Friday, April 25, 2014

Game of Thrones: The Problem With Normalising Sexual Violence

TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion about rape, including a couple confronting images from Game of Thrones (R 18+). 

DISCLAIMER: This review only concerns Jaime and Cersei of Game of Thrones' "Breaker of Chains" and does not contain spoilers for any other parts Season Four. No other characters' plotlines from Season 4 are mentioned. If that's ok with you, proceed. 

Ok. I wasn't going to jump on this bandwagon because I thought there were enough articles out there, but now that I've read about twenty I've hardly found any that get to the heart of why depicting sexual violence against women on Game of Thrones (or any TV show, for that matter) is a serious problem. 

If you're not up to speed, here's the lowdown: in the latest episode of Game of Thrones, Jaime Lannister rapes his sister Cersei, with whom he had previously been having a consensual relationship. 

A huge, huge problem is that not everyone is viewing this scene is a rape, when GODAMMIT IT CLEARLY WAS. I quote Allyson Keene of Collider, who assumed that: "Jaime and Cersei [were] having violent but passionate grief sex(full article here, SPOILERS BEWARE).

And the director of the episode himself, Alex Graves: "It becomes consensual by the end"
(full article here

Honestly, you have to be pretty fucked up to not see that a woman sobbing and saying "no" while a man forces himself onto her is rape.

Moving on the issue of rape-as-a-plot-device in it's entirety (for a definition of "plot device" and why it's lazy writing, click here), this article: "We Need to Talk About Jaime" (SPOILERS IN THE LINK) says it best, particularly this quote, about a different character: 

"The sexualization of [Arya's] character through rape threats was completely unnecessary."

The reason everyone has blown up about the Jaime/Cersei scene is not because violence as a plot device is a problem. If it was a problem we wouldn't be watching the show at all. What is a problem is the constant, unnecessary, objectified sexualisation of female characters for cheap plot devices, or for no reason at all. 

Some people have argued that this scene is to remind the audience that Jaime, who viewers have begun to like, is actually a bad guy after all. I can understand this, but why does it have to come at Cersei's expense? Cersei is a complex character who a lot of viewers tend to hate (because she can be pretty awful). But she is powerful, and her power is what drives her and makes her dangerous and compelling. What made the writers decide to render her powerless by way of sexual violence? The cheap plot device here is using rape as a way to quickly give the audience a way of sympathising with an unlikeable character. 

On a similar note, it can be argued that seeing the brutal, sadistic way Joffrey treats prostitutes helps the audience understand his character and how awful he is - but this comes at the terrible, terrible expense of not only the prostitute characters, but the actresses as well. Last time I checked, the scene where he forces two girls to beat each other while he watches didn't advance THEIR character development. Sure, some characters have to be used as pawns for another character's growth, but when you are doing it over and over again by means of sexual violence ... you are treading in dangerous territory. This is not about what works in a story. This is about popular culture normalising rape culture. 

Women are more than their bodies. Women are more than sexual objects. If the men can be seen as more than that, why not the female characters too? I am sick of watching this show take all of it's powerful, well-developed female archetypes and reducing them to worthless aside from their sexuality. 

  • Brienne defies the oppression against women and becomes a knight, only to be seen as nothing but female body parts there for the brutal taking once captured.
  • Sansa is continuously referred to as a child (and she is - 14), yet is still a target for rape - she is almost gang-raped by a group of strangers in the city in Season 2. Not even the fact that the actress was under eighteen at the time of filming stopped the writers from sexualising her character. In a previous scene, her husband-to-be instructs a knight to tear her clothes in front of a whole court and threatens to kill her with a crossbow (Joffrey later does kill someone with a crossbow, the aftermath of which is shown in graphic, sexualised detail. See further down.) 
  • Danaerys is sold as a teenage bride to a man twice her age and three times her size, and repeatedly raped by him until she figures out how to fulfil his needs in a way that doesn't leave her brutalised. 

This continuous usage of rape as quick way to move to the next part of the plot or provide second-hand development for ANOTHER CHARACTER is not ok. All of these scenes are subtle (and not so sublte) nods towards stripping a woman of her power. Why is it ok for this to happen to LITERALLY EVERY FUCKING MAIN FEMALE CHARACTER ON THE SHOW? As mentioned above, even 13-year-old Arya is threatened with rape! She is powerless unless disguised as a boy. 

I'm sure a few people will argue that the show does depict sexual violence against men - Theon Greyjoy has been subject to this for a while. I don't condone this either but I will point out that A) his character has always been depicted as powerless, with or without the attempted rape and B) he is one man of tens on the show. Make of that what you will.

And that's not even mentioning all the rest of the non-violent objectification of women. I'm sorry, but if you're putting tit shots in one scene and a rape in the next, where are you drawing the line between what's acceptable and what's not? Doesn't one image enhance the other? How are you supposed to feel when a character is presented as this (first image) in one scene and this (second image - CONFRONTING) in another?

If you're confused about what falls under the definition of rape culture: THIS DOES.

Here is a quote by Mary McGill that backs up my points: "The simple truth is this: objectification hurts women. It silences our voices, paints over our thoughts, stamps out our souls, leaving a mute, blank canvas onto which our culture can project some of its darkest stereotypes and myths. When we raise women to see themselves only as things to be desired by men and to judge themselves accordingly, as if nothing else about them truly matters, we are committing a terrible wrong." (full article here)

I'll conclude by adding that I can't say rape is a no-go for stories at all. Rape is something real, scary as that may be, and you have to be able to write about real things (feel free to ask me about Veronica Mars or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo if you want examples for justified usage). However, using rape as a cheap plot device that results in nothing but unnecessary sexualisation of a character is not okay. People, and characters, should not be defined solely by their ability to be objectified. 

By all means, argue my points. But I won't stand by and see my gender be made less of for the sake of "story". Writers, you can do better, and you should. Half your viewers of Game of Thrones are women. I don't know why we're even still watching, but I guess we're used to putting up with this shit. Because we have to deal with it in real life, too. 


  1. Erin, this blog is something the viewers of this episode should read.
    In the book this scene was very different and I feel that HBO was wrong to change it so severely. I was shocked to read that the director said that it became "consensual" in the end. Yes he's right, if he was talking about the books. From the way I was watching the episode she was giving up because of her grief but was no where near giving consent. At no time did she stop saying no.

    I read an article a while ago, although I can't seem to find the link, anyway it was about the dangers of normalising sexual abuse via media, communities, education etc. It talked about the astounding number of women who believe that sexual abuse is "just something we have to put up with".

    This scene is exactly what it was talking about. Since Jamie had returned to Kings Landing he had not been intimate with Cersei, which differs from the book as he isn't present at Joffreys death. I feel like HBO make it a kind of build up, as he was saying in a previous scene something along the lines of "then when is a good time?"

    People have watched this episode without thinking it wasn't rape because they were already in a relationship or because she "consented" in the end. I believe that the way they filmed this scene has nothing to do with the development of Cersei or Jamies plot line. Yes they are both branded as "evil" characters but this scene was not necessary.

    I worry about the young girls (and boys) who watch these TV series without having a better understanding of the books.

    I'll keep hunting for the articles link, thank you for posting this blog Erin.

    1. Thanks Hannah. I read somewhere else that Alex Graves, the director, did not even read the original scene in the book as he didn't want it to influence his direction of the scene (but the writers who scripted it did of course read the books).

      My biggest concern with young people watching GoT is that they don't have the maturity to understand the cultural impact television shows have on real life - popular culture always has and will play a part in real life society. For kids it's all just part of the story, but they might not understand that popular culture has a very strong influence on what can be accepted as a cultural norm.

    2. I'm a man and I completely agree with what you have written and think you explained it very thoroughly. I'm disgusted with how shows like game of thrones approaches these issues (with zero consideration it seems) and refuse to watch it after just a few episodes