Friday, June 20, 2014

He Would Never: Thoughts on Game of Thrones's Fourth Season

Jaime: When we make camp tonight, you'll be raped.  More than once.  None of these fellows have ever been with a noblewoman.  You'd be wise not to resist.
Brienne: Would I?
Jaime: They'll knock your teeth out.
Brienne: You think I care about my teeth?
Jaime: No, I don't think you care about your teeth.  If you fight them, they will kill you.  Do you understand?  I'm the prisoner of value, not you.  Let them have what they want.  What does it matter?
Brienne: What does it matter?
Jaime: Close your eyes.  Pretend they're Renly.
Brienne: If you were a woman, you wouldn't resist?  You'd let them do what they wanted?
Jaime: If I was a woman, I'd make them kill me.  I'm not, thank the gods.

Game of Thrones, "Walk of Punishment"
Despite the title, this post isn't intended as a review of Game of Thrones's recently-concluded fourth season, about which I feel largely the same way I felt about the third and the second--I find the show terribly engaging while it's on, and tend to lose interest very quickly once the season has ended.  I think Todd VanDerWerff is dead on when he writes about the fourth season's increasing bittiness--an effect that I suspect was exacerbated by the choice to split the third book in A Song of Ice and Fire over two seasons, and that will probably increase as the series begins to adapt the books in which, by all accounts, George R. R. Martin began to lose what thread his story originally had.  The effect of that bittiness is that it's hard to think of the fourth season as a single unit, rather than an arbitrarily demarcated period of time in which certain things happened to the show's characters.  This also makes it hard to write about (though if you're looking for more traditional criticism, for my money the best to be found is Sarah Mesle's Dear Television column at the Los Angeles Review of Books).  Coming to the end of the season, then, the only definitive statement I can make about Game of Thrones has less to do with what was happening on screen, and more with the popular and critical reaction to it, the fact that the fourth season was the one in which a critical mass of people suddenly noticed just how rapey this show is.

In the season's third episode, "Breaker of Chains," Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) rapes his sister and secret lover Cersei (Lena Headey), over the body of their recently-murdered son.  The incensed reactions were swift to follow, complaining that showrunners and episode writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had changed what in the books was a consensual encounter, that doing so threw a wrench in the character development of Jaime, who had spent the third season developing a growing awareness of his selfishness and privilege, and that the scene represented but the latest instance of Game of Thrones's rape-happiness, its willingness to use sexual violence against women (always women) as a way of upping the stakes and increasing tension, with no consideration, or even interest in, the complex reality of rape and its victims.  AV Club reviewer Sonia Saraiya led the charge with her essay Rape of Thrones, but she was quickly followed by many other commenters decrying both the specific rape scene in "Breaker of Chains" and the show's overall use of rape as a plot device, culminating in a New York Times report on the debate.

To be sure, there are some obvious and serious problems with how rape is used and depicted in "Breaker of Chains," most crucially the fact that both Coster-Waldau and episode director Alex Graves sounded off, after the episode aired, to say that they believed the encounter "becomes consensual" because Cersei eventually lets Jaime have his way.  The rest of the fourth season has reflected this belief, with no change in the show's depiction of Jaime (he in fact plays one of the season's more positive figures, sending the stalwart knight Brienne to rescue the missing Stark daughters, and standing by his brother Tyrion when he is wrongly accused of murder), and no indication from Cersei that she views the encounter between them as a violation--in the season finale, she even rekindles their romantic relationship and initiates consensual sex with him.  But in the days following the episode, before knowing how the rest of the season would play out, I found the reactions to the rape scene confusing and troubling.  I hadn't enjoyed watching Cersei be raped, but as a depiction of rape I thought the scene in "Breaker of Chains" was brutal and unflinching in just the right way.  Compared to the sensationalism of Sansa's attempted rape in the second season (now they've got her on the ground!  Now they've torn her clothes off!  Now they're forcing her knees apart!  Will she be rescued before penetration?!?!!!!), Cersei's rape felt devastatingly spare and low-key.  This is how most rape happens, after all: in places where women feel safe, committed by men whom they know and had previously trusted.  Cersei's behavior throughout the rape, the way she tries to minimize and take control of the situation ("not here!"), her unwillingness to involve anyone else because that would make what was happening real and awful, are more wrenching than any of the brutal, larger than life scenes of rape and abuse the show had featured in the past.  They make the point that what's driving her is shock that such a thing could happen, that at the moment when she probably feels the least sexual in her life--standing over the body of her oldest son--she can still be cast as a sexual object by someone else, and forced to enact that role. 

Obviously, the fact that the scene wasn't intended as a rape and that the rest of the season behaves as if it wasn't one means that its effectiveness is, at best, accidental (and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Game of Thrones, a show that rarely hesitates to plump for the sensationalistic end of the sexual violence spectrum, can only touch on the true, stifling horror of rape when it doesn't even realize it's doing it).  On that front, I think the criticisms of "Breaker of Chains" and the rest of the season are spot-on, and in general I think that it was high time for the discussion of the show's use of rape and sexual violence to hit the mainstream, and for its producers to be made to answer for their choices to more than just a crowd of angry feminists.  But many of the terms in which the post-"Breaker of Chains" conversation was couched left me uneasy, and are, I think, ultimately counter-productive.

I'm bothered, for example, by the emphasis that so many criticisms of the episode put on the fact that it changes the details of the book.  Even if we agreed that this was a meaningful complaint--and at this point, the show has deviated from its source material so much that I hardly see how it could be--the original scene, as quoted, for example, in Saraiya's essay, is dubiously consensual at best.  It's fairly standard bad-romance-novel, no-means-yes stuff ("She pounded on his chest with feeble fists, murmuring about the risk, the danger, about their father, about the septons, about the wrath of gods. He never heard her."), and the fact that it's told from Jaime's point of view makes its interpretation of the encounter highly suspect.  In the more realist tone of the TV series, without a guiding point of view to tell us how to feel and react, it's not surprising that the same or very similar events look like rape.

Even more troubling, to me, is how much of the discussion of "Breaker of Chains" seemed focused on Jaime and how the rape of Cersei "ruins" his character and redemptive arc.  I could quibble with whether Jaime's arc of redemption is really as profound as many of the people commenting on the episode have made out--after all, even excluding the rape, his actions in the fourth season mainly consist of helping people he likes and letting his power-hungry, sadistic father walk all over him--but I do agree that he's become more sympathetic since he was introduced in the show's premiere episode throwing a ten-year-old boy out of a high window, if only because the show has given us more of a glimpse into his history and thought-process.  Nevertheless--or maybe even precisely for that point--I thought the choice to make him a rapist was actually a brilliant one, driving home precisely the kind of world the show takes place in.  The undertone of a lot of the criticisms made after "Breaker of Chains" was "Jaime would never," but if we've learned anything after four seasons of Game of Thrones, surely it's that there are very few men in the show's world who truly never would?

There's a very effective encapsulation of rape culture in the fact that multiple people were involved in scripting, acting, and directing a scene in which a woman is physically overpowered by a man over her repeated and clearly-heard cries of "no" and "stop," and yet apparently none of them think that what they've depicted is a rape, because after he's wrestled her to the ground and torn her clothes, she lies back and lets him finish.  But if we're all products of rape culture, what about the characters on Game of Thrones?  This is, after all, a world in which the intelligent, compassionate Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) has to think long and hard over whether he's going to force his child-bride Sansa to have sex with him, and when he decides not to the show signposts this as an indication of his goodness rather than, you know, the bare minimum of human decency.  A world in which the dying mercenary The Hound (Rory McCann) muses that he should have raped Sansa himself, because then he would have experienced "one moment of happiness."  A world in which characters who set themselves against rape--such as the mercenary Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein/Michiel Huisman), who loudly and repeatedly proclaims that one of the great pleasures in life is "to make love to a willing woman," or the Dornish nobleman Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), who, angry over his sister's rape at the hands of a Lannister knight, wastes no opportunity to express his disgust at their use of rape as a weapon--are obvious aberrations.  It's a world in which men, even well-meaning ones, feel completely justified in directing the lives and choices of women, whether it's Robb Stark cavalierly promising his sister's hand in marriage in exchange for a strategically important bridge, or, in "Breaker of Chains" itself, Night's Watch member Sam Tarly (John Bradley), one of the gentlest, kindest characters in the series, forcing his friend Gilly (Hannah Murray) to leave Castle Black and live in a brothel, despite her repeated protestations.  (This proves to be a disastrous decision, as the village Gilly moves to is destroyed by raiding wildlings, and her and her child's lives are only spared through the compassion of another woman; nevertheless, Sam still feels justified in telling Gilly what to do, and the show clearly views this as a sign of his emerging masculinity.)

Jaime's rape of Cersei captures the pervasiveness of rape culture--in Westeros, and in our time and place--more powerfully and effectively than any of the series's more sensationalistic handling of the subject.  In other episodes, the show pretends that rape is the purview of monsters--characters like the vicious, bloodthirsty knight The Mountain, who raped Oberyn Martell's sister, or the renegade Night's Watch member Karl (Burn Gorman), who is introduced against a literal backdrop of women being brutally assaulted as he cackles "rape 'em till they're dead!", and who later menaces Bran Stark's friend Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick) while she's tied up and whimpering.  But when the handsome, charismatic Jaime, who spent the third season being woobified and forming one of the show's more satisfying character pairings with the honorable Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) commits rape, the message it sends is something much more powerful.  It tells us that in a world in which concepts like consent, or women's agency, are only dimly understood, even supposedly good men can find themselves treating women like things. 

A lot of fans have pointed to the way that Jaime saves Brienne from being raped in the third season episode "Walk of Punishment" as a reason why he would never disrespect Cersei in the same way, but to me that only makes "Breaker of Chains"'s (unintended) message more powerful.  Like the episode's writers and director, Jaime can recognize rape when it's monstrous, something violent that a bunch of filthy soldiers are about to do to his friend.  But as the quote at the beginning of this episode demonstrates, he still lack basic empathy towards women, or any real understanding of what it means to be vulnerable (even the loss of his hand at the end of "Walk of Punishment" doesn't seem to have taught him this lesson).  I don't find it at all unbelievable that such a man would think that his former lover doesn't have the right to refuse him, that his feelings for her are something that she is responsible for, and that in forcing her to have sex he is only taking what is rightfully his.  Does this mean that every man in Westeros is a potential rapist?  Probably not--though as examples like Sam show, pretty much every man on Westeros apparently believes that he gets to order women around by sheer virtue of being a man.  But if you're going to pick a male character on Game of Thrones who would never stoop to rape, then Jaime Lannister--child-maimer, sister-fucker, generally depraved dude--is probably not the hill you want to die on.

None of this, of course, is to say that I am glad that Cersei was raped by Jaime--especially, again, given that what positive qualities I saw in the depiction of that rape are there largely by accident, and are undermined by the rest of the season's treatment of the scene as a consensual sexual encounter.  But it was very hard to read reactions to "Breaker of Chains" and not feel that their writers' main problem was not the show's use of rape--which, again, in the episode itself is much more subtle and effective than anything it has done before or since--but the fact that this particular rape had spoiled their ability to enjoy a beloved male character.

Flash forward a few weeks to the season finale.  Tyrion Lannister, who has been accused and convicted of the murder of his nephew (the same boy over whose body Cersei was raped) is freed from prison by the selfsame Jaime.  Instead of taking Jaime's offered escape route, Tyrion makes his way to the chambers of his father Tywin (Charles Dance), the architect of his conviction and a generally baleful influence in his son's life.  There he finds the prostitute Shae (Sibell Kekilli), his former lover, who denounced him during his trial.  Shae wakes up and, seeing Tyrion, grabs a fruit knife.  He jumps her, overpowers her, and strangles her to death with her own necklace.

To be clear, the fact that Tyrion murders Shae is not, in itself, a problem.  I knew that it happened in the book, I had hoped that the show would decide to avoid it, and I wasn't happy when it happened.  But as I've been saying, in a world like Westeros, a man killing his former lover, and especially a prostitute, for what he defines as a betrayal, is not a surprising or inconsistent turn of events.  What's wrong here isn't the fact of the murder, but how the show constructs the episode--the entire season, in fact--in order to get us to sympathize with and even condone Tyrion's actions.  Shae, who in the previous three seasons had been depicted as a warm, intelligent, kind person, is here stripped of all personality and discernible motivations.  There are no scenes from her point of view or in which she's free to express herself, so we never find out why she turns on Tyrion--is she being threatened, or bribed, or is she simply angry that he sent her away "for her own safety" (another reminder that even "good" men on Westeros don't let women make their own decisions)?  Does she really mean it when she testifies that all her expressions of love towards Tyrion were an act?  And why is Tyrion so angry at her betrayal, when earlier in the season he ordered his squire Podrick to save his own skin by doing the same thing?  Wouldn't Tyrion assume that this was what Shae was doing, and forgive her?  The murder scene itself seems equally determined to stress Shae's "guilt"--the fact that Tyrion finds her in another man's bed, the fact that she reaches for a weapon (never mind that Shae would have a pretty good idea of what happens to women like her when they're found in the wrong bed by a man who believes he owns them).  Her actual death isn't even about her--the camera remains fixed on Tyrion's face, and his anguish and mental distress over killing her are what fuel his immediate, cheer-worthy confrontation with Tywin, whom he kills.  (If you want some more discussion of how fucked up and disturbing the arrangement of Shae's death scene and her plotline during this season were, Sady Doyle has the goods.)

And the thing is, it really didn't need to be that way.  When Tyrion hears Shae's testimony in the episode "The Laws of Gods and Men," he breaks down and has what can only be described as a supervillain moment, castigating Shae, his family, and the entire population of King's Landing, whose lives he saved during the siege at the end of the second season, but who have now turned on him for, he believes, something that he never had any power over, his dwarfism.  "I wish I had enough poison for the whole pack of you," he tells the assembled noblemen at his trial.  "I would gladly give my life to watch you all swallow it."  It's a bitter, deranged moment in which Tyrion lets go of all his decency and goodness and gives in to anger and resentment.  If that tone had been allowed to persist, if Tyrion's murder of Shae (and Tywin) had been depicted as the act of a man driven by abuse into behaving like a monster, I think I could have accepted it.  But such is the state of Game of Thrones, that it can depict rape in all its horrifying complexity only by accident, but when it sets out to deliberately get at the terrible reality of intimate partner violence, it does so only to justify and excuse the abuser.  (And to be clear: Cersei's rape could have easily been made as sympathetic to Jaime as Shae's murder was to Tyrion, if only someone had understood what it was they were filming.  Cersei is, after all, a much less likeable figure than Shae, and Jaime is under the influence of exactly the same cocktail of frustration and feelings of emasculation driving Tyrion, and which the show uses to justify killing Shae.)

So what I want to know is: what the fuck is wrong with this fandom, and with the people writing about this show, that it can get up in arms over a pretty shady dude committing a rape that is actually very effectively depicted, but isn't bothered by a previously decent guy committing a murder that is manipulatively set up to make him look as guiltless as possible?  If fandom truly believes that Jaime would never, why is it not a problem that Tyrion did?  And yes, I know that Shae's murder was in the books, but A Storm of Swords was published fourteen years ago, and in all that time I haven't noticed the slightest diminution in Tyrion's appeal.  Fandom still thinks that he's the bee's knees, and no one seems terribly bothered by that girl he murdered that one time (if nothing else, this should alleviate the concerns of fans who are worried that they won't be able to like Jaime after seeing him rape Cersei).

To put it simply, this is why we can't have nice things.  If the only thing that gets a serious segment of fandom up in arms about Game of Thrones's use of rape and violence against women is the fear of having tarnished the gleam of a favorite male woobie, then the showrunners have absolutely no reason to change their behavior.  If they know that favorite characters can get away, literally, with murder so long as the person they murder is a woman who hurt them and slept with other men, they will simply keep showing us that.  I'm not saying that I have the solution here, and god knows that simply by continuing to watch the show I'm part of the problem.  But it is enormously frustrating to watch a critical conversation build around this show and its handling of violence against women, only to devour itself when it becomes clear that the real problem is a man (compare the paltry staying power of the post-"Breaker of Chains" conversation to the way that the role of women--or lack of same--on True Detective became the dominant theme in most discussions of the show, finally obliging even the show's creator to promise to do better next season).  Until actual fans of the show are willing to stand up and say that Shae's murder is as big a problem as Cersei's rape, we can keep looking forward to a lot more of both from Game of Thrones.

26 comments:

nicoleandmaggie said...

Wait? People didn't think the books were rapey? What books were they *reading*? There's a really cool essay noting that there is only one woman in the *entire series* who doesn't get raped, and she's a zombie or something. George R. R. Martin really is creepy. http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/08/26/enter-ye-myne-mystic-world-of-gayng-raype-what-the-r-stands-for-in-george-r-r-martin/

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yes, that's a Sady Doyle piece too (and a famous - or perhaps infamous - one at that). But if you want a really depressing time, go to any one of Doyle's blogs and read a bit about the reaction to that piece and how she still, three years later, gets flak for it from fans. For that matter, take a look at some of the more visible reactions from online critics, including feminists, who were equally happy to minimize her points.

Stanoje said...

My initial reaction to the Cersei/Jamie scene was that, with the society depicted on the show, neither one of them would necessarily see this as rape in the same way as, say, the horrors described by Cersei during the siege in the episode where the ships go boom. I doubt Tywin, or their teachers, instilled a lot of positive gender politics in his children. That lack of realization was part of the tragedy and horror of the scene. In "modern" stereotype terms, Jamie is a jock from a hyper-privileged old money background who had been spewing gendered verbal abuse. I can completely buy that he wouldn't even begin to think of what he did in terms of rape.

Aishwarya said...

I haven't been watching the series (and I can't remember if you've read the books), but does the TV show do much with Tyrion's back story re. his ex wife? Because the books' treatment of that story is relevant to this post, and damning.

Janet Nussbaum said...

I am troubles by the heavy emphasis on violence in general and rape in particular in Game of Thrones
BUT
I didn't see the Jamie/Cersei scene as rape . . . rather, I saw it as the continuation of a very warped relationship between two very troubled people.

If it was this relatively mild scene that sparked the discussion on rape in the series -- that's a very sad commentary on the fans and viewers.

Abigail's Mom

Tim Ward said...

I'm not sure how, apart from that Sady Doyle has decided that it is, the show is supposed to be telling us that Shae's murder was in any sense justified. It's not what I took from it when I was watching it, it's not what a lot of other people took from and it's not what the creators were, apparently, going for. I see this a lot; a critic takes a scene which is at best ambiguous, decides that it "means" something non-progressive, then accuses the creator of being secretly sexist/racist/etc based on the idea that the critics own interpretation of the scene in question is the only valid one and therefore what the creator themselves intended, and frankly I'm starting to have a real problem with it. It is a valuable public service to document and point out the unhealthy assumptions about gender and other matters that still litter our fiction (especially if it gets people to think about their own behavior when not in fiction) but people on both sides of the debate should remember that they are not mind readers.

My reaction to the Breaker of Chains scene was similar to yours, though I really wondered why they included it if they weren't going to do anything with it, it has no implications for either Jaime or Cercei's characters and it's not as if they're not cutting material left, right and center for time constraints. The only thing it seems to have achieved is upsetting people.

A minor nitpick also; it was Catelyn, not Robb, who promised both Robb and Arya to the Frey's, which serves to illustrate that life choices aren't really a thing that happens to you in a medieval society. A more interesting illustration of the difference in agency between men and women in the show is to compare Tywin's reaction to Jaime telling him that he wasn't going do as family demanded and leave the king's guard and go and rule at Casterly Rock ("Sure, and take the sword!") to his reaction to Cercei telling him that she wasn't going to do as family demanded and marry Ser Loras (he shouted her down and told her she was going to anyway).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Stanoje:

I think it's indisputable that Jaime doesn't believe what he did was rape, though I wouldn't be so sure about Cersei - she has a history of commenting quite shrewdly on the sexual politics of her world, from castigating Robert for the way he made free with her body (and Tywin for enabling him and trying to do the same thing again with Loras), to shutting down Oberyn's self-satisfied claim that women are safe in Dorne. As you say, that doesn't mean she would use the same term for what Jaime did and for the more violent rape that was in store for her during the siege of King's Landing, but I think she would still understand it as a violation.

Of course, I'm being somewhat facetious, ignoring Cersei's actual behavior after the rape in favor of a character who is at least party a construct in my head. I think that it's possible to build a psychological model of Cersei that incorporates her decision to stay with Jaime while still acknowledging that what he did was rape - he is, after all, the best of a raft of poor options - but it's not a terribly coherent character.

Aishwarya:

The show gives us Tyrion's version of the story of his first marriage in the first season, but it hasn't been mentioned since. I know how the books expand on this (I've only read the first one, but I'm pretty liberal about spoilers when it comes to this series), but the show lets go the opportunity to deliver this revelation to either Tyrion or the audience - neither Jaime nor Tywin take the opportunity to tell him, and now that Tywin is dead and Tyrion has fled King's Landing there doesn't seem to a place to organically introduce it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Tim:

Surely the example of "Breaker of Chains" demonstrates that Benioff and Weiss are the not the best judges of how the show comes across, especially when it comes to depicting violence against women? They may not have intended to exculpate Tyrion when they planned out Shae's murder, but if you depict a murder in a way that focuses almost exclusively on the murderer, and then have him kill the season's big villain explicitly as a way of defending his victim's honor, you're not exactly doing a lot to condemn him.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Also, to be clear, my conclusion about Shae's murder are my own, and I came to them before reading Doyle's essay - while watching the episode, in fact.

Stanoje said...

Tyrion is a main character. Shae isn't. That seems like a good enough reason to focus on him, and not on her. Of course, WHY they are main/supporting characters, and how much of that is due to messed-up real-world gender politics, is another matter...

Why do you think the show should do a lot to condemn him, as you write? I like fiction to show me why people do things, not to tell me that they're bad for doing something.

baeraad said...

So what I want to know is: what the fuck is wrong with this fandom, and with the people writing about this show, that it can get up in arms over a pretty shady dude committing a rape that is actually very effectively depicted, but isn't bothered by a previously decent guy committing a murder that is manipulatively set up to make him look as guiltless as possible?

I have a number of suggestions, if you're interested?

1. Jaime, despite all his other flaws, is depicted in the books as being one of those rare men (Oberon is another example) who are bad and violent, but whose violence is disconnected from their sexuality. And that's a big deal to fans, because it gives them a character who isn't "rapey" (like Theon and even, in some subtle ways, Tyrion) but who still isn't a boring square like Ned or Jon.

2. Rape is considered far worse than murder in our society - not by the legal system, no, but by the public consciousness. Given that, it's to be expected that people will react more strongly to a rape than to a murder. (especially, I would suggest, on a show like GoT, where you expect plenty of murder even by the heroic characters)

3. Murder is a more attractive crime than rape. (this may be part of the cause for the previous point) A murderer looks sexy and powerful, a rapist looks disgusting and weak. (note Dexter Morgan, the heroic absolutely-not-a-rapist serial killer) I would therefore claim that you are wrong when you say that Jaime's actions could have been framed as positively as Tyrion's; I know of no way that rape can be made to look good, not while still portraying it as rape. (dubious consent can be framed positively, which I can't say that I'm particularly happy about myself, but it is what it is - the thing here is that "no" stayed "no" all the way until the scene cut out, and there is no way that's going to look good)

4. The rape scene came out of nowhere and disappeared into nowhere. Jaime is on a redemption arc, which means he shouldn't suddenly indulge in the one crime he actually hasn't been in favour of previously. Tyrion's double murder came at the end of a multi-season descent for him and fitted into it perfectly. In the end, he's lost everything, including any claim he had to not be the monster everyone thinks he is.

5. You see "manipulatively set up to make him look as guiltless as possible," a lot of other people see "a complex situation where the actions of both parties were understandable yet led naturally to an outcome neither of them would have ever wanted, in the best tradition of high tragedy." Not everyone who saw nothing wrong with that scene were baying for Shae's blood, all right? I know that there are dolts who thought she had it coming, but I didn't and the people I've talked about that episode with didn't. (hell, I'm pretty sure Tyrion didn't, for that matter) Whereas the rape scene was meant as cheap titillation and nothing more. And aside from anything else, a lot of people don't like the assumption that having some guy force himself on some woman while she's telling him to stop is the kind of thing that titillates them.

Take your pick, I suppose?

Ro Smith said...

I do kind of feel this is selective quoting from the scene. Cersei initiates sexual contact - she kisses him. And whilst I sympathise with the thought that many rapes ARE just as you describe Cersei's consent becomes vocal, ardent, urging him on when he draws back after seeing she's on her period:

'“Hurry,” she was whispering now, “quickly, quickly, now, do it now, do me now. Jaime Jaime Jaime.” Her hands helped guide him. “Yes,” Cersei said as he thrust, “my brother, sweet brother, yes, like that, yes, I have you, you’re home now, you’re home now, you’re home.”'

Cersei takes control of this scene, and not to minimise her rape, but to dominate the sex. This is very much not how Lena Headey plays the scene, and the words that give her power in the scene and give her consent are removed entirely. Which is what makes the fact that the writers thought they were writing a consensual sex scene so much more problematic. They deliberately removed the elements that supported that thesis and said that what was left was consensual sex.

There are examples from the books that are just as you describe. There's a scene that makes me really uncomfortable with Yara in A Dance with Dragons, which is written as though it were not rape, but is basically forced, and with none of the relationship history that would make it believable that the couple would be into rape fantasies (as it's plausible Jaime and Cersei are) - which are not the same as rape.

Moreover, I'm annoyed that they upped the rapey whilst removing the blood-kink. Because rape is not too shocking to depict on screen, but a woman's period is? I think that says a lot about how the show views and depicts women and their sexualities.

little Alex said...

Thank you for your essay. I find it very clear and insightful.

Foxessa said...

Because, it's been revealed, very very late, that fandom functions like cults do.

See this, for instance.

Foxessa said...

What's worse about the fannish reactions to Jaime raping Cersie and Tyrion murdering Shae, is the final argument as far as the fans go -- particularly the male fans -- is who cares? Cersie and Shae are both bitches and deserve whatever they get. They asked for it! It's their own fault! What do you expect?

Tim Ward said...

Abigail:

Like baeraad, I don't see that we have to pick between either condemning Tyrion or justifying Shae's murder. If Tyrion were somehow brought before a modern court to answer for her murder, then I'm pretty sure he'd be left off on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Shae likely had many excellent decisions for acting as we did (not being hanged probably the chief among them) - Tyrion did not know what they are and was not really in a frame of mind to puzzle out of what they might have been. I mean, does this look like a man making rational decisions to you?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Stanoje:

I like fiction to show me why people do things, not to tell me that they're bad for doing something.

Well then in that case I'm not sure Game of Thrones is the best show to be watching. While it does have many complex characters, and certainly gives some of its villains more shading that the books (or at least the first book) - the handling of Cersei, for example, is much more nuanced - this isn't really a show on the level of, say, Deadwood, in terms of how it humanizes and makes relatable even its most depraved characters (or in many other terms, for that matter).

In the case of Tyrion, we know why he kills Shae - it's very clear and simple. But if he were a truly realistic character, the fact that he can feel and express such rage towards someone he used to love would be reflected in other aspects of his personality and in his other actions. Instead, he goes straight from killing Shae to killing his father in her name - straight back to being a heroic figure. It's precisely the fact that the show isn't doing what you say you want that I'm objecting to.

baeraad:

The whole "rape is considered a more serious crime than murder" argument is one that I have a lot of problems with. I don't think you can look at Western society - in which rape is massively under-reported, under-prosecuted, and under-convicted; in which judges routinely question what rape victims were wearing and what their sexual history is before ruling on the accused's guilt; in which a major newspaper like The Washington Post can publish an op-ed claiming that the status of rape victim is a coveted, privileged one without any consequences to either the paper of the columnist - and actually argue that rape is taken seriously, much less more seriously than murder.

That said, I do know what you mean, in that I tend to have a more visceral rejection reaction to characters who commit rape than ones who commit murder. But I think that that reaction - which TV writers clearly expect and play up to - is part of the problem. Much like the Game of Thrones writers and characters, this is an attitude that sees rape as something Other, something done by monsters, not ordinary people. It ignores the mundane reality of most rapes, and makes rape a subject that is difficult to talk about. It's an attitude that helps to perpetuate rape by refusing to acknowledge that ordinary people can rape, just as they can murder.

I'd also point out that treating what Jaime does and what Tyrion does as distinct things - behaving, for example, as if Tyrion has more in common with the Hound when he kills a peasant whose money he wants - is a mistake. Jaime and Tyrion's actions are both on the same spectrum of intimate partner violence. In both cases, a man attacks a woman for not giving him what he thinks he deserves, and for the belief that she doesn't have the right to reject him.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Ro Smith:

I think you could debate whether Cersei saying "yes" has any meaning after it's been made clear to her that saying "no" will have no effect ("He never heard her"). And, of course, the fact that the whole scene is told from Jaime's point of view raises some questions about how events are depicted - for example, is Cersei telling him to hurry out of ardor, or is she doing it because she realizes this is going to happen no matter what she says, and she wants it over quickly in order to minimize the danger or being found out?

That said, you're right that Martin clearly wants us to think of this encounter as consensual. But my point is that I don't really believe it. The bad romance novel terms he use aren't conducive to my accepting that I'm reading about real, believable people, and what's left are cliches that to me scream "dubious consent."

Tim Ward:

I don't see that we have to pick between either condemning Tyrion or justifying Shae's murder. If Tyrion were somehow brought before a modern court to answer for her murder, then I'm pretty sure he'd be left off on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

I think you're making my argument for me. The fact that Tyrion is made to look irrational isn't some random thing, and we're not talking about a real person or real events here. How that scene and the characters were depicted is the result of choices, by the writers, the director, the actors, and probably a whole bunch of production people. This is precisely what I'm talking about when I say that the episode minimizes Tyrion's guilt for Shae's murder.

Adam Roberts said...

In an essay full of perceptive insights, I wonder if the most perceptive of all doesn't come at the beginning: 'I find the show terribly engaging while it's on, and tend to lose interest very quickly once the season has ended'. That's exactly right.

I get (I think) that your focus here is fandom, and the malign double standards by which a fan-fave like Tyrion is simply not judged for his atrocious behaviour; but my sense is that there's a degree of mismatch in treating the show after this fashion, viz. as if it were serious. Rape (and murder) are certainly serious, and insofar as shows like this focus contemporary cultural apperceptions of rape it is serious. But it's not, fundamentally, a serious show. Here's what I mean by that (and it links-in to your opening 'lose interest quickly' point): GRRM hit upon a narratively very effective strategy, and Song of Ice and Fire is built around it -- in essence, it's the 'woh I didn't expect THAT!' narrative manoeuvre. It's fairly easy, technically speaking, to do that once ('woh, Ned Stark's dead??'). The trick is to keep doing it, and do so when your audience know that that's what you're trying to do. That Game of Thrones manages to keep doing is one of things that makes it so compelling. But also makes it fundamentally disposable; because a twist after it has been revealed is a busted flush. If you take away the in-the-moment frisson of watching the show and genuinely not knowing what's going to happen next, or who is going to die (and that this is so remarkable a thing speaks to how deadeningly conventionalised and predictable so much of our TV has become) -- if you take that away, you're left with a show about a horrible place without technology but with some dragons and ice-zombies. And that's, to repeat myself, really not serious.

This pertains (I think) to Tyrion's actions in particular ways. The whole motor of the books and therefore of the show is GRRM moving his narrative counters about his large board so as to generate more of these shock moments, fighting all the time against diminishing returns and our blunted sensibilities. Post Red Wedding, killing off a major character no longer packs the requisite narrative punch. So he combines three things in one: two major characters are killed -- and by the person who everybody loves, and who we didn't think capable of such things! Surprising, huh? Tyrion murders the woman he genuinely loves, and then shoots his own father! That it happens, Elvis like, on the toilet is almost a parody of the GRRM effect. You didn't see that coming, did you?

This shuffling of the counters to try and effect continuing audience shock-surprise trumps everything else about the show, I think. It's not that it's more important than the ethical considerations you discuss (of course it's not!) -- it's only that those ethical concerns don't contribute anything to the GRRM unique selling point.

Stanoje said...

"Instead, he goes straight from killing Shae to killing his father in her name - straight back to being a heroic figure."
I think you're glossing over stuff we've been shown about Tyrion, and his relationship with his father. Calling Shae a whore was particularly irksome for Tyrion because it reminded him of how his first time with a woman went and what Tywin did with the woman afterwards, and it also rubbed Tywin's hypocrisy right in Tyrion's face, and it also reminded him that he had just killed her.

He didn't kill his father because of Shae; he killed him because of a lifetime of psychological abuse. Shae was the last straw, yes, but she was far from the only, or primary, reason . That doesn't make him a heroic figure, and the show doesn't portray him as one. There are no big hero camera angles, no heroic musical cues. And then there is the fact that Tywin's taking a shit when Tyrion kills him. Hes' not doing anything villainous, and Tyrion isn't heroically sweeping in at the last minute. He's a victim of abuse who finally snaps and murders his tormentor.

Tim Ward said...

Abigale:

Yes, but what the show is not doing is shifting the guilt from Tyrion onto Shae.

Eves_Alexandria said...

"the only thing that gets a serious segment of fandom up in arms about Game of Thrones's use of rape and violence against women is the fear of having tarnished the gleam of a favorite male woobie"

A thousand times this.

Mark said...

I have not read the books, nor do I go out of my way to read interviews from the creators, etc... but I do consider myself a moderate fan of the show. I listen to a podcast about the show and talk with friends regularly. I don't know if that qualifies me as part of "fandom", but I'll note my reactions to the two key events your commenting on here:

1. The "Breaker of Chains" rape is clearly a rape, and I have no idea how anyone could construe it otherwise. I was upset about it because I was enjoying Jaime's redemption arc and because, well, it's rape. That being said, what was problematic about it (aside from it being rape) is that what it indicated - that Jaime would not redeem himself and now that he was back in King's Landing with his privilege restored, he would resume being a scumbag - did not play out during the rest of the season. I would have been fine (again, except that I don't like watching rape) if he resumed being a villain, or perhaps if the story pit Cersei versus Jaime as a conflict within the Lannisters, etc... But that's not what happened, which is why the rape is so controversial. I think the reason the book version keeps coming up was that book readers knew that Jaime's redemption arc was supposed to continue, which is why throwing in the rape seemed so incongruous.

2. I was extremely troubled by Shae's murder. When I expressed this to a friend who had read the books, she explained that Shae's role in the books was not nearly as warm or kind, which I guess makes more sense. But to me, the show did not adequately establish her motivations, nor did I get why the two immediately resorted to violence when they met (I guess because they were in Tywin's quarters had something to do with it, but that was not clear at all in the show until later, when we see Tywin - which sorta befuddled me a little).

In short, I had issues with both events in the show, I just didn't take to the internets in righteous fury to complain about it... From speaking with friends who watch the show (and have not read the books), I think this is a common feeling. Those who read the books seem to be more forgiving of the Shae murder than I am, but they seem to have more background and a different take on Shae than I got from the show. They, of course, hate the rape because it was consentual in the book. I think it's pretty weird in any case, because who has sex next to their murdered child?

On the whole, I tend to really enjoy the show, though, and on balance it seems to work extremely well. As Adam Roberts notes, the observation that "I find the show terribly engaging while it's on, and tend to lose interest very quickly once the season has ended." is quite astute, even if I wouldn't word it quite so strongly. I'm just impressed that the show takes the chances it does, and still manages to genuinely surprise me 4 seasons in. Sometimes those chances don't pay off as much as others (as with the rape or Shae's murder), but I'm glad the show is willing to go out on a limb sometimes.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Adam:

I don't think you're wrong that one of the core problems of the series is Martin's, and the showrunners', need to replicate the shock of Ned Stark's death or the Red Wedding. It's a commonly voiced complaint about the later books that Martin's need to continually prove that anyone can die is getting in the way of the plot actually cohering into a meaningful story.

But I'm not sure that necessarily explains the way the show uses rape and domestic abuse. If I look at the current TV landscape, the show that probably comes closest to Game of Thrones's sequence-of-sharp-shocks storytelling style is Scandal. Another contender would be Orphan Black. Both use the same technique of throwing huge plot twists at the audience - kidnappings, murders, betrayals, secret parentage revelations, last-minute rescues, and yes, rapes - as a way of keeping it engaged. But the difference is that both Orphan Black and Scandal are deeply interested in women's issues, and manage to handle them intelligently despite their sensationalism. Orphan Black is fundamentally about the way that women's bodies are treated like the property of men, and if it expresses that theme by having a psychotic Ukranian serial killer kidnapped by a religious cult and forcibly impregnated with a device used to inseminate cows, that doesn't change the seriousness with which the show depicts this violation (or its comeuppance) and its focus on the victim, not the perpetrator. Scandal actually featured the rape of a major female character this season, and while the show did come under fire for that choice, it still ranks above Game of Thrones simply by virtue of being aware of what it was depicting, and of having the rape continue to reverberate throughout the season.

The reason this feels important to me is that, rightly or wrongly (I think wrongly, and I guess you'd agree) Game of Thrones is perceived by a lot of people as a prestige series. You do get otherwise reputable TV reviewers seriously arguing that it should be mentioned in the same breath as Mad Men and The Sopranos. Meanwhile, shows like Scandal and Orphan Black are treated as guilty pleasures or cult hits. That's not entirely unjustified - Scandal had a dismal third season, and Orphan Black coasts off a stunning central performance(s) which distracts from its scattershot plotting - and it's also true that Game of Thrones looks at lot more like people's idea of a prestige show - it has the money for lavish sets, gorgeous locations, top-notch actors, and pervasive marketing, and of course it's on HBO. But I do wonder how much of that prestige gap is rooted in the fact that Game of Thrones is ultimately such a laddish show, while Scandal and Orphan Black tell women's stories. The fact that the latter two shows are capable of treating sexual violence seriously, even in the midst of their inherent trashiness, while Game of Thrones isn't, makes that prestige gap toxic.

magpiewhotypes said...

I haven't caught up to season 4 yet, so perhaps I'm taking the quote at the top out of context--but why on earth does Jaime have to tell Brienne that she's about to be raped?

First of all, how does she not know? Brienne has trained and lived among men for a long time, without the "protection" of other men in her family; she must already have some concept of the risks in her environment and how to handle them, including the risk of sexual violence. Perhaps Brienne doesn't know what it's like to be captured, but Martin takes many, many pains to show that the code of chivalry is a sham, so Brienne's experience of "being on the same side" should have prepared her for what she can expect as a woman. (Although Martin's, and by extension the show's, treatment of Brienne is inconsistent--she's strong enough to beat out Westeros's finest knights in a no-holds-barred melee, yet she's overpowered by a random band of fighters; she lives openly as a women in a camp full of men, yet this allows her no sexual freedom or even negative experience, just the ridiculous "too ugly to be raped" plotline. Does Game of Thrones actually portray any survivors of sexual assault?) Perhaps I'm wrong, but the quote suggests that Jaime is an expert on something that Brienne should know about through, you know, living it.

Anyway, that quote convinces me that Jaime hasn't really developed that far from the man who stabbed his prison mate back in season 2. He enjoys adding that little bit of pain and misery to his companion's already dire situation--He didn't go the whole way and kill Brienne, as he did Alton Lannister, but there's nothing keeping him from making her miserable and frightened about her situation and suggesting she kill herself. If I were in a bad situation in Westeros, I'd rather rely on almost anyone for emotional support--even Cersei, or Tree Bran.

Andrew Stevens said...

Magpie: An oft-repeated point in the books was that Renly, Loras, Brienne, and company were all playing at war with tournaments and chivalry and the rest and that none of them had any experience with real war. The quote you're complaining about is part and parcel of that.

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