The Rhetoric of Rape in Game of Thrones

As those of you who have been following know, I have been writing Game of Thrones reviews/analyses since the first episode of the 5th season.  I sort of fell into it not really planning on making it a weekly work, and though it is quite consuming of a commodity I do not have, I feel still it has been worth that time.  These expositions are usually posted on Wednesdays though last week’s review of episode 5 was a bit late.  In them I not only discuss differences between show and books, but also deeper delvings, symbolism, potential meta-meaning, and possible predictions.  All of these things are highly influenced and inspired by the YouTube theorists I was lucky to find (and whom I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions) whose own analyses and genius have given me greater insight into this marvelous tale.  While the below could’ve been included in that, I feel it is far too important not to stand on its own. *******Warning: Discussions of Rape and Sexual Assault****** I am a writer of both original fiction and fanfiction, the latter for which I (am learning to) bear no shame.  I believe in creative license; however, such an endowment comes with certain responsibilities.  If you put something out into the world that is dark, disturbing, and violent, there should be a reason for that act, and the decision to include something depraved can be heavily and highly criticized if it is done for a poor reason.  I hold myself to the same standard and have thus been examining and reexamining my own works (published, unpublished, and in progress) to see if the requirements have been fulfilled.  Then I realized that I have not drawn up any concrete requirements, a task whose remission I shall try to remedy here. Authors are both creators and consumers of narratives and none should be immune to critique. David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the minds behind Game of Thrones, stand in the position of both for the same work. They must first consume and then create an acceptable visual narrative of their source material, and in the case of many female characters in regards to rape, they have failed. ***Spoilers for Game of Thrones if you have not seen S5E6*** The first example of this failing lies in the relationship between Daenerys and Khal Drogo. In the book as well as the show, Dany is sold by her brother Viserys to the Dothraki horse lord in (what he believes is) exchange for an army to conquer Westeros.  Daenerys is an unwilling and terrified pawn in Viserys’s schemes, but she is not naive enough to be unaware of what will happen on her and Drogo’s wedding night.  She fully expects to be raped, and the reader fully expects this, as well.  However… “After a while he began to touch her.  Lightly at first, then harder.  She could sense the fierce strength in his hands, but he never hurt her.  He held her hand gently in his own and brushed her fingers, one by one.  He ran a hand gently down her leg.  He stroked her face, tracing the curve of her ears, running a finger gently around her mouth.  He put both hands in her hair and combed it with his fingers.  He turned her around, massaged her shoulders, slid a knuckle down the path of her spine.” “He stopped then, and drew her down onto his lap.  Dany was flushed and breathless, her heart fluttering in her chest.  He cupped her face in his huge hands and she looked into his eyes.  “No?” he said, and she knew it was a question.” This man whom essentially owns her, whom she was sold to, gains her consent before doing anything sexual with her.  This may seem like a small thing, a nuance, but it’s not.  The book makes it very clear that this was not rape, and it is more than likely the foundation for why Dany is able to fall so deeply in love with Drogo.  He gave her a choice that very first night and later seeks her counsel and honors her request to stop the rape of the Lhazareen women.  Benioff and Weiss missed this momentous point and had Drogo forcefully take a sixteen year old girl (thirteen in the books) from behind. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrht8mroFM4 The entire point of that night was to show the incongruence of this hardened warrior and conqueror treating a terrified young girl gently and with respect when she was expecting the worst.  The scene on the show did nothing but uphold a paradigm we all know so well.  I realize the difference between consent/non-consent can be subtle, but I find it hard to fathom that what occurred in the book was so difficult to interpret.  This leads to my second point concerning Jaime and Cersei, the Lannister twins.759997_GOT401_080113_ND_0239.jpgIn A Feast for Crows as well as the episode, this scene occurs as their son’s body lays in state.  The book goes as follows: “She kissed him. A light kiss, the merest brush of her lips on his, but he could feel her tremble as he slid his arms around her.  ‘I am not whole without you.’ There was no tenderness in the kiss he returned to her, only hunger. Her mouth opened for his tongue. ‘No,’ she said weakly when his lips moved down her neck, “not here. The septons…’ ‘The Others can take the septons.’ He kissed her again, kissed her silent, kissed her until she moaned. Then he knocked the candles aside and lifted her up onto the Mother’s altar, pushing up her skirts and the silken shift beneath. She pounded on his chest with feeble fists, murmuring about the risk, the danger, about their father, about the septons, about the wrath of gods. He never heard her. He undid his breeches and climbed up and pushed her bare white legs apart. One hand slid up her thigh and underneath her smallclothes. When he tore them away, he saw that her moon’s blood was on her, but it made no difference. ‘Hurry,’ she was whispering now, ‘quickly, quickly, now, do it now, do me now. Jaime Jaime Jaime.’ Her hands helped guide him. ‘Yes,’ Cersei said as he thrust, “my brother, sweet brother, yes, like that, yes, I have you, you’re home now, you’re home now, you’re home.’ She kissed his ear and stroked his short bristly hair. Jaime lost himself in her flesh. He could feel Cersei’s heart beating in time with his own, and the wetness of blood and seed where they were joined. No one will argue that this scene is disturbing for a multitude of reasons: the twincest and the fact that they’re fucking right next to the dead product of that twincest; however, it does not present as a rape scene.  I could see an argument be made that he forcefully persuaded her consent; however, one, Cersei’s reluctance is due to the septons and their father finding out, and two, near the end, Cersei seems more than willing and is begging for him.  The show is far different. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBqxyY59S60 Cersei is pleading with Jaime the entire time, begging him to stop, and he keeps repeating, “I don’t care.”  There is no consent here.  I don’t care that they were kissing moments before, and I know the argument has been made that she was saying, “Not here,” not, “I don’t want to have sex,” but regardless, the queen is saying no.  I do not like Cersei.  I think she is a terrible ruler and an even worse mother.  She is very much a Lilith figure and lives up to her homophonic namesake Circe in being an alluring witch, a harpy, in addition to a mother of demons; however, she does not deserve to raped.  No one does.  This scene causes many problems, not the least of which is how we are now supposed to perceive Jaime Lannister. Jaime is on a redemption arc, and that creates a major moral paradox. The Kingslayer has lived with the burden of that title since running his sword through Aerys’s back, and for the most part, he has lived off of daddy’s dime until he lost his right hand. All Jaime was was that hand. Numerous times in the book, he states he never feels more at peace than when he’s holding a sword. It’s what he is; it’s what he does, so when the Kingslayer lost the only true identity he had, he had to find a new person to be, and surprisingly, that new person was a far cry from the old one. Where old Jaime had been selfish and vain, new Jaime was introspective and just. Where old Jaime probably wouldn’t have questioned his father, new Jaime was starting to see what type of man Tywin really was. We want to like new Jaime. People love an atoner, and I personally love redemption stories, and the pure and simple truth is atoners do not rape. That entire scene threw his whole redemption arc far off course. We do not want to sympathize with a rapist, because rape is a crime that dehumanizes the victim, turning them into an object for the rapist’s use and consumption. That is so obscene that the mere thought of living in that kind of head space for even a moment makes me want to rend my skin. To take a person and reduce them to that is a product of a diseased mind and society that would let such a thought pattern fester to the point of normalcy. If you question my point of “normalcy,” then consider this.  We are constantly objectifying bodies in advertisements and media. Rape is “merely” the penultimate objectification where you physically use another body without the person’s say so for your own selfish wants and desires. It is difficult if not impossible to sympathize with such a character; there is a break in the sympathy vein, and you can’t just snap your sympathy hat back on and act like nothing happened, but that’s what occurred in the show. Next week there was absolutely no retribution or even mention of Jaime’s heinous act, and as this is a continuous story and not really episodic, there is no reset button. It was glossed over as if it had never been, and this is exactly what happens in most rape cases. The victim is silenced (victim blamed, slut shamed, etc.); the rapist is elevated (“he’s a good kid,” “don’t ruin his future,” etc), and the paradigms of power stay in place. Breaker of Chains failed its title miserably in this regard. It did nothing to break this paradigm, rather it strengthened the bonds by paralleling what too often happens in real life. Finally…we come to the latest point to spark justifiable rage.  Let me make this clear right now that this is not about the violence as many people seem to think.  I have held my tongue since the last episode aired, because I figured it would be better to reserve all of my energy for this instead of going back and forth on social media sites.  It is understandable that a show like Game of Thrones will be violent and that there will be many instances of rape and sexual assault.  That is war and it’s expected to show up in a narrative that deals in such horrors.  The issue goes far beyond the visceral violence and rampant assault. Sansa Stark took the place of the Fake Arya/Jeyne Poole character who was not included in Game of Thrones.  The plot there would’ve been far too intricate to adequately convey in the show.  In it Jeyne Poole, Sansa’s old friend is forced to play the role of a false Arya Stark, and she is a severely abused and broken character, as much as Theon/Reek.  This is an important parallel.  She is forced to marry Ramsay and then Theon/Reek is forced to “prepare” her for her wedding night by performing oral sex on her before Ramsay rapes her, while this did not happen to Sansa on the show, it makes her ordeal no less disturbing. While what happened to Jeyne is abysmal and horrifying, it makes much more sense as she was a browbeaten figure to contrast Sansa who was being lifted up.  As terrible as it is to kick someone when they are down, the fall is nonexistent when you are already below the floor. I am not going to post the video for Sansa’s scene.  I have been fairly fine watching everything Benioff and Weiss  have to offer (barring visuals of people being impaled); however, this I could neither watch nor listen to.  I shut my eyes, covered my ears, and begged my husband to turn it off.  After it was over, I cried.  It was too much.  When I could function again, I soon found out I was not the only one so affected Sansa is being used as a plot device to give Reek/Theon impetus for his “white knight” redemption. This is not a new paradigm.  It is used by Shakespeare in his poem The Rape of Lucrece where Lucretia’s assault is merely an excuse for her brother and father to go to war, a means to an end, an entity whose body is used only for ulterior purpose. This is mirrored perfectly in FFVII where there is a character named Lucrecia who is Sephiroth’s (the arguable antagonist’s) true mother.  In the function of the game itself she is a mere side quest. In story she is only a vessel used to produce a superior being. Sephiroth neither knows her name nor of her existence thinking his “mother” is an eldritch abomination. Lucrecia was a scientist, someone learned, of substance and worth, but she was relegated to the silence for “profit.”  I hear the echo of this paradigm whenever the words, “She was somebody’s sister, mother, aunt, etc.” are uttered in response to rape.  Instead of “She was a person,” a woman can only garner sympathy if she was something to someone else?  Lucrecia was no one, and while it is never directly stated that she was literally raped, what happened to her was as perverse as what humanity was (and is) doing to the Planet. Sansa is bolstered and built up by Littlefinger, taught to play the game of thrones, and yet in the end, she used as no more than a plot device to showcase a male character’s redemption. She falls back into the realm of darkest fairytales as a broken damsel in distress.  Was the point of it to have her believe she was a player when she was no more than a piece?  To see herself as someone of worth when she was merely being used for profit?  Her story arc to make her into a player in the game has just been obliterated as if to say, “How dare you try to be strong,” the rape as punishment motif. Putting her back in her place. I do concede that they may use it to show what she can overcome but it’s unnecessary. Sansa has overcome enough. This was just gratuitous sexual violence.  I think that is insanely cruel to do to a character, especially one who has done nothing but suffer hardship after daring to leave her home.  As if to also say, “Stay in your place, otherwise this is what will occur.”  We know this.  We have heard it for so long.  Isn’t it time to let something else resonate?  We are not able to (yet) change the world with the stroke of a pen, but we can start with changing the narratives we create, by flipping the script and showing how things could be. Rape can be used appropriately in a narrative, but we must always ask, “What is this being used for?”  Is it to show a character overcoming some insurmountable odds?  There are other narratives that while soul-wrenching do utilize the motif well. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is one of the more brutal examples. The titular character Lisbeth Salander takes what happens to her, but does not let it break her.  She mounts a fantastic vengeance on her abuser, one that he can never forget, and she does this all on her own.  Lisbeth is someone who has been victimized her entire life with that assault being the ultimate dehumanization, and she refuses to stand for it.  She concocts a plan, disables her abuser, and permanently marks him with a tattoo that proclaims what he is to the world.  While her rape is brutal, she is not shunting into the position of needing anyone, neither man nor woman, to save her. The retold fairytale Deerskin introduces us to the Princess Lisla Lissar who is raped by her father for the “crime” of resembling her late mother, the beautiful queen. She escapes the kingdom and then herself saves another young woman from marrying her (Lissar’s) abusive and depraved father by refinding the identity she also fled from in order to show him for what he is.  The story ends on an ambiguous note with no answers on whether or not she will even remain in her new home let alone marry the prince. Both of these stories show characters who did not succumb to the horrors they had to face, and that is more than likely what Benioff and Weiss will claim with Sansa, but the “Lady of Winterfell” has already done that.  What does this brutal assault add to her narrative?  The answer is nothing. It only serves to make Ramsay appear more depraved, something else that was unnecessary, and to give Theon/Reek the chance to be a hero.  Sansa now stands in the position of needing to be rescued like so many other tired and hackneyed damsels in distress. The only tiny consolation and I use that term sparingly, because it is no way will be enough to salvage that sorrow, would be if she were saved by Brienne.  A woman saving another woman from such a fate would not make what they did to Sansa remotely acceptable.  It will merely give the Maid of Tarth something to do, but if the show runners did not have the foresight to give Brienne any other task, it shows only how hollow the visual representation of this great series has become. Rape is not a character building motif.  It is a brutal shattering of the self that must then be cobbled back together with pieces that no longer fit.  While creating a rape survivor in story is not remotely as heinous as performing the deed itself, why you created such a character and how they are treated in the aftermath are a reflection of your storytelling worth.  It is not something to be done on a whim and not merely a simple device.  At best, it is lazy, and if done in such a way, the purveyor of such puerile narrative should be held in most critical accord.

6 thoughts on “The Rhetoric of Rape in Game of Thrones

  1. Great article. We were very disturbed by the seemly random addition of Sansa’s “wedding night” in the HBO series as well. I personally am fine with the show creating a story line that is not a clone of the book. This instance however, was nothing but an insulting to viewers.

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  2. Your article was insightful and we’ll written. Rape should not be used as a hollow plot device to shock the audience, as we have seen many times not only on GoT, but in many other HBO shows as well.

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    • My point exactly. I’ve been in so many arguments/discussions where the finer details of this are missed. It’s not the GoT is violent; that’s expected. It’s the fact D&D are using this particular type of violence so irresponsibly.

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