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Rape Culture Sidetracks Game of Thrones

by Inkoo Kang
April 21, 2014 2:38 PM
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Game of Thrones is a show full of violence, including sexual violence, but showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss generally tend to make that violence meaningful. The beheading of Ned Stark, the massacre at the Red Wedding, even the smaller-scale acts that we generally root for, like Arya's killing of Polliver to reclaim her sword Needle -- all these shows of force and eruptions of aggression tend to have meaning for either the characters or in detailing the moral universe of the show. 

Last night, though, Benioff, Weiss, and episode director Alex Graves gave viewers reason to severely doubt their judgment when it comes to rape, and thus their grasp of the story they're telling. In an early scene at King's Landing, twins and lovers Cersei and Jaime mourn the death of their son, the evil boy king Joffrey, in the castle's holy sanctuary. Convinced that her brother Tyrion killed her son, Cersei begs Jaime to kill their sibling. Jaime calls her "a hateful woman" and then proceeds to pull her hair, rip off her skirts, and rape her next to the body of their dead son, while she repeatedly pleads, "Stop it" and "It's not right." 

It's one of the most horrific scenes that Game of Thrones has ever had, which is saying something. It's not at all clear why Jaime chooses to sexually assault his beloved sister -- some have suggested Jaime is punishing Cersei for her assassination request. The scene is doubly punishing because, despite being the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the country, the queen regent has been at risk of rape all her life. She feared marital rape during her forced marriage to King Robert Baratheon, and during Season 2's Battle of Blackwater, she tells Sansa, "If the city falls, these fine women should be in for a bit of a rape." Cersei committed one kind deed at her son's wedding, which was to chase away Maester Pycell, who Cersei believes to be a molester or worse, from a powerless young woman. 

The show deviates from George R. R. Martin's book by making the scene clearly nonconsensual. (Read Martin's version of that scene here, which clearly illustrates Cersei's grief-tinged excitement and desire.) But the director -- and thus presumably Benioff and Weiss -- apparently believe that that horrific scene wasn't rape. Graves told TV critic Alan Sepinwall, "It becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle." 

Cersei struggles against Jaime, both physically and verbally, until the very end of that scene. Jaime's motivations are unclear, but her reactions are unmistakable. "It's not right," she declares over and over again. It's not right that her closest confidante and the love of her life rapes her, nor that he chooses to do so by the dead body of their son. The act does not become consensual or a "turn on"; as Slate's Amanda Marcotte notes, there is no such thing as a "sexy rape" where a woman decides in the middle of being attacked that she is actually pretty into it.  

It's extremely troubling, then, that Graves can't recognize that he shot and edited a rape scene. (That he can't recognize rape as rape is, of course, a perfect illustration of how rape culture works.) And it's even more disturbing that this trope -- of the rape victim who is turned on by or falls in love with her rapist -- makes its second appearance on Game of Thrones. The AV Club's Sonia Soraiya observed that Daenerys was raped as a child bride by her near-thirty-year-old husband Khal Drogo in the show's pilot -- another departure from Martin's books, which painstakingly make clear that the Dothraki king solicits consensual sex with his new wife. As Soraiya notes, the TV show version makes Daenerys a character who comes to love the man who sexually assaults her, which makes her a vastly different character -- and colors her heroic journey in a completely different way -- than the book version. 

It's remotely possible that, even if Graves didn't realize he directed a rape scene, that Benioff and Weiss did understand that and wanted to torpedo Jaime's planned redemptive arc for some unknown reason. (As a female viewer, I don't think that any efforts to redeem him as a character will ever wash away this sin, no matter how many times he makes googly eyes at Brienne.) As much as I want to give Benioff and Weiss the benefit of the doubt,

 common sense suggests that the showrunners have cheaply used Cersei's assault as a shock tactic without understanding the full consequences of rape for character or story, and thus puts forth a shockingly ignorant and offensive idea of what rape is and how it damages its victims. 

Please do not share any spoilers from the books in the comments. 

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  • real | May 22, 2014 8:43 PMReply

    There's no "rape culture", there's "rape hysteria subculture".

    Rape is right on pair with murder in the "reputation"/acceptability. This so called "rape culture" is such that violence against CHILDREN is more commonly accepted to be exploited for humor or without all the fuss/hysteria that rape provokes. Except rape where victim is male, which is more commonly accepted as funny and not so worth of serious discussion in general.

    In fact, I've seen people commenting this rape-ish scene, saying it was when they really got disappointed with the character, while excusing his attempt to murder a child.

    Rape hysteria is exploited for profit. People make a living cultivating fear and hatred on women. That's really disgusting. Rape is a horrendous crime as it is, the fact that some people will exploit it for profit is simply despicable, just as much as some "men right's activists" who even deny it (except when men are victims, I suppose).

  • Beery | May 12, 2014 10:48 AMReply

    So when Drogo repeatedly rapes Dany, you worthless lot are silent. When thousands of brown skinned women get raped by the Dothraki horde, its all cool. When Theon is tortured mercilessly and castrated, all's fine with the world. When entire villages are slaughtered and burned by the Mountain's men, hey, at least it wasn't poor, sweet, innocent Cersei being raped.

    You bandwagon jumping hypocrites disgust me, and furthermore, IT'S FICTION!

  • Arturo Ulises | April 21, 2014 9:43 PMReply

    I just wanted to point out that Benioff was fully aware it was a rape scene.

    "It becomes a really kind of horrifying scene, because you see, obviously, Joffrey’s body right there, and you see that Cersei is resisting this. She’s saying no, and he’s forcing himself on her,"

    Quoted in the article "What the rape scene on last night’s ‘Game of Thrones’ means for the show" in the Washington Post.

  • Confuzzled | April 21, 2014 6:43 PMReply

    'Redemptive arc'? This is the same chap who tried to murder a child - which is pretty bad, right? - so why is rape suddenly not in his nature? He's likely suffering some sort of post traumatic stress - tortured, imprisoned, maimed e.t.c... - so not making excuses but he ain't no saint. Never was.

  • Sara | April 23, 2014 5:44 AM

    Redemptive in the book sense. In the books he is on a redemptive arch that doesn't seem possible with what the show is doing with his character

  • Devin Faraci | April 21, 2014 3:48 PMReply

    "It's not at all clear why Jaime chooses to sexually assault his beloved sister"

    It seems incredibly clear. Jaime has traveled back to King's Landing and lost his hand all to get back to his sister. When he returns he finds that she doesn't want him anymore and that his missing hand has made him no longer the great swordsman he was. Basically by losing Cersei AND his hand he has lost everything that makes him HIM.

    He is powerless and adrift. He is a man who has measured himself by his ability to fight and his love for his sister. Both are gone. He forces himself on Cersei because it's the only way he can figure out how to assert the power he has lost. As always rape is about power, not sex, and it's no different here.

    This is so clear that it's beyond baffling that people cannot see it. That bafflement comes second only to people who seem to have forgotten what show they're watching and that this is a scene where a man and his sister are having sex next to the corpse of their son. The whole thing is HORRIBLE. Top to bottom. And that's the point. Jaime Lannister, as sympathetic as he has become, is not a hero. Somehow viewers have forgotten this.

  • real | May 22, 2014 8:49 PM

    "Rape is about power, not sex" is just a pseudoscientific meme that is repeated mindlessly. Psychoanalysis is also bullshit, and even more so if the patient is a fictional character.

    It's not even clear that it was really rape or she was just objecting to the inconvenient place/situation where it was happening, by the way.

  • Azul | April 22, 2014 1:51 PM

    Solely with respect to Jaime & Cersei: Even without taking the books into consideration, here is a man who - despite the prevailing structure of his society - is against rape enough to protect a stranger (Brienne) at quite some cost to himself. And yet we are to believe that he would set aside this bone-deep conviction to rape the one person (Cersei) who has been his lodestone, his purpose, all his life? He is a child-maimer and Kingslayer, yes. But this one act is completely out of character - and as such, bad storytelling. I would've believed this scene had it been filmed as a twisted search for joint solace, wholly consensual. (And I say that not having read the relevant part of the book.) But it was a rape scene as presented on-screen.

  • Alex | April 22, 2014 1:44 PM

    ^I think still missing the point slightly... The point is not that the Lannisters are in any way heroes and whether this scene falls in line with the morality of their characters or their world. The point is that a woman is being raped and somehow, in the middle of it, she decides she enjoys it. I guess you can argue that Cersei is a twisted character and maybe she's into that kind of thing, but to me this seems like a male-fantasy trope that has been so overused in pop culture and is just lazy storytelling. Also, the fact that the same thing happened with Daenerys and Drogo and their rape-initiated love leads one to wonder if there's a pattern to this kind of thing. THAT is what is disturbing and offensive about this -- that the overuse of a lazy trope might imply that this is a general thing that happens between rapists and victims, and not something that happens between two deliciously twisted characters on GoT. Wouldn't both of them having consensual sex next to their son's body and being mutually turned on by it have been the most bone-chillingly creepy/sexy thing ever? How does making it start out as a rape make this a better scene?

  • Symphony | April 22, 2014 5:33 AM

    ^ Missing the point slightly. The issue is why they decided to turn a consensual sex scene in the books into a rape scene in the TV show. Unless Benioff and Weiss are deciding to go somewhere with it, there was no point.

  • Janus | April 22, 2014 1:36 AM

    ^ this, exactly. And while there is, indeed, no such thing as "sexy rape" (agreed, absolutely, 100%), there's also no such thing as dragons — and yet, here we are. There seems to be something that happens in every episode that sets off our moral Richter scale, but it seems like many viewers of the show are playing the role of Arya, while the show itself is playing the role of the Hound: reminding us whenever necessary (e.g. whenever we sit there shocked – shocked! – at what wickedness befalls, and is often perpetrated by, our favorite characters) about exactly what kind of world they live in. And weren't we all just a couple of weeks ago cheering as Arya, a preteen girl, quite graphically shoved her pointy sword into the throat of someone who "deserved it?"

    Applying the morals of our world to the world of GoT will likely get you beheaded, poisoned, disemboweled, hacked to pieces, crossbowed in the face, stabbed in the groin, or even raped next to your dead son by your brother/lover/father of dead son. And if you're shocked, surprised, perturbed, or otherwise dismayed by any of the above, that's simply because you forgot where you were.

  • Dave | April 21, 2014 3:44 PMReply

    Daenerys and Khal Drogo - that first night was consensual in the books, however after that Khal Drogo consistently rapes her for months. Daenerys still fell in love with a man who raped her continuously in the books and in the show.

  • real | May 22, 2014 8:54 PM

    Well remembered. The actual phrase, often quoted mindlessly, was that "rape isn't sexy" or something of that sort, not that "it's not about sex". Even though if I recall the author dabbles deeply into her pseudoscientific etiology for rape, basically a ancestral conspiracy theory from patriarchal cavemen, who figured that penises, not rocks and wooden clubs, would be the best weapon to takeover the power in society and oppress women.

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