More Than A Scene: Sexual Assault on "Game of Thrones”


Photo courtesy of The Sydney Morning Herald

TRIGGER WARNING: RAPE, SEXUAL ASSAULT

HBO’s Game of Thrones has always been bloody, twisted, graphic, and unapologetic. That is part of what makes the show such an effectual watch—it pushes beyond the limits of what is allowed on cable television. While some argue that its gore reflects a societal desensitization to violence, others pride the program on its “realness” in reflecting the brutality of life in a Tudor-like era. Often, bloodshed underscores the show’s political power struggles and the character’s emotional trauma in a way that sugar-coated scenes could not provide. 

But more frightening than cringe-worthy sword wounds and the late King Joffrey’s sadistic threats are moments in which violence is not treated as violence. 

This week, Game of Thrones’s third episode shocked viewers with a scene in which Jaime Lannister rapes his sister, Cersei. 

While she is grieving for the death of their son, Jaime and Cersei kiss in what appears to be a moment of comfort and love. But when she pushes him away, he suddenly grows angry. He repeatedly calls Cersei a “hateful woman” before grabbing her by the hair, ripping her dress, wrestling her to the ground, and sexually assaulting her. All the while, Cersei is begging him to stop.

After the initial shock sets in, confusion follows. Jaime, a rapist? Even though, last season, he was in a white-hot rage when Brienne was threatened with sexual assault? Even with his immense character growth since the start of the show? It felt like such a nonsensical, backwards step. 

Slight plot changes from the page to the screen may be partly to blame. In George R.R. Martin’s novel A Storm of Swords, upon which the episode is based, this scene is not one of rape, but one of consensual sex. On his blog, the author commented about the deviation: “I think the "butterfly effect" that I have spoken of so often was at work here. In the novels, Jaime is not present at Joffrey's death, and indeed, Cersei has been fearful that he is dead himself […] Though the time and place is wildly inappropriate and Cersei is fearful of discovery, she is as hungry for him as he is for her. [….] we never discussed this scene, to the best of my recollection.

“If the show had retained some of Cersei's dialogue from the books, it might have left a somewhat different impression.” 

Critics and viewers can go back and forth about how this rape scene will be given more relevance as the season progresses, about how sexual assault is a consistent threat on the show and reflects Westeros’ cultural mindset, about how it creates more “drama,” and about how, because the show is merely an adaptation, it does not have to be necessarily faithful to the books. 

And it is true, the show departs from the book in many regards—believe it or not, this is not the first time that a consensual sex scene has been transformed into sexual assault on the program. In the first season, on the evening of Daenerys and Khal Drogo’s wedding, the final scene depicts Khal Drogo taking off his new wife’s clothes while she stands there crying, and then forcing her onto the ground, presumably to be raped. However, in the novel, Khal Drogo explicitly asks for Daenerys’ consent before they consummate their marriage. She says, “Yes,” and initiates the next moment of sexual contact. 

So, why does the show integrate sexual assault into the plot? 

Though the scene between Daenerys and Khal Drogo did not stir much discussion when it aired (I am assuming because the show was not as wildly popular as it is today), the rape scene featured in this week’s episode of Game of Thrones has forced the creators to comment. 

But the most disturbing thing is, they do not consider it to be rape. 

“Well, it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle,” said director Alex Graves in an interview with Alan Sepinwall. 

“It took me awhile to wrap my head around it, because I think that, for some people, it’s just going to look like rape. The intention is that it’s not just that,” said Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in an interview with the Daily Beast

Yes, this scene does “look like rape,” because it was rape. Despite these claims, at no point does this assault become consensual…

Silence is not consent. 

“Jaime, wait. Please,” is not consent. 

“Please, stop it. Stop it!” is not consent. 

Pinning someone to the floor while they repeatedly try to break free is not consent. 

Crying is not consent.  

“Stop! It’s not right!” is not consent.

Force is not consent. 

It is absolutely terrifying that the director and the actor (who plays a rapist, though he does not seem to realize it) think that these moments are synonymous with consent. When Cersei asks Jaime to stop, he explicitly tells her, “No.” When she tries to push his face away from hers, unable to escape from underneath him, Jaime repeats, “I don’t care. I don’t care.” The last sounds the audience hears from this interaction are Cersei gasping for breath, crying, and begging, “Don’t!” The last shot is of her hand, clasping onto a tablecloth for dear life. And according to these men, all of these signify consensual sex. 

To be clear, consent is an explicit “YES!” from both parties involved, without force or coercion. It can be retracted at any time—it does not matter that Cersei kisses Jaime at the beginning of the sequence. Consent is also necessary every time—it does not matter that Cersei and Jaime have had sex in the past, and are supposedly in love. Any previous consent given was made irrelevant the moment Cersei pushed away from her brother and told him to stop. 

While this rape scene occurs in a fantasy world, in a very different society, Game of Thrones is shown to modern viewers. This moment of fiction breeches into a real world in which survivors are told everyday that what they experienced was not rape, in which 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted during their college career, and in which 90% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. The creators of Game of Thrones live in the same rape culture that plagues our world, and with these words, they have perpetuated it. 

What these two men just told their massive audience is that consensual sex just needs a little force to get it going, and what Jaime Lannister did was totally fine. In fact, according to Alex Graves, it was a “turn-on.” 

When they claim that this scene was not rape, they validate the rapists sitting at home watching Game of Thrones. They implant the idea into thousands of minds that consent can be up for interpretation. They tell survivors that their assaults were not assaults—that when they stopped fighting, or when they remained silent, or when they could not stop their attacker, the assault “became consensual by the end.” They uphold the societal norms that allow sexual violence to happen every day.

And that is horrifying. 

References: 

George R.R. Martin’s comment: http://grrm.livejournal.com/367116.html?thread=19030284#t19030284

Interview with Alex Graves: http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/review-game-of-thrones-breaker-of-chains-uncle-deadly 

Interview with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/04/20/game-of-thrones-most-wtf-sex-scene-nikolaj-coster-waldau-on-jaime-lannister-s-darkest-hour.html