It’s been a bit of a long silence on this blog, though I’ve written quite a bit in the apparent interim (including an article on Doctor Who as a rebel messiah and an entire book on Edgar Allan Poe). I’m coming out of the hiatus to talk about a subject that doesn’t have a lot to do with theology, though it has a lot to do with the ethical responsibilities of storytellers—so I guess it’s at least a little bit in scope. I’m talking about the increasing centrality of sexual violence on HBO’s Game of Thrones.
At this point, there have been many responses to last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, on which another major female character is subjected to rape. Many of these responses have argued that these sexual assaults serve no purpose in the story. But the problem with Game of Thrones’ pattern of shoehorning in major-character sexual assaults isn’t that these incidents serve no purpose. It’s the opposite—that they do serve a central purpose: to rob the story’s women of their agency, in direct contradiction to the thematic core of the novels on which the series is purportedly based.
I stopped watching Game of Thrones last year. I was irritated by Jaime Lannister’s rape of Cersei, but not quite enough to put me off the show entirely. For me, the bigger problem was the fact that the show was beginning to feel lackluster and repetitive. Rather than the plot and character beats that drove the first season or the novels, the show seemed to be more concerned with when they would next be able to show someone being disemboweled, or getting naked, or both. The show stopped holding my attention, so I pretty much half-watched season 4. When the camera lingered on Tyrion’s face as he strangled Shae at the season’s end (an event which is, admittedly, present in the novel), I realized I was not likely to get any enjoyment out of the show again. I was, as they say, done.
Which means I haven’t seen “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” so I’ll limit my comments on it here, and instead focus mainly on stuff from the past that is confirmed and worsened by the latest turn of the stomach events. In short, I always kind of thought that maybe I’d go back and watch GoT again, in case maybe the stuff that had turned me off last year got better. Well, now I know that it sure doesn’t get any better.
For me, the core storyline of A Song of Ice and Fire concerns the powerless of Westeros. The key characters (Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister) and important lesser ones (Samwell Tarly, Catelyn Stark, Yara Greyjoy, etc.) are denied power by their society, which is, yes, violent and cruel. Tyrion and Samwell are denied authority because of their physical limitations; Jon Snow by his birth status; Daenerys and Cersei by their gender; Jaime by the criminal act that earned him the title Kingslayer; Brienne by her physical appearance and gender. But in every case, the story shows us the ways in which these characters claim the agency that is explicitly denied to them. The story is about how they seek, and find, control over their destinies, despite being apparently powerless to change their circumstances. They refuse to let themselves be victims.
The television adaptation of this source material, on the other hand, inverts this—at least for the female characters. The women who we see fighting to find their voices in the novels are instead shown being punished with rape. Benioff and Weiss have taken the female characters whose quest for self-determination is, for many readers, the heart of the novels, and used sexual violence to put them back in their place.
This is not a new problem on the show. The recent scene with Sansa is, if anything, merely confirmation of a pattern. The problem was clarified last year with Jaime’s rape of Cersei. But it goes back much further than that, to the treatment of Daenerys in the first season. Not having read ASOIAF when I watched the first season, I didn’t realize how drastically her wedding night was changed from the source material, and what that change meant for her character. The book shows us one of the clearest cases of explicit consent you’re likely to find in the history of literary sex scenes. Daenerys is clearly in charge, and Drogo waits for an explicit “yes” from his bride before proceeding. In the show, he rapes her. This drastically changes the meaning of Daenerys’ story. In the novels, her power comes from the fact that she brings this nobility out of her husband, teaching compassion to a nation that had previously been based in cruelty. In the show, her power comes from the fact that she falls in love with her rapist.
And that, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with the treatment of rape on Game of Thrones the show. The problem isn’t that sexual violence—which is absolutely a part of the source material—is present in the show. (One could certainly argue about the differing amount of narrative time and energy spent on sexual violence between source and adaptation, of course.) The problem is that, in an attempt to “streamline” the narrative, or make certain story arcs more “cinematic,” Benioff and Weiss have fairly systematically victimized precisely those characters who embody the novels’ core themes of marginality and self-determination. Three key women—Daenerys, Cersei, and now Sansa—have essentially been put in their place by men with greater social power. And Drogo and Jaime—who in the books appear, on the whole, pretty noble—are now tarnished as abusers.
Benioff and Weiss’s approach to their adaptation does violence, not simply to the characters in question, but to the very meaning of the source material. It takes a story that shows us that power, agency, and dignity are not the sole right of those with the strongest sword arms, and turns it into a story that equates power with penetration. They have fundamentally missed the point. The result is an act of vandalism.
I’ll close with a few links, since other folks who have been watching this season have said things both eloquent and passionate on the current state of the problem that are worth reading.
For the LA Review of Books, Sarah Mesle brilliantly takes down the tired argument that this fictional, fantasystory represents, or even could represent, “the way it really was.”
In a roundtable review of the latest episode for the Atlantic, Christopher Orr succinctly sums up the ever-present, ever-worsening problem of titillation on the show: "...showrunners Benioff and Weiss still apparently believe that their tendency to ramp up the sex, violence, and—especially—sexual violence of George R.R. Martin’s source material is a strength rather than the defining weakness of their adaptation."
The Mary Sue will no longer be covering the show in any way, and explains their reasons here.