An Accidental Rape: The Trivialization of Sexual Violence In Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones: An Accidental Rape

There are two types of people who watch Game of Thrones: those who have read the books, and those who haven’t. It’s easy enough to tell these two types apart because those who’ve already read the books often delight in explaining how you really ought to read the books since the show departs enough from the original text in such a way that it’s best to view the TV series as more of a companion piece than a stand-alone work. (Full disclosure: I am one of those annoying book-readers!) Because after all, you want to know backstories, don’t you? You want to know what really happened in this fictional world, right? Right! And knowing the books well comes in especially useful when the television series departs enough from the novels that you catch yourself wondering just what the fuck is going on in the world of Westeros because you know things didn’t play out this way in the books. [Spoilers ahead!]

Such was the case with the latest episode of Game of Thrones, anyway, in which the television series veered rather dramatically from the course that George R. R. Martin set in the books. “Breaker of Chains” takes place immediately following the death of King Joffrey, the illegitimate son of fraternal twins, Cersei and Jaime Lannister. As Cersei mourns her son’s demise, Jaime joins her, and the two stand together beside Joffrey’s corpse. Up till this point, the scene plays out much as it does in the book. Both Cersei and Jaime are reeling—not only from the loss of their son (for whom Cersei cared deeply, Jaime… not so much), but also from their respective loss of status. Jaime was once renowned for his physical prowess; he now lacks his sword hand and has been more or less disowned by his father. As a woman, Cersei’s power lay in her beauty and progeny; now she is not only aging but has also lost her oldest child, seen her daughter shipped off to live with her enemies, and felt her remaining son slip from her grasp and into the hands of her father. The golden, enchanted lives enjoyed by Cersei and Jaime have vanished, their power has waned and there is a palpable sense that they are both lost. And so where else to turn but each other?

At least, that is the general feeling of what happened in the book as Jaime and Cersei had sex in the holy temple that just so happened to be doubling as a makeshift crypt for their eldest son. It was not, perhaps, the most titillating of sex scenes what with the necrophiliac element, but it was undoubtedly consensual, with Cersei explicitly telling Jaime, “Yes.”  (It was also a scene in which we discovered that Jaime wasn’t afraid of a little period moon’s blood sex, which isn’t really relevant except to indicate just one more way in which the book version of Jaime Lannister is awesome, except for the whole incest thing.) In the television show, however, the scene became something completely different; it became a rape scene. Again and again Cersei told Jaime to stop. And again and again, Jaime ignored her. It was brutal and fast and discomfiting, but also, it felt incongruous and wrong, even to people who had not read the corresponding scene in the book.

There have been many pivotal scenes, plot lines, and even characters in the television series that didn’t appear in the novels, several of which served as a type of exposition for those watching who hadn’t been reading along. Some of these additions have been successful (Arya Stark’s time as Tywin Lannister’s cup bearer remains one of the highlights of the show), while others have been less so (creating the character of Ros and then using her as, quite literally, as little more than a whipping girl). None of these departures though have been made without reason, and all have been used to advance the plot in a way that was in keeping with Martin’s novels. Until now, that is. Throughout the series (both book and television), not only has no other character had a redemptive arc like that of Jaime Lannister, but also no other character (except maybe Joffrey) has been so relentlessly—and increasingly—despicable as Cersei. We learn at the very beginning of the series that Cersei and Jaime have been involved in an incestuous relationship for years, and that they are willing to kill a 10-year-old boy in order to keep their secret. But following that reveal, Jaime’s narrative demonstrates that while he is far from perfect, the driving forces behind his more despicable actions are actually love and a type of honor. And it wasn’t just the attempted murder of Bran Stark that was a byproduct of Jaime’s devotion to some lofty ideal (sure, in that case the lofty ideal was fucking his sister, but still). Even beyond that, many of Jaime’s most reviled acts—including his sword-in-the-back murder of Mad King Aerys—were the result of his desire to protect the powerless and preserve a greater good. Jaime might not be a hero in the style of Ned Stark, but then, Ned Stark is dead. And Ned Stark was not flawless either. Nobody is. Not Jon Snow. Not Daenerys Targaryen. Not even Arya Stark. (Maybe Bran, but give him time. He’s a child.) Jaime is good in a recognizable way—he is not a hero, but he frequently behaves heroically.

Cersei meanwhile proves time and again that when given the chance to be cruel, she will take it. Not a single person can cross her path and remain unscathed—at best, with a sharply barbed insult; at worst, with a mortal wound. The television series has attempted to ameliorate her baser qualities by allowing her to explain herself a bit, but she still remains one of the least sympathetic characters on a show in which one man flays his captives for fun. And so, despite this slight softening of her harsh edges, the differences between Cersei and Jaime are, well, stark. Or, they were, until Jaime raped her on the ground next to the body of their dead son. And we in the audience are left to wonder why.

Because there must be a reason, right? A show as complex as this must have some sort of rationale for employing this type of sexual violence against a character, or else it become gratuitous in the worst possible way. But in fact, one of the most significant ways that the television series differs from the novels is the dramatic increase of instances of explicit sexual violence. Whether it was the rape of Daenerys by her husband at the beginning of the series or season 2 scene in which Joffrey ordered Ros to torture another prostitute or the castration of Theon in season 3, events that were only alluded to in the book (or not even in the source material at all) suddenly became major elements of the narrative, with a not small use of artistic license at play. (As many people have pointed out, just like Jaime’s rape of Cersei was fabricated, Daenerys was not raped by her husband in the novel.) But whereas one might assume that focusing on these acts of sexual violence might at least serve the purpose of showcasing the lingering trauma that such acts cause, instead this type of violence is shrugged off in a way that is in contrast to how the characters deal with other traumatic events. (For example, the effects of the violence which caused the loss of Jaime’s hand, the disfigurement of Tyrion’s face, and the maiming of Bran are still felt long after the original events took place, whereas victims of rape tend to quickly recover or even, in the case of Daenerys, fall in love with the rapist.)

Perhaps the biggest problem with the rape scene in “Breaker of Chains” is not the exploitation of sexual violence as simple plot point (although, that’s a big one!), but is instead the realization for book readers that unless the Jaime of the TV series winds up behaving in a manner completely different than he does in the original text, the man who we watched rape his sister by their child’s deathbed will continue to be one of the most sympathetic characters, one whom it is almost impossible not to cheer on. Only now, he’s a rapist. And while it’s true that other characters have been offered some redemption for past misdeeds (probably most notably the Hound), their prior actions usually made some sense in the context of the war being fought or the positions they held in a cruel, unforgiving society. Jaime’s actions make no sense (and, in fact, the director of the episode doesn’t even see it as real rape, despite Cersei’s unwavering protestations), which trivializes sexual violence by inserting it in the narrative where it doesn’t actually belong and setting up a situation where viewers will soon happily ignore or even forgive Jaime’s rape of Cersei because Jaime will continue on a more heroic path while Cersei descends to new levels of depravity and grotesquery. This does a huge disservice to viewers because it encourages them to judge a victim of sexual violence and excuse the perpetrator. What’s so troubling is that it’s not the first time Game of Thrones has done this. Much of the sexual violence visited on characters has been tempered because the victims were implicitly—though wrongly—seen as culpable in their degradation (see: Theon, the Stark-hating child-killer; Ros, the prostitute), but even then, the perpetrators (Ramsay Snow, Joffrey) were so despicable that it was at least clear where the sympathies of the show’s creators lay.

Now, however, the rapist is a beloved character and the victim is widely loathed (that Cersei is liked at all has everything to do with Lena Headey’s portrayal and nothing to do with the book-version of the character). And unless the show wildly changes course, the rapist will continue to be a beloved  character and the victim will continue to be widely loathed, and we, as the audience, will be asked to forgive the rape, or excuse it as being accidental (after all, in the words of the episode’s director, “Jaime is very much ready to have sex with her because he hasn’t made love to her since he got back”… what? aren’t blue balls a legitimate excuse for rape? ugh), and cheer on the rapist and dismiss the victim, just like we are asked to do all the time in reality. But Game of Thrones isn’t reality; it’s fantasy. And this is probably why Jaime’s rape of Cersei was one of the most disturbing scenes in a very disturbing show. The realization that one of the show’s few remaining heroes cares nothing about the agency of a woman he professes to love is troubling on many levels, but perhaps most of all on the one in which we’re all forced to admit that there’s nothing fantastical about it. It’s all too real.

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