It’s hard to dispute the fact that HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is the most popular show on cable TV these days. In many ways, the show continues to define the current cultural zeitgeist, with every new episode bringing a torrent of critical commentary and fan reaction. But there’s just one major problem here – for a show that is this much in the cultural spotlight, it contains an enormous amount of sexual violence.
Here’s the thing – the number of consensual sex scenes are few and far between on the show, while the overwhelming number of sex scenes are violent in nature. In fact, many of them are best described as outright rape. Back in 2014, GQ magazine dedicated an entire article to the “Rape of Thrones,” arguing that consensual sex had basically disappeared from the show. That was back in 2014, and the use of non-consensual sex only seems to have increased, even though the backlash continues to build.
In many ways, “Game of Thrones” set the stage for what was going to happen over the course of all seven seasons starting all the way back in Season 1. Back then, Daenerys was handed over to Khal Drogo as part of an arranged wedding. The wedding scene featured plenty of debauchery – including scenes of women being forced to have sex and a brutal murder. That was followed up by the profoundly disheartening scene in which Khal Drogo brutally sexually assaulted Daenyrs on their wedding night.
What was particularly troubling about all this, of course, was the fact that the scene played out much differently in the series of books by George R.R. Martin that provide the basis for “Game of Thrones.” That’s right – in the books, it was a consensual sex act. There was none of the brutal savagery of taking a woman from behind and forcing her into a life of marriage servitude.
But the show’s producers seem to be OK with this. They admit that they changed the scene from a consensual sex scene to one that borders on outright rape. It’s all part of building the overall narrative that the medieval world of “Game of Thrones” is a pretty nasty place.
And then the show’s creators go one step further – in Season 1, they have Daenerys eventually fall in love with Khal Drogo. She actively searches out another woman who will show her how to give pleasure to him, and then she follows out all the steps so that he will fall deeper in love with her. She enjoys being a submissive lover. The message is clear: “Hey, rape is OK if a woman eventually falls in love with you…”
That leads to a broader question, of course, and that’s whether all of these sex scenes are really core to the narrative. Or are they just there for titillation purposes while masquerading as high-brow TV entertainment?
Over these 7 seasons, we’ve grown use to the scenes of naked women flashing their boobs. We’ve learned to accept all the scenes of nude women in brothels. And we’ve learned to accept the fact that tiny Tyrion Lannister has a huge sexual appetite.
The show’s producers, of course, argue that all of this gratuitous sex is necessary to show the power dynamic between men and women in the medieval world. In short, in a brutal world such as the one portrayed by “Game of Thrones,” terrible and outright morally offensive acts will happen. And, unfortunately, women are always going to get the short end of the stick. This is not modern society – this is the medieval world where barbarians and warriors expect to enjoy all the pleasures of the flesh for their hard work in slaying enemies of the crown.
But, again, it seems like “Game of Thrones” has pushed too hard when it comes to controversial scenes of sexual violence. Here’s just another example – in Season 5, 15-year-old Sansa Stark is sexually assaulted by Ramsay Bolton while Theon Greyjoy watches. First of all, you have the fact that Sansa Stark is a minor. That should immediately raise a few red flags. Then, you have the fact that the sex is so violent. And, even worse, this scene also did not appear in the original George R.R. Martin books!
At this point, the show’s producers typically point to the words of George R.R. Martin, who once said, “Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought.” Thus, it only makes sense that they should be included within the series. This is the “get out of jail free” card that HBO is using: “We have to include all this rape and sexual violence, otherwise it wouldn’t be authentic.”
Even if you are feeling particularly charitable and decide to sign off on all the rape scenes as an inevitable part of authentic storytelling (and, mind you, that’s a big “if”!), there’s another, even more controversial part about all the sex within “Game of Thrones.” That’s the fact that “Game of Thrones” has shown absolutely no reservation about portraying sexual scenes that violate societal taboos.
And, again, HBO set the tone from the very outset, so this is not a case of “gaining permission” from viewers and critics over a succession of seasons. No, right there in Season 1 was a scene of sexual incest involving the twins Jaime and Cersei Lannister. And it’s not just talked about – it’s shown right there on the screen, as brother and sister decide to have sex together.
You have to admit, this goes well beyond showing casual brothel nudity, or a particularly graphic sex scene. And, just when you think things couldn’t possible become more controversial – there’s the scene that people are still talking about, and that’s the rape of Cersei by Jaime. It’s not enough just to show incestuous sex – the show has to make sure that it’s non-consensual. And, OMG, it gets worse. That’ because Jaime rapes Cersei on top of her dead son’s body. Think about that for a minute.
At some point, “Game of Thrones” became prestige, high-brow TV. That was great for ratings, but it also encouraged the show’s creators to keep pushing the envelope in the name of ratings. That inevitably led to a series of over-the-top sex scenes that are designed to be “edgy” enough that people will talk about them for days.
Imagine walking into the office on a Monday after watching “Game of Thrones” on a Sunday night. That must make for some interesting water cooler talk with your work colleagues, “Hey, did you see that rape scene on Game of Thrones last night?”
That is perhaps the most damning part of using so much sexual violence in the show: it desensitizes people to violence in general. All of a sudden, things that you couldn’t possibly imagine happening don’t seem so out of the normal after all.
Case in point: the famous “Red Wedding” scene. In one part, Robb Stark’s wife Talisa is violently knifed in her pregnant belly. Think about how abhorrent that is – you are showing violence against a pregnant woman. All of that sexual violence elsewhere in “Game of Thrones” has opened up the door to an unimaginable act of violence against a woman.
If all of that sexual violence within the “Game of Thrones” world were simply relegated to a single hour of entertainment on a Sunday night, there might not be quite the outcry that there has been. But the problem is that “Game of Thrones” has crossed over into the cultural mainstream. What happens in “Game of Thrones” doesn’t stay in “Game of Thrones.”
In short, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” gives permission to other show creators to glorify sexual violence. This is an easy sell for an fantasy series taking place in the medieval world – but it’s also an easy sell for just about any show that can
claim that it is just engaging in some good old fashioned authentic storytelling. Thus, why not include a few scenes of nudity and rape as part of “character development”? If you want to show that a local politician is up to no good in a new TV series, just add in a gratuitous rape scene. Even better if the scene features a minor or a fellow family member.
This, then, might be the legacy of “Game of Thrones” – a legacy of sexual violence masquerading as “important TV.” Years from now, when people discuss “Game of Thrones,” they’ll likely remember two main things: “winter is coming” and all those glorified scenes of sexual aggression. It’s now clear that Season 7 has absolutely no intention of stopping along this path that started all the way back in Season 1. The show’s creators have used the words of George R.R. Martin and all their claims of authentic storytelling to provide safe cover for scenes of sexual sadism, rape and incest. And now, unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle for anyone else thinking of creating binge-worthy entertainment using these same themes.