A Frank Discussion of Game of Thrones‘s Rape Scene And Its Epidemic of Sexual Violence
The Mary Sue
Since last Sunday, the Internet has been abuzz with talk of Game of Thrones‘ controversial rape scene. We touched on it in our recap and shared with you the responses of the scene’s director, co-writer, and one of its actors, plus A Song of Ice and Fire scribe George R.R. Martin. But we hadn’t written a post specifically on our personal thoughts on scene, because…well, because we have a lot of them. There’s much to unpack about rape culture, storytelling tropes, and the responsibility of fiction. So Jill Pantozzi and Rebecca Pahle, along with Geekosystem’s Victoria McNally, sat down to hash it all out. Below you’ll find our uncensored discussion on the scene and why, specifically, it made us boil with seething, all-encompassing rage.
Jill: Sunday night, we all sat down, excited about our weekly viewing of HBO’s Game of Thrones. But this week we got something we didn’t expect, something which made a lot of people very uncomfortable. And after the episode was over, none of us really knew what to do. When we arrived at the office the next day we realized we actually had a lot to say on the matter so we decided to put it down on paper, so to speak. So, ladies, tell me your initial reaction after the scene in question.
Victoria: Well, obviously my initial reaction wasn’t… good. Especially because it’s been a while since I’ve read A Storm of Swords and didn’t remember the scene they were attempting to reference, so it felt particularly out of character for how they’d been depicting Jaime up to that point. And the way the scene was shot is very Jaime-centric, unfortunately. I kept waiting for a closer reaction shot of Cersei’s face that might at least narratively balance out the awfulness of what Jaime was doing, but instead the camera kept its distance, which made the whole thing even worse. Oddly it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the rest of the episode as I was watching it, though, and I’m not sure why — to put it in personal context, The Walking Dead’s season finale used the threat of rape as an important plot point, and I had a hard time getting through the rest as a result. Which isn’t to say that the showrunners are somehow magically off the hook because I wasn’t still thinking about Jaime and Cersei while Daenerys was hurling chains at slave owners. If anything, it proves that they didn’t need the rape at all for it to be a compelling hour of television.
Rebecca: I was staring at my screen in shock when it happened. I keep thinking of the scene in the trailer with Jaime and Brienne and the armor. I was really looking forward to that scene, because I’ve loved the evolution of Jaime and Brienne’s relationship, but now they’ve made one half of that relationship a rapist. The writers had Cersei be raped for shock value. And I foresee the writers just brushing that off as another aspect of their dysfunctional, messed-up relationship, but it’s not. It’s HUGE. Plenty of relationships and characters are screwed up, but there was no need to add rape to the mix. It’s something another one of my favorite shows, Vikings, did too: Making one of their main characters a rapist to make him “edgy,” and then asking us to sympathize with him later on. It’s like, do the writers actually get that there are tons of people who are survivors of rape out there in the real world, watching these shows? Rape as a plot device is something that happens so often, and I’m just kind of agog as to why any of these writers would think it’s OK.
Victoria: To add to Rebecca’s point, I almost typed “the camera kept his distance” instead of its distance while I was describing my own reaction. So yeah, male gaze is definitely a factor here.
Rebecca: The fact that there’ve been, what, two scenes where prostitutes are killed in a violent but also sexual manner? Also adds to that “male gaze” thing. “We want it to be disturbing and violent, but we also want there to be boobs!”
Jill: I felt similarly to you two. I did remember this particular scene from the books and how uncomfortable it had made me, but I never considered the book scene to be rape. So when rape was what I started to see unfold on screen, I grew incredibly angry. I paused the episode, turned to my boyfriend and asked, “Did he just rape her??” He replied, “Yeah, that’s what it looked like to me.” And I had to sit there for a minute before continuing with the episode, but it stayed with me. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. And he asked me why I couldn’t just let this one instance go and I had to tell him, “You don’t understand how many I do let go. That’s the problem.”
Rebecca: There’s Jaime raping Cersei, there’s Joffrey’s sexualized murder of Ros and of the two prostitutes whom he made torture each other. Khal Drogo and Dany. And people say “But GRRM wrote a gritty, realistic story, not a cheerful fantasy world with rainbows and unicorns!” (even though there are unicorns), but they say that in defense of sexually violent acts that were invented specifically for the show.
Jill: But the interesting thing about this particular instance is a large number of people took issue with it. Not just book readers. Not just feminists.
Rebecca: Exactly. So many people read this as rape and took issue. Reading the commentary from the director, who said it was consensual, I was thinking “…did the editor screw this up? Did they dub in ‘no’s for ‘yes’es? What’s happening?”
Victoria: I was convinced there had to be an alternate cut of the scene that was closer to the spirit of the original text, but according to the director, it’s his final cut. Of course, the director also thinks that wrapping your legs around someone is proof of consent, which is more upsetting than the actual scene if you ask me. (also, those unicorns are one-horned Skagosi goats if we’re going to get technical about ’em)
Jill: Right, and that’s a big issue for me. They can say all they want about what they intended for the scene to be, and there’s even some confusion back and forth between them as to what that was, but it was viewed as rape. And if they didn’t mean for it to be viewed as rape, they failed in all respects of their creative field.
Rebecca: It’s some Robin Thicke “Blurred Lines” BS. “But she kissed me!” does not make it consensual.
Rebecca: What, Victoria? There aren’t unicorns?
Victoria: Not that we know of yet. http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Skagos
Rebecca: Dammit. I thought the unicorns on Skagos were legit unicorns, not stupid-ass goats. They’re still unicorns in my heart.
Jill: The thing that worries me is—was there no one, anywhere along the way, who questioned the scene?
Rebecca: I wonder if all this pushback will have an impact on the future of the show? Like, if it’ll make the showrunners think “Heyyyy, maybe we should take a long, hard look at how we treat violence toward women.” I’m guessing not, but I can dream.
Rebecca: Right?! Because it was clearly rape. It’s so tone-deaf on the part of [director Alex] Graves and [co-writer David] Benioff that they didn’t seem to even conceive of how it would look.
Jill: And I say this constantly when we’re talking about diversity in all industries. It can only help the creative process to have a different world view in the room.
Rebecca: I wonder how many women got their eyes on that scene before it aired.
Victoria: To answer Jill’s question, I sort of worry that everyone involved in production is so committed to depicting horrible things they sort of forget they aren’t airing this show in a vacuum. The Telegraph ran an article a few months ago about the attempted rape of Sansa two seasons ago and the whole thing was framed very positively, even by Sophie Turner herself. Apparently the director told her “the scene would be ‘choreographed like a ballet’ and would be ‘beautiful.'” Of course he’s talking about the direction of the scene and not the actual act of rape itself, and probably if I’d read this article before the last episode I’d be a little more forgiving, but “beautiful rape” is such a disgusting and pervasive trope in drama already. And the scene didn’t strike me as beautiful at all, even from a purely visual standpoint. It was a bunch of guys clawing at a young girl. But anyway, my point is that if this kind of rhetoric happens a lot on set, then maybe all the actors are just desensitized to it. After all, if you’re a lead actor in the world’s biggest television show and your director is telling you to trust him, then of course you’re going to trust him.
Jill: I think a lot of people in general are desensitized to it. That’s the bigger issue. We see it thrown into our media so often, it becomes “no big deal” to many, and that’s scary. Rape is a big deal. Consider the effect the scene in Game of Thrones might have in a world already throwing around phrases like “legitimate rape” or “rape-rape.” People try to add these qualifiers or make excuses for why something isn’t rape, and that’s exactly what’s happening in response to this episode in particular. It’s why so many rapes go unreported or why many rapists don’t think they’re actually rapists. It’s a horrifying thought and it’s something being perpetuated in our entertainment unnecessarily and without caution.
Rebecca: Exactly. I saw someone ask in response to complaints about the rape scene, “Well, why is it OK for Game of Thrones to include murder but not rape?”
Victoria: Well, murder victims aren’t exactly watching Game of Thrones like rape victims might potentially be. You know, because murder victims are dead.
Rebecca: And also no one watching Game of Thrones would defend the sorts of murders we see in the show. Ned Stark getting his head chopped off. The Red Wedding. But with rape, people do make excuses, in the real world, about how it’s not that bad, or about how she deserved it, or about how the poor rapists are going to get their college scholarships taken away.
Victoria: Also, murder can be motivated by a lot of things. But the whole point of rape is to humiliate someone and exert power over them. There’s no such thing as an honorable rape.
Rebecca: I saw someone say what happened to Cersei wasn’t really rape because she easily could have fought him off if she’d really wanted to, because he only has one hand. That’s so scary, because people qualifying rape isn’t restricted to fiction. And here this extremely popular show is, presenting it like it’s not a big deal, like it’s something that happens in episode three and by episode five everyone will have forgotten about it and the victim of it doesn’t have to live with the consequences that, in the real world, they absolutely have to live with.
Jill: I bet it doesn’t even take that long.
Victoria: Nobody would try to say that Ser Rodrik Cassel deserved to get his head cut off by Theon because he didn’t fight back.
Rebecca: Yup. And people say “But Westeros is a violent world for women, so of course they want to portray that.” And the fact that Westeros is a horrible place for women is an essential part of the story, because it creates this situation where women lack a certain amount of power, so you have your Sansas and your Cerseis and your Ashas all trying to make their way in this world that they’re at a natural disadvantage in, and that leads to some great storytelling and great characters. But we can get that without showing characters being raped. It’s unnecessary and it’s irresponsible. So many of the things the show has added to the storylines of its female characters have to do with violence. Like Talisa/Jeyne getting stabbed in the baby. And in the books, wasn’t the person Catelyn killed at the Red Wedding a man? And in the show it was a woman? One of his grandsons changed to his wife, or something?
Victoria: Yes! In the book her hostage was Aegon Frey. http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Aegon_Frey
Jill: One of the other interesting things I find about the awfulness that is this scene, is that in the books they are having sex in front of their dead son (disturbing) and Cersei has her period. I mention this because it’s something we almost never see in our entertainment, and the creators of the show left it out. And I have to wonder why? Did that make them uncomfortable as men? Is that why it was left out?
Victoria: Rape is fine, but moonblood? That obviously will not stand.
Jill: And it’s a little thing of course, and there may have been logistics about it, but honestly, you’re adapting this work and changing it to suit you better. That has to be acknowledged.
Rebecca: There does seem to have been a conscious decision to add more violence towards females. At least taken on an individual level—someone had to decide to add the Joffrey prostitute-torture scene, for example. I wonder if they even realize how much they’re doing it
Jill: Exactly, and with what purpose? We already knew Joffrey was a terrible human being. Same with the scene in the sept. It was already tough to watch. Why add rape?
Rebecca: Literally no reason! No reason at all! And rape isn’t just the act itself. It’s rape culture that places blame on women, it’s institutionalized sexism that creates this worldview of women as objects, it’s in many cases years and years of trauma and PTSD and ruined lives. But they give us Joffrey torturing prostitutes because “LOL it’s egdy,” and then they never mention it again. There are no consequences to that specific act. In the most recently episode, Margaery mentioned that one of Joff’s favorite things to do was “torturing animals.” He tortured women. We saw him torturing women. Game of Thrones will include sexualized assault, but they’ve shown very little ability or even willingness to address the emotional consequences upon the victims, which is terrible.
Victoria: But in all seriousness, I don’t ever think they got close enough to Cersei with the camera to do anything with her period. The whole scene is shot very voyeuristically, and Jaime takes up most of the scene because he’s on top of her. Which, why? If they’d really been hoping for an ambiguously consensual, intensely intimate sex scene, then why did they shoot it in such an un-intimate way? It’s not as if they couldn’t have gotten close to the actors while keeping Joffrey in frame, because they were pretty tight into Oberyn and Ellarias faces during their sex scene and somehow still managed to pack it full of boobs.
Rebecca: Well geez, Victoria, it’s Game of Thrones, they can’t leave out the boobs.
Victoria: Actually, it wasn’t even Ellaria’s face, was it? It was the male prostitute.
Rebecca: I think you saw Oberyn and the male prostitute, with boobs hovering in the background like little baby angels.
Jill: *flutter flutter*
Rebecca: I hate that it happened with Cersei in particular, because fans already have a less-than-positive relationship with her. She’s “the bitch,” and i’m 99.8% sure the show itself isn’t going to touch on the trauma of what Jaime did to her, not least because the director doesn’t actually think she was raped.
Jill: Exactly, and at this point, everything is filmed.
Victoria: I originally thought that maybe they were trying to make the audience sympathize with Cersei by raping her. But of course there are people online saying that she deserved it, because people are monsters.
Jill: They aren’t going to go back to address it.
Rebecca: Women being used by writers as fodder for manpaaaaaaaain is so terrible and so frustrating. And it especially pisses me off with Game of Thrones, because it has so many great, complex female characters.
Jill: And we’re right back to “rape culture,” which so many people don’t understand or recognize when they see it. This is it.
Victoria: But even if they did sympathize with her, then that’s just as bad, I feel. Like they were worried that the only reason people would possibly sympathize with Cersei is if they saw her become victimized firsthand.
Rebecca: Oh yeah, if people did sympathize with her, they still shouldn’t have included the scene. But the fact that her own emotional response to her rape is probably going to be cut out makes me seeeeeethe.
Victoria: When there are so many reasons to sympathize with Cersei in the books. How hard would a monologue about her upbringing have been? About how everyone treated her and Jaime differently because of their gender even though they were almost completely identical at a young age? Heck, she’s literally standing over her dead son’s body and watching her other son get led away from her, how is that not hard to sympathize with?
Jill: I’m sure we could keep talking about this all day, and will certainly continue talking about it when we see each other in the office next but…where do we go from here? I’ve been seeing a lot of fans say this was enough for them, they are done with the show. How do you guys feel? Personally, it really taints the rest of the series for me. I wish I could forget the scene ever happened, that it would be deleted in the DVD, but I can’t, and it won’t.
Rebecca: Same. I want to forget that the scene happened, but then I don’t, because I don’t want to let them off the hook for it.
Jill: Good point. And I won’t be letting them off the hook for it either.
Rebecca: Jaime’s scenes are going to be tough for me for a while. I’m not going to stop watching, because Asha/Yara hasn’t been in this season yet and I need to see her. What is dead may never die!
Rebecca: I hope this controversy wakes the showrunners up a bit and makes them realize what they’re doing isn’t ok, but my hopes aren’t high.
Victoria: I’m not willing to give up on the show just yet either. But I can already feel myself losing a lot of enthusiasm I had at the start of this season. Which sucks, because we have all the Meereen stuff coming up, too, and as much as I loooove Daenerys, I also can’t wait to see her make some mistakes. But now I’m second guessing how those mistakes are going to manifest. I’m second guessing everything, in fact.
Rebecca: I’m really worried about how they’re going to treat the relationship between Sansa and Petyr, because that’s a very delicate, creepy-as-sh*t situation in the books, and D&D haven’t exactly shown themselves masters of subtlety when it comes to this sort of thing :/
Jill: It sucks to be such a huge fan of something and have it disappoint you in the worst way possible.
Victoria: I’m going to be a lot less focused on what the characters are doing and more on what the writers are making the characters do, which is never a good way to watch a show. Once I’m out of the moment and thinking about the artifice of the narration while I’m still in the process of watching, I start to lose interest. Thats exactly what happened with Doctor Who, and I’m worried it’s going to happen with Game of Thrones, now.
Rebecca: You could be so much better, Game of Thrones.
To find out more about support options available for survivors of sexual abuse, visit the official website for RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.