On Dowager Countesses and Queens of Thorns

The Queen of Thorns givin' the sass

Olenna ‘Queen of Thorns’ Redwyne, sassing Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones.

We love them, don’t we? The old biddies carrying AK-47s of wit and scatter-bombs of scathing put-downs, but… lately, I’m getting depressed by it all. I’m depressed because of why we love these women and why we allow them to say the things that would never be given to a younger woman to say.

They’re a stereotype just as much as the whore with a heart of gold (Inara, Ros, Shae). Don’t believe me? I searched on ‘Queen of Thorns’ in Google Image Search (gif format) and got as many images of the Dowager Countess as I did Olenna Redwyne. By the Dowager Countess, I of course mean Violet Crawley from Downton Abbey. That’s her on the lower right.

The Dowager Countess

The Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley

We love her because she says the things no one else will say. We love her because she’s a woman who’s not afraid to use her voice and speak her mind. And even if what’s on her mind is kind of rude, we don’t mind, because she phrases her put-downs with such style. We’re titilated and refreshed and we say to each other: ‘I love her! I love that she can get away with that!’

But let’s take a step back and examine this. Why is it that a Dowager Countess or a Queen of Thorns can get away with things that other people can’t? The clue’s in the name. They’re both extremely wealthy, titled, widowed, very well-educated women. They’re also both white. They’ve basically won the circumstance jackpot in every way except being female. So what have they got that, for instance, Cersei Lannister, Queen Regent, theoretically more powerful and wealthy than either one, hasn’t? The answer? They’re too old to be used for their beauty or their capacity to breed. Cersei thinks the best tool she has is between her legs, but in reality, that’s as ripe for use by others as it is for her own ends. In this week’s episode, Cersei’s beauty is used by Tywin as a selling point in the marriage he wants to arrange with the Tyrells. And it is countered by Olenna because Cersei’s fertility is more limited than that of a younger woman. Cersei is learning the hard way that trying to play the game on patriarchy’s terms is a game she can only lose, as her value is defined in a patriarchy based on her attractiveness and ability to breed. When Tywin insists that she will marry Loras Tyrell, all she can say is ‘No, please, don’t make me do it again’.

So, we’re meant to celebrate Olenna as a contrast. All hail the matriarchy! But is it really? Olenna’s freedom is founded in her being past breeding age and youthful beauty. She jokes with Varys that any flirtation between them is pointless, because she is too old and he is a eunuch, but it’s a truth. They are both privileged by being outsiders to the sexual game, and they both suffer for lack of sexual value as well. Margaery Tyrell is hailed as her protégé, but in the end she must still woo Joffrey. He may not be particularly interested in her beauty, but it makes her an eligible match and a political mover to rival Cersei. And though she may have shown herself more skilled at manipulating Joffrey, in the end it is only that she discovered that he had more unusual buttons that needed to be pressed, and she will only ever have power through him.

I just…

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with characters like Olenna Redwyne and Violet Crawley. I just find it really depressing that they’re being celebrated as matriarchs and game players when they really haven’t broken out of the patriarchy at all. And even on our supposedly enlightened (ha ha) twenty-first century screen, they are only allowed to give such good ‘sass’ because they fit the stereotype for older, wealthy, white, educated, noble women. All that wry wit that’s been flowing from Tyrion, Varys, Littlefinger, even Tywin… that’s the political moving and shaking and educated wit of wealthy white men, who can come from whatever background they like (Littlefinger and Varys are not noble-born), have whatever sexual proclivities they like (Littlefinger and Tyrion can associate with whores without shame – Tywin’s attitude towards Tyrion would be nothing to how Cersei would be treated were all her indiscresions known*, and his whoring around hasn’t seemed to hold him back with anyone else). Cersei tries her hand at biting wit, but it is always edged with bitterness and uncertainty. She folds under Tywin’s gaze because she knows that, ultimately, as a woman in her prime, she has no power that is not rooted in her beauty and her fertility.

As for poor women or women of colour… they haven’t got a hope in hell. You thought Ros was witty, maybe? But never with any real power or assurance. She may have thought that when she moved to taking care of Littlefinger’s books she gained some more power, but it was never enough to set her free of him, never enough to protect her.  As for Shae? She is completely dependent on Tyrion’s protection and patronage, and though he may love her he never lets her forget it. Would you consider any of Daenerys’s Dothraki attendants witty? They barely have personalities beyond mindlessly muttering ‘it is known’. Daenerys herself is almost always required to be too serious to get away with wit, and at every turn she is called ‘whore’ or worse. I’m not saying the show isn’t critical of this, it is, and Daenerys in Game of Thrones makes a far more powerful feminist character than she does in the books. It’s just… I don’t feel like hailing the Queen of Thorns as some great victory. And I’m uncomfortable with this trend towards endearingly cutting biddies. Because they’re allowed to be cutting only because they are viewed as harmless. It doesn’t matter what they say because they are women who have outlived their sexual usefulness.

I don’t want to have to wait until I’m 70 to speak my mind. I don’t want the actors I watch have to wait until they’re 70 to get the roles where they get to portray women who speak their minds.

I don’t like that women who speak their minds in their older years are regarded as ‘treasures’ because they’re so ‘precious’ being allowed to get away with scheming and criticising men only because men sort of enjoy being taken down by an old woman. I don’t like that a woman speaking her mind in this way is seen as ‘getting away with it’, like she snuck it under the rug. They’re still not being taken seriously. And, as we see, although Olenna is allowed to take down Tyrion and to best Varys, when she comes to spar with the great patriarch, Tywin Lannister, she loses. Because an older woman with some spirit in her is a delight, but an older man is serious business.

*I’m being circumspect, here. Others who have read all the books may read between the lines.

7 thoughts on “On Dowager Countesses and Queens of Thorns

  1. Excellent point, well made. I first became aware of this trope as a kid through Olympia Dukakis’s Ouisa from “Steel Magnolias” and Sophia from “The Golden Girls.” Her sassy grey-haired kin are everywhere, from the “Where’s the Beef” commercial lady to Maxine, the greeting card mascot.

    • Thanks – and thanks for the other examples. I knew there were others, I just couldn’t bring them to mind. I checked TV Tropes, but they Had Violet Crawley under Grand Dame, which under the definition given didn’t seem to fit.

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