[CN: Rape, sexual abuse, misogyny, violence. This post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones.]
In discussions regarding Game of Thrones' portrayal of sexualized violence against women, I note that the excuse of "historical realism" is frequently invoked. As Liss has already noted, this is a troubling response, since the program isn't historical docudrama, but a fantasy world of dragons and giants.
But even if we grant that it's supposed to be closely modeled on the Wars of the Roses and other episodes in European history, so some historical reality is necessary, I still find that reaction troubling.
Why, I wonder, do the "realism!!!" rape apologists never expect to see any of the real-life historical dynamics which occasionally helped protect women from violence, or at least minimize it somewhat by punishing men's violence? Why is "realism" only invoked in one direction?
Take, for example, the absence of anything like the medieval Christian Church in the television story. Historically, that was a highly misogynist institution, yes. But it also offered rules and punishments about sexuality and violence which sometimes might restrain men's worst behavior. The men at Craster's, for example, might "realistically" include some men who would hesitate at committing mass rape, particularly in the face of death and with oathbreaking and rebellion already on their consciences.
And what about women having options other than childbearing? What if all-female holy orders existed? What if Gilly could take refuge in a convent, rather than a brothel? What if Ned's "talk" with Arya also offered the possibility of becoming a wise and powerful abbess? (I don't think Arya would like that any better than the fate her father actually outlined, but it would mean her "realistic" options were more than one.)
And what about the Church's rather important role in politics? In theory at least, the Church controlled marriage and demanded consent from both parties. What would these stories look like if women and girls could at least delay marriage by denying consent? What if Roz's murder meant excommunication for Joffrey (or had ANY consequences at all?)
And speaking of politics, what if women could gain power through their piety? What if, for example, Margaery's acts of charity were part of her larger reputation for personal piety, one she could use to her advantage in King's Landing? What if Sansa could gain the status of living saint through her devotion and purity? So far both women have played a conventional role by pleasing men, but what if they could play an alternative role, pleasing the gods? Why has one of the most important ways that women historically gained influence out of these women's reach?
I find the last question especially interesting, considering that the only woman we've seen who gains influence via religion is Melisandre. And as Liss wrote to me (and I quote with her permission), she is "... pure evil. And uses her reproduction to kill people!" On top of that, the only woman we've seen portrayed as fervently pious is Selyse Florent, Stannis' wife and Melisandre's disciple. Last time we saw her, she was fresh from cheering on the mass burning of heretics. Not especially nice, and not especially empowered.
Let me be clear: I'm not saying that inserting an analogue to the medieval Church would be all-empowering to the female characters (it wouldn't), nor that it is necessary for the show (it isn't).
What I *am* saying is that you can't use "realism" as an excuse for every bit of violent misogyny without acknowledging the absence of some "realistic" elements that might mitigate parts of that same misogyny. There is nothing, nothing in the show that "realistically" is similar to the historical Church, not in any meaningful way that might affect women's experiences. The rape apologists want all the misogyny that can come from religion without any of the ways it has sometimes empowered women, or at least restrained a few of their victimizers.
And that is not "realism." That is mere silencing, employed in defense of rape culture.
[ETA: I am solely addressing the television program here, and restricting commentary to it, in part because its treatment of women does differ from the books. This piece isn't about those differences, but about the "realism" defense in regards to the show, only. Please respect this in comments, particularly as some fans of the show have not read the books and may not wish to be spoiled.]