Game of Thrones and Rape TV: Alternatives to Reality

This is a follow-up to the discussion of last week’s rape scene between brother-sister pair Jaime and Cersei Lannister. Before I go any further, I’ll issue the always necessary alert:

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

although not too many, because at this point I honestly can’t wrap my head around the many, many changes this week’s episode has made to the plotline established in the books. Really, it hurts my brain.

So on to brighter topics–by which I mean much more depressing topics. In the What-Will-Come-of-the-Jaime/Cersei Rape? pool: for those of you who said “Nothing,” you win! This week’s episode contained not even the briefest mention of how Jaime forced his sister to have sex on the floor of the sept beside their dead son. Instead, he (Jaime, not dear little Psycho-king) is shown offering Tyrion moral support, giving Brienne knightly gifts to show how much he respects her, and talking about what a monster Cersei is. It should come as no surprise that Cersei’s rape would be a one-off action soon forgotten, since the director of the episode, Alex Graves, said in an interview that the rape “becomes consensual in the end” (http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/review-game-of-thrones-breaker-of-chains-uncle-deadly). That’s right: it’s the end of the act that counts. Just like muggings. (Of course, we all know about how muggers get acquitted via the in-the-end defense, as in: “After I beat the shit out of him and shoved a knife against his throat, he just gave me his wallet. So in the end, the wallet transfer was completely consensual.)

It seems many viewers and commentators have forgotten about the previous episode, too. Salon.com, which published no less than seven articles last week on Jaime and Cersei, rape in Game of Thrones, rape culture, and the portrayal of rape on TV, today published only an interview with the man behind Westeros.org and a recap called “Quietly Noble.” Who or what does that title refer to? Jaime Lannister. (The author’s position basically boils down to: yes, Jaime raped his sister and threw Bran out a window, but he’s a really good character. http://www.salon.com/2014/04/28/game_of_thrones_recap_quietly_noble/)

Apparently, then, some out there in TV land, after a week of tense debate, are now willing to drop the whole rape thing and move on to other shocks and outrages. Frankly, I’d love to move on, too, if I didn’t feel so damned awful for guessing that there would be no repercussions from the rape scene, that Cersei’s assault would be used as symbolic shorthand for how messed up Jaime and Cersei’s relationship is, and that this week the writers would push that Universal Amnesia Button they love to use in TV, and all the viewers would be transported to a slightly different catastrophe. Deep in my heart, I was hoping that inserting a violent sex act between Jaime and Cersei, an event that has not occurred in the books so far, would do something different and permanent to the characters or the relationship between them. But no–as I predicted, this week we have the same drunk, bitter Queen Regent, and the same clean-cut, quietly noble Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. Sometimes, it sucks to be right.

Even so, I’m determined not to wallow in cynicism over this whole thing. No, I’m not going to boycott Game of Thrones. I already read all the books, so technically I know what’s coming (if the show doesn’t go too gonzo with the storyline alterations) and I realize how brutal life is for humans, regardless of sex, in George R.R. Martin’s universe. But I’d also like to be able to keep watching the series without bile rising in my throat every time King’s Landing, or Jaime or Cersei, pop up on my screen. If you’re like me and could appreciate an antidote to Game of Throne’s latest case of Trivialized Television Rape Syndrome, here are my recommendations:

1) Remember that in the books, Jaime and Cersei have consensual sex by their son’s dead body. Sounds strange, I know, but if you want to feel better right away, this is your best bet: simply purge your memory of what you saw on TV last week and replace it with the sex-in-church scene Martin originally wrote. Because what he wrote was a consensual sex scene–rough but consensual. (The moment in question is helpfully excerpted here: http://www.avclub.com/article/rape-thrones-203499.) I could go on to point out that Martin’s version of the incident clearly demonstrates how perverse Jaime and Cersei’s relationship is without the need for rape. I could also point out the little details that show the subtle yet important differences between how a person communicates consent or lack of consent. (Saying “yes” or “no,” for example.) But I’m trying to stay positive here, so I’m going to assume no one reading this is confused about any of these points. (Or at least, I’m going to try not to imagine the alternative.) So, we’re all good, right? Okay. Deep breaths. Moving on…

2) Consider this “rewrite” of the Jaime/Cersei scene by Dan Abromowitz: http://imgur.com/gallery/9iCHB/. Here, Jaime and Cersei are re-imagined as if they (and we) lived in a Perfect World. Note that despite a bit of the “What’s the big deal?” argument bubbling up here and there (an argument that I don’t support), Abromowitz does categorically state that what Jaime did (or, in this version, almost did) to Cersei was a) rape and b) wrong. After I (unwisely) read multiple comment boards discussing the Jaime/Cersei controversy, this little bit of historical re-creation really hit the spot.

3) Read Alyssa Rosenberg’s take on this week’s episode from her Washington Post blog: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/04/27/game-of-thrones-review-oathkeeper-and-broken-vows/. [WARNING: CRAZY MEGA-SPOILERS FOR NON-BOOK READERS AND THOSE WHO DIDN’T SEE LAST NIGHT’S SHOW!] Rosenberg has been blogging the Game of Thrones TV series with an eye to (but not necessarily a focus on) what appears in Martin’s books, and she claims to be thrilled to see so many giant changes in the TV plotline. Her argument is that now she’s just like any other viewer: if a character gets into unexpected peril, for example, she now has no idea what will happen, nor will she automatically recognize places and events. In the case of Jaime and Cersei, Rosenberg saw a complete disconnect between the former lovers the morning after the sept scene:

Less interesting than the gap between the showrunners’ and director’s description of the rape scene is the one between Cersei and Jaime. Disturbing as it might be, it seems entirely possible that Cersei believes she was raped, while Jaime believes that what happened between them was consensual.
She cannot resolve that, or any of the other unresolved things that lie between them. But Cersei can shut a certain gate on their relationship.

I have to admit, I saw no trace of any acknowledgment of the rape in either Jaime’s or Cersei’s dialogue or behavior in the scene Rosenberg analyzes. But I’m really glad that someone saw something. And something substantial enough to make me wonder about my own response. Even though the incident deserves more, a little tremor of recognition, of pain, over Jaime’s turn is good enough for me.

4) Don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow. In writing up this blog post, I did recall something in the books–a revelation that’s still off in the distance from where we are now–that might be made more comprehensible by Jaime’s actions in last week’s episode than Martin originally envisioned. I emphasize might because the distinction would be very subtle and, as many critics and non-critics have already observed, Jaime has a whole cesspool of bad behavior in his history that would probably explain a revelation of yet more bad behavior just fine. No, I’m not going to spoil the moment in question. But I will say this to the Game of Thrones writing team: Guys, you are so much better than last week’s controversy. You aren’t a bunch of soap opera writers from the 1970s. You’ve worked so hard to make so many of Martin’s female characters more complex, from Cersei who now has a gravitas she never had in the books, to Sansa who’s dignified instead of infantile, to Shae who now has both a personality and a backstory. I realize the fourth season has already been filmed, but I’m praying hard to the Narrative Gods that you really do know what you’re doing, that I can trust that rape was added to the show with forethought and not flourish. Otherwise, winter in Westeros is going to be very bleak indeed.

Advertisements

What’s a male Mary Sue?

Right now I’m reading 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.  An excellent read so far.  (Actually, I was interested because the Wikipedia page says the novel tells the story of a woman stuck in an apartment for a year who spends her time reading Proust.  So far no apartment, no Proust.  Don’t anyone tell me how it ends.)  I find it interesting, though, that the main POV female character, Aomame, is really into middle-aged men.  Middle aged men with bald heads, actually.  Now, Murakami is a bit past middle age and has a full head of hair (so much for my theory), but it did get me to thinking: why is it that there’s so much focus on the Mary Sue–a female character that everyone loves and worships, usually created by a female author and thought to be a stand-in for the female author or reader–and nothing about men who try to covertly idolize themselves in fiction?  I’m sure I’ve seen Johnny Stews in books: male characters that are uber-competent, save the day every time, and are adored by countless women.  But I’m sure I’ve also seen men who write from the POV of a female character whose whole purpose is to idolize a male character very similar to the author.  What do we call these slightly more subtle emanations of writer narcissism?  Mary Oooohs?  Can anyone out there come up with an example?  I’m blanking right now.

Takin’ a Break from the Shakes

I’ve decided I’m going to take a personal day away from all the Shakesblogging. The lead-up to Shakespeare’s 450th has been fun, and I’d like to squeeze in a few more posts about Big Bill’s special day before I move on to something else. But, man, Shakespeare. Anyone who’s ever studied Shakespeare knows that the sheer amount of material out there will crush you to dust if you’re not careful. It’s one of those paradoxes: you can read forever and never run out of things to discover, but you can also lose yourself to the point where you’re adding “Shakes” to every word you can think of and you’re dropping Shakespeare quotes and allusions like you’re larding the earth with your sweaty fat. (Look that one up, and then see if you can excise the image from your mind.) So I’m going to step away from the Shakesporia if you will (Har!) and spend a little time getting to know some other writers out there. And also play the Simpsons tapping game.

By the way, Mighty Tiny Bill says he did indeed emerge from the womb primed to become the Greatest Writer in the English Language and it’s a sacrilege to think otherwise. Just look at this pictorial evidence that’s hanging in the Folger Shakespeare library as we speak:

Baby Shakespeare

That’s George Romney’s “The Infant Shakespeare Attended by Nature and the Passions.” (More info on it can be found here: http://collation.folger.edu/2013/12/mr-folgers-most-expensive-painting/) I’ve tried to point out that this painting is not, in fact, photographic documentation of his early days but is instead a fan pic composed in the eighteenth century, when his fame really started to take off. Mighty Tiny won’t hear it and insists that I’m honor-bound to tear open his cardboard backing and let him track down the proof himself, which he can totally figure out how to do on the Internet since he’s a genius. Nice try, I tell him. If I wasn’t going to let you out for birthday cakes and ale, O So-Called Inventor of the Human, I’m not going to let you out now. And I’m REALLY not letting you out if you keep calling me things like Insolent Wench and Pox-ridden Whore when you don’t get your way. So today, Mighty Tiny isn’t speaking to me. That’s peace enough for now.

Remembering the Shakespeares

So today may or may not be (but most say it is) the day in 1564 when Mary Arden Shakespeare gave birth her third child and first son, William. According to the biographical info on Shakespeare Online (http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/shakespearesiblings.html), William’s two older siblings, both sisters, died in their infancy, so little William was the only child of the family for nearly two and a half years, before John and Mary Shakespeare had their fourth child, Gilbert. This was an era when babies were often named after their deceased brothers and sisters, so after the first Shakespeare child, Joan, died a few days after her birth, a second Joan, child number five, was born in 1569. Anne Shakespeare (child number 6) died at age 8. The final two sons, Richard and Edmund, lived to adulthood, Edmund arriving about a year after Anne was buried.

I’m going to lay aside the wacky blogger bullshit for a moment and say that, even though I’ve been studying Shakespeare since high school, and seriously studying Shakespeare for most of my adult life, I never learned much about Shakespeare’s childhood. The information was out there, of course, but most of my teachers were far too absorbed in looking at texts, verses, plots, and fictional people to take a moment to discuss who Shakespeare, the writer of all these words, might have been. In fact, most modern and postmodern (and post-postmodern) critical theory deems an author’s biographical details irrelevant and somewhat intrusive. Historical and cultural contexts are far more important to the formation of a piece of literature, theorists say. The linguistic structures a writer uses, the influence the writer has on others–these are the concerns that really matter. When I became an instructor, I based my method of teaching Shakespeare on the models I learned from. Look at these amazing words, I said. Look at these dramatic constructs, these carefully crafted lines, these explorations of human interaction, desire, ambition, madness, despair. Never once did I step back and tell my students, Shakespeare was born into an incomplete family. This wouldn’t have been unusual, since in Shakespeare’s time people had to make do without antibiotics, clean drinking water, and pasteurized milk. For young William, as the third child in a house that was empty of children, as the eldest but not firstborn, life must have a tap dance around loss and potential loss–his parents’ and his own. His identity was constantly shifting: for his first two and a half years, he was an only child. By the time he was ten, he was one of five. Between age 15 and 16, he went back to being the oldest of four children before Edmund came along and restored the second generation’s number to its former state. Today, we like to discuss the psychology of birth order, of being reared in small versus large families, and how children are socialized with and without siblings. Could anyone back then even speculate about such things, when the structure of the family was always an open question? Growing up, how did you figure out who you were if you couldn’t say who in your family would still be around the next time the plague came tearing through?

Of John and Mary’s five children (those who made it through childhood, that is), Joan was the longest lived, followed by William. He was the first to survive and almost lived long enough to bury the rest. While we’re celebrating the birth of the man who created many of the greatest works of English literature, let’s also try to remember that Shakespeare didn’t tumble into the world as a fully grown, fully realized genius. He had a family, and for the next three decades after his birth, which might have happened 450 years ago today, that family was all he was. I invite you to imagine what the world was like before William Shakespeare, when there were only the Shakespeares, John and Mary, who probably didn’t care about amazing words, whose greatest hope was that their third baby would see the first flowers bloom on more than one St. George’s Day.

“Game of Thrones” and Rape TV

[As this is my first post on a TV show, and TV in general, I’ll add the obligatory

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

although at this stage of the game, unless you’ve been a coma for several months, just regained consciousness today, and stumbled across my blog because you went to Google and mis-typed the word “pickle,” I don’t see how any of the following will come as a surprise.]

Since the latest episode of “Game of Thrones” aired on Sunday, the Internet has been bursting with commentary on a certain scene between certain incestuous twins who, while mourning over their sadistic love spawn, become so embroiled in emotion that the man in question decides to rape his beloved sister/lover. There’s also much controversy about a certain series of 1500-page books in which this scene appears but contains one crucial difference: the sex is consensual. There are many, many, many articles floating around in the ether right now (I won’t go into the details here, but if you google “Game of Thrones” you’ll find them–no need even to use the search term “rape”), but I’m more drawn to the comments section, as non-cultural-critic citizens debate the issues surrounding the seemingly gratuitous use of rape in a show that depicts rape, murder, child endangerment, torture, mutilation, and castration on a regular basis. One remark that always leaps out at me–and many, many commenters have argued this–is that outrage over this single scene, in the fourth season of a tremendously violent show, is baffling. How, the commenters ask, is Cersei’s rape any worse than Jaime throwing 10-year-old Bran out a window, or stabbing Robb Stark’s pregnant wife in the belly, or cutting Catelyn’s throat and throwing her in the river?

For me, this objection boils down to: what’s the big deal with rape? It’s not like Cersei got killed, right?

I think what these commenters miss, in their blissful unawareness of social history, is that for centuries women have been taught, have believed, that death is preferable to being raped. At least in death, the twisted logic goes, your body remains pure and unviolated. As a raped woman, you’re damaged goods, you’re permanently defiled, you’re undone. The most available evidence I have for this fact happens to be on the floor near where I’m sitting: my handy Norton’s edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. And since it happens to be Shakespeare’s 450th birthday tomorrow (really??? I hadn’t heard!), we might as well have the Bard have his say on this age-old issue.

Exhibit A comes from Titus Andronicus, in which Lavinia is raped and mutilated as payback for her father’s actions against a rival family. Here’s Lavinia begging Queen Tamora to have mercy on her:

O Tamora, be called a gentle queen,
And with thine own hands kill me in this place.

‘Tis present death I beg, and one thing more
That womanhood denies my tongue to tell.
O, keep me from their worse-than-killing lust,
And tumble me into some loathesome pit
Where never man’s eye may behold my body.
Do this, and be a charitable murderer.
(TA 2.3.168-9, 173-8)

That’s right, commenters, Lavinia would rather be murdered than raped. That may not be Cersei the character’s feeling on the matter, but it does speak to how incredibly traumatic, disgracing, and dehumanizing rape was (and often still is) to women in particular.

Exhibit B is Shakespeare’s long poem The Rape of Lucrece, which tells the story of a Roman woman who is raped by the king’s son and immediately thereafter commits suicide. Her violation and death lead to the violent overthrow of the tyrannical royal family and the establishment of the Roman republic. Not many people are familiar with this poem, but if you have read it you know that Shakespeare can’t be accused of making rape into a B story. Lucrece’s pleas to her rapist and her ruminations after the event take up some 700 lines, while the details of the rape appear in one seven-line stanza. Even though on a broad level, this story has to do with what happens when the public realm forcibly invades the private, it’s very clear that Lucrece feels she’s worthless if she lives on as a ravaged woman. She says as much here:

The remedy indeed to do me good
Is to let forth my foul defiled blood.

Poor hand, why quiver’st thou at this decree?
Honor thyself to rid me of this shame,
For if I die, my honor lives in thee,
But if I live, thou liv’st in my defame.
(Lucrece 1028-33)

Lucrece’s husband and other male relatives beg her not to harm herself, tell her that she’s not at fault, but she already knows what her society thinks of her:

With this they all at once began to say
Her body’s stain her mind untainted clears,
While with a joyless smile she turns away
The face, that map which deep impression bears
Of hard misfortune, carved in it with tears.
“No, no,” quoth she, “no dame hereafter living
By my excuse shall claim excuse’s giving [ie, would forgive herself based on that excuse].”
(Lucrece 1709-15)

Of course, these days, NO ONE believes people who are raped should commit suicide or would stand by and let a suicidal rape victim take his or her own life. (And, as a side note: any rape survivor who feels in any way suicidal should call 911 immediately.) Still, the truth of the matter is, even today, many rape survivors feel the guilt of their assault rests on them. Victim-blaming still exists, and rape survivors–even those that no one has ever had the audacity to blame–still feel the weight of this on their shoulders.

I don’t have to tell you that rape culture is bad, even though it’s still with us, or that idea of rape is still used as a form of terrorism against women. I have a friend who works in the billing department for a cable company. She’s said that when she calls people who are behind on paying their cable bill, customers will often tell her “I hope someone rapes you.” Yes, my friend gets threatened with rape just for reminding someone that they’re not paying for their goddamned TV. So is it such a surprise that many people–men and women–don’t think that rape should be treated lightly in TV shows, or shoehorned into an already batshit-crazy story just for a little extra shock value? For its survivors, rape isn’t just a big deal. It’s a life-altering, trauma-inducing, universe-shattering deal. Viewers affected by rape are going to see rape in this light, not as just another building block in a He’s Still an Asshole plot, or a Will This Make Him Snap? plot, or a She’s Much More Sympathetic Now plot. Hopefully someday, a critical mass of viewers will convince TV executives that using rape as throwaway drama, like a lover’s quarrel or a car accident, is simply not okay.