The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. In this week’s post Jeni Buckley considers the representations of motherhood and pregnancy in Game of Thrones
“For ourselves, for our house, for this”: Dialectics of Maternal Imagination in HBO’s Game of Thrones
Motherhood is a major trope of Game of Thrones, the narrative perhaps most famous for characters such as Daenerys Targaryen; ‘Mother of Dragons’, and Cersei Lannister; the sociopathic queen mother. The HBO television series, based on the novels of George R R Martin, is now a global obsession which arguably outstrips interest in Martin’s seven-book series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’. Academic interest in the phenomenon is also gaining momentum; this month will see the first international Game of Thrones conference at the University of Hertfordshire, where the George R. R. Martin Society will also be officially launched. My own interest in Game of Thrones centres on the way that pregnancy is presented in the series. For example, the seventh and most recent television installment of the franchise featured the announcement of Queen Cersei’s illegitimate and incestuous pregnancy with her brother-lover, Jamie Lannister. Given the show’s focus on the question of royal succession, it is perhaps inevitable that the issue of pregnancy receives attention; however I want to highlight the way that the representation of highborn pregnancy in the series is part of a wider discourse of maternal imagination and responsibility.
In my recent book, Gender, Pregnancy and Power in Eighteenth-Century Literature, I examine the discourse of maternal imagination – the notion that a pregnant woman could alter the development of the foetus with the power of her thoughts and feelings. Although my research focuses on eighteenth-century flashpoints, the discourse of maternal imagination stretches from pre-classical antiquity and extends to the present day. The study considers agency, or, more specifically, the denial of the human subject as an agent of change, with particular attention to the cultural power of the pregnant woman. My argument does not pretend to resolve the complex matter of agency, but rather tests agency through discourse. While the discourse of maternal imagination meant that an expectant mother could be held responsible for her child’s perceived defects, it could also be employed by the mother for her own empowerment. Cersei (Baratheon-) Lannister’s announcement of her pregnancy in episode six of Game of Thrones season seven is a clear example of the latter.
Infamously manipulative and ruthless, Cersei is an active shaper of events with an extraordinary history of maneuvering her children for Lannister political power. When Cersei’s brother and commander of house Lannister forces is convinced that the Lannisters are doomed to lose the war for the crown, Cersei reveals to her brother Jamie that she is pregnant with his child. The war must be fought and won, she declares quietly, “For ourselves, for our house, for this”. On the final word, Cersei places both hands on her stomach and looks challengingly at Jamie. Close-ups of both characters’ faces depict a rapid silent interchange regarding this revelation of the queen’s pregnancy. The message is clear: if Jamie will not win the war for political gain, he must surely win it for their unborn baby. Moreover, Cersei’s double-handed gesture, which suggests her fanatical
commitment to the care of her children (a theme that has run throughout the series), intimates the discourse of maternal imagination. To deny Cersei’s request to continue fighting, her raised chin implies, would be to endanger her emotional state and therefore risk the health of the foetus. As understanding dawns, Jamie’s look of pride and pleasure signals his changing priorities – which now align with Cersei’s – and the scene ends with the pregnant woman’s instructions: “never betray me again”, which neatly mirror the agenda behind the entire conversation.
While viewer debate rages regarding whether Cersei is in fact pregnant or simply using the ambiguity of early gestation to manipulate her brother, the show nevertheless harnesses the discourse of maternal imagination to emphasise feminine agency through pregnancy. The scene is particularly interesting when compared with an earlier portrayal of Daenerys Targaryen’s pregnancy with her horse-lord husband, Khal Drogo’s son in season one. Inducted by marriage into a nomadic tribe called the Dothraki, Daenerys is forced by cultural custom to eat a raw horse’s heart in order to secure the health and honour of her as-yet unborn child. The connection between the mother’s strength and the foetus’ well-being is underscored in this ritual, and forms part of a wider culture of maternal responsibility. As the wife of the Khal, she undertakes this grisly task in public and is thus under scrutiny from the tribe. This scene first attracted my attention as it seemed to be a curious reversal of a common component of the discourse of maternal imagination. Usually, a pregnant woman is attributed with having powerful cravings or ‘longings’ for specific objects; famous eighteenth-century examples often include expensive, exotic or rare products such as pineapples. Declaring a maternal longing emphasises the agency of the pregnant woman; cultural wisdom dictates that she cannot be denied or her baby may be negatively affected. However, Daenerys does not claim to have longings, but is instead forced to take gory maternal responsibility by eating a horse’s heart. The same logic which bestows agency onto an expectant mother with longings, in this case controls the actions of the pregnant woman through social pressure. High born and ‘Western’, Daenerys is clearly repulsed by eating the enormous heart yet valiantly struggles comply with Dothraki cultural dictates. At one point she gags and regurgitates a bloody ventricle into her closed mouth. The Dothraki audience falls silent and waits to see if she will vomit; if she does, she will have failed and her baby will not be worthy of the tribe. A frenzy of celebration ensues after the pregnant woman triumphantly re-swallows the raw meat. Yet despite this striking proof of Daenerys’ protection of her baby, when she eventually gives birth to a stillborn child, the plot-line stresses her culpability for the tragedy.
These two scenes from Game of Thrones draw upon a dialectic of maternal imagination. Although the unrelenting link between mother and foetus can be a source of power, it simultaneously places blame for any misfortune firmly upon the pregnant woman. Both scenes play with connotations of maternal character and female agency to augment and problematise the intense plot twists that so grip the show’s viewers. My research explores fundamental questions about female intellect that arose as part of the discourse of maternal imagination during the eighteenth century, yet as the representation of pregnancy in Game of Thrones suggests, the discourse has lasting resonance for present-day popular culture.
Jeni Buckley is the author of Gender, Pregnancy and Power in Eighteenth-Century Literature: The Maternal Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). In 2014 she completed her PhD on the discourse of maternal imagination at the University of Southampton and in 2015 was awarded the Hester Davenport-Burney Society Fellowship at Chawton House Library. Jeni is the author of the articles ‘“Bankrupt in all but my good wishes”: Speculative Economics in Cleomelia; Or, The Generous Mistress’ in The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies (2014), and ‘“’Tis My Father’s Fault”: Tristram Shandy and Paternal Imagination’ in The Male Body in Medicine and Literature (forthcoming). She is currently working on political economy in the novels of Frances Burney and teaches English at Warden Park Academy in West Sussex.
 Game of Thrones, Season Seven, Episode 5, Eastwatch. 2017. HBO. 13th August 2017; 21:00.