Sexual Assault in HBO’s Game of Thrones
Viewers were upset after the rape of Cersei Lannister by her brother and lover, Jaime Lannister, in the episode Breaker of Chains. The scene was so controversial that it hit the front pages of newspapers. Many comments on the internet defended the show, saying that rape happens as a part of the culture in Westeros. Other comments bashed the show, saying that the scene was unnecessary. It wasn’t even in the books. It was added to heighten the sexual appeal of the show.
It wasn’t the first time rape appeared on the show. In season one, Daenerys Targaryen experiences marital rape by Khal Drogo, Sansa is attacked by men in King’s Landing, and instances of rape, attempted rape, or other kinds of sexual abuse are often referred to throughout each season.
The controversy arose again after the premiere of Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken. At the close of the episode Sansa Stark is assaulted on her wedding night by her husband, Ramsay Bolton. In the scene, Ramsay rips open the back of her dress and forces Reek, a once brother figure to Sansa, to watch.
The big question in the media is “did we need to see these instances of sexual assault in order to have a deeper understanding of the show?” Truthfully, that’s the wrong question. We don’t need to see any scenes of violence. We don’t need to see guts spilling in horror movies, limps torn off in war movies, or people shot in action movies. Anything can be made implicit. The thing is, we want to see it. Violent scenes are included, not because that is how the world works, but because it heightens the drama of the show. Once we’ve become desensitized, scenes must become more graphic to have the same effect. The more we see rape on television, the more it becomes expected and normalized. Instead we should ask ourselves, “do these scenes perpetuate a culture that encourages violence against women?”
There is sexual violence in the world and many insist that this is a good enough reason for it to appear on film. This would imply that TV shows always relay to us what is really going on outside of our living room. Television is not about reality, it is about perception. While some scenes make us feel uncomfortable, there is a line directors don’t often cross. Certain things for this culture are too hard to watch. Rape portrayed on the screen is not one of those things. It has become normalized.
When a scene encourages male sexual aggression and violence against women, when rape is used as a dramatic plot device and plays upon society’s already misconstrued rape stereotypes or tropes, then perhaps it is time we re-evaluate what doesn’t surprise us in our shows. A psychotic man sexually assaulting his wife on their wedding night is not a trope and neither is incestual sexual assault. But the slow tearing of dresses, the strong masculine man overpowering the damsel-like female, the quick ending of the scene to heighten the drama and the sexual tension and to cut out the actual uncomfortable, unsexy parts are tropes. They are more than unnecessary. They are harmful.
According to an Entertainment Weekly article 1, Gwendoline Christie, the actress who plays Brienne of Tarth, has defended the scenes by saying, “A lot of this show is inspired by actual historical events, and that’s what’s occurring with the women. Women have been treated appalling in history…Yes, those scenes are difficult, and they should be difficult.” Other defenders of the show say that rape is an important and necessary occurrence because it defines certain characters, sets certain plots in motion, and reveals just how hard it is to survive in one piece when living as a woman in the world of Game of Thrones.
If one is ignorant to the treatment of women in history, then watching a Game of Thrones‘ rape scene isn’t going to change that. Violence against women is a problem and has always been a problem and, for many cultures, it is normal and expected. Therefore, these scenes are difficult, but not because our culture is uncomfortable admitting that rape happens, nor are we uncomfortable with violence, coercion, or brutality. These rapes scenes are difficult because violence is being sexualized and violent sexual assault is being normalized.
We are not being shown rape, but rather, the non-consensual control of women, which is at the core of patriarchal fantasies. In the middle of Cersei’s assault, when we begin to see Cersei’s realization and distress, the scene cuts to a different place and we don’t see Cersei for the rest of the episode. The next time we see Cersei is in the following episode, Oathkeeper. Jaime talks to her as if there is nothing wrong and even greets her by saying “You sent for me, Your Grace” in a way that seems sarcastic. This is the same episode where Jaime gives Brienne his sword which she names Oathkeeper in a very emotionally, arguably romantic scene. This is all very touching, except for the fact that in the previous episode, Jaime forced himself on his sister who blatantly told him “no.” Jaime’s attack on Cersei goes unmentioned. No characters were altered, no lives changed or relationships defined. It never even phases Cersei afterwards that her brother/lover continued to have sex with her without her consent. Male aggression often goes without consequences.
As most of us remember, the Ramsay and Sansa scene ends the show quite dramatically. After her clothes are ripped off, the focus is shifted towards Reek’s horrified face. The gut-wrenching pain of Sansa is meant to be implied, while the scene is long enough to only show sexual male dominance over a female in distress. In the next episode, “The Gift” we see Sansa with bruises on her arms, begging Reek to help her. Sansa talks quite boldly to Ramsay in the same episode about his claim to the throne, since he is a bastard and his father’s wife is pregnant. Ramsay then shows her the flayed body of a woman who tried to help her. In Sansa and Ramsay’s relationship, sex and violence, for lack of a better phrase, go hand in hand.
Perhaps Sansa’s rape scene wasn’t too difficult since Sophie Turner’s Instagram blew up with comments along the lines of, and often more graphic than, “I’ll hit it way better than Ramsay did lol.” and “Sophie said she liked the scene….So….Sophie I’m coming to London in a week.” Aside from the issue of online harassment of women, such comments suggest that the scene in Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken doesn’t reveal the “appalling” treatment of women throughout history and neither does the scene with Cersei in Breaker of Chains. Instead, the scenes perpetuate a culture of male aggression, sexual assault, and online sexual harassment.
What reveals the appalling treatment of women, however, is the moment in The Gift when Sansa, panicked and sickly looking, begs Reek for help. Both this scene and the rape scene last for roughly two minutes. Yet, one is dramatic and sexual while the other is emotionally wrought. Only one shows the non-sexualized mental and emotional state of Sansa, but the assault is given as much screen time as her suffering. In the case of Cersei and Jaime, viewers may have enjoyed watching the very attractive Nikolaj Coster-Waldau rip off equally attractive Lena Heady’s clothes. And at first, the scene doesn’t seem like rape. But one must give pause, and realize she said no. When violence is filmed as something sexy and sex and violence become confused in entertainment, than that depiction perpetuates rape culture. In a country where one in six women are sexually assaulted 2, it is time to stop sexualizing and dramatizing violence against women on television.
- Hibberd, James. “‘Game of Thrones’ Star Defends the Show’s Female Violence Scenes.” Entertainment Weekly’s EW.com. 16 June 2015. Web. 23 June 2015. <http://www.ew.com/article/2015/06/16/game-thrones-violence-women-defends> ↩
- “Who Are the Victims? | RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.” Who Are the Victims? | RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Web. 23 June 2015. ↩
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