“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


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.


9 responses to ““Game of Thrones” and Rape TV

  1. From the comments I’ve been seeing, the problem with the scene as portrayed also seems to be that HBO/the director are saying that this was not rape, because Cersei kissed Jaime back, therefore consent was given. An enormous misstep on the part of the show, in my opinion: either make it clear that it’s NOT rape or assume that it is, not this ‘well, it is but it isn’t, if you know what I mean’ because no, actually, I *don’t* know what you mean, director guy, and that’s a problem. /soapbox

    <3ing the blog!

    • Hey, The Jen! I think you should get that name copyrighted. đŸ™‚ Glad you’re likin’ the blog. And yeah, this Game of Thrones mess. I’ve also read about how the director seems completely clueless about how the scene comes across, and what is and isn’t rape, and how he was stoked to do the filming, or something like that. Honestly, I think a good writer and/or director could make some important character developments come out of the alterations that were made to the original plot, but considering the track record of TV writers in general, I’m not optimistic. I mean, they also changed what happened between Danerys and Khal Drogo on their wedding night, but that basically evolved into the Luke/Laura, Woman Falls in Love with Her Rapist thing. Which tends not to happen in real life, even though screenwriters don’t seem to realize that. The GoT version of this plotline is a little more nuanced than General Hospital, I’m guessing, but still it’s not good to see a pattern of gratuitous rapes inserted into a TV show I really like.

      • Yeah, I got less Luke and Laura out of Dany/Drogo than a very clever girl who turned her crappy situation around to put herself at the helm, and then found that she’d fallen for the side of Drogo that even he didn’t know existed. Still kinda Stockholmy but I did prefer that it was because Dany was looking for a position of strength, and she realized this was her strength so she used it.

        I mean the other difference is that in that setting, the husband can’t be the rapist, because the wife can’t offer anything but consent. Whether she wants the sex or not is completely immaterial in this scenario: she is property. Which is, again, why I like that Dany decides that she may be the property, but she will own Drogo by setting the tender trap and becoming the Khaleesi he wants and needs.

        Jaime/Cersei is a whole different thing, in that he is not the husband and therefore has no rights; and I frankly think it would have been a stronger scene overall if her consent had been clear, that her obsession with her twin overrides even the death of their son.

        But again I really think the problem is that the director doesn’t seem to be clear on what it was he was filming.

  2. Do you think women historically actually would have preferred to be murdered than raped? What proportion of literary characters who express this were created by female authors? (I’m curious as I have no idea what the answer is.) While in no way minimizing the trauma of rape, I always thought that whole “I’d rather die!” thing was The Projected (or Internalized) Voice of the Patriarchy proclaiming that a woman’s value consists entirely in her chastity.

    • Hey there, Donnabella, whom I in no way recognize as someone I am acquainted with! That’s an extremely good point: when the author is male (as most were back in the Renaissance), it’s hard to judge to what extent a female character is expressing the true feelings and opinions of women and to what extent she’s just voicing the party line, so to speak, of the (male) power structures in the society. I have no idea if any manuscripts exist from the Renaissance that are both written by women and include descriptions of women’s personal opinions about rape. Since most women at the time were illiterate, I’m assuming that chances are not good that such opinions were ever written down in the first place. When I skimmed some of the (reputable) research that’s accessible on the Internet, I found the only other major source of historical information on the history of rape is legal documentation, which doesn’t say much about the individual woman’s preferences on death vs. rape, either. As you might expect, material from the Renaissance shows the lack of marital rape laws, the degrees of criminality that the courts assigned to a noble woman’s rape vs. a lower-class woman’s rape, a virgin’s rape vs. a widow’s rape, etc., and the treatment of rape as a crime against a man’s household/property rather than against a woman. That said, the fact that the “death before rape” attitude in Renaissance female characters was so prominent–and it was; the Rape of Lucrece in particular was a vastly important story in the humanist canon, and not just the version told by Shakespeare–must have had some effect on the women who lived in that culture. At the very least, noblewomen would probably have internalized this message, since their chastity was highly valued in their culture. Also, the underlying comment on rape victims conveyed through these fictionalized accounts (i.e., that if you get raped, you might as well be dead because your worth as a human being is gone) had to have put extreme pressure on Renaissance women to avoid rape at all costs (at least the kind of rape that counted as rape.)

      In any event, I think the “rape’s not as bad as murder” argument still doesn’t hold water historically. Whether it’s a woman back then saying “I’d rather die!’ or a man putting those words in the mouth of a fictionalized woman, the effect is essentially the same: in the eyes of society, death was preferable to rape for women. I would hope that individuals and families would have had more mercy and understanding for raped women, but since “death before rape” was idealized in heroic female characters, I think rape victims would still be affected by that horrific attitude no matter what their personal preferences were.

      • Thou art super thorough in thine researches and analyses. My short version is, this whole narrative is a construction of the patriarchy and if real women prefer death to rape, there is a component of internalized oppression contributing to that. It’s generally a tough question, would you rather be tortured or die? And with that, let’s start our weeks as suburban moms.

      • My brain thought of an example. Not from the Renaissance. In Prude and Prejudice, Mr. Collins rushes to condole with/gloat at the Bennets after Lydia elopes with Mr. Wickham. He says it would have been better if she had died which upsets Lizzie just a tad. This incident reads as another example of what a complete tool Mr. Collins is. I propose that Austen is also critiquing the very trope of which we hath been speakinge, through her preferred mode of satire.

      • That’s a great example, DB! I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice in a while, so I hadn’t remembered Austen providing a bit of pushback on the Women Should Prefer Death issue. Obviously, the whole thing is messed up. Then again, Austen was writing during a time when Western society was getting farther and farther away from classical influences. More people were being educated in English rather than in Latin, for instance. So possibly the classical tales of Death Before Dishonor were also losing their influence on the public mindset, and/or more women were able to make their voices heard on the matter.

      • Freudian slip! I didn’t mean to type Prude instead of Pride. Even though it’s the sort of thing I might do. Mr. Collins is the prude.

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