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Rape Culture Sidetracks Game of Thrones

Women and Hollywood By Inkoo Kang | Women and Hollywood April 21, 2014 at 2:38PM

Spoiler alert: This post discusses last night's episode.
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Game of Thrones

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. 

This article is related to: Rape, Game of Thrones


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