There are very few things I like better in the television adaptation Game of Thrones than in the original source material. And when such a rare improvement does occur, the show has proven time and time again that it is more than capable of messing it up. One such thing is Margaery Tyrell. Although she has a large role in the show, her A Song of Ice and Fire counterpart features significantly less often. We never see the story from Margaery’s perspective, only from the perspective of others, and it’s from them that we are left to interpret her character.
Game of Thrones made her much more active in the story. This allowed the show to imprint on her a fascinating and cunning personality. I know I’m not the only one who was blown away by Margaery when Game of Thrones first introduced her—she’s a proponent for gay rights, sexually active, sure of herself, and smart enough to play the eponymous game of thrones. Of course we loved her. Unfortunately, this is still Game of Thrones. Margaery seemed amazing on the surface, but when you dig deeper, it’s clear she’s just another victim of Game of Thrones’s terrible misogynistic writing. Making her more active in the story is all well and good, but it came at the expense of Cersei’s characterization, because once again, the show completely failed to realize the original purpose of Margaery’s character.
It’s impossible to talk about A Song of Ice and Fire’s Margaery and why she’s important without talking about the other characters, simply because we rarely see her. Like Waymar Royce, we have to get to know her through other people’s eyes, and those people don’t have to necessarily like her.
We first hear of Margaery in the first book, when Renly Baratheon plots to remarry the king to her in order to remove Cersei from King’s Landing. Then, in the next book, we learn that Margaery ends up marrying Renly instead after Robert’s death. The Tyrells side with Renly during the War of the Five Kings and only switch over and align themselves with the Lannisters after Renly dies. Next, Margaery marries Joffrey, only for him to also be killed on the day of their wedding. Joffrey’s younger brother Tommen is her third spouse, and people worry that Margaery must be either cursed or exceedingly unlucky.
While in King’s Landing, Margaery spends her days out among the smallfolk, doing charity work. She’s kind and polite, taking Sansa in as a friend, and she cares about other people. One of the reasons the Lannisters agreed to marry her to Joffrey and then to Tommen is because Margaery’s a virgin. People readily believe her marriage to Renly was never consummated because Renly liked men. Even the day after her wedding to Renly, their bedsheets were clean. Her maidenhood comes up time and again throughout the series. She never slept with Joffrey since he died so quickly, Tommen’s too young to consummate their marriage, and although Margaery uses moon tea—a contraceptive—no one can prove that she’s ever had sex. Even the people Cersei sends to seduce Margaery fail in their attempts.
And that’s really about it. Other than what I just mentioned, Margaery spends a lot of time with her cousins and listens to bards. She constantly pushes for Tommen to be a more active ruler, but we don’t really learn more about her than that. Is she genuinely kind, or only pretending to be kind in order to garner support? We don’t know. Like Sansa, she remembers her words and her curtsies, and like Sansa, the people around her never truly learn what she thinks, which means we never truly learn either.
When it comes down to it, it’s very easy to mistake Margaery as uninteresting or as a wasted opportunity of a character. After all, she’s a fellow queen beside Cersei and her newfound royalty could easily change the power dynamic in King’s Landing. But she never really manages to do that. I can’t say that I was blown away by Margaery’s book counterpart when I first read the series. She’s just a young girl who gets married a bunch of different times and likes flowers—but then I realized that that’s kind of the point of her character. There’s nothing about her that makes her stand out all that much. She doesn’t even really function as a foil to Cersei by being a “good” queen to Cersei’s “bad” queen. Instead, her motivations are left somewhat ambiguous as a way to learn about Cersei’s internalized misogyny and paranoia.
In the show, because Tommen is not of age and Margaery is, when they are wed, Margaery replaces Cersei as Queen Regent. However, that is not how it happens in the books. Cersei rules despite their marriage, and she plans to rule until Tommen comes of age. As we get to learn more about Cersei and see inside her head, we find out that she suffers from paranoia. Growing up, Cersei and Jaime were treated very differently—she was never allowed to play with swords, always had to act certain ways, and was forced into certain gendered roles. And even after being crowned, people showed Robert and other men more respect than they ever showed her. Robert called her by another woman’s name on their wedding night and raped and abused her. Furthermore, as a child, Cersei met a woman named Maggy who prophesied all the bad things to come in Cersei’s life—that she’d outlive all her children, and that another queen would usurp her.
It’s not hard to see why Cersei’s paranoid, but she’s not just paranoid; she hates other women and quite possibly herself. Her internalized misogyny manifests in how she views and treats Margaery. Is Margaery kind? Cersei certainly doesn’t think so. She believes Margaery has come to steal her son and take over the throne, whether or not that’s true. And because it’s up to the audience to make that judgment from other people’s perspectives, that’s one of the reasons Margaery’s character works so well in the books. Her existence allows A Song of Ice and Fire to more deeply explore Cersei’s paranoia and internalized misogyny.
“You should have come with us, Your Grace,” the little schemer [Margaery] prattled on as they climbed the slope of Aegon’s High Hill. “We could have had such a lovely time together. The trees are gowned in gold and red and orange, and there are flowers everywhere. Chestnuts too. We roasted some on our way home.”
“I have no time for riding through the woods and picking flowers,” Cersei said. “I have a kingdom to rule.”
“Only one, Your Grace? Who rules the other six?” Margaery laughed a merry little laugh. “You will forgive my jest, I hope. I know what a burden you bear. You should let me share the load. There must be some things I could do to help you. It would put to rest all this talk that you and I are rivals for the king.”
“Is that what they say?” Cersei smiled. “How foolish. I have never looked on you as a rival, not even for a moment.”
“I am so pleased to hear that.” The girl did not seem to realize that she had been cut.
—A Feast for Crows, pg. 425
There’s no reason why anyone should suspect that Margaery is scheming against Cersei based on her outward disposition, but nevertheless, that’s the narrative Cersei presents us with. There’s only one interaction between the two where we know for sure that Margaery’s being honest. Cersei manages to frame Margaery and create doubt over her maidenhood. Then, Margaery is arrested and Cersei goes to visit her in prison. The two talk about Margaery proving her innocence through trial by combat. When Margaery says she wants her older brother Galan to be her champion, we get the following exchange.
“Ser Galan is not a member of the Kingsguard,” the queen [Cersei] said. “When the queen’s honor is at issue, law and custom require that her champion be one of the king’s sworn seven. The High Septon will insist, I fear.” I will make certain of it.
Margaery did not answer at once, but her brown eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Blount or Trant,” she said at last. “It would have to be one of them. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Osney Kettleblack would cut either one to pieces.”
Seven hells. Cersei donned a look of hurt. “You wrong me, daughter. All I want—”
“—is your son, all for yourself. He will never have a wife that you don’t hate. And I am not your daughter, thank the gods. Leave me.”
“You are being foolish. I am only here to help you.”
“To help me to my grave. I asked for you to leave. Will you make me call my gaolers and have you dragged away, you vile, scheming, evil bitch?”
—A Feast for Crows, pg. 650
Although Margaery drops her niceties with Cersei during this conversation, I think it’s interesting that she never once brings up a desire for power. Her concerns are foremost for her cousins, who have also been arrested, and the fact that there’s nothing she can do to make Cersei like her. By the time we reach this point in the story, it’s very clear that Margaery is intelligent and that she quite possibly does care greatly about other people. Cersei continuously pushes her aside, though, and tries to sabotage her, and it’s only when Cersei succeeds that Margaery stops trying to reach out.
Margaery’s kindness and the ambiguity of her character are important to the books, because without it, Cersei’s entire character changes. I’m sure there were ways Margaery could have been a more active player without Cersei’s characterization suffering, but this is Game of Thrones we’re talking about, and having two well-rounded female characters interact with each other while being consistent to their book counterparts is too much to ask.
When Game of Thrones made it clear that Margaery was cunning and vying for power, it also took away Cersei’s paranoia. In fact, watching the previous two seasons, there are very few things Cersei does that aren’t justified. Cersei’s worried for her underaged son? Well, she should be, because Margaery, an adult, statutory raped him. The show tried to downplay this by aging Tommen up, but he was still a child and it was still rape. Cersei’s worried that Margaery wants to take over? Well, yeah, Margaery is trying to do that. And even their exchanges together have been changed. Cersei may call Margaery a “whore” behind her back, but to each other’s faces, they switch back and forth from being openly hostile to friendly and understanding. In the books, the takeaway is that Cersei hates Margaery because Margaery might be the things Cersei fears. In the show, the takeaway is… I’m going to be honest, I have no idea. Cersei’s clearly a villain in the books, but in the show, Margaery’s character changes justify Cersei’s actions, making her an accidental protagonist—at least until the narrative remembers she’s supposed to be a villain and has her blow up the Sept.
As for Margaery, the early seasons were more consistent with her character. She may want power, but her kindness is genuine. That changes after her marriage to Tommen and she ends up raping him. She no longer uses her kindness as a shield and means to navigate a misogynistic world. Instead, she engages in misogyny herself, laughing at Cersei and dare I say it, acting “catty”. She doesn’t try to reach out to Cersei only to be pushed away. Margaery mocks her for losing her power and for having children with Jaime, and continuously brings up her own sexual activities with Tommen just to spite Cersei. Margaery’s interactions with Cersei are no longer an exploration of internalized misogyny, but actually misogynistic, because Game of Thrones certainly can’t be bothered to pay attention to what messages it’s sending its audience.
Margaery Tyrell started off Game of Thrones as a compelling and well-rounded character with recognizable motivations who wanted to do some good in the world. She was likable and fun. Then the show devolved and ruined her character while also ruining Cersei’s in the process. Although Margaery died in the Season 6 finale, we’ve yet to reach her death in the books, if it happens at all. Given that both she and Cersei have been charged with adultery and have upcoming trials, I can only hope that the books will continue their discussion of misogyny in a careful and respectful way. Part of me also really loves that we never see the world from her perspective, and that everyone else has to guess what she’s really after, while judging her due to their own biases and notions of gender roles. It is a type of characterization that Game of Thrones has no interest in portraying, and the only silver lining to the show’s take on Margaery is that she’s dead now and it can’t ruin her any further.