[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’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].”
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.