Game of Thrones’ issue with consent

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A couple of weeks ago, popular HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones sparked debate following its depiction of a non-consensual sex scene between two characters. The scene proved controversial for two reasons: its deviation from George R.R. Martin’s books, and the decision to show a violent rape scene. But this isn’t the first time that the show’s writers and executive producers have made this decision and it isn’t the first time that reactions to the show’s depiction of sexual violence have been the subject of criticism.

Way back in season one, Daenerys Targaryen married warlord Khal Drogo. In the book series, their wedding night is a consensual encounter, with Daenerys clearly and confidently offering verbal consent to her new husband. On the show, she was forcibly undressed and deflowered against her will. The showrunners’ decision to change the nature of this scene attracted some criticism at the time from book readers. The depiction of Daenerys and Drogo’s relationship was poor, especially considering that the scene was not referred to again. Power imbalance, especially sexually, could have been shown without resorting to the use of non-consensual sex through a number of subtle clues, such as use of space and physicality. Instead the writers chose to depict the scene as a rape, and this set the tone for later sexual encounters onscreen.

The scene that garnered controversy last year was a sex scene between twins Jaime and Cersei Lannister. While their relationship is controversial for many reasons and this scene in the books was shocking, it was depicted as consensual: as Jaime and Cersei have sex next to the dead body of their incestuous son. Not tasteful, but consensual. On the show, Jaime forces himself on Cersei with little disregard for her welfare and she clearly and repeatedly says: “no, stop.” Despite these actions, Jaime pushes her to the ground, rips her dress and rapes her.

This was controversial enough for many fans, who voiced their disgust and disapproval of the scene, but what proved more shocking for me was the reaction of Alex Graves, the director of the episode. Graves has been reported as stating: “What was talked about was that it was not consensual as it began, but … Ultimately, it was meant to be consensual… The consensual part of it was that she wraps her legs around him… she’s way into kissing him back.” Graves has also stated that: “she’s sort of cajoled into it, and it is consensual.” Let’s take a step back here. Graves has therefore determined that despite Cersei’s repeated lack of verbal consent, her “physical” consent has been acquired. Yet he then recognises that this physical consent has been coerced from her. Coercion, or the forcing, bribery or persuasion of someone to give consent, is not consent.

Additional to Graves’ statement are the statements of the actors involved, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey. While I recognise that contractually they are not permitted to go against the official HBO-approved line (“it wasn’t rape because she kissed him back”) their responses were vague at best. Headey has stated that the scene was never discussed as rape, but she has acknowledged that viewers’ reactions to what happened have been correct, whilst Coster-Waldau has recognised the difficulty surrounding the scene, in order to avoid being labelled a “rape denier.”

Perhaps what is most confusing is that the scene was not referred to again in the season and Jaime and Cersei’s relationship is not affected by it. Therefore some fans have argued that the show intended to portray the scene as consensual and subsequently failed: if this is the case, then poor editing and poor direction by Graves could be contributing factors. However, Graves has indicated in other interviews that the scene does depict rape.

In the book series, Cersei is written as a strong, independent woman who has been the victim of domestic abuse and marital rape. If the showrunners wanted to explore rape, Cersei’s relationship with her husband could have been detailed in order to show the destructive nature of rape, and its impact on a woman’s mentality, her relationships and her sexuality. Instead, the use of rape by someone she trusted – Jaime – devalued both their relationship and the character arcs that have been created for both twins.

The latest controversy stems from Ramsay Bolton’s rape of Sansa Stark on their wedding night. The scene itself has been argued to have been unnecessary, graphic and upsetting, with many fans expressing their shock and upset. Yet again, for me, the most shocking part of the scene has been the reactions of the show’s producers, and Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa. The showrunners have described the scene as being fundamental to Sansa’s character arc as it will “empower and strengthen her,” while Turner has gushed: “when I read [the rape]scene, I kinda loved it… It was all so messed up… but I secretly loved it.” Describing sexual violence in a positive way offers glamorisation to a traumatising event, and Turner needs to consider her audience. Glamorising sexual assault, similarly to glamorising domestic violence, could have negative consequences on viewers, who may begin to internally normalise violent acts they witness.

Game of Thrones details a patriarchal society in which women are reduced to objects for the male gaze, where virginity and chastity are fundamental to a woman’s value to men. By using a physical display of non-consensual sex, viewers are reminded of the power struggles between the men and women of Westeros using a purely physical metaphor. Yet this metaphor could be shown more powerfully with dialogue, speech, decisions and other devices, or women could be shown to be independent agents of their own sexuality. Yet time and again, Thrones has resorted to using sexual violence for shock value, and through sheer refusal to recognise portrayals of abuse.

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    While I agree for the most part, your claim that all these situations would better be shown through the use of dialogue and speech doesn’t really work in the case of Dany and Drogo’s wedding night. They don’t share a common language and he’d recently purchased her from her brother. Part of Dany’s journey is going from this to a true member of his clan and his equal. Speech and dialogue wouldn’t really work here.

    The issue isn’t “sexual violence should never be depicted in a world of brutal murder and other horrific acts”, it’s “sexual violence shouldn’t be used for the sake of shocking audiences”. Sansa’s scene was purely shock, Dany’s was not.

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