This week, I saw the first episode of Game of Thrones at a friend’s house. I haven’t read any of the Song of Ice and Fire series, which is kind of surprising considering how many brick-sized fantasy novels I have read, but once I heard that the series was not yet finished, I figured I’d wait to read them until the last book came out. Before Tuesday, I knew the following things about Game of Thrones:
- Winter is coming.
- There’s some sort of wall that monster people attack over.
- Lots of naked ladies and sex.
- A big spiky throne.
- Main characters die a lot.
I was expecting a gritty, serious fantasy experience with lots of beardy guys looking grim, and Game of Thrones certainly delivered on that front! And on the surface, this looks like something I would want to continue watching; I do like complicated political stories and although I will always struggle with narratives that introduce over a dozen named characters right off the bat and then assume I will instantly remember who everyone is (Guy Gavriel Kay, I’m looking at you), I think that shows with a complex plot and large ensemble casts, when handled well, are pretty fantastic. That first episode set up several interesting plot threads, mostly revolving around political alliances, marriages, and potential backstabbing, and I can see why a lot of people are so enthusiastic about the show (and the source material). I’m certainly curious about where the story is going.
However, I don’t think I’ll be watching more, because I just do not have the stomach for rape scenes on-screen. At all. To the point where this trumps any other interest I have in the story. I’m putting the discussion of this particular plot point under a cut in case any of y’all either don’t want to read about a rape scene or want to avoid spoilers…
The plotline in question is this (and I realize that my grasp of this is probably imperfect but this is my understanding based on the one episode I saw): one of the main characters is a woman named Daenarys, who’s about sixteen but I believe is younger in the books. Her brother wants military support so he can reclaim a political position that’s been taken from him, and his plan is to marry her off to a Dothraki clan leader so he can gain access to their soldiers. She’s not excited about this (and in one of her only lines says “I do not want to marry him”) but the marriage happens anyway, and their post-marriage consummation is shown mostly on-screen and is clearly not consensual.
It’s made very clear that Daenerys’ brother does not think she has any ownership over her own body. We see him inspecting and touching her mostly-naked body the way one might touch a prized racing horse. It’s not sexual, as far as I can tell; she’s just a useful object and he thinks he has the right to examine her however he wants. Later on, when she has met her future husband Khal Drogo and says she doesn’t want to marry him, her brother calmly says he’d be willing to let thousands of men rape her if it meant he got the military support he wants. Always reassuring to hear from family! He is completely cold in these scenes and makes no effort to comfort his sister at all. It is creepy as fuck, y’all. I have no idea what this guy’s story is but he is kind of terrifying.
The scene after the wedding ceremony was what really got to me, though. Drogo is either unable or unwilling to communicate in Daenerys’ language, and either way he shows no interest in making her feel comfortable. She’s frozen in place, only moving to try to cover herself as he takes her clothes off, and as he positions her for sex she seems to have completely dissociated herself from the experience. There’s no consideration of her basic comfort, let alone her pleasure; this was an extremely difficult scene to watch. I try in general to avoid watching anything that’s going to show rape on-screen, but this is the first time I had seen it play out relatively calmly and quietly, and in some ways that made it worse. It’s certainly closer to what more real-life rapes are like; the violent rapist jumping out of the bushes is relatively uncommon. Possibly that’s why it was more disturbing to me?
I know that most fantasy worlds have sexist power systems in place. Some more than others, certainly, and some authors seem more aware that they’re writing about sexist societies – others seem to just be tossing all of their sexist baggage into a created world without being particularly aware of it. Arranged/political marriages are common, and I’m never that surprised to come across this type of storyline; honestly I expect at least one loveless political marriage per vaguely-medieval fantasy setting. The difference here was how it was presented. There’s no fade-to-black after the wedding, no merciful glossing-over the whole marital rape issue, no character who notices and comments on the fact that Daenerys is basically sleepwalking and seems to be completely detached from what’s happening to her. The most uncomfortable moments are shown on-screen instead of referred to in passing, and that’s just a bit much. I don’t really fault the show for my reaction; I’ve seen some violent rape scenes that were shot as if the viewer was intended to see the assault as sort of sexy, and I didn’t get that sense here at all, which was nice at least. But still, my brain sees someone being raped and dehumanized on screen and starts sending off huge “something is seriously wrong here“signals and I can’t really focus on much else. It doesn’t matter how much it makes sense in the larger narrative, I can’t handle it.
Maybe it’s just because I spent time recently trying to argue with someone who was interested in looking out for the rights of rapists and harassers in social groups. Maybe I’ve heard too many stories lately of women being abused or assaulted and then blamed or made fun of for it. Maybe I’m tired of the lazy use of rape as the incentive to turn sad, passive women into badasses (again, I don’t know about Daenerys but when I looked up how to spell her name I got the impression that she has a similar transformation eventually?). Maybe this is always going to be my hot-button issue and I won’t ever want to deal with it so explicitly in the media I consume. But I am way too aware of real horrible shit happening to women and I don’t want to see abuse, even the kind that’s completely fictional, in my leisure time. I’m extremely slow to watch most tv shows anyway, so it’s not a huge loss to have something go off of my “maybe I’ll watch this at some point” list, but still it’s kind of a bummer. If you’d asked me how I would react to seeing this, before Tuesday night I would have probably said “oh, that’s unpleasant but I can deal with it” but apparently this is no longer the case.