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Is "Game of Thrones" Obsessed With Sexual Assault?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire April 21, 2014 at 3:37PM

Even on a show where people are murdered and violated on a regular basis, the incestuous rape in "Breaker of Chains" turned some viewers' stomachs.
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Cersei (Lena Headey, center) in "Game of Thrones'" Sept of Baelor
Cersei (Lena Headey, center) in "Game of Thrones'" Sept of Baelor

As an immensely popular but not especially profound show, "Game of Thrones" tends to prompt conversation that's more widespread than it is enlightening: The amount of words recappers have devoted to evaluating the recasting of Daario Naharis seems like a bit of a giveaway. (Coming Soon: "Take Our 'Who's Your Favorite Gregor Clegane?' Quiz!") But last night's episode, "Breaker of Chains" has sparked an involved and fascinating discussion about the's show's studied amorality, and especially how it deals with sexual violence.

"Did 'Game of Thrones' Finally Go Too Far?" asked Charlie Jane Anders at io9  , which is not the kind of question you ask when the answer is "No." The scene that sent Anders over the edge is one in which Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) rapes his sister, Cersei (Lena Headey) in the Sept of Baelor. "Even with all the other terrible things this show has made us watch," she says, "Jaime raping Cersei next to the freshly dead body of their son is a strong candidate for the worst."

It's difficult to compile a comprehensive list of all the other appalling things "Game of Thrones" has "made us watch," but in that same episode, there's a scene where a cannibal wilding informs a young boy that he's about to eat his dead parents, and the previous week featured a young woman being torn apart by dogs and climaxed with the graphic poisoning death of the unloved King Joffrey. Crossing lines is pretty much what "Game of Thrones" does, a practice that becomes more difficult as the show crosses ever-more-elaborate forms of human depravity off its to-do list. As Spencer Kornhaber put it in the Atlantic, "The show is doing more than reiterating the 'you win or you die' philosophy. It's demonstrating that that philosophy is ascendant, and that it's turning Westeros into a hellscape."

Still, incestuous rape is extreme even by Westerosi standards, especially when committed by a character who's meant to be in the early stages of redemption. On the one hand, as Myles McNutt put it at Cultural Learnings, "[S]cenes like this are only natural in King's Landing, where everyone must contort themselves in such a way that they're left in search of their own self (and, like Cersei, finding themselves in situations where the line between right and wrong is broken either by choice or, as in this case, through force)." 

The problem, as Hillary Kelly wrote at The New Republic, is that we've been here before. Cersei's rape is merely the latest, and most awful, evidence that "the fact that to be female in Westeros is to be a pawn, even -- and especially -- when you think you're in control."

The entire scene in the sept was an exercise in Cersei's belittlement. She watched her father degrade and dishonor (albeit truthfully) her firstborn's legacy and then manipulate her youngest into serving as his marionette. Then, on the floor next to the body of her dead son, the only man she's ever taken into her confidence abused that trust in the most vile way imaginable. It was, more than any throat cutting or execution, the very worst of this world.

At the A.V. Club, Sonia Saraiya argues that the scene fits a larger pattern of complicated but consensual sexual encounters into rape in the transition from George R.R. Martin's books to HBO's screen. (In an interview with HitFix's Alan Sepinwall, the episode's director, Alex Graves, said that he viewed the encounter as a rape that eventually became consensual, but it mercifully doesn't play out that way.)

It's hard to shake the idea that "Game of Thrones," the show, doesn't see a problem with pushing a scene from complicated, consensual sex to outright rape.... It assumes that rape between characters doesn't fundamentally change the rest of their story -- and it assumes that the difference between consent and rape is, to use the parlance, a "blurred line." It seems more likely that Game of Thrones is falling into the same trap that so much television does -- exploitation for shock value. And, in particular, the exploitation of women's bodies.

At The Week, Scott Meslow wrote that turning sex into rape "significantly changes the arcs of both Jaime and Cersei, and not for the better," and Vulture's Nina Shen Rastogi said that "the scene didn't make sense to me, from Jaime's perspective. The lack of a character grounding made this scene feel twice-perverse, and sad, to me. I know I'm in the minority in my empathy for Cersei, but she deserves a lot better." (It's worth nothing that "Game of Thrones" nets only a mention in Time's article about how TV dramas are exploring rape culture.)

But in revisiting the scene, and the discussion around it the day after the episode aired, McNutt tried to place the scene within the context of the show's as-yet-undefined conception of Jaime's developing character: 

[T]he rape becomes Jaime's crisis of identity boiling over: here, in this moment of grief where their son is dead, she nonetheless denies his passion, leading him to lose control and sexually assault Cersei in an effort to take back his former identity by force. This is how I read the scene, a reading that does not excuse Jaime's behavior but frames it within a complicated characterization. Jaime rapes Cersei, and the fact that he has reasons for doing it that stem from an identity crisis does not change that fact. 

The Washington Post's Alyssa Rosenberg, a close reader of Martin's books and eloquent critic of the show, read the scene along similar lines.

To assuage her pain and grief, Cersei is asking Jaime to inflict more pain on himself. "You're a hateful woman," Jaime tells her. "Why have the gods made me love a hateful woman?" But his response is not to stop loving her, not to stop believing that he is victim to the gods. Instead, Jaime rapes his sister, passing that sense of unendurable pain on to her. He must know that this is the worst possible way that he could hurt her. Jaime knew that Robert raped Cersei, and in the novels, he wanted to kill Robert for it. Not only does raping Cersei remind his sister of her repeated, humiliating violation, Jaime is poisoning their own relationship, the thing that had been Cersei's antidote to the miseries of her marriage. It is an exceptionally cruel thing for Jaime to do.

So it is, and for some viewers, at least, unforgivable as well. But if I had to think it through -- and, frankly, there are some weeks when "Game of Thrones" doesn't seem worth the effort -- my sense is that raping Cersei is Jaime's way of burning his bridges, damaging his relationship with her and their whole misbegotten family beyond repair. He knows that Lannisters always pay their debts, and this is one that can only be repaid one way. (At the moment, Cersei is fixated on the death of their other brother, Tyrion, but she'll move on.) He's already prompted his father to disown him, and now he's permanently sundered his affair with his sister as well. One thing the scene gets right about rape, at least, is that Jaime's attack on Cersei isn't about sex; it's about power. It's about overpowering a woman, and it's about doing something that even the Kingslayer can never take back. The episode's title, "Breaker of Chains," refers to Daenerys Targaryen's ongoing anti-slavery crusade, but they're not the only ones aching for freedom from bondage. The question is if "Game of Thrones" will explore the fact that Jaime has traded the proximate prison of family and sexual desire for a permanently tarnished soul, and how, if at all, that will weigh upon him.

This article is related to: Game of Thrones


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