Demystifying Pettiness

My grandma is what’s known as, in internet lingo,  “a petty legend.” Currently age 90, she has held grudges that have lasted longer than many people’s lives. Someone who gave her a rude look at a wedding in 1947? An enemy to this day. Someone who insulted one of her daughters’ academic performance in 1962? They have “fat ankles,” and when she sees them on the bus, she takes pleasure in acting as coldly towards them as possible.

During one recent visit with her, I told her about how my first terrible boss was fired, and we spent a solid thirty minutes talking excitedly about how, in her words, “there’s no better feeling than seeing the people you hate get what they deserve.” For she is not just a petty legend, she is also my best friend and role model, and, for better or for worse, I am her prodigy in pettiness.

While the official definition of “petty” is “of little importance; trivial,” today it’s used more often in the way Urban Dictionary defines it: to describe someone “making things, events, or actions normal people dismiss as trivial or insignificant into excuses to be upset, uncooperative, childish, or stubborn.” It’s most often associated with holding grudges and having vengeful nature, and the satisfaction of getting “petty revenge.”

Petty memes originated, like most internet trends, on Black Twitter, which this article discusses thoroughly. It’s been appropriated by white people including myself, and I want to acknowledge this, but I also feel that pettiness crosses all racial, gender, and demographic boundaries, as my grandma proves. An entertaining and comprehensive list of acts of petty revenge can be found here, but perhaps the easiest way to explain pettiness is to invoke one name: Queen Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series.

Cersei Lannister perfectly captures how entertaining pettiness can be, while also exposing the dark truth: that pettiness comes from pain. Martin wrote of her, “she never forgets a slight, real or imagined.

Cersei Lannister perfectly captures how entertaining pettiness can be, while also exposing the dark truth: that pettiness comes from pain. Martin wrote of her, “she never forgets a slight, real or imagined.” And indeed, as one of many people she tormented, Sansa Stark, pointed out, “everyone who’s ever crossed her, she’s found a way to murder.” She has hated and mistreated her younger brother, Tyrion, to the extent of having him almost executed, partly because she blames him for the death of their mother who died giving birth to him, which he couldn’t control.

She “is all wildfire, especially when thwarted,” who believes that “the only way to keep your people loyal is to make certain they fear you more than they do the enemy.” She is also an utter delight to watch and read about, and one of the most fascinatingly complex fictional characters I’ve ever encountered. In season 6, when Cersei watched from a tower sipping wine as she blew up a building full of her enemies with a smirk on her face, many people cheered, myself included, and another go-to gif for “pettiness” was born.

So why did I cheer when Cersei killed hundreds, and whenever she acts like an irrational child in ways that would horrify me if I encountered her in real life? For one, the people she killed were responsible for her getting an atrocious haircut; I’d feel murderous rage towards anyone giving me that Maria von Trapp cut, too. But Cersei is compelling because she is more than just an evil queen—she was a young girl married off “like a broodmare” to a man who didn’t love her and emotionally and physically abused her, and the daughter of a man who never let her fulfill her dreams and potential because she was a woman. Her pettiness, on which she reflects in A Feast For Crows, “she wanted a storm to match her rage,” manifests and is an outlet of the pain she represses.

In season 2, Cersei spoke frankly about she was impacted by the disparities in how the world treated her and her twin brother: “When we were young, Jaime and I, we looked so much alike even our father couldn’t tell us apart. I could never understand why they treated us differently. Jaime was taught to fight with sword and lance and mace, and I was taught to smile and sing and please. He was heir to Casterly Rock, and I was sold to some stranger like a horse to be ridden whenever he liked.” Cersei still seeks her father’s approval, longs to be recognized as his “true son,” and sometimes regresses into being a little girl again when he shouts at her. His refusal to respect her, and the way that everyone underestimates her, has turned her into “a petty legend” who will hurt anyone who displeases her for the most minor of reasons. And yet I love her, as do many others. But why? Why is pettiness so much fun to watch?

I can at least try and answer for myself. My grandmother is and always has been a very happy and optimistic person, so her pettiness has always been an entertaining family legend rather than bitterness borne from pain. I think I have a good heart, and work in a field dedicated to social justice, empathy, and caring for others. I am a loyal friend, an empathic listener, and a friendly extrovert. But I am also someone who ate lunch alone most days until middle school, and when I finally made a best friend, after a year she decided to turn our whole friend group against me, and they made my life hell. I was afraid to go to school each day and struggled with suicidal ideation. Almost every night I thought of ways I wanted to hurt her, so that, as Courtney Love sang in Hole’s “Doll Parts,” “someday [she would] ache like I ache.” My self-esteem grew rather than shrank in the face of bullying, because I realized that if no one else liked or would be kind to me (besides my grandmother, always my soulmate), I had to be my own best friend and biggest cheerleader. And that meant knowing that that, to paraphrase one of Cersei’s best-known lines, anyone who isn’t me might be an enemy.

Pettiness is not always as extreme as blowing up a building full of people who have wronged you with wildfire or having your son’s wife imprisoned because you’re threatened by her youth and beauty.

Pettiness is not always as extreme as blowing up a building full of people who have wronged you with wildfire or having your son’s wife imprisoned because you’re threatened by her youth and beauty. It is also feeling rage when I see happy couples on the subway and struggling not to give them a dirty look, because I’m lonely. It is feeling smug when I run into people who were mean to me in high school because I look better now than I did then. It is the glee I felt when I learned of my ex-boss’ firing, and the hatred I still harbor, at age 26, for the girl who bullied my sister in fifth grade. Because the truth is that pettiness comes from unhappiness, and while enacting petty revenge might feel good for a moment, it doesn’t help heal the inner pain that caused it.

When your heart has been ripped apart, sometimes only the defense of pettiness can hold it together. In college, my closest friend friend-dumped me once she got a boyfriend, and, like my grandmother on the bus, I delighted in acting as coldly to him as possible when I ran into him on the street a few years ago. In truth, deep down I wanted to beg him to ask her to be my friend again. But like Cersei, I “wanted a storm to match my rage.”

I’m a Cersei fan because watching her is cathartic. It feels like watching my petty id—the part of my psyche ruled by impulses and primal drives unrestrained by social niceties— in action, sneering and snarling at everyone who has caused her and me even the slightest discomfort. I can never act like Cersei in everyday life—and I couldn’t if I tried, because the goodness in my heart (and my superego) usually gets in the way of the petty part. But for myself and others who can’t help but secretly wish harm upon and luxuriate in the pain of those who have wronged them, Queen Cersei is a petty icon. “Long may she reign.”

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