After watching six seasons of Game of Thrones in the span of one month (much to my roommate’s despair), I’ve grown accustomed to seeing heads being chopped off and people wailing in agony. However, the abhorrent amount of graphically violent sexual assault scenes is something I simply cannot get used to. I had been warned about the frequency at which such events were presented, but I was comforted by the idea that such a popular show could not possibly get away with depictions so explicit. I was immediately proven wrong. After hoping to find some sort of guide that would allow me to skip the sexually violent scenes, I found a list on Tumblr cataloguing all the instances where sexual assaults were shown, addressed or implied throughout the series. It was an intimidating list; almost every episode was connected back to the topic.
Sexual violence is a topic being talked about more and more in popular media, which is great for bringing awareness to something that was once extremely taboo. TV shows like Sex Education have brought forth a nuanced approach to how people may deal with sexual violence, which encourages constructive conversation. However, in the case of Game of Thrones, the topic is handled quite poorly.
The sheer volume of sexual violence in the show is an immediate red flag. It is such an integral part of the series that viewers may become desensitized to the topic. Apart from the actual scenes showing the violent acts, characters often joke and comment about women’s bodies and how they plan to use them against their will. Daenerys Targaryen is most often the victim of such comments, even when she was a child in season one.
Women are denigrated and undermined through the use of these insults, often used as a means to subvert their authority. Although men are also targets of these sorts of insults, women are victimized far more frequently.
George R. R. Martin, the author of the Song of Ice and Fire books that inspired the series, claims that he first included so much sexual violence to “convey an accurately medieval sense of how the powerful prey upon the powerless, including men preying on women.” Yet to claim that historical accuracy is a main concern seems strange in a universe that relies heavily on fantastical elements like dragons, witches, and the undead. Critically, it’s easy to see how this was an excuse used by Martin to write about a violent male fantasy and to avoid the responsibility for his inclusion of the scenes. When confronted with his choice in an interview with the New York Times, Martin defended himself by saying, “an artist has an obligation to tell the truth.” It seems as though Martin frames himself as a historian when he is in the hot-seat for his questionable writing choices and as a simple fantasy author when it comes to the actual plot of his creations. I find myself questioning why it’s necessary to highlight such atrocities so frequently, and without the necessary concern of dealing with such delicate subject matter. Furthermore, Martin never addresses why his scenes are so graphic and frequent. If his intention is to create an atmosphere similar to the medieval ages in times of war, the implied mention of rape or the occasional scene cut off before the climax of violence can easily replace this incessant portrayal of suffering.
The several sexual assault scenes throughout the show are drawn out and very hard to watch. As a rule, I always skip them entirely and move on to the next part of the episode. In doing so, I realized that I lost nothing from the plot of the show or the characterization of the people involved. In most cases, the portrayal of sexual violence had no effect in furthering the plot. While showrunners have defended their position without pause, it is clear that the explicitness of the scenes serve as nothing more than a source of shock factor and catalyst for controversy. The showrunners have argued that sexual violence is needed to show the evil of certain characters, which, in my opinion, worked in the case of Joffrey Baratheon. However, his sexual deviancy is unnecessarily reinforced over and over, leading some to question the necessity of the repeated acts of sexual violence. Once Game of Thrones had established the king’s unacceptable sexual behaviour, the following acts of abuse are no longer required to further the plot.
In the case of Jaime Lannister, a character with one of the most promising redemption arcs, all potential to be forgiven by the viewers is lost in the scene when he sexually assaults his twin sister. Previously, Jaime had shown allyship towards women. In one episode, he prevents Brienne of Tarth from being assaulted by appealing to the perpetrator’s greed. However, after this scene, his redeeming qualities are thrown out of the window for no good reason. Evidently, sexual violence is not necessary to further the plot, and in cases like these, it can actually weaken the characterisation of the people involved.
The assault is nothing but a shock factor, something used to spur conversations and to aggregate the relevancy in popular media.
Additionally, when female characters face the consequences of their betrayal or their abuse of power, the punishment is often sexually violent. One of the most blatant examples of this is Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame in the show’s fifth season. As one of the most powerful women in Martin’s universe, it is important to note that her retribution, as a means to take away some of her power, is of a sexual nature. Her punishment is especially problematic: it sends a dangerous message concerning how to take power away from women. Although Cersei is incredibly unlikeable, in a show where most if not all characters are meant to be morally ambiguous, viewers should be careful in celebrating her walk of shame.
In the same train of thought, Sansa Stark, another powerful female character, is constantly being beaten down and weakened through sexual assaults. Her so-called betrayal of the King is punished by a public beating where her clothes are torn from her body. When he dies, when she is traded off to yet another assaulter. In one of the most grueling scenes of the entire series, she is raped on her wedding night. When the show attempts to give her a strong comeback in the later seasons, portraying her as strong because of what she endured, I cannot feel any satisfaction from her character growth. I am relieved to see her suffering end, but I feel desperately saddened that the showrunners thought they could make her their martyr for so long. The sexual violence she is subjected to is absolutely traumatizing and not at all necessary for her to become a strong woman in charge.
In the new adaptation of Martin’s universe, viewers were promised a better approach pertaining to sexual violence. Showrunners stated that it would not be erased from the show entirely, but it would be handled off-screen. I have been keeping up with the show myself, and for the most part, I would agree that they have improved from Game of Thrones. However, I take issue with the two main female characters being victimized by sexual violence once again. I believe that in the case of Alicent, her subjugation under men and their control of her sexuality has been dealt with in a way that furthers the plot. Nonetheless, I bring into question the necessity of one specific explicit scene between her and King Viserys. It shows her being called upon to satisfy the King’s sexual desires and trying to resist the maid inviting her to his chambers. I think the following scene of them together can be qualified as sexual violence. Though it is not as aggressive as what Game of Thrones presented, Alicent is in a position where she cannot say no to the King’s advances, and it makes her consent null. The power imbalance between them renders Alicent powerless and makes this scene a graphic sexual assault sequence. In another instance, an underage Rhaenyra is seduced by her own uncle, and while they do not consummate their affair, I still consider his approaches to be grooming of the young girl.
All in all, I think House of the Dragon is handling the legacy of the original series well enough, especially since the showrunners seem more aware of the sensitivity of the subject. They have not (yet) fetishized sexual violence, though they have romanticized incest. The plot is not lacking in any way because of the absence of rape, which proves how Game of Thrones could have thrived without it as well. I believe Game of Thrones’ portrayal of sexual violence to be incredibly unnecessary, and I fear that it impacted the film and TV industry into being more comfortable with dealing with rape without the necessary precautions. Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon are both well-known series, and due to their prominence, other directors may feel comfortable presenting the same type of violence, without fearing reproach from critics.