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31 comments

[–] womenopausal [OP] 17 points (+17|-0)

I don’t have much tolerance these days for scenes involving the casual, ritualistic degradation of women, which is why deciding to rewatch Game of Thrones was such a colossal unforced error. Idiotic! Foolhardy! Own goal! I made it through the first episode, where a sobbing Daenerys Targaryen is raped by Khal Drogo on their wedding night in front of a romantic orange sunset. I got through the part where Daenerys learns to get her rapist to be nicer to her by being more of an engaged participant in her own sexual assault, and the moment where she subsequently falls in love with him and he with her. I watched as Ros is forced to violently beat another woman with a scepter to gratify the sadistic sexual predilections of King Joffrey, and as Brienne is dragged away to be gang-raped by Roose Bolton’s soldiers, until Jaime saves her. I stopped watching shortly before Jaime rapes his sister, Cersei, next to their son’s dead body, and before Sansa is raped by Ramsay Bolton while Theon Greyjoy watches. It occurred to me at some point that this was becoming an ordeal, and I could rewatch New Girl for a third time instead, where the only instance of sexualized violence is a comedic subplot involving Schmidt’s accidentally broken penis.

Game of Thrones, which debuted 10 years ago this spring, has the dubious honor of being the ne plus ultra of rape culture on television. No series before, or since, has so flagrantly served up rape and assault simply for kicks, without a shadow of a nod toward “realism” (because dragons). The genre is fantasy, and the fantasy at hand is a world in which every woman, no matter her power or fortune, is likely to be violated in front of our eyes. Rape is like blood on Game of Thrones, so commonplace that viewers become inured to it, necessitating ever more excess to grab our attention. It’s brutal, graphic, and hollow. It’s also intentional. Daenerys’s wedding night isn’t explicitly written as being nonconsensual in George R. R. Martin’s 1996 novel (despite the fact that the character was 13 at the time), and it wasn’t filmed as such in the first, unreleased Game of Thrones pilot. At some point, the decision was made to introduce viewers to the series’s most significant female character via her humiliating assault—with pornified aesthetics for added titillation—by a man who had purchased her.

When Thrones was on the air, each season brought with it ample discussion of its wearying reliance on rape for dramatic fodder. My colleague Chris Orr did a character-by-character breakdown in 2015 of the exaggerated and invented instances of sexualized violence that the show’s creators, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, introduced in adapting the show; in response to widespread criticism, Weiss and Benioff eventually toned down depictions of rape and assault and sacrificed neither viewership nor Holy shit watercooler moments in the process, proving the show never needed them in the first place.

Read: Why does ‘Game of Thrones’ feature so much sexual violence?

A show treating sexual violence as casually now as Thrones did then is nearly unimaginable. And yet rape, on television, is as common as ever, sewn into crusading feminist tales and gritty crime series and quirky teenage dramedies and schlocky horror anthologies. It’s the trope that won’t quit, the Klaxon for supposed narrative fearlessness, the device that humanizes “difficult” women and adds supposed texture to vulnerable ones. Many creators who draw on sexual assault claim that they’re doing so because it’s so commonplace in culture and always has been. “An artist has an obligation to tell the truth,” Martin once told The New York Times about why sexual violence is such a persistent theme in his work. “My novels are epic fantasy, but they are inspired by and grounded in history. Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought.” So have gangrene and post-traumatic stress disorder and male sexual assault, and yet none of those feature as pathologically in his “historical” narratives as the brutal rape of women.

Some progress is visible. Many writers, mostly men, continue to rely on rape as a nuclear option for female characters, a tool with which to impassion viewers, precipitate drama, and stir up controversy. Others, mostly women, treat sexual assault and the culture surrounding it as their subject, the nucleus around which characters revolve and from which plotlines extend. Rape as a trope, a joke—I could never encounter these devices again and sleep better for it. But in the hands of artists who want to deconstruct the idea of the rape plot altogether, we see a version of storytelling that serves us, and survivors, something more transformative.

Still more common, though, is the series that mistakes graphically portraying rape for having something insightful to say about it. At one point in the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale, June (played by Elisabeth Moss) recounts in detail some of the assaults inflicted on her as a handmaid in Gilead, a merciless Christian theocracy in the show’s alternate version of America. Her list is long, and yet not as long as the one I made while thinking about the show’s historical treatment of assault. Over three previous seasons, viewers have watched June be raped by Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes); have nonconsensual sex with Nick (Max Minghella), followed by consensual sex when she later falls in love with him (there’s that trope again); be raped by Waterford while nine months pregnant; be raped by Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) when Waterford orders it; and murder Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni) after he attempts to rape her. We’ve also seen female characters suffer genital mutilation, have their eyes taken out, be beaten with straps, and have fingers removed. The current season presents a 14-year-old who’s already been raped by multiple men, the prolonged torture of June after she’s recaptured (yet again) by Gilead, and a different handmaid who develops romantic feelings for a man who’s assaulted her.

I’ll remind you that Hulu markets this show as a feminist fable. A trailer for the latest season that was released last year features a character saying “Blessed be the squad,” as if to borrow some of AOC’s radical chic. The show’s 2017 debut mere months into the Trump-Pence administration aligned it with ideas of a female-led resistance against patriarchal overreach. I loved the first season, the cool painterliness of the show’s aesthetic and the thought experiment it offered about American puritanism, unleashed and institutionalized. But the longer the show went on—fueled, paradoxically, by the critical success of that first season—the more it became simply a series about the abuse of women. Nothing more, nothing less.

Read: The growing paradox of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

The second season made clear that its only objective was to keep people watching. The violence the show inflicts upon its characters delivers no overarching message, no moment of transcendence. In Gilead, sexual violence is a categorical imperative, and June and her allies are beaten and raped and tortured until they escape; when they’re inevitably recaptured they are beaten and raped and tortured again. Unlike Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, on which the series is based and in which June’s “ceremony” with the Commander is described in clinical, disassociated language, the sexual violence of the show is cruel and up-close. Your tolerance for it depends on you. In one scene in the new season, June is waterboarded while Aunt Lydia uneasily does needlepoint in the hallway outside, and it occurred to me that viewers are essentially adopting Lydia’s role, spectators tacitly encouraging the characters’ prolonged abuse, uncomfortable but silent. Meanwhile the show’s writers, not content with tormenting June, are increasingly portraying her as a problematic antihero, encouraging viewers to condemn her for being emotionally and psychologically undone for everything they’ve put her through.

In 2018, I wrote that The Handmaid’s Tale had crossed the line into exploitation for its repeated victimization of its characters. In the fourth season, Moira (Samira Wiley) expresses a wish to “take all the shit from Gilead and turn it into something useful,” an unintentionally apt summary of the show’s primary failure. Usefulness is also lacking in the most vile scene in Amazon’s recent horror series Them, a 1950s-set drama in which racism and supernatural forces terrorize a Black family. In the fifth episode, a flashback details the violent gang rape of the show’s female protagonist, Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), as her baby is murdered in front of her in a monstrous kind of game. The episode was written by two men: the show’s creator, Little Marvin, and the playwright Dominic Orlando. It feels peculiarly grotesque to me that both so viscerally imagine and stage a scene that neither of them could ever experience—the twofold torture of a woman whose own rape becomes almost incidental to her compared with the loss of her child. It does nothing but appall, its evil too unsubtle to nurture anything but shock.

My colleague Hannah Giorgis, writing about Them, stated that “the sheer intensity and meaninglessness of the cruelty on display lends credence to arguments that Little Marvin didn’t anticipate how the show might affect Black audiences, many of whom view it as a bloodied funhouse mirror of an already-horrifying reality.” The argument that Marvin and The Handmaid’s Tale showrunner, Bruce Miller, have made in defense of their work is that they’re simply portraying what racist sexual violence and instutionalized sexual violence can and have looked like. But this thesis assumes we don’t already know what this looks like, and ignores the fact that both men are simultaneously turning their subjects into entertainment, and profit. For all the criticism it garnered over the years, Game of Thrones was a ratings juggernaut, and many creators since have assumed that its willingness to dole out gratuitous sex and violence was the reason. But the era of peak TV has also mandated excess for new shows trying to break through: In a frantically crowded TV marketplace, the more shocking you can be, the more people pay attention.

The time has long since come, I think, to stop watching any show that treats sexual assault cheaply or as any kind of temporary narrative hot potato to be picked up and rapidly discarded. Rape shouldn’t be a motivating force for a male character (The Sopranos, True Detective), a humbling or instigating force for an unlikable character (House of Cards, Bates Motel, Private Practice, The Americans), or a casual expression of tastelessness (pick any season of American Horror Story). Writers should stop imagining female characters falling in love with rapists, a trope that began with Laura and Luke on General Hospital and has persisted ever since, on The Handmaid’s Tale, The Fall, and Orange Is the New Black, justifying assault as a twisted kind of courtship. Writers who don’t identify as women or who have no first- or secondhand experience with sexual assault should consider carefully why they want to add it to a show, and should have to defend their impulses in doing so. The strange value of Game of Thrones is that it highlighted how tediously prestige television has come to rely on rape, both as titillation and as a catchall traumatic event that even the most lauded shows overuse to enable male heroism and character development.

That doesn’t mean rape has to become a taboo subject. Critics have been divided over Promising Young Woman, which won an Oscar last week for Best Original Screenplay, but the movie by Emerald Fennell breaks all kinds of traditions in using assault as a subject—it never shows violation on camera, it suggests that rapists are less-commonly evil serial abusers than banal office-types in button-downs, and it offers no redemptive arc for anyone. The movie begins and ends in a world mired in rape culture. HBO’s I May Destroy You, which aired last year, was less a drama about rape than a way for an artist, Michaela Coel, to write her way through it; the show explored the limits of consent and the in-between instances of assault that aren’t usually clarified by television. Watching HBO up to its premiere, you could have been forgiven for understanding rape as simply the violent sexual abuse of a woman. I May Destroy You, more gratifyingly, reframed it as a series of realistic violations—the stealthy removal of a condom during sex, a con played to trick a woman into a threesome, a consensual encounter between two men that becomes assault when the word no is ignored.

Above all, the question that writers should ask themselves, and that viewers should weigh, is why a rape is appearing onscreen or onstage in a work of art. When it is, it should be written, or at the very least talked through, with women or those with lived experience on the subject, who have enough power to challenge it. It should do more than simply exploit a real-life scourge for dramatic reasons. It should be able to make the staggering number of people who’ve survived sexual violence feel something more than pain when they watch.

[–] LH 2 points (+2|-0)

I dont think the wedding night scene/ Daenerys and Khal Drog relasionship in the first book of a song of ice and fire was any better. I remember it making me feel upset as I read it in the 90s, I was 13 myself at the time. I do agree that its disgusting how they showed rape /womens nakedness as tillitilating entertainment in the tv series.

"Identify as women". For fuck's sake.

Otherwise, good article. Watching graphic depictions of rape is, surprise, traumatizing. No need to turn it into entertainment. You can make stories about rape without salivating over rape.

[–] notyourfetish 9 points (+9|-0)

D & D didn't include rape on GoT because they thought it would make the show better. They included rape because they are depraved males who get off on it.

[–] Feerique 0 points (+0|-0)

All the sex scenes of GoT are on porn sites. Danaerys' rape being the most popular I believe (can't be bothered to check but I searched once and it seemed to come up more often). My one correction would be that they included it because they knew it would hook in male viewers who are for the most part depraved. At least compared to the books, they aged up the children characters.

[–] [Deleted] 4 points (+9|-5) Edited

Hmm I agree with a lot of the article but I think there's a fine line between gratuitous and numbing sexual violence and realistic depictions of the lives of women throughout history. We can't remove rape from television and brush it all under the rug with the pretense of "we all know it happens", because we don't. I'd say over 50% of the population don't understand it happens (with even fewer understanding how traumatic it is) and featuring it in its graphic horror in mainstream media shouldn't be about normalising it, but illustrating what really happens.

As Elizabeth Moss herself said "Really? You don’t have the balls to watch a TV show? This is happening in your real life. Wake up, people. Wake up."

[–] notyourfetish 14 points (+14|-0)

Except the rape on GoT is framed as something to beat off to. It's not depicted "realistically" at all.

And when the women are raped, it's not about their pain and horror and it does nothing for their character arc. It's about the MEN. When Sansa was raped, there was so much emphasis on Theon's reaction, and Sansa was just a device/object in his character arc. It wasn't even about her.

Dany (don't feel like trying to spell her name) is raped against a romantic sunset. It's a normalization/romantization of something that should be horrible.

She is crying as she's being forced on her knees, after having begged brokenly. Why is something like this presented as entertainment? Women's pain and degradation is presented all the time on GoT as entertainment. You honestly can't see what's wrong with that?

I'd say over 50% of the population don't understand it happens (with even fewer understanding how traumatic it is) and featuring it in its graphic horror in mainstream media shouldn't be about normalising it, but illustrating what really happens.

Why should entertainment be used to educate people about rape and rape statistics, though? When you sit down with dinner after work, are you scrolling through Netflix looking for something sexist and porny to "educate" you about rape and incest?

Most people just want to be entertained without having to witness misogynistic plot devices, which is all the rape on GoT is. The rape isn't there to be "realistic," it's there to get off men in the audience.

Also, men do not care. They don't look at GoT to be educated. They don't care if women in real life are raped or how it effects them or why. They care about being entertained with fantasy porn.

And yeah. I had the "balls" to watch the show. I watched almost to the end and my disgust remains intact.

GoT is just rape porn for nerdy men who wish they were John Snow.

[–] EmeraldRift 6 points (+6|-0)

I find it hard to express why the amount of sexual violence in media frustrates me so much, but a lot of what you said is exactly how I feel, so thank you for typing it out. It’s in so much media these days it can feel impossible to avoid sometimes, and I shouldn’t be forced to watch such uncomfortable content all the time in the name of ‘educating men’ lmao.

I’ve also noticed that if anyone puts sexual assault in virtually anything people start acting like it’s some kind of masterpiece completely above criticism. Even though it seems to be on a subconscious level, to a lot of people sexual assault in media = quality— not just men, either. A lot of women seem to think it’s automatically feminist for it, which is really frustrating to me. It just proves to me that all people see women for is sex, consensual or not consensual. People are obsessed with it.

Also tbh sometimes it feels like its just a way for sexist writers to knock their female characters down a peg, which is extra gross, especially if it’s a character that female viewers are meant to heavily relate to or project themselves onto ://

[–] [Deleted] 2 points (+2|-0) Edited

Well most of the article was about the handmaidens tale despite the deceptive titling. That's what I meant incidentally about there being a fine line between realistic and gratuitous. Perhaps they don't look to game of thrones which is seen as a fantasy seriously, but the handmaidens tale is a serious show and set in our world as a real possibility. I'm not talking about rape being used in TV shows to educate, but to represent the real lives of women so that the show itself is realistic. (also Elizabeth Moss commenting on having the balls to watch the show was about the handmaidens tale, a show she stars in and produces, that features quite realistic possibilities for the modern day world). Incidentally its quite good to read an entire article if you didn't so you have context but I understand why you jumped to that.

[–] elleelle 0 points (+0|-0)

This comment! Allll of this.

I think the young ages of the mains and the constant incest in the books are creepy as hell, but I think the depictions of sexual violence in the show are way gross vs. the books.

[–] babayaga 1 points (+1|-0)

I haven't watched The Handmaid's Tale, but the article does make the show's sexual violence sound numbing. Personally, I feel like rape scenes that aren't really graphic or explicit work better, because they're less likely to be viewed as 'rough sex.' One of the better ones I've seen was Joan's rape in Mad Men. It showed the sadness and pain on her face while avoiding any nudity. There's also an almost-rape scene in Netflix's Dark, which was very harrowing but didn't show any sexual violence since it didn't happen. Maybe there are some graphic rape scenes that work well, but I've just seen the gratuitous, written-by-men ones.

[–] [Deleted] 1 points (+1|-0)

Yes it certainly can be awful representation :/ the last one you mentioned sounds like something that would make people think much more deeply about rape as it didn't show it but it has all the gut wrenching foreshadowing and fear that people experience before rape. It sounds like it'd probably hit harder than a lot of actual rape scenes.

[–] DBrooke 4 points (+10|-6)

Counterpoint: if you're not depicting rape, you're not depicting reality.

[–] notyourfetish 10 points (+10|-0) Edited

But it's literally a fantasy show. We can imagine a world with dragons but can't imagine a world where women aren't in constant danger from men?

Men get raped, too. Why don't we see more of that reality?

Because the show was targeted at deprived males who like seeing women hurt.

[–] KBash 6 points (+9|-3) Edited

I wholeheartedly agree.

As someone who has been raped on a number of occasions, implying that “rape as backstory” is just a trope rather than realistic, and a way to excuse the character’s behavior or make her “edgy,” is really hurtful. Plenty of us have had our lives really damaged by male sexual violence.

On the other hand, it’s the way it’s depicted that’s the problem: as titillation, as a starting point for a male revenge arc, etc. If the rape is gratuitous to the story and/or shown in graphic detail, it’s really gross.

Also, if the character is literally about nothing else but her trauma, unless it’s a story about a victim coming to terms, it’s also gross. We aren’t just “rape victims” and nothing else. I consider it like having a disease: something I have to struggle with which isn’t my fault, but also something which has nothing to do with my personality or character.

I have a story which has rape in the very beginning. It’s set in a dystopian America. One of the main characters sees rape as simply the way things are; she’d prefer not to be raped, but if she’s pulled over by a cop and he recognizes she’s the leader of the resistance, he’s going to ask for money or for sex (since she’s become notorious, usually the latter, so he can boast later to his cop buddies), and if she resists, he’s calling it in and giving up her location, throwing a huge monkey wrench into the works of whatever she’s doing. If she kills him, she’s risking again much greater scrutiny and indeed a manhunt, which again interferes with her goal, so it’s much easier to “pay the fine” so to speak and get it over with than have him report her and give up her location (she’d immediately have the entire armed forces in hot pursuit). This is the unofficial rule of all non-military cops- if they get to rape her for bragging rights, they’ll let her go- so she doesn’t resist and instead carries a “rape kit” as the feminist separatists and other revolutionaries call it sarcastically (it contains the morning after pill, and drugs to take to prevent HIV, STD testing kits and antibiotics, in addition to the more usual first aid kit supplies).

The inciting incident is actually a boy she’s rescued and is bringing to a rehabilitation center killing a cop who means to rape her, about which she is extremely annoyed, as now they’re potentially in extremely hot water, and indeed she has to make the boy drive the squad car behind her so they can turn off and hide it along with the body in the desert, but another cop car comes along and he acts weird when the other cops look at him (doesn’t pick up the radio and realize they’re speaking to him; doesn’t wave back at first when they signal to him, and when he does it’s a panicked flailing wave, because he’s nineteen and has no idea what the fuck he’s doing, and is just driving a cop car and wearing a dead guy’s uniform). They then put on their lights and siren to pull him over, beginning a car chase which culminates in a shoot-out, and since no doubt the other cops have radioed it in, it means they have to find a place to hide their vehicle and get off the interstate highways immediately, thus driving the plot in a different direction.

The boy kills the officer because to him sexual abuse is such a terrible crime rather than a daily reality. He was enslaved and sexually abused after participating in an insurrection, so it’s a trigger for him; meanwhile, the other main character was sexually abused long before society collapsed, has had many, many run-ins with rapists and would-be murderers, knows far more about what distinguishes these guys than he does (she knows the cops will not otherwise harm her), and she knows when to fight and when to let it go because her business as the leader of the largest group of freedom fighters in the nation is far more important.

The boy has no idea of the daily reality of rape females face in this post-collapse society or indeed that they faced before, so he thinks it’s the most unutterably awful crime and executes the rapist policeman, thus catapulting them into a dicey situation.

To me, this is not “rape as backstory” but rather realistic as to what would happen if society collapsed. I hate that I’d be accused of using a lazy trope for this scene or any other scene of sexual violence (and in fact when telling people about the start to my story have been told “well, normally I don’t like rape used as a device in stories...”)

It’s not a fucking DEVICE. It’s fucking REALITY. Deal with it. We certainly have to.

[–] notyourfetish 5 points (+5|-0)

Sometimes reality is used as a plot device in a way that's harmful and demeaning to women and victims of assault.

Surely you can see that.

Child rape is normal, too. Would you like to see more of that on screen?

[–] KBash 1 points (+4|-3)

If you didn't bother reading what I said, why should I answer? Your question is the opposite of good faith.

[–] Srfthrowaway -1 points (+0|-1)

I think your book sounds really interesting. I like your world-building just from what you've posted here. And I've said before that I admire your writing style!

I agree that rape is part of life (as much as I wish it wasn't) and can be part of the story. Your writing is a great example of how it can be incorporated into world-building and character/story development.

Sherri S Tepper has her characters get raped/have not-really-consensual sex as well, and tells it in a way that you understand how it feels for the character. I actually don't find rape scenes in her books nightmare fuel because it's realistic. Like yours.

It is often used by lesser (or, male) writers as a plot point because of lazy writing, but in a story like the one you wrote, it's just part of life.

I do think there's a place in escapist fantasy for a world without rape cluttering it up, making it escapist, which I think is more what OP had in mind.

[–] crlody 2 points (+2|-0) Edited

My husband and I have a running joke, which started before GOT, but whenever we start a new show that takes itself too seriously, we start a timer to the first gratuitous sex scene, and it's usually within the first five minutes of the first episode, it's so trite and cliche at this point 🙄

[–] MadSea 1 points (+2|-1)

I don’t know how accurate this is as I’ve not personally looked into it, but I read elsewhere that the new GoT series isn’t going to have that sort of sexual violence. Here’s hoping this means they’re listening to feedback like this and adapting accordingly. GRRM says he considers himself a feminist. I know we will all contend otherwise, but if he wants any chance at redemption, he’s getting his chance.

[–] EmilyJ 5 points (+5|-0)

Hahahaahhaa Calling grrm feminist lol Don’t get me wrong he is a great writer and I like him but literally every female character he introduces he starts with “XyZ had blonde hair and bosom bigger than one could imagine” .

I admire his sense of reality of that era in the writing genre but he isn’t feminist

[–] elleelle 3 points (+4|-1)

Yes but he does that with everything. Robert Baratheon is muscled like a maiden's fantasy, he and his brothers have black hair, olive skin, dark eyes and are tall. Edmure Tully is slender and auburn haired. The capons are roasted and have crispy skin, the neeps are mashed and swimming in butter, the egg was soft boiled in a little cup and came with a pot of peppermint tea. Each house's sigil is described in detail, each banner's colors, each knight's armor. Clothes. The weather. The castles, inns, and holds. The furniture. The landscapes. The seas. And the dragons- if women are described to be titillating (and they often are), the dragons are described with reverence and awe that borders on lust.

I am referring to just the books and working from memory, but GRRM loves to describe everything passionately.

[–] Feerique 2 points (+2|-0)

Nah, I gotta draw the line at just how descriptive his rape and torture scenes are. At some point, it's not just being realistic when you could have faded to black. And medieval marriages weren't occurring all the time before the girls even turned 14. I have to wonder why he insisted on making them all so young.

[–] MadSea 1 points (+1|-0)

Oh to be clear, I’m not contending he is, only noting he self identified as one. :)

[–] KBash 2 points (+2|-0)

They’re making a new GoT series?... Whatever for?!

[–] [Deleted] 4 points (+4|-0)

Perhaps meaning house of dragon? It's a TV version of GRRM's fire and blood set 2000 (possibly 3000) years before game of thrones and detailing the targaryen history. It's a massive book and from what I remember of it there wasn't any sexual violence featured, but definitely some creepo older targaryens.

[–] MadSea 2 points (+2|-0)

House of the Dragon, the Targaryen civil war. There may not be rape, but there WILL be lots of incest!