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'Game of Thrones,' Sex and HBO: Where Did It Go Wrong For TV's Sexual Pioneers?

By Bethany Jones | /Bent June 2, 2014 at 6:51PM

HBO has always been confronting and sexually explicit, but that used to be in the service of an unflinching look at the world and at adult complexity. Now it’s little more than an extension of an immature, crude desire to shock. When it comes to sex, has HBO jumped the shark?
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When it comes to sex, has HBO jumped the shark?

Pinning down a moment of exact decline has its limitations, but for me there was a definite shift around 2005, towards the end of the 'Sopranos' era, and shortly after the advent of "Deadwood". And the show that crystallises the shift most readily is "Rome".

So what did Rome do that marked the decline? The most obvious thing was the introduction a phenomenon now so common it's become a tired TV convention: the fight-fuck.

Take this scene in "Rome", where Titus Pullo (which you might translate as Honourable Chicken) beats and fucks his slave. Now, you can justify this scene by saying that men in ancient Rome beat and fucked their slaves all the time. I'm sure, afterward, those same bleeding slaves murmured to their masters, through the post-coital happy miasma, 'you can do whatever you like…'. This is just historical reportage, dammit! It's responsible reportage! Ditto, presumably, the roadside rapes, and the middle-of-the-tavern breast-washing-from-a-bowl that happens in at least one scene in "Rome", incidental to the action, but somehow finding itself in the foreground of the shot. I'm sure archaeologists have uncovered many touching tableaux, etched lovingly into the dusty vellum, of ancient women washing their breasts with sudden urgency in the middle of taverns. Them streets were dusty. But, back to Honourable Chicken beating and fucking his slave. Or, to use the touching description from the video's YouTube uploader: "Titus Polo and his slave girl get hot".


The latent justification for the fight-fuck in this scene, the things that makes it all ok, is presumably that a) it's the (oblivious) wife who's ordered the slave to be beaten in the first place, silly girl cuckold! So it's not really male sexual violence, it's just a totally hot Punch-and-Judy show. Then b) the slave girl fights back. And really fights back. Also, she's completely carnally into it. I bet all the slaves were into it. I bet that's why they applied to be slaves. So: she fights back, and she's a good fighter, she's a strong woman dammit, and he's 'a lion of a man', so there's nothing problematic here, HBO, with the dreaming up, scripting, casting, shooting and disseminating of high-end historical softcore that shows, for a titillating laugh, a meaty professional soldier beat and fuck a smaller woman who's his legal property, because hey, all of a sudden she knows kung-fu, and she kisses him first.

And that's the problem of the fight-fuck: it blurs the lines, and not in a helpful way. It's Robin Thicke as wannabe-Tarantino. It plays at the edges of rapey fantasy. It's the first step on the path to the idea that a man can begin raping a woman and it can then become consensual sex.  The fuck-fight uses a rapist's logic: that you can make her want it, that she wanted it all along. And I single it out because it's a telling precursor to HBO's recent carnival of rape in "Game of Thrones". It follows much of the same logic of power-struggle as sex play. It has in common with rape scenes like that Jaime-Cersei one the idea – articulated by Alex Graves, who directed the episode - that rape can "become consensual by the end".

In which case it's useful to unpick the logic that unites the fuck-fight and that rape scene, and the fuck-fight and the rapist's reasoning. It goes something like this:

1. Desire is a kind of animosity
2. The physical closeness that comes with violence resembles the physical closeness that comes with sex
3. So, the physical closeness of violence will stir similar feelings to the physical closeness that comes with sex
4. If you fight her for long enough, desire will occur
5. Resistance is foreplay
6. Consent is inevitable

Now, this is very fucked-up. It doesn't tally with most people's experience of violence or sex. It certainly doesn't tally with the experience of people who are forced violently into sex. Violence shouldn't be the leitmotif of attraction. In fact, most sexual relationships that have violence at their core look more like this (a clip from the days when HBO approached sexual violence with brutal realism).

But even working with this 'logic', that something can 'become consensual', in a fuck-fight, in a 'sex scene', is to acknowledge that things need to be happening against consent in a sustained way in the first place. A rape might already be occurring. And when is that ever anything but deeply horrifying? Why aren't we all horrified?

Of course, HBO isn't the only network guilty of the banal fantasy fuck-fight. (It's pretty widespread: you can find a recent example from CBS's The Good Wife here, though the writers in this case realised pretty quickly that this wasn't the most sensitive way to portray domestic abuse, and abruptly shelved the storyline). In fact, the fuck-fight in different shades is so ubiquitous from bodice-rippers to sci-fi that that season six of "Buffy" included a meaningful spoof when Buffy and Spike – who actually are supernaturally-endowed fighting equals, unlike Honorable Chicken and his chick – fuck-fight until the house falls down around them. But mostly, the fuck-fight is straight-out frisson, a kind of choreographed wet dream.

But this scene, and "Rome" in general, marks a definite moment when the freedoms of cable television (longer shows, bigger budgets, more graphic scenes) weren't just being used to extend the possibilities of what’s acceptable in television for the sake of story, or verisimilitude, or critique, but as a titillating end in itself. It's the first time I felt that you, HBO, were – to use the standard lingo – 'pushing the boundaries' not in the service of revealing the world in all its complexity but rather to reduce the world to cheap fantasy.  That's what makes the shocking quality of some of the violence and sex (and sexual violence) in "Rome" – and in "Game of Thrones" – so different in character to the sex and violence of "The Sopranos". The sex and violence in "The Sopranos", for all its gloom, was illuminating.

And to point all of this out is not to say for a second that all sex should be tediously soft-tinted and petal-strewn. There's definitely a place for submission and domination, and combativeness, in consenting sexual acts, and plenty of adults play those games and enjoy them. But the point of those games is that they don't have blurred lines at all. In fact, they have very clear lines: 'safe words', agreed-upon boundaries. And those clear lines are put in place because the grey area is so dangerous (which is often why it's interesting to people in the first place). Similarly, in the world of TV and film, the danger of sexual combativeness should be played with responsibly. Show human complexity, sure – show the very human horror and humiliation that is rape – but don't show it gratuitously, or as a titillant. Don't callously present it as 'edge'.

Just don't do this:


About that scene

Does that look like it 'becomes consensual', Alex Graves, Daniel Weiss, David Benioff, HBO? Really?

But what about your other defences, A.G., that "the consensual part of it was that she wraps her legs around him, and she's holding on to the table, clearly not to escape but to get some grounding in what's going on." And that she's clearly at one point 'kissing him back.'

Both these 'defences' articulate well some of the confusion surrounding rape. First, the idea that kissing also means consent to sex – as though every time a person makes out with someone else they're also up for intercourse (which would make going to the cinema an awkward event to say the least). Second, there's the idea that bodily actions (like the opening of legs) are somehow interpretable and meaningful over and above the literal meanings of actual spoken words (in this scene, 'no, no', 'stop', 'it's not right' etc., which as words go, aren't exactly ambiguous). It's unnerving, to put it mildly, that these classic rapey apologia are put forward as arguments by a major TV director of the world's most popular television show. As Myles McNutt has argued, this was always going to be a shocking scene in terms of character development, but it wasn't necessarily an unthinkable scene: what has been most shocking is the apparent inability of this director to see that he'd filmed a rape at all.

Add to this the fact that Graves also filmed this scene apparently without analysis or discussion of the issues involved. Says Graves:


"Nobody really wanted to talk about what was going on between the two characters, so we had a rehearsal that was a blocking rehearsal… 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."


Well, as long as everyone thought about the issues privately, what need is there for a director to direct their interpretation? Even though the fact that "no one wanted to talk about what was going on between the two characters" was a pretty fucking sure neon sign that there was something unusual and disturbing going on between the two characters to begin with? All of which makes the 'it was consensual' apologia extra creepy: because the defence of 'kissing'! and 'look, leg-wrapping!' is coming from such a rote and reflex space, and not a space of thought and analysis, and certainly. There's also the disturbing fact that these are classic date-rape defences.

If Alex Graves had done some research into rape or even into heterosexual sex from a female perspective as part of his preparations to, you know, direct scenes of rape or heterosexual sex, he might have a more nuanced view. So here's a tip, A.G.. If a person is being penetrated, and that person can't break free, that person might as well open their legs a bit as a protective gesture. This might seem counter-intuitive to someone who doesn't get penetrated as part of sex (in which case, as a director, research! think! ask!). But the fact remains that the incorporation of something into your body might be done in such a way as to minimise the harmful effects of a violent coercive penetration you don't choose, without meaning for a moment that the penetration isn't therefore coercive (such as if a rapist holds a knife to your throat to ensure physical cooperation, and you open your legs and angle your pelvis toward him to minimise harm).

In the case of the 'wrapping her legs' scenario in the Cersei-Jaime rape scene, even a cursory look at the mechanics reveals that a woman in that situation might do this to prevent even more piercing pain and probable tearing to her already too-dry and unaroused vaginal walls, and to prevent wrenching bruising to her thighs; a woman in this situation might as well hold onto a table to keep her balance and to stop her head being pounded on the stone flags. Moving your legs and arms about while also saying, repeatedly, 'no, no' doesn't somehow cosmically change the meanings of those words, just as protecting your face by lifting your arm, or holding on to a stool to keep your balance, or using certain parts of your body to protect other parts of your body, while lying on the ground being kicked – instead of fighting back – doesn't thereby mean that you consent to being kicked.

And it would be one thing to show this because it happens, because it's part of the general horror of human life, because relationships between the sexes are often fucked-up, for a battery of complex reasons. But it's another thing to choose to show it for no obvious reason at all, when it illuminates nothing (except perhaps, the gender dynamics of a pretend patriarchy, in another dimension/planet, that's been amply 'fleshed out' already), and when there are no obvious consequences for character (Jaime and Cersei seem to have forgotten about it by the time we roll on to 'Oathkeeper', the next episode). It's beyond understanding why you, "Game of Thrones", HBO, constantly choose to take acts of consenting sex and mutual desire from your source material and turn them into rapes. And then to pretend that a woman saying 'no, no' and 'it's not right', up to the very moment that she's forcibly penetrated – next to the body of her dead son no less – is somehow not being raped at all.

Remember when you knew what a rape was, HBO?

Fantasy can be serious.

And ethical objections aren't always veiled pruderies. 

Direct it like you mean it

Let's assume then, that HBO has taken a downward slide from its 'golden age'. And let's assume too that in the case of "Game of Thrones", the problem is less with source material than it is with direction and mise-en-scene.

So let's imagine another scenario. Let's imagine that in the background of most episodes of "Game of Thrones" we saw dark-skinned semi-naked people casually or brutally humiliated because of their race: lynchings, gratuitous beatings, n-words thrown about, all the horrible theatre of race-hate, say. Imagine that the incidental exposition scenes of "Game of Thrones" didn't take place in a brothel but in a slave market, for no real reason. And in a slave market where the slaves showed signs of contentment and arousal at the point of sale. Imagine that in the background of incidental scenes of "Game of Thrones" we saw dark-skinned people being tarred and feathered, or whipped, or branded, just incidentally. And imagine that the camera dwelt lingeringly on the small physical details of these acts, just for the hell of it. And then, as a finishing touch, imagine that all of this was done spuriously, as a departure from the source material and for no meaningful narrative gain, but just to spice up the action, to show some pecs and tits, to give an impression of grittiness, to get some people off. Imagine a non-white person was subjected to the most violent instance of racial hatred, and then appeared to forget about it in the following episode. Imagine if having resisted being beaten, and imagine whilst saying 'no, no' to their abuser, they shifted their body in an ambiguous way, a way that could have been interpreted as inviting further punishment but could also have been seen as self-protection. Imagine if this meant we were told it was no longer an instance of racial hatred but a mutually consenting act.  Imagine we were asked to forget all we know about the historical and contemporary power dynamics that structure and inform racial violence.

Would you think that was ok, HBO? And how many people would think that was ok?

But rape is an act of domination and hate, much more than it's an act of desire. And it's tangibly damaged millions of people, just like racially motivated crimes.

So why do we need to ask and ask for it to be treated with care and complexity?

The above race-based analogy is imperfect, but it illustrates an ongoing problem with understanding the issue of rape, especially in the wider historical-political context of the repression of women. Many people won't treat the historical fact of the repression of women with the same seriousness that they grant to the historical fact of the repression of non-white peoples, despite all the things they share in common: (relative) forms of segregation, especially from social and political spaces of power; denial of voting rights; denial of education; systematic inequality of pay; denial of ownership of property; denial of legal autonomy. But despite all this, sexism isn’t quite the taboo that racism is. Some of the same people who might applaud the historic struggle for civil rights, say, are suspicious of the contemporary claims of feminism. People who would never use racist clichés as humor will use sexist ones. You can’t walk into a mainstream store and buy a golliwog anymore, thank Christ, but you can buy the modern version of a scold's bridle. Because it's funny, see? And this disparity often comes into play during discussions of rape and gender-based exploitation, particularly in popular culture.

There are many reasons for this, not least that feminism can complicate long-cherished aspects of male eros. And that's one of the tensions in "Game of Thrones" – its very daring, very contemporary openness about the body isn't matched with equally daring contemporary insights into the significance of those bodies. It often seems you get the same old story, but more graphically.

If anything, the machismo seems more open, more energized.

One brief example. In the season three episode 'The Climb', Joffrey murders the prostitute Ros, who has been given to him by Littlefinger in retribution for her spying. We don't see the act itself; instead the murder is revealed during Littlefinger's 'chaos is a ladder' speech to Varys, during which the camera cuts across a montage of scenes. Joffrey, who earlier in the episode has been proudly showing his crossbow to Margaery, is seen wielding it again, looking satisfied; the camera then pans across the room and reveals, trussed up above the bed, the dead body of Ros, arrows protruding from her chest and groin. From a wide shot, the camera then zooms in, and takes in the details of the body:


Ros 1
Ros 2

Compare this to a similar scene from a far older TV show, the BBC's 1976 adaptation of Robert Graves's 'I Claudius'. Both feature a murderous, young mad king, John Hurt as Caligula in the "I Claudius" case. In this scene, Caligula is playing a sex-game with his sister-lover (today's theme!), and trusses her up above a bed. She's pregnant with his child, and he's dressed as Zeus. Emulating Zeus, he decides to remove the unborn child from the womb, and cuts into his lover's stomach with a knife, killing her.

It's worth noting that the director of the much older "I, Claudius" reverses the order of shots we see in the Joffrey-Ros scene. Instead the camera takes a long shot of the room, and then zooms in not on the body of the woman but on the mad face and the wielded knife of the king. And the episode's closing moments dwell lingeringly, and with horror, on Caligula's bloodied face and beard.


Caligula1
Caligula 2

This movement away from the body and towards Caligula isn't done for reasons of censorship – the naked body of Caligula's lover has already been shown in the wide shot, and her stabbing death is shown in real time. But the difference of the focus of the close-up in these similar scenes betrays their different emphases: in "I, Claudius" the point of fascination isn't the body of a woman but the madness of a king. And the camera expresses this by dwelling closely on the signatures of that madness: the foolish costume-beard of a pretend-god, the widened rapt eyes, the partly-opened and fascinated mouth of Caligula as he contemplates the body of his sister and stabs her.

On paper – in the script of 'The Climb' – there were probably similar intentions when it came to the Joffrey-Ros scene: to show, to a horrifying extent, through the murder of a woman, the 'ladder of chaos' and the cruelty and madness of a particular king. But direction is interpretation. And the camerawork here offers a pervy counterpoint, different priorities. The fascination here, the emphasis here, is on the butchered body of Ros (sexually butchered too: remember the arrow in the groin). This is where the camera dwells. Sure, you could argue that a focus on her brutalized body is the best argument for Joffrey's depravity; you could argue that it echoes grimly the mannequin that Arya has shot earlier in the episode, also in the groin, as she recites the names of those she intends to kill (though, in that case, wouldn't the meaningful parallel to make here be between Arya and Joffrey? In which case why is the camera so cursory when it comes to Joffrey's reaction and psychology after this murder?). And maybe in a different show, with different tendencies, those possibilities would be enough. But a TV show is, among other things, a meaningful sequence of images, and it's hard to separate this image of a dead woman on display from the other women on display throughout "Game of Thrones", and the general freeness and delectation with which the show treats female flesh. Ros's body here is fetishized, posed, a curated and desirable corpse. (In contrast, scenes of the torture of Theon Greyjoy show much less interest in Theon's body and more on his experience; there’s also a sustained and interested focus on the psychology his torturer).

This shot of Ros's body can be read as the more Boschian end of the "Game of Thrones" sexual panorama. And it's depressing to see a contemporary show come off nastier and more retrograde when it comes to fetishizing sexual violence than a show that was made before I was born.


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This article is related to: Game of Thrones, HBO