“A time comes when the female sex is honoured;
That old discordant slander
Shall no more hold us subject.
Male poets of past ages, with their ballads
Of faithless women, shall go out of fashion.”
In this post, I’ll try to flesh out a trope which I call the “female tragic hero” by looking at three characters from fairly different sources: Euripides’ eponymous Medea, Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones, and Alicia Florrick from The Good Wife. In part I, I will give a brief summary of each character’s story, which will set the stage for parts II and III, where I will try to explain why I think they deserve the status of “tragic hero”.
Any analysis that tries to compare different characters is bound to work by emphasizing some facts while suppressing others. We can only hope that at the end, the totality is compelling.
Part I: Who are these “female tragic heroes”?
Although the three characters to be analysed are from as different backgrounds as conceivable- Medea is from ancient Greece, Alicia Florrick is from 21st century Chicago, and Cersei Lannister is from the fictional world of Westeros- in this section, I will try to show their stories have a surprising amount of similarities.
First, all three stories begin with them being mistreated by their husbands in some way (The chorus in Medea can be saying “What man’s not guilty? It’s taken you a long time to learn” to any one of them). Medea has just learnt that her husband Jason is planning to abandon her to marry into the royal family of Corinth. Apart from it being a betrayal of their marriage, it also prompts the king of Corinth to banish Medea and her children from his city, out of fear of retaliation. In Cersei’s case, we learn in the first episode that her relationship with her husband is strained (as seen when Robert goes to see Lyana’s tomb despite Cersei asking him to wait) and later see Robert drunkenly feeling-up a serving woman while Cersei watches. We later learn (in the books) that her marriage is incredibly abusive, but we forget this aspect easily because later in the first episode we learn about her incestuous relationship with her brother, and obviously incest is a bigger deal than “usual” marital problems. And finally, The Good Wife starts off with Alicia standing next to her husband at a press conference where he is apologizing for sleeping with hookers (allegedly) using government funds (see below).
In all three cases, our first encounter with the character involves both a betrayal of a sexual kind by their husbands, and subsequent shame because everyone else knows about it. Hence, this is a case of shame in the private lives on public display, or as Barthes put it, the “emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, [the] exhaustion of the content by the form.”
However, in all three cases, these are not women who are content with despairing debilitation. Instead, each of them violates the specific gendered norms they have been acquiescing in until now, taking on a more masculine role to finally follow up on their latent ambitions. Medea plots and schemes, and we remember this isn’t dishonorable in ancient Greece, after all scheming Odysseus is a favorite of Athena precisely for this reason. Cersei places more and more of a central role in the male-dominated world of Westerosi politics after killing her husband, while Alicia enters the job market after 13 years as a stay-at-home mom.
It’s important to remember that although each of them is entering a male-dominated sphere, they never give up their femininity; in fact, it is strongly suggested that their fully conscious use of both male and female traits is precisely that which makes them successful in their endeavors. Medea kills, but using poison, the most stereotypically female method of killing. Cersei displays awareness that the tools available to her are atypical when she pointedly tells Sansa “tears are not a woman’s only weapon. You’ve got another one between your legs, and you’d best learn to use it”, and her dexterity in manipulating gender norms is apparent when she mocks Robert with “I should wear the armor and you the gown”. Alicia gains a reputation for being good with clients because of her willingness to hand-hold, but she also gains a rep for being cut-throat when necessary. Each of these characters has to vie with male antagonists (and allies) who underestimate them because of their sex, and usually end up regretting it.
Part II: What makes them tragic heroes?
Now to what makes each of these characters “tragic”. Medea kills off the king of Corinth and his daughter by gifting poisoned golden clothing, and then proceeds to kill off her own sons in desperation to cause Jason as much pain as possible. At the end of the play, although she manages to get away to safety, she is bereft of anyone who she loves, and has to carry the guilt of filicide with her until she dies.
Cersei destroys the Sept of Baelor, and along with it, a massive number of people who opposed her, which enables her to effortlessly ascend to the Iron Throne. However, Tommen (her only child alive), overwhelmed by grief, throws himself off his tower when he sees what his mother has done (after all, “what good is power if you cannot protect the ones you love?”), leaving Cersei all alone with the power she’s always wanted.
The Good Wife starts with the press conference where Alicia’s husband admits to hiring hookers. Immediately afterwards, Alicia slaps him and thus begins a process of self-discovery and change. In the series finale, Alicia comes full circle and gets slapped by one of the few friends she has, Diane, in response to Alicia exposing Diane’s husband’s infidelity at court to win a case. Alicia has become more like her husband over the seven seasons, and is now willing to treat the people who are close to her as collateral in her quest for what she wants. Apart from the realization that she’s slowly lost the moral core she started off with, she also has to face the facts that she lost her husband, her lover, her job, and has few friends to speak of.
We notice that in every case, the final tragedy is the same: being alone. It’s hard to escape the realization that this seems like such a tragedy in no small part because these are women; the solitary male is far too accepted a trope to be an object of pity.
Part III: What makes them tragic heroes?
Part II might make a decent case for these characters as being tragic, but why are they tragic heroes? To see this, let’s think about the paradigmatic tragic hero, Oedipus. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus the king of Thebes is trying to find the cause of the plague that is affecting his city. Disregarding the pleas of the seer Tiresias, he boldly pushes forth to the truth, until he finds that he is himself, in fact, the cause of the rot. His wife-mother Jocasta kills herself, and he blinds himself for the abominable acts of patricide and incest. While Oedipus is clearly a case of tragedy we notice that Oedipus doesn’t actually do anything that he is culpable for in the moral sense, that is, he didn’t knowingly commit any of the immoral acts he is punished for. In fact, his actions were noble and befitting a good ruler, in how he unflinchingly and without hesitation seeks out what harms his people. Because of this he is certainly heroic, and the genre of Ancient tragedy reminds us that fate is something that is larger than us, and can crush anybody’s fortune, including that of the virtuous.
It is important to note that a sense of autonomy, an actual vying with fate is essential for someone to be a tragic hero, and it is for this reason that I think Antigone doesn’t quite make the cut- after all, her dilemma is to choose between two conflicting moral demands, she isn’t demonstrating anything heroic as much as merely tragic.
There is of course always a reductive quality to any attempt at definition, but here is an attempt to capture the tragic hero: we need to have two features in the story. First, the story taken as a whole must count as a tragedy in the terrible consequences the befall the protagonist. However, it must also be the case that the protagonist behaves reasonably, even virtuously (in the sense of ancient Greek “good”, not just “moral”) at every stage, ie., they do the best with the information available to them. Hence, the tragedy that befalls them shouldn’t just be a result of foolishness or carelessness, but must be a result of fate.
Do our three characters fit this description, at least if we squint and try really hard?
To a contemporary mind, Medea might seem like an obvious case of madness- after all, how can a mother kill her own children out of a need for revenge? However, if we remove our lenses of sacred domesticity, we can take stock of the radically different society Medea lives in. Medea isn’t unaware of how much she loves her children, but she lives in a society where shame plays an over-sized role we can scarcely imagine. This calls for us to temper our judgement about what is and isn’t reasonable, and take seriously Medea’s proclamation that “I can endure guilt, however horrible; The laughter of my enemies I will not endure.” Hence, we can see why Medea might fit the role of tragic hero: given the relative importance of shame, and the fact that Jason abandons her, it follows by logical reasoning that the children had to die- it is the only way to end the shame she feels. If we’re being sympathetic to her motivations, we can see that her emotions aren’t just irrational states of mind, but rather an indicator of what is and isn’t salient to her well-being. Then, the tragic state at the end of the play is not caused by Medea in any substantive sense, but rather was a consequence of the terrible circumstance Medea was placed in. (A contentious reading, no doubt).
The case of Cersei is much more straightforward: she longed for power more than anything else (“I waited half my life. She had played the dutiful daughter, the blushing bride, the pliant wife. She had suffered Robert’s drunken groping, Jaime’s jealousy, Renly’s mockery, Varys with his titters, Stannis endlessly grinding his teeth. She had contended with Jon Arryn, Ned Stark, and her vile, treacherous, murderous dwarf brother, all the while promising herself that one day it would be her turn.”). Joffrey and Myrcella’s death could not have been prevented by her, and it was unforeseeable that Tommen would kill himself after witnessing the destruction of Baelor. Given that her principle goal was power, Cersei manages to be victorious in it, but notices too late that she has lost everything else.
Alicia Florrick is far more likable to the average viewer than the first two, and her descent into darkness masquerading as professional necessity is much more subtle. But as Emily Nussbaum points out “The Good Wife was always quite clear about what allowed Alicia Florrick to rise: she made the compromises that were required of anyone in her world. Alicia got that corporate law job in the first place because she’d flirted with Will, knocking out someone more qualified. She’d exploited her husband’s political connections to steal a promotion from Cary. From early on, Alicia’s ethical choices warped her in response to the demands of the system, a process that she grew to accept as essentially unavoidable for adults who saw the world clearly.” Most of the features that make the end tragic- the death of Will, the alienation from her kids, the flightiness of her new lover, the loss of her job (given Diane’s rage)- seem to be Alicia’s fault in any direct, culpable way, and so Alicia seems most like Oedipus with respect to the role of fate.
It may be noticed that some of the attempts above at fitting the characters into the mould of the tragic hero seem a little contrived. For one, the tragedy that befalls each of the characters isn’t even unambiguously a tragedy, because in the end, each of them gets what something they’ve been looking for the whole time (revenge, power, success). Moreover, the usual tragic hero, that is, one where the tragedy is caused entirely by forced outside of control isn’t the norm here. In the cases looked at above, the tragic end is brought about in different degrees of culpability by the very characters themselves. This changes our experience of our viewing to an extent. While we watch Oedipus with a sense of pity and horror, here we cannot feel quite so much unadulterated pity because we know the characters brought upon themselves what happened to them and should have known better (and as Aristotle points out, knowing that the misfortune wasn’t brought about by the victim is a precondition for feeling sympathy). But knowing someone ought to behave differently, and yet seeing them repeatedly do it might not be tragic in the way Oedipus being destroyed by fate is tragic, but it still manages to draw the horrified reaction which tragedies demand from audiences. Now every time we return to the story, we know exactly what they’re doing wrong, but we still feel bad for the character because we’re invested in them at that point (and hence each character is deeply sympathetic, at least in the beginning).
What was the point of this analysis? If nothing else, it will serve as a useful journal for my psychoanalyst as I can now point out odd similarities in the characters I’m obsessed with. But more seriously, I think there is value in trying to figure out the patterns in what we’re exposed to, because we might stumble on something insightful. Is there any significance to how all these proactive women are shown as meeting with (ambiguously) tragic endings? Should we see this as some sort of stealth anti-feminism? Or is it just a hard-nosed look at what success in the real world usually consists in? And why is the nature of the tragic ending was always being alone? Are we (or is it just me?) seeing this as tragic only because these are women, and wouldn’t classify it as such in the case of a man? Unclear.
But one thing that does seem clear: the characters who are most compelling seem to be those who are shown negotiating norms, and being affected positively and adversely while navigating them. A character who acquiesced completely, as well as one who radically rejected gender norms, for instance, would simply not make as interesting a character. What does this tell us about how identities are formed, and what are we giving up in our push to end gender stereotypes? These require serious thought.