer at best, with none of Joffrey’s easy grace. He did his earnest best, though, and seemed oblivious to the spectacle he was making of himself. And no sooner was Maid Margaery done with him than her cousins swooped in, one after the other, insisting that His Grace must dance with them as well. They will have him stumbling and shuffling like a fool by the time they’re done, Cersei thought resentfully as she watched. Half the court will be laughing at him behind his back.”
Margaery also serves to highlight Cersei’s internalized misogyny, as Cersei shows no empathy for Margaery’s possible extra-marital sexual activity, despite the fact that she has had extramarital lovers herself, and delights in the thought of her being humiliated.
“The little queen has appetites that Tommen is as yet too young to satisfy.” That was always a danger, when a grown woman was married to a child. Even more so with a widow. She may claim that Renly never touched her, but I will not believe it. Women only drank moon tea for one reason; maidens had no need for it at all. “My son has been betrayed. Margaery has a lover. That is high treason, punishable by death.” She could only hope that Mace Tyrell’s prune-faced harridan of a mother lived long enough to see the trial. By insisting that Tommen and Margaery be wed at once, Lady Olenna had condemned her precious rose to a headsman’s sword.”
“Perhaps they were deceived as well, my lord,” said Septa Moelle. “I cannot speak to this. I can only swear to the truth of what I discovered for myself when I examined the queen.”
The picture of this sour old crone poking her wrinkled fingers up Margaery’s little pink cunt was so droll that Cersei almost laughed.”
Maegaery isn’t entirely innocent of snark and manipulation. She does take several opportunities to toss some shade at Cersei.
“No man will stand before him.” Margaery Tyrell gave the queen a coy smile. “But I never knew that King Robert was so accomplished at the joust. Pray tell us, Your Grace, what tourneys did he win? What great knights did he unseat? I know the king should like to hear about his father’s victories.”
A flush crept up Cersei’s neck. The girl had caught her out. Robert Baratheon had been an indifferent jouster, in truth. During tourneys he had much preferred the mêlée, where he could beat men bloody with blunted axe or hammer. It had been Jaime she had been thinking of when she spoke.
It also seems to be the case that she is making an effort to ingratiate herself onto Tommen, although it’s sometimes a little hard to tell the difference between that and just reasonable advice one might give an eight-year-old monarch, one whose mother and regent is doing everything to keep sheltered.
“Wherever she went, the smallfolk fawned on her, and Lady Margaery did all she could to fan their ardor. She was forever giving alms to beggars, buying hot pies off bakers’ carts, and reining up to speak to common tradesmen.
Had it been up to her, she would have had Tommen doing all these things as well. […] “Do you remember the day your sister sailed for Dorne?” Cersei asked her son. “Do you recall the mob howling on our way back to the castle? The stones, the curses?”
But the king was deaf to sense, thanks to his little queen. “If we mingle with the commons, they will love us better.”
“The mob loved the fat High Septon so well they tore him limb from limb, and him a holy man,” she reminded him. All it did was make him sullen with her. Just as Margaery wants, I wager. Every day in every way she tries to steal him from me. Joffrey would have seen through her schemer’s smile and let her know her place, but Tommen was more gullible. She knew Joff was too strong for her, Cersei thought, remembering the gold coin Qyburn had found. For House Tyrell to hope to rule, he had to be removed.”
“The king was pouting. “I want to sit on the Iron Throne,” he told her. “You always let Joff sit up there.”
“Joffrey was twelve.”
“But I’m the king. The throne belongs to me.”
“Who told you that?” Cersei took a deep breath, so Dorcas could lace her up more tightly. She was a big girl, much stronger than Senelle, though clumsier as well.
Tommen’s face turned red. “No one told me.”
“No one? Is that what you call your lady wife?” The queen could smell Margaery Tyrell all over this rebellion. “If you lie to me, I will have no choice but to send for Pate and have him beaten till he bleeds.” Pate was Tommen’s whipping boy, as he had been Joffrey’s. “Is that what you want?”
“No,” the king muttered sullenly.
“Who told you?”
He shuffled his feet. “Lady Margaery.” He knew better than to call her queen in his mother’s hearing.
“That is better. Tommen, I have grave matters to decide, matters that you are far too young to understand. I do not need a silly little boy fidgeting on the throne behind me and distracting me with childish questions. I suppose Margaery thinks you ought to be at my council meetings too?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “She says I have to learn to be king.”
“When you are older, you can attend as many councils as you wish,” Cersei told him. “I promise you, you will soon grow sick of them. Robert used to doze through the sessions.”
Margaery also leads an incredibly constrained and controlled life. As well as having literal guards around her vagina, she seems to make a conscious effort to behave in a way that can be described as “idealized maidenhood”. Her life is centred around female companionship, prayer, music, and needlework. She sometimes goes for rides in the countryside around King’s Landing (always properly accompanied) to be visible to the people of the city and she makes a point to be publicly associated with the concept of pious virginity.
“Fast and purify … oh, for Maiden’s Day. It had been years since Cersei had been required to observe that particular holy day. Thrice wed, yet she still would have us believe she is a maid. Demure in white, the little queen would lead her hens to Baelor’s Sept to light tall white candles at the Maiden’s feet and hang parchment garlands about her holy neck. A few of her hens, at least. On Maiden’s Day widows, mothers, and whores alike were barred from the septs, along with men, lest they profane the sacred songs of innocence. Only virgin maids could …
Even the way she flirts with men and is an object of unattainable sexual desire plays into this performance, and to the general fetishization of virginity that seems to exist in the Westerosi mind.
It’s also worth noting Margaery makes her home in the “Maidenvault”. So called because it was the part of the Red Keep where the pious King Baelor I imprisoned his three sisters for ten years “so the sight of them might not tempt him into carnal thoughts”.
Needless to say, her relationship with Tommen is not in any way sexually charged, or even physical. Even as her mother and grandmother are insisting that the newlyweds sleep in the same bed on their wedding night, it’s far more like a slumber party than a honeymoon.
“Husband and wife should sleep together,” the Queen of Thorns had said, “even if they do no more than sleep. His Grace’s bed is big enough for two, surely.” Lady Alerie had echoed her good-mother. “Let the children warm each other in the night. It will bring them closer. Margaery oft shares her blankets with her cousins. They sing and play games and whisper secrets to each other when the candles are snuffed out.”
Their interactions also come across as having a dynamic you would expect from a nanny and her charge.
Across the yard, some squire had made a pass at the quintain and sent the crossarm spinning. The cheers were being led by Margaery Tyrell and her hens. A lot of uproar for very little. You would think the boy had won a tourney. Then she was startled to see that it was Tommen on the courser, clad all in gilded plate.
“You were glorious.” Margaery went to one knee, kissed the king upon his cheek, and put an arm around him. “Brother, take care,” she warned Loras. “My gallant husband will be unhorsing you in a few more years, I think.” Her three cousins all agreed, and the wretched little Bulwer girl began to hop about, chanting, “Tommen will be the champion, the champion, the champion.”
The most viable symbol of the control that Margaery has over Tommen and his affections is the three kittens that she gives to him as a gift, that he names “Ser Pounce”, “Boots,” and “Lady Whiskers.”
Margaery’s clumsy attempts at seduction were so obvious as to be laughable. Tommen is too young for kisses, so she gives him kittens.
When it came time to adapt this relationship for representation on Game of Thrones, there were several decisions that were made that completely altered its dynamic, and its function in the story.
The first was a decision that was already made in season 2, Margaery’s opaque character was made unambiguous. More than that, they chose a direction for her character that quite closely aligned with Cersei’s paranoia-influenced perception of her. This Margaery is scheming, passive-aggressive, and very conscious of the effect her sexuality has on others. They also significantly increased her age.
The Burrito Dress is Everything.
It’s fair enough that the showrunners had to pick an interpretation of her character and go with it, opacity of this kind is much more difficult in a visual medium them it is in a novel like A Feast for Crows, but it’s worth noting that the interpretation that they chose rather betrays their priorities.
Firstly, they wanted a character who could behave in provocative manner, who can be unambiguously a sexual being. This was partly to titillate, but also make it so that the character conforms to their rather narrow notion of what female characters should be, they cannot be passive, or conciliating, they must be in someway active, whether literally physically active, as with Brienne or Arya, or active by manipulating those around them and scheming for power in the “game of thrones”.
Secondly, knowing as the did the direction the character was to take in source material, they wanted to create an adversary for the show version of Cersei (hereafter called “Carol”) that was not only “worthy” but whose behaviour would allow them to pain their obviously more favoured character in a better light.
It was not in keeping with the show runner’s goal for the character of Carol to have her persecute a young girl whose motives are so possibly innocent and whose agency is limited at best, so Margaery Boleyn must be a grown woman, she must be sexualized, and she must be unambiguously a manipulator.
But this creates a bit of an inconsistency for the narrative, especially in season five. Margaery’s stated goal is to become queen. She is queen, so why does she WANT to dislodge Carol? She shows no interest in wielding political power, neither for its own sake nor for any stated political agenda. So she wants social status, she has it, how is Carol in her way exactly? This leaves us with the impression that she is being mean to Carol simply because she cannot have any social rivals whatsoever. They are clinging to their chosen interpretation of the character as a manipulator, apparently for its own sake, without thought to the impact this characterization should have to the narrative. Hardly an empowering characterization for a progressive television show.
The reasons for the changes to Tommen’s character are more troubling. As stated before, in the source material, Tommen is eight years old. He was recast for season four by an actor who was fifteen at the time. (He is currently seventeen, and was sixteen at the time of shooting season 5) I struggle for any explanation as to why they decided to make this casting change (from the previous actor who was a few years younger) unless it was BECAUSE they wanted to have the character become involved in a physical relationship.
Within the situation they’ve created, it does make sense that Tommen would be expected to “consummate his marriage” at the age of thirteen, in fact, it would be rather odd if this wasn’t the case, but the fact is that this is a situation of their own making. They could have stuck more closely to the source material and cast an actor who could have passed for ten or eleven, and given how flexible the timeline seems to be, it would have presented no more problems for them then the choice to have him portrayed by a sixteen year old actor. They could have chosen to completely remove sex as a possibility in this situation, they chose the opposite.
Why? What does it add to the story that Margaery is manipulating Tommen in a sexual manner, rather than by being his buddy and giving him kittens? In both situations, she can drive a wedge between Carol and her son, and cause Tommen to value her over his mother, something that, at least according to Cersei, she accomplished quite well in A Feast for Crows, so why was it necessary to adapt this relationship to make it sexual? Was it to titillate? Was it to make Carol more justified in her antagonism towards Margaery Boleyn? It certainly more understandable that a mother would want to remove a rival who is sexually expoilting her child, than one who is manipulating him by being nice to him.
Their dynamic thus far is very unequal. He is naive, trusting, and clearly emotional immature (that is, he has not reached the emotional maturity of an adult, his level of maturity is fine for a thirteen-year-old). She is clearly an adult, in full control of the situation. She is talking down to him, I would go so far as to describe her manner as patronizing.
The relationship between Margaery and Tommen as it stands in episode three is one that I find very difficult to know what to feel about because the showrunners don’t seem to realize the abusive implications of the relationship and it’s dynamic.
Tommen seems quite taken with his bride, and it’s not unreasonable that a young boy who’s at the age where he’s beginning to understand his own sexuality would find an attractive older woman fascinating. This kind of craving for adult attention is one of the things that sexual predators often exploit. It’s not even unreasonable that he would express joy and pleasure, again not an uncommon reaction for victims of this kind of abuse. But that the showrunners would choose to proceed this way is troubling.
The fact is, this show is not produced in a cultural vacuum. In our own society, there is often reluctance to take the sexual abuse of children seriously when the victim is a boy and the perpetrator is an attractive woman. Some even go so far as to say that boys in these situations are “lucky”, presumably because these attractive women are desired by adult men. So given that, a depiction of this kind of abusive situation in any popular media must be handled with special sensitivity. And I’m not at all convinced that they did that.
When I closely examine how the entire situation is framed within episode 3, I can find little evidence that this is a situation that is meant to be examined and challenged. Tommen, directly after sex, immediately starts talking about the experience in a way that highlights his sexual inexperience. “It all happened so fast,” (to which she kind of knowingly giggles and says “yes”) “did I hurt you,[…] I was scared maybe I hurt you”. The rather straightforward way in which it was filmed, without any of the visual cues directors often use to signal discomfort to the audience, and especially Natalie Dormer’s performance, gives the impression that this is meant to be been seen as cute, or even funny. Tommen’s declaration that “this is all I want to do” and his gushing over Margaery’s beauty is probably the clearest indication that we’re meant to take a light hearted approach to this.
In the following scene, Carol and Tommen are discussing his new marriage. The primary concern that Carol seems to have is to ascertain the extent to which Margaery’s new position had damaged her own ability to influence Tommen. She goes so far as to rather unsubtlely try to minimize her rival’s good qualities, “Do you think she’s intelligent? I can’t quite tell… Not that it matters.” She certainly doesn’t show any concern for the potential harm that might be done to her son, emotionally or psychologically, by Margaery’s manipulations.
This might not mean much for the viewer. Carol, while she is a much less selfish and cruel person than her canon counterpart, is hardly presented as the best mother. But the following scene adds to the impression that it is Carol, rather than Tommen, who we are suppose to see as being the loser in this situation.
The next scene opens with Margaery talking about her wedding night with her ladies. Again, Tommen’s inexperience, especially as contrasted with Margaery’s easy sexual confidence, is seen by the characters as amusing, or at the very least, as typical boyish behaviour. Margaery’s interaction with Carol in this scene are hardly subtle, either. She makes more than one passive-aggressive dig at the other woman, about her increasingly obvious alcohol dependency and her age, “the Queen Mother will be a Queen Grandmother soon”, and she constantly telegraphs the sexual nature of her relationship with Tommen and contrasts it to Carol’s now defunct role as a mother and a queen.
Carol’s unfailing politeness, and Lena Headey’s performance, with it’s tangible air of sadness, followed by laughter and an ominous swell of music as she leaves, leave little doubt that the viewer is meant to sympathize with her in this situation, as a woman who is watching all her influence with her son being taken away by her rival, who seems very conscious of her actions.
It’s not clear to me at all that Tommen’s victimization in this situation is even something that those involved in creating the episode were aware of or considered. These three scene are about how Carol is being victimized by Margaery, not how a child is being victimized by an adult.
And given how petty the stakes between Carol and Margaery seem to be (slightly increased social influence), it makes the choice of focal point all the more disturbing. And it hardly speaks well of the characterization of women on the show in general.
I can’t help but contrast the focus here with a situation in the novels that is arguable similar. In A Feast for Crows a point of view character, Arianne, uses sex to manipulate another point of view character, Arys Oakheart. Ser Arys is a grown man, and the author seems to be, in general, quite sympathetic to Arianne’s motivations for manipulating him in the first place, and they’re certainly more broad minded in scope than Carol and Margaery’s preoccupation with social status. But Arys’s victimization in this scenario is handled with far greater awareness and sensitivity than Tommen’s in this episode.
Arys’s point of view makes it abundantly clear that her manipulation, of both his sexual desires and his genuine feelings for her, are causing him a great deal of emotional distress. And when the situation is resolved with the tragic death of Arys as a direct result of Arianne’s manipulation, neither the reader nor she as a character is allowed to forget it. Even as she becomes arguably more sympathetic with every chapter, her moral culpability in that situation is never excused and his victimization is never dismissed or downplayed.
When this is contrasted to the way that Tommen’s feelings and vulnerabilities as a child in an abusive relationship are more or less ignored, except in how it relates to the fact that he’s a pawn in what is essentially a catfight between two grown women, it really serves to highlight how the adaptation is failing to live up to the morally challenging and nuanced tone of its source material.
It’s more than possible that this issue will be explored in subsequent episodes during the course of the season, and that will go some small way towards redeeming their attitude in this episode. But as far as this episode is concerned, the show utterly failed to show this situation for how abusive and morally questionable it is.
The show’s playing into the very culturally relevant and potentially damaging idea that young boys should be grateful and happy for the attention of older women, that such boys are “lucky”, is really inexcusable. And so is their choice to shove him aside in favour of focusing on Carol and HER “victimizeation”.
It shows an appalling lack of both judgement and taste.
“Trading Kittens for Coitus: The Adaptation of Margaery and Tommen in Game of Thrones” ©theculturalvacuum, originally posted 20 April 2015