Warning: The below piece includes discussion of sexual assault, as well as spoilers for the current seasons of Vikings and Game of Thrones, and mild spoilers for GoT’s source books.
If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones and saw last night’s episode, you’ve no doubt seen many subsequent rageflails (including this great one) about a scene involving Jaime and Cersei. This post will be one of them, but I also want to dig deeper into some of the meta issues involved, and explain why, even though I generally abhor many things about the stuff I enjoy, I often still stick with them.
First, let me recap what happened in the episode (feel free to skip to the next section if you’re already aware of all this–this is a pretty long post!) and then I’ll explain what, in my opinion, this all means for how I approach problematic things. (Also, if that term is unfamiliar to you, please go read this.)
Exhibit A: A Song of Wins and Fails
For those unaware: Last night’s Game of Thrones episode included a scene taken from the books, in which Jaime and Cersei have sex in the sept (church) in which their son’s body is laid out after his (rather ugly) death in the previous episode. In the book, the scene is pretty horrific to begin with because of the overall situation–not just the location but the fact that Jaime and Cersei are twin siblings, and both kind of awful people anyway. The HBO version of the scene, however, takes it one step further by turning what was at least a semi-consensual scene in the book, and making it basically outright rape–or at least so it seems on the screen. Episode director Alex Graves has given contradictory statements about his intents for it. In a Hitfix interview, he notes that the scene “becomes consensual,” but in the Hollywood Reporter, he frames it more cleanly as non. (Showrunners and episode writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have yet to weigh in on it, as far as I know.)
I must first say that the notion of any rape somehow “becoming consensual” is nasty in itself. People don’t just decide in the middle of being assaulted that yep, they do want it after all. Such a “romantic” reading of assault is one of the key components of rape culture, and it also happens to be utterly ubiquitous in popular media. How many times have we seen something in which the “edgy” hero forces a kiss upon a previously unwilling woman, only to have her melt into it anyway, because the kiss is just that good/the man is just that virile that she can’t help but drop her pretense of being a morally upstanding woman and give in to the pleasure? It frames objection to sex as the woman only protecting her virtue (because that’s her most valuable asset, doncha know), not actively deciding that she doesn’t want to have sex. Yuck.
To be fair, there is something about scenes like that that do speak to the fantasies of some audiences. One of the byproducts of a sexually repressive culture is that some people are indeed afraid to openly voice their desire for sex for fear of being punished for the sin of it, and therefore the notion of being “taken” anyway by someone overpowering one’s surface protests absolves them of moral responsibility for their own desire. See: the “bodice ripper” genre of women-aimed romance fantasy, and carefully constructed BDSM scenes, for instance. But the key component of these fantasies, aside from being fiction, is that the person being “assaulted” actually does want the sex, and the person doing the assaulting actually knows it, and isn’t just projecting that wish onto their victim. The fantasy of pushing past someone’s false protests is just that: fantasy. Unfortunately, the existence of this fantasy has given many people the wrong idea: that any initial protest against sex is just a game–just a way for an “innocent” person to keep their virtue intact by denying what they “really” want. Therefore instead of waiting for enthusiastic consent, we get people who think it’s normal to have to push past that first layer of resistance to give someone what they want. Which … No. Nunh uh. Not normal. Not good. Not ever. (In short: Never, ever rely on the trope of faux-protest fantasy to ignore consent, unless one happens to be in a previously consented-to fantasy scene in which lack of consent is an agreed-upon component. Yes, this is common in fiction, but don’t extrapolate that to reality, m’kay?)
But of course, this particular story and scene is fiction, and is at least aimed at, if not exclusively consumed by, adults who understand that brutality in fiction is not a road map for real-world behavior. So, let’s judge it by the rules of the fantasy: Is this actually a “faux-protest” scene, in which Jaime knows for certain that Cersei actually does want to have sex with him, or is it actually rape? There are elements of the scene in the books that smell a lot like the former. Cersei’s protests center on the location and timing, rather than a lack of interest. Remember that if it’s ever discovered that her children are Jaime’s, not Robert’s, she loses everything, as the throne automatically goes to Stannis. Aside from the location, next to their son’s body, being gross in itself, the risk of being caught is enormous for her. Yet so is her lust for Jaime. In the book timeline, Jaime has just returned, and it’s her first time seeing him: she has missed him dearly the entire time he was gone, has framed him as her rescuer, who will return to keep her safe, and therefore does actually want him. She ultimately consents because her lust and need for Jaime overrides her other feelings, but she begs him to be quick, for fear of being found out. Or at least so the scene is framed. More on that in a moment.
It may be that this is what Benioff, Weiss, and Graves were going for in the filmed version. We don’t have the benefit of the inner dialogue of the books to make it clearer, however, so that makes it MORE important to make Cersei’s consent clear on screen, and that’s where they failed. The way the scene was shot and edited, it’s absolutely not clear at all that Cersei does want the sex, and that her protests are only because of the location. She pulls away from a consensual kiss, triggering Jaime’s anger, and he seizes her, tearing her clothes and pushing her to the floor while she protests. There are subtle elements indicating that Cersei’s not entirely against it: the tone of her voice, the “it’s not right” (meaning the timing/location rather than the sex itself), the position and actions of her hands, etc., but the angle of the shots obscure her face, and there are key points of dialogue missing to make it clearer. The viewer, especially one not familiar with the books, is left with seeing the scene as unequivocal rape.
Aside from the obvious bits of why this is wrong, it’s also wrong within the show’s version of the universe, because they’ve been trying to build Jaime as more of an anti-hero–one who actually wants to prevent Brienne from being raped, for instance. Absolutely, he’s morally ambiguous, and does some bad things, but most of those are out of his obsession with Cersei. The idea that he would rape the woman who has been his guiding purpose for so many years is way, way out of character. It’s true that in the books, this scene is sort of the beginning of the end for them, but Jaime being a rapist isn’t the catalyst for that.
Now, it could be argued (and has been) that the book scene was actually less consensual than it seems on the surface. The scene is from Jaime’s point of view, and therefore the notion that he may have been ignoring her protests or misinterpreting them is definitely a valid one (I’d like to hear GRRM’s take on that, actually.) If that’s the case, then he’s more of a creep than it seems in the rest of the books, and it makes it a lot harder to start rooting for him (which is hard enough already.) But in terms of the show, any good will the audience has built up for him at this point was basically shattered by how ineptly this scene was shot and edited (if not written–there are elements that make me think the end product didn’t quite come out the way they intended.)
In short: This scene was a bad move, no matter how one looks at it, and unfortunately it’s not the only one in the show so far. Without going into a laundry list, Game of Thrones has had some truly headdesk-inspiring moments in its run, either from messing up book canon in tacky and perfectly avoidable ways, or from just plain being far more gratuitous than necessary, particularly with the wall-to-wall naked women, the “sexposition” scenes, etc. (I actually don’t have the same complaint about Oberyn and Ellaria’s brothel scenes that some do, but most of the other ones? Yeah. Bleh.)
And yet … I still watch. And still will, at least for a while, yet, because even though the show (and source material) are incredibly problematic, they are also incredibly good, and even progressive in many ways, and so far, I feel that that outweighs the missteps.
Moreover, this story, especially the HBO version, isn’t necessarily problematic in ways that are different from most other mainstream media, which–though it’s a sad comment in itself–leads me to give it a certain amount of slack, as I do a lot of other things I like. Scenes like that Jaime/Cersei one would cause me to instantly turn off the TV for lesser shows, but I’m willing to give it a pass this time, because the balance hasn’t yet tipped, for me, and that’s the case for a lot of other problematic things.
Exhibit B: Stockholm Syndrome
One of my other favorite shows–right on par with GoT for the top spot these days, actually–is Vikings. It’s very well done, and also fascinating from a historical perspective, as pop-culture representations of this culture have so far been very cursory, caricatured, and entirely inaccurate. Showrunner Michael Hirst, who also created The Tudors and Camelot, is a historian himself, and that shows in how he’s told the story of semi-apocryphal Viking raider Ragnar Lothbrok. The popular concept of Vikings is that they were a brutal, violent people who didn’t target their raids at military or political sites, but at innocents, and raided for the fun of it, more than any other purpose. Their raid on the monks at the Lindisfarne monastery in the late 8th century was the beginning of hundreds of years of raiding Britain and later other places, leaving death and disaster wherever they went. What Hirst has done, however, is humanized the people who did this, explaining why they raided (the land they come from was incredibly hard to farm, for one) and contrasting their pagan culture with the supposedly superior Christian one in the places they raided. He makes the case–beautifully, I think–that history has lied to us to some degree in casting the English of the time as somehow entirely peaceful victims of brutal, heathen savages.
He does this in part via the point of view of Athelstan, a monk captured by Ragnar at the Lindisfarne raid and, because he can speak Old Norse, used as a way to help Ragnar and his crew plan better raids. Athelstan goes through a horrific experience in his capture and slavery, but over time, he comes to understand the culture into which he has been dropped, and though many aspects of it are still abhorrent to him, he adapts. He does this in large part because of the kindness with which he is treated by Ragnar and his family and closest friends–something he likely didn’t expect seeing the wanton slaughter of his former brothers and the desecration of their holy place–but he also starts to understand the overall culture itself.
In season 2, Athelstan’s journey becomes even more complex. After a few years with the Vikings, he has more or less become one of them, and trains for battle, ultimately going on a raid himself. Things go horribly wrong, as is often the case, and he is recaptured by the Saxons as Ragnar and his other friends sail back home. Theoretically, he should’ve been fine–happy to be back on his native soil, even–and yet the subsequent experiences he has quickly teach him that everything he thought he knew about his native culture is wrong, and that they truly are no more civilized than the “savage” raiders who captured him in the first place. In fact, he realizes that the Vikings are actually better on some counts–particularly the status of women. Torn between two cultures, he finds himself faced with an impossible choice.
There is a great deal to love about this show–the acting and directing are spectacular, for one, and I dare say that George Blagden (Athelstan) and Travis Fimmel (Ragnar) deserve Emmys for their work this season. I look forward to seeing more of this story every week (alas, only two episodes left for now!) However, like Game of Thrones, it’s not without its fails, unfortunately in many of the same areas. It doesn’t have quite the amount of pointless nudity (there’s more on the unedited Blu-rays than what shows up on History’s cut version), but there’s still some, plus there’s a lot of rape, attempted rape, and other gendered violence against women. A LOT. Worse, it’s been used multiple times for character building for the show’s main female lead (Lagertha, Ragnar’s former wife and a fierce shieldmaiden warrior.) We get it, Hirst: she’s a badass. You don’t need to keep throwing horrible men at her so she can prove that, OK? There are also some fails in how the other women characters have been portrayed: One has been reduced to a baby machine with a gift for prophecy; another is a power-hungry schemer trying to sleep her way to the top. Others have been mere pawns, wives, girlfriends, etc. And this is all to say nothing of the show’s race fails. Granted that, unlike things set later in the medieval period, the lack of transportation technology meant there wasn’t a lot of integration, but there still could’ve been a few darker faces, really (and perhaps there will be next season, as they’re scheduled to head to the continent instead of just going back and forth between Britain and Scandinavia. I live in hope.)
Moreover, there are also some larger questions in Athelstan’s story (and in an echo story involving another slave.): How much of his love for his new culture is really his own rational decisions vs. pure Stockholm Syndrome? How much of his love for his captor is borne of a desire to please him to avoid punishment? Are we the audience lulled into ignoring our normal objections to the abhorrent behavior of these people because, like Athelstan, we’ve come to sympathize with terrible people against our better judgment? It’s one thing to root for a flawed hero, quite another to take someone who would be a villain in any other story and make us root for that.
But of course, even with all these challenging and uncomfortable issues, I still watch and adore this show, just like I do with Game of Thrones. Likewise, virtually every other thing I enjoy, from the MCU (both movies and TV), to my guilty-pleasure procedurals Criminal Minds and Hawaii 5-0, has many, many things wrong that inspire everything from eye rolling right on to “I can’t watch this episode.” Yet I do stay on with them, when there are other shows, even ones with far less egregious fails, that I just can’t stomach.
There are two reasons why that is–why I avoid some shows but stick with others: 1. the intents of the creators, and therefore the standards to which I will hold the end product, and 2. the overall win-to-fail ratio. More on that in the next post.