On Game of Thrones

[Content Note: Descriptions of sexual violence and torture. Discussion of Game of Thrones which includes spoilers. Please Note: We all like problematic shows, and we all draw our lines about what is overwhelmingly problematic in different places. This piece is about my line, which doesn't mean it has to be yours.]

I have always had a complicated relationship with Game of Thrones, the TV series. From the start, I had criticisms of its use of exploitation of women and use of sexual violence. I didn't watch the show for a long time after being alienated by the pilot, but Iain, who's read the books, kept watching the series, and I was slowly drawn in as I'd catch scenes of complex female characters who I really liked.

(Plus: Peter Dinklage.)

So, I eventually became a fan of the show, even if a fan with reservations and criticisms.

One of the most jarring and frustrating things about the show is that it is one of the few shows on television with female characters who are truly well-drawn, who are genuinely imbued with their full humanity—but that's only if a female character is fortunate enough to be one of the primary characters, rather than one of the many actresses used as naked props in the series which spawned the portmanteau "sexposition," which describes, to put it bluntly, the habit of making expository scenes more "fun" with a screen full of boobs.

Lady T once wrote a terrific piece, which has really hung with me, about the juxtaposition of naked ladies and props and the fully human female characters in Game of Thrones:
I think our culture has become so accustomed to seeing naked women used as props in advertising, film, television, and in other forms of media, that we don't always notice objectification anymore. Those of us who are actively feminist will notice unnecessary boobage in a show, but more casual consumers of media and popular culture might not pick up on the objectification in such displays of nudity, because the objectification is everywhere.

Game of Thrones, however, gives us scenes with characters like Cersei and Catelyn and Arya and Brienne and Daenerys, shows them as complex and complicated and morally gray as any male character on the show–and two minutes later, gives us a scene where a male character talks to a woman who exists as nothing more than a naked giggling prop.

The shift is jarring, as if the show is saying, "Women are complex, just like men–now here are some more boobs in soft glowy lighting, brought to you by The Male GazeTM." It's jarring enough that even a casual viewer is more likely to notice. You can't be oblivious to the naked giggling props when there are so many fully-clothed, complex human beings around, reminding us that women are people.
It is something for which the two male showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have never had anything satisfying to say, so I knew that the exploitation of naked female bodies (and the exploitation of the actresses in those scenes) was always going to be the cost of accessing stories about the female characters I loved.

That itself was a steep cost.

Increasingly, the show relied on the torture of women to create characterization for male characters. Minor female characters, like lowborn sex worker Roz, were tortured to death to convey that male characters were particularly terrible. (In contract, The Hound was shown to have a glimmer of goodness by rescuing a major female character, the highborn lady Sansa, from a gang-rape.) It is a violent show altogether, but the way that sexual violence was used took on a particular tone that suggested sexual violence is uniquely despicable, but also fair game for casual use as shorthand for character development.

This was not reserved exclusively for sexual violence against women: One of the cruelest characters in the show, Ramsay Snow, cuts off the genitals of Theon Greyjoy in order to "break" him. And references to that heinous act of sexual violence are often followed in the show by edits to jump to other male characters cutting into a sausage at a meal. A serious act of torture turned into a punchline.

A steeper cost as the price of entry. And, over the past two episodes, the cost has become even steeper.

In last week's episode, Jamie Lannister raped Cercei, his sister—and longtime lover and mother of his children. The scene in the book is problematic, in that Cercei protests but eventually consents (despite the fact that Jamie doesn't seem to care whether she consents), but it is not a violent rape. In the show, it is a violent revenge rape, in which Jamie wonders why he has been fated to love such a "hateful woman" after Cercei resists his advances, then punishes her with what is clearly depicted as rape.

In the days following the airing of the episode, over which there was much outcry from fans, the male writers of the show weighed in, the male writer of the original material (George R.R. Martin) weighed in, the male director of the episode weighed in, and the male actor in the scene weighed in, all in defense of the scene being consensual. The closest any of them came to acknowledging it was a scene of rape was actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who, when asked if it was rape, said: "Yes, and no. There are moments where she gives in, and moments where she pushes him away. But it's not pretty."

Yes and no. There is no "yes and no" in consent.

The director's take was even more discouraging:
Well, it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle. Nobody really wanted to talk about what was going on between the two characters, so we had a rehearsal that was a blocking rehearsal. And it was very much about the earlier part with Charles (Dance) and the gentle verbal kidnapping of Cersei's last living son. Nikolaj came in and we just went through one physical progression and digression of what they went through, but also how to do it with only one hand, because it was Nikolaj. By the time you do that and you walk through it, the actors feel comfortable going home to think about it. The only other thing I did was that ordinarily, you rehearse the night before, and I wanted to rehearse that scene four days before, so that we could think about everything. And it worked out really well. That's one of my favorite scenes I've ever done.
Note, here, that the director refers to the two men in in the scene by the actors' first names, but the woman in the scene, the woman who is raped, by her character's name. And Lena Headey, who plays Cercei, is the one person (and only woman) involved with the scene whose opinion about whether it was rape we never heard.

At least none that I've been able to find. (And I'm not suggesting she is obliged to do so. I'm more interested in the fact that, in the dozens of articles I've read about this scene, nary a single writer seeking responses from the writers, director, and actors has penned even one line wondering what she thinks of the scene.) If Headey has responded, it's sure not getting as much attention as every man involved with the creation of the scene. Which is a dynamic that seems to replicate real rape cases, mimicking whose voices are privileged to define what constitutes consent. Like in many real rape cases, we're content to let all the men involved define "whether" it's rape and have no interest in what the woman who played the victim has to say.

Funny that, how the public discussion of a rape scene that is supposedly not a rape scene looks so very much like rape culture.

All of which speaks to how much I, and other viewers, can trust the people who make this show regarding sexual violence—and how it's used and depicted.

Which brings me to last night's episode, featuring a scene that opened to the sound of a woman weeping while being raped and showing multiple women being raped as background, while a male character directed his men to "fuck them 'til they're dead."

This scene was invented for the show.

The women being raped are not major characters; they were props being used to establish that this new male character is not a nice guy. And the scene was shot in a way to give maximum titillation to anyone who gets off on watching women being raped, or anyone who can overlook that it's a rape scene, as long as there are boobs at which to gaze.

Obliging me to view the graphic torture and rape of women as entry for stories about female characters I like is too steep a cost. And fuck the stewards of this show for making that the cost of access to rare stories about complex women.

Having tweeted about this a bit already, I'm already getting the usual pushback. I'm oversensitive. (Yawn.) I'm trying to ruin everyone's fun. (Do what you want; I'm speaking for myself.) I should worry about more important things. (Do you know how many people watch this show?) This is just "the way it was back then." (Don't argue realism with me in defense of rape scenes in a show with fucking dragons.) The show has always been violent. (Yes, and I am objecting to how certain types of violence are used.) What do I expect? (More.)

I especially expect more from a show that simultaneously demonstrates a capability for writing complex female characters.

Like a man who exceptionalizes the women in his life only to monolithize all other women, the stewards of this show treat the major female characters as humans, but the women in the background as "women." Whoops.

Thus we get a scene in which naked women, marked with cuts and bruises, are raped by men who are told to "fuck them 'til they're dead" in a throwaway bit of lazy and unnecessary male character development—in the very same episode that Brienne, a female knight of singular extraordinariness, sets off to save Sansa, armed with a sword of Valyrian steel and a custom-made suit of armor.

George R.R. Martin, who wrote the series on which the show is based, identifies as a feminist. At this point, if he has any decency and integrity, he needs to speak out firmly against that scene, which was invented for the show and is incredibly hostile to women. Including the actresses exploited for such garbage and the female viewers who shouldn't have to navigate such rank misogyny to engage with his female characters.

As for me, the cost of entry has become too steep. So long and thanks for all the dragons.

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus