Dimwits and the Dark Ages

Pervasive sexual violence has become a black eye for HBO’s popular Game of Thrones series.

Katherine Don May 6, 2014

In the fourth season of Game of Thrones, Cersei (Lena Headey) is raped by her brother. Neil Davidson/HBO

In the very first episode of the HBO tele­vi­sion series Game of Thrones, Daen­erys Dany” Tar­garyen — one of the series’ most beloved pro­tag­o­nists — is raped on her wed­ding night by her hus­band, Khal Dro­go, to whom she has been giv­en” as part of a polit­i­cal alliance. Dany stands on a shore­line, shiv­er­ing and cry­ing, while Dro­go cir­cles her, assess­es her, then rapes her. In the sec­ond episode, he rapes her again. By the third episode, they’re in love, and odd­ly enough, the rapes don’t seem to have at all ham­pered the evo­lu­tion of their relationship.

When television series like Game of Thrones sexualize rape, portray women as nameless sex objects, and send ambiguous signals about consent, they reinforce our rape culture.

Game of Thrones takes place in Wes­t­eros, a medieval era-inspired fan­ta­sy land where slav­ery is com­mon, women are sub­ju­gat­ed to their hus­bands, and broth­els are a major fea­ture of the econ­o­my. The show is close­ly based on the A Song of Ice and Fire book series by George R.R. Mar­tin, now an exec­u­tive pro­duc­er for the TV series. Dany’s rape was a plot depar­ture from Martin’s book, in which the cor­re­spond­ing scene is ten­der and con­spic­u­ous­ly con­sen­su­al — Dro­go asks for her con­sent and waits for her to say yes.” Mar­tin defend­ed the adap­ta­tion of wed­ding sex into wed­ding rape by stat­ing (inac­cu­rate­ly) that, In a medieval soci­ety, there was no such thing as mar­i­tal rape … I am not endors­ing it, mind you, but let me make it clear here: I am glad we have evolved to the point that we have, but I am not writ­ing about 21st-cen­tu­ry America.”

In the fourth sea­son of Game of Thrones, which pre­miered in April, main char­ac­ter Jaime Lan­nis­ter rapes his sis­ter, Cer­sei, his long­time inces­tu­ous lover. This was, once again, a depar­ture from a cor­re­spond­ing con­sen­su­al sex scene in the book series, which seemed par­tic­u­lar­ly strange because the scene didn’t fit Jaime’s char­ac­ter arc. In both the book and TV series, Jaime is a once-bad boy in the process of atone­ment and awak­en­ing, yet in the episodes fol­low­ing the rape scene, Jaime con­tin­ues unhin­dered on the path of redemp­tion, as though the rape were a mere blip. TV crit­ics at pub­li­ca­tions from the Wash­ing­ton Post to the AV Club, Forbes and the Atlantic not­ed that the dis­cor­dant scene showed that the series’ gra­tu­itous sex­u­al vio­lence was affect­ing its cohe­sion and quality.

Game of Thrones’ propen­si­ty for vio­lent sex­u­al con­tent with lit­tle plot pur­pose has prompt­ed media crit­ics to coin terms like gore-ing the lily” and sex­po­si­tion.” Through­out the four sea­sons, the show’s cre­ators have added a num­ber of sex scenes that weren’t in the book, includ­ing long, promi­nent scenes where female pros­ti­tutes are raped, tor­tured or abused with tit­il­lat­ing, porn-like cam­era fram­ing. Exec­u­tive pro­duc­er D.B. Weiss defend­ed these scenes in a 2011 Dai­ly Beast inter­view with a ver­sion of Martin’s Dany-wed­ding-rape defense. These hor­ri­ble things are def­i­nite­ly per­va­sive [in Wes­t­eros],” he said. We felt that shy­ing away from these things would be doing a dis­ser­vice to the real­i­ty and ground­ed­ness of George’s vision.”

Crit­ics and fans alike have repeat­ed this But … the Dark Ages!” line. It’s impor­tant to note the dif­fer­ence between depict­ing misog­y­ny and endors­ing misog­y­ny. … Wes­t­eros is not a mod­ern or pro­gres­sive world,” Atlantic enter­tain­ment edi­tor Scott Mes­low wrote in 2011. A com­menter on a Forbes​.com sto­ry about the Jaime/​Cersei rape scene explained, This is a fan­ta­sy world inspired by medieval times, where the stuff we get offend­ed at now were [sic] commonplace.”

But regard­less of how com­mon­place” sex­u­al vio­lence may have been in medieval times, the sex scenes in Game of Thrones are writ­ten, act­ed, direct­ed and edit­ed by men and women in the 21st cen­tu­ry, and one need only con­sult 1950s West­erns or 1970s-era sci-fi for reminders that por­tray­als of dif­fer­ent times or fan­ta­sy worlds reveal much about when they were made.

Alex Graves, the direc­tor of the Jaime/​Cersei rape scene, denied that the (tru­ly unam­bigu­ous) scene was a rape, telling reporters it was con­sen­su­al by the end.” Graves’ atti­tudes about sex and rape — which influ­ence how he films it — are a prod­uct of Amer­i­can cul­ture, not Wes­t­eros cul­ture. Here in the Unit­ed States, 1 in 5 women report hav­ing been raped at some time in their lives, and 97 per­cent of rapists do not serve any time for their crime. 

Absolv­ing Game of Thrones’ cre­ators of their own cre­ations by point­ing to the Wes­t­eros set­ting isn’t just cir­cu­lar — as they them­selves cre­at­ed the set­ting — it’s also an intel­lec­tu­al­ized way of dis­miss­ing legit­i­mate cri­tiques. The Dark Ages defense con­ve­nient­ly ignores that the cri­tiques aren’t at all about the facts” of the fic­tion­al Wes­t­eros soci­ety or even about the mer­its of por­tray­ing rape, tor­ture, and vio­lence per se; they’re about how these are con­tex­tu­al­ized and framed. When Jaime becomes a rapist with zero impact on his sub­se­quent char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, or when a ros­ter of high­ly attrac­tive pros­ti­tutes are tor­tured in a scene’s back­ground — their pain filmed as orna­men­tal and sec­ondary — this sends spe­cif­ic mes­sages about sex­u­al violence.

Hid­ing behind Wes­t­eros pre­vents Game of Thrones cre­ators and view­ers from tak­ing cul­tur­al own­er­ship of what often amounts to soft­core tor­ture porn. When tele­vi­sion series like Game of Thrones sex­u­al­ize rape, por­tray women as name­less sex objects, and send ambigu­ous sig­nals about con­sent, they rein­force our rape cul­ture. Medieval misog­y­ny is no excuse for con­tem­po­rary misogyny.

Kather­ine Don is a free­lance writer and edi­tor based in Chica­go. She edits books at The Book Don and tweets about books, repro­duc­tive jus­tice, and the media @KatDon1.
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