Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Is "Game of Thrones" Glorifying Rape, or Just Being Honest?

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO's Game of Thrones

I don't know about you, but I really enjoyed the second episode of Game of Thrones. I thought it was more tightly plotted and action-packed than pilot, which was tasked with introducing all the characters and their relationship with each other, and I thought that there were some really nice character development moments, particularly the early scene between the Lannister siblings and the final, heartbreaking sequence, when psychopathic Prince Joffrey behaved like a complete dick and got both Sansa's direwolf Lady and the butcher's son killed. And that early scene of Tyrion bitch-slapping Joffrey like there's no tomorrow is a moment that I could watch over and over again, on repeat. (And now you can too, because someone made a .gif of it, available here.)

One of my favorite characters on the show is Emilia Clarke's Daenerys, and I really enjoyed her story arc, which featured Dany starting to gain some power in her relationship with Khal Drogo through (this being HBO) more graphic sex. However, while reading EW.com's excellent recap of the episode, I was struck by several commenters who argued that, rather than empowering my favorite bleached-blond, her storyline was glorifying rape. Commenter Georgia said, "I thought we left the 'women secretly love to be raped' behind in the 80s right alongside the old 'no means yes' chestnut. Guess not," while Amy takes on the recapper directly, saying in reference to his comment about the difference in Dany and Drogo's relationship in the book and on the show, "So you'd prefer Dany to swoon for a murderous brute after he RAPES HER REPEATEDLY? Gosh, that's much more realistic."

The comment that Amy was referring to concerned the different way Dany and Drogo's wedding night was portrayed on the show, as opposed to in the book. As those of you who watched the first episode probably remember, the fairly quick scene that shows Dany consummating her relationship with Drogo is a rape scene, in which Dany cries and says no while Drogo removes her clothes and then has sex with her. (A similar brief scene appears near the beginning of the second episode, and once again features Dany crying while Drogo has his way with her.) In the book, however, Drogo manages to seduce the initially fearful Dany, and she ultimately says yes to his advances.

I can see why the show's writers changed this scene, and the reason behind their decision has little to do with glorifying rape and everything to do with the amount of action they are forced to pack into each episode. As James Hibberd, EW.com's recapper, says, "If you have to tell the story visually, I can also understand why producers may have wanted to show Dany struggling to find her own power amid a difficult situation rather than appear, in this compressed version, to seemingly swoon for a murderous brute right after meeting him." This is the comment that Amy takes such issue with, and while I can see her point of view, mine was closer Hibberd's, as well as that of the AV Club's recapper Todd VanDerWerff, who takes some time in his recap to talk about the excellent way in which the series portrays the relationship between the powerful and the powerless in Westeros.

VanDerWerff starts out talking about the death of Arya's friend, the butcher's boy, as an example of how "the Middle Ages were pretty much shit if you weren't in a position of power." VanDerWerff notes the way in which the boy is a complete afterthought, and even noble Ned "gives it only a single moment before going off to kill his daughter's pet." In my experience with the episode, the audience reacts in much the same way that Ned does; I for one was so upset that Sansa's innocent Lady was going to be killed that I barely spared a moment's thought for the equally innocent boy, which I suspect was the expected reaction. It was only when I stopped to think about the story arc as a whole, after the terribly sad execution of the wolf, that the magnitude of the boy's death hit me.

What does this have to do with Daenerys, you might be asking. VanDerWerff draws a comparison between the death of the butcher's boy and Dany's sexual subjugation, saying that this scene is "similar to the way the series portrays, say, Daenerys, who doesn't have a ton of options in her life and can really only take charge sexually." This is why Georgia and Amy's comments struck me as false. I didn't think that Daenerys' desire to please Khal Drogo came from a new-found love for the husband she was sold to and who sees her as nothing more than an object; instead, I saw it as an attempt to gain the upper hand in at least one aspect of her relationship, and start to find some power in a situation in which she is powerless. (Plus, if we want to get into the mechanics of sex positions - which I think we should, if only because this is HBO, and sex positions are symbolic purely because they can be - the girl-on-top position that Dany pushes on Drogo is one in which the woman is much more in control of all aspects of intercourse, and can more easily keep her partner from hurting her. See, that was useful.)

Rather than glorifying rape, I think that Game of Thrones is bringing us a fairly realistic portrayal of a powerless woman doing anything and everything she can to make herself into her husband's equal in a time in which women have no power whatsoever. If you choose to read it that way, Sansa is doing the same thing; if she marries Joffrey, she'll be in the same position of power as Queen Cersei which, as we have seen, is the most power any woman in the kingdom can attain. Catelyn Stark does seem to have a fairly egalitarian relationship with Ned, but even she has no control over his choice to leave with the King, and she's forced to live with her husband's bastard son. Westeros may not be medieval Europe, but in many ways it's pretty damned close (except for the zombies and the dragons), and the series aptly conveys the absolute line between the powerful and the powerless, both in terms of class and in terms of gender. And we haven't even gotten into race yet.

On a side note: if you were as upset as I was about the death of Sansa's direwolf Lady, you can take some solace in this item. Apparently Sophie Turner, who portrays Sansa, loved the dog who portrayed Lady so much that, after filming on the season wrapped, she adopted her. Yay happy endings!


  1. This was a great one. I too think that Drogo/Dany scene at the end is about power. Dany's slave girl almost says as much in their scene of gratuitous girl-on-girl for the fanboys. (Okay, so not completely gratuitous, and I'm not really complaining. But HBO's and the genre's general use of girl-on-girl is a whole other can of worms.) She says something along the lines of if you please a man, you have the power.

    I'm not yet sure if Dany is gaining that power to just stop the rapes or to simply perhaps further along her brother's agenda. I'm not sure she cares enough about her brother's agenda for that, but maybe she sees the larger implications of controlling a man as powerful as the Khal.

    I don't know if you're watching The Borgias, too, but that's another lovely example of a debate about glorifying rape versus Middle Ages (or, I guess, early Renaissance) gender relations. Since they both air on Sunday nights, I watch them back to back on Mondays, and it really is a lot of rape of young girls by the men they're forced to marry. There are fewer characters, so we get to spend more time seeing the constant nature of the rapes, so that's even more fun and exciting. :( The Borgias hasn't quite gone the "control your sexuality to control men" route yet, but I'm sure they will. She's Lucrezia freakin' Borgia. Open a history book and see the scandal!

    So... Long rambly post to procrastinate the studying. Hope it made sense!

  2. The show as whole does not glorifying rape, but the Wildling culture in the lore do.

    http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Wildling see Marriage.

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