(The new season of “Game of Thrones” premiered tonight on HBO, but there are no spoilers in this post! And now, here’s Mayim… – The GN Editors)
“Game of Thrones” is back and while the new season has fans extremely excited, one of the consistent complaints about the show is how rape is used as a plot point. Fans of both the series and the books on which the show is based note that unlike in the books, the show uses rape (over and over again) as a character development plot for women characters. I’ve been thinking about and writing this piece for months now – since the new season is here, it feels like a good time to finally talk about it.
To be upfront and entirely transparent, I have never watched the show and don’t plan to. (As you may know, I don’t watch much TV, period.) I once walked in on someone watching an episode and saw several large-breasted naked model-types giving some dude a bath and I thought to myself, “Yeah, I don’t need this in my life.”
That said, I have done a fair amount of research about GoT and the variety of reactions to it. I have read and spoken to many people who watch GoT and who have also been examining what it means for our culture. I have spoken to feminists who used to watch it and don’t anymore, I have spoken to feminists who still watch it despite challenges with the content, and I have spoken to non-feminists who have watched it, as well as some who don’t.
I believe – and the people I have spoken to who do watch it have assured me – that I know enough about it based on my research to speak to the issues regarding this show.
Addressing the Issues
Issue 1: Women are used as wallpaper.
Beautiful and/or naked women are consistently present in scenes where their presence is not part of a plot or action. The scene is being set as one where beautiful and/or naked women simply exist as if they are the wallpaper. They just are. (In addition, GoT typically uses very skinny, large-breasted women as wallpaper, reinforcing the preponderance of a specific type of heterosexual Western male fantasy female as desirable and exploitable.) For instance, in the scene I mentioned above, whatever the scene was trying to communicate, I am certain it didn’t need those women there in that way. It wanted them there because it’s titillating and stimulating and people can now see naked women on episodical TV in ways that they used to have to buy magazines or watch saucy cable TV to do. So, yay progress. (No thanks.)
Issue 2: Gore is used routinely and repeatedly.
GoT does not only show graphic rape, although it does that plenty. Beheadings, eyes being pulled out of people’s heads and other types of shock-value gore is a common occurrence on the show. It seems the grosser things get, the more people love it. And being grossed out and sickened seems to be a part of today’s mainstream entertainment in a way that it typically didn’t used to be, except if you were seeking it out in horror films. This is gore attached to a narrative episodical fantasy show.
Issue 3: The story (both books and episodes) depict hundreds of rapes. This includes graphic depictions of rape on camera, rape as plot point, rape of villains as punishment, selective rape of beautiful women that reinforce their roles as property, etc.
Since I started writing this post, the news came out that the producers may be rethinking their approach to using rape as a device in the show. I also have been reassured by many well-meaning fans that it’s not the only thing the show is about – but the fact remains that GoT has discussed and/or shown rapes numbering in the hundreds. That’s just a fact. People have counted this stuff. It’s a pervasive event/discussion/plot point. The show may not be about rape, but rape comes up an awful lot. Like, a ton. And the rape of children is shown and featured. The visual of crying women being raped is something that you can watch in pretty much any episode of GoT. So, the issues of rape and the discourse around the show are still important and grok-worthy, in my opinion. (Editorial director Esther K. also reports – from her first watching – that the first episode of the new season featured a number of women characters taking charge, and emerging as stronger or struggling to be stronger – and that’s all she’ll say because she respects the no-spoiler policy! While some of the women were being terrorized emotionally or were themselves perpetrators of violence the first episode had no on-screen rapes.)
I have been told by fans of the books that in the world of Game of Thrones, rape happens a ton and that, for most sensitive people, this is disturbing. That there are secondary characters who become primary characters because of their rape and abuse is, as one feminist author puts it, “creepy”. (Here is her irreverent thrashing of the books and their author, complete with breakdowns of how the female characters are faring.)
That rape is used as a plot point; i.e. “In the book, she gets raped by so and so, but it’s much more disgusting if she gets raped by so and so” is high on the scale of disturbing. In addition, rape is often used to have male characters react to women being raped, meaning rape is used as a way to have us get more in touch with the lead males, which has been cited as simply lazy writing. I would tend to agree. It also highlights how rape of women has become so commonplace in loud minds that “So yeah, she was raped; that happened…but how does HE feel about it?” becomes the way we process this act.
There are other rape issues. Powerful women who are loved by the audience are raped as a way to sock us in the stomach (because apparently that makes the viewer feel connected to the character more?). And villainous women the audience despises are raped, making the viewer feel somehow she deserved it (with many internet comments stating precisely that).
Finally, the women we see raped and tortured on GoT are mostly skinny and conventionally attractive, which brings up a lot of complicated issues about what Western culture has selectively decided to be comfortable with. A noted psychologist has even gone so far as to discuss the obsession our culture has with watching beautiful women raped, because it’s actually a thing. Like there is something that is culturally acceptable or gratifying in a sick way to watch beauty brought down by the power of the penis. It’s so twisted, I can’t even figure out what to say about it, but it’s a real thing.
Addressing the Defense
There are any number of rants available online about these issues. But because the GrokNation space is about trying to understand the issues that trouble or challenge us, I’d like to analyze the defensive responses I have heard from people who watch this show (and who don’t seem bothered by the treatment of women in the series).
Response 1: “It’s Just A Show”
This is the beloved response of people who don’t want to have a conversation, because there’s really no way to respond. “No, it’s not just a show” simply isn’t true. I agree that it is “just a show,” but I would argue that nothing is just anything. Every show we watch, every reaction we have, every thing we deem acceptable on our televisions becomes a part of our collective consciousness and a part of our culture’s standards of what is okay and what isn’t.
It’s a scientific principle of exposure; the more we see something, the more we grow accustomed to it. These things that we see then start to seem acceptable or even palatable. This means that nothing is simply viewed and forgotten, culturally speaking. Whether we like it or not, everything we see on television becomes incorporated into the brains and psyches of the viewers. Even the process of watching horrendous things desensitizes us.
For instance, when I was a teenager pornography existed in magazines for the most part; now it is readily available for free, any time, anywhere, on the internet. This has made certain images part of our psyches in ways we cannot ignore or deny. It has even become internet fodder to circulate particularly disgusting and shameful sex videos as a source of amusement, in a stomach-turning way.
Movies that were too graphic for young eyes or gory when I was a child are now commonplace for kids and teenagers, since the bar has been so significantly lowered for what is considered gory. Cartoons I used to go see in the “Sick and Twisted Animation Festival” as a college student are now easily found on TV and the internet. GoT is a perfect example of how our threshold for “too gory for TV” has been lowered drastically.
When people recognize things on GoT as disgusting and disturbing but continue to watch anyway, that’s a great example – we have become accustomed to accepting those images and plotlines, and we will tolerate them as viewers.
Response #2: “Are You Saying We Should Police our Entertainment?”
A related defense to “It’s just a show” is the accusation that anyone who has a significant problem with GoT is a fuddy-duddy, a conservative (which I happen to be in the social arena only), and an uptight repressed bitter feminist. I’ve been lectured by many lovers of GoT about how it’s on late at night, on cable, and that any self-respecting parent wouldn’t let their kid watch it because it’s a show for responsible mature grown-ups.
This defensiveness ignores the reality: young people do watch it. And by young I mean under 30. The 18-year-old of the 1960s or even the 1990s is not the same as the 18-year-old of 2015. With all due respect to people under 30, I still consider people under 30 to be impressionable in terms of what they see and how it potentially affects how they treat prospective dates and mates. Impressionable young people watch GoT. Today’s tweens and teens are tech-savvy in a way their parents never would have imagined, and TV is accessible outside of the channel and original time slot thanks to on-demand systems and web streaming. So the fact that it is on late and you have to know how to work a TV and cable system to get it doesn’t actually restrict who is seeing this show.
Response #3: “This Show Depicts the Way Things Were at a Certain Time in History”
Really? Using large-breasted naked women as wallpaper and letting us witness rape repeatedly is learning a history lesson? There are many articles like this one that can show you that some of the events may have been inspired by European medieval history, however the books and TV show are considered to be in the genre of “high fantasy,” not even “historical fiction.”
While dragons, werewolves and zombies aren’t an issue in 2015, I can guarantee you that rape and sexual assault sure the heck are. The desensitization we have when we dismiss objections to this show claiming that it has historical merit or accuracy it is a disservice to women who are victims of rape today.
If I want to learn about history, I’ll watch the History Channel. I can read a book. I don’t need a show repeatedly depicting beautiful naked women and rape and gore to teach me about history. However, if there are people who can only understand the rape of women and the abuse of power in history because they have been made aware through Game of Thrones-related conversations, I suppose I am grateful for this show. (Here’s a site that discusses the statistics on rape and sexual assault going on right now.) So for those of you who are now socially conscious about this issue, I implore you to learn about organizations that help women today who are raped and sold into the sex trade, such as this brave woman featured on CNN’s “Heroes” special and another post that’s coming to GrokNation this week (so stay tuned for that, and in the interim, please read our GrokNation posts on sexual assault and violence, and prostitution/human trafficking).
Response #4: “The Books Have Tons of Rape, Too”
I suppose this is supposed to make me feel better. It doesn’t. I don’t think books discussing rape by the hundreds are healthy for our culture, either. Just being honest here.
While we’re on the subject of rape, most women in the time that this show depicts did not look like models. The fact that the transformation of the books into TV has permitted a heterosexual fantasy depiction of most of the women we end up seeing raped should disturb you.
Bringing down powerful female characters with rape is a complex thing to do repeatedly on a TV show, especially if they are villains. The most dramatically critical comment I have seen on a fan site about one GoT rape was, “She deserved it.” As in, someone actually felt this is a sentiment to express. And I’m sure that won’t impact his views of women or rape or the world. Because it’s just a show, right?
And in the comments section on the torture and rape of a prostitute by Joffrey include women saying, “This is how I want to be fucked” and men saying, “I need to take notes. This is how my woman should want it.” (For more about the rise of violent themes in pornography, and one feminist’s crusade against it, see this piece in the Jewish Journal.) So while GoT may be “just a show,” the comments section reveals that people are not seeing violent sex as rape, which is (to say the least) socially problematic.
Response #5: “You’re Too Sensitive…”
I am willing to fess up to this one. I am very sensitive. The constant violence and screaming and cursing on “The Sopranos” was too much for me. I walked out of “Boogie Nights” after watching yet another naked cocaine-fueled woman have sex. I walked out of “Zero Dark Seven” because I cannot watch torture, even of a terrorist. Everyone has a different level at which they are disturbed by any number of things, both real and fictional. Exposure to certain things early in life combined with the variability of genetics and coping mechanisms and world views means that certain things don’t bug certain people and I get that.
This leaves me left out of a lot of things and that’s just my cross to bear. I avoid a lot of TV shows and movies because of my sensitivity and I am grateful that I have found a girlfriend in my life who has the same sensitivities. We commiserate together and honestly, knowing I am not alone gets me through these times when I am socially literally cast out and it feels bad.
What We Can Do
I am certain there are amazing and powerful things about GoT (one university in Canada found enough to create a course of study based on the books and the TV show). But I can not get past what seems to be a consistent pattern of using women’s naked bodies and gore and rape as a large part of the show. I don’t need to watch gang rapes. I don’t want to see young girls crying while they are raped. I don’t want to “get through that” so that I feel empowered about understanding the role of rape in controlling and abusing women. And I don’t need to watch scenes of prostitutes beaten until they are bloody.
If you want to actually do something to show that GoT inspires you, volunteer at a rape crisis center. Donate money to organizations that help women heal from rape. Many mothers who run away from home with their children were victims of sexual violence. Find a women’s shelter near you and send in a check or offer to help.
And talk to your friends about violence against women, especially sexual violence against women, in our culture.
Grok With Us:
- Do you watch “Game of Thrones”? Was there a moment or moments during the show that made you uncomfortable? How did you reconcile it? Or did you ignore it?
- Did you ever watch something on TV or in the movies that made you uncomfortable? Why? Did you do anything about it? Why or why not?
- Do you think our culture has become more accepting of violence against women? Why or why not?