A lot has been said about this past Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones entitled, “Breaker of Chains.” The episode depicts a famous scene from book three of the A Song of Ice and Fire series from which the show is based, yet changed one key element from the book, and caused an internet uproar.
The scene in question involved Cersei and Jamie Lannister, twins and lovers. In the book, Cersei stands in a Sept (a holy house in this universe) over the corpse of her dead son (fathered by her brother, Jamie). Jamie, who until that point had been kidnapped and tortured and absent from King’s Landing for quite some time, arrives on the scene. Cersei is overcome by relief at seeing Jamie and passion because she’s all hot for her brother. And although at first she thinks it would be wrong to have sex with her brother in a holy place beside the corpse of their dead son who was the product of incest (and I would agree with her for so many reasons), she willingly and consensually and happily does end up having sex with Jamie. She also is on her “moon blood” during the process, meaning she has the Westeros equivalent of a period and the whole scene in general is gross for every reason I just listed above.
The show took this exact scene and changed one very important part: The part where Cersei gives consent. In the book Cersei literally guides Jamie into her with her hand. In the show, it was nothing short of rape, with Cersei consistently saying no and trying to push Jamie off of her, to no avail.
People are not happy, but maybe not entirely for the reasons that you would think.
My initial reaction to this scene was one of shock followed by anger. The scene itself was very difficult to watch (as all scenes of rape should be) and I was quite flabbergasted and confused as to what I was witnessing, as I am someone who has read the books.
I was really excited when I saw Cersei in the Sept and it looked exactly like I pictured it. Then Jamie walked in, just like in the book and everything was going kind of word for word, and I was sitting on the couch crunching on potato chips and thinking to myself, “I wonder if they’re going to be bold enough to show her moon blood” and then all of a sudden Jamie is raping her. And I’m sitting there wondering when it’s going to turn consensual because that’s what a reader of the book would expect but it never does. And as soon as the scene ends, I turned to my roommate aghast and said, “THAT didn’t happen in the book!”
Which seems to be the predominant reaction that people are having: That it didn’t happen in the book. This article from The A.V. Club posed the question that I immediately asked as well which was: While inevitably television or movie adaptations of books have to change scenes in order to work in a different medium, why change this particular scene? Everything else was exactly the same as the scene in the book except for the question of consent. But what was the motivation behind taking an act of consensual sex and turning it into an act of sexual violence? Because upon doing so, the showrunners have changed the very integrity of the characters themselves.
In the books and the show, at this point Jamie is well into his redemption story. He is a man who has done terrible things but is beginning to recognize that about himself and take measures to change. He is misunderstood in a lot of ways, and although his relationship with his sister is incestuous (and therefore really gross), he is honorable in his love and devotion to her. The choice on the part of the show to have him rape Cersei throws a wrench in all of that previous character development. And I understand why fans of the book are angry because it is my belief that Jamie would never rape anyone, especially not Cersei, no matter what other horrific things he may have done. The show essentially destroyed the very integrity of the character with this one very violent and disturbing scene.
Granted, the show is in no way required to stay so close to canon, but it’s disturbing because the motivation behind altering the character in this way is unclear. And while it’s possible that in the coming episodes it will become clearer why they chose to take this character in this direction, as it stands it’s a hard pill to swallow.
This article from Wired included a quote from the director of the episode, that suggested that the scene they filmed wasn’t even really a rape scene (at least not to their knowledge), but a power struggle, with Cersei ultimately wanting it, and one that ended in consent. This is disturbing in so many ways, because it suggests that the power that the showrunners wield (which is to entertain and influence an audience of millions of people) is abused in ignorance of the scenes that they are portraying. Perhaps when it was filmed it was a power struggle and not a rape scene but that’s not how it was edited and not the final product, as the scene cut away before Cersei ever consented (if that was a thing that was supposed to happen). Game of Thrones is a show that depicts a lot of violence and a lot of sex, often for no other purpose but to be exploitative and titillating and shocking. I would hate to think that this scene was used for the same purpose, or to prove that this is how the world of Westeros works—it’s a dark and particularly dangerous realm and the rules of existence are different there.
Because the rules are different when watching a show about a fictional universe. The world of Game of Thrones is filled with war and ruthless murder and rape. With the killing of children, with the marriage of siblings and 13-year-olds to 30-year-old savages, with eunuchs and slaves. There are also dragons, and zombie-like creatures that can only be killed by fire. It’s mystical and twisted and dark. It’s also completely fictional and therefore I think it’s a safe space to examine something I found very interesting about the reaction to this episode.
I’m very interested in the reaction of the audience to violence in Game of Thrones versus violence against women in Game of Thrones. Particularly the dichotomy between the reaction to Joffrey’s death and the reaction Cersei’s rape. Because by all accounts Cersei is a terrible person. She is cruel and manipulative and hateful. She has murdered and she would step on anyone to rise to the top, including her own younger brother, Tyrion. She has an incestuous relationship with her brother, all of her children were the product of that relationship, and she helped to murder her husband in order to keep that secret. Basically everybody in the audience hates her. And the same was true for Joffrey. He was a spoiled, sadistic brat who murdered and tortured. He was cruel and impulsive and maniacal. And when he was killed last week, everyone in the audience cheered and celebrated.
Now before I continue remember that I am speaking here entirely of a fictional world. I don’t think that anyone deserves to be raped. I don’t even think Cersei deserved to be raped, and she’s a horrible person. But I thought that Joffrey deserved to die, and I’m pretty sure everyone else did, too. Are we not the same audience that just last week threw a Twitter party upon Joffrey dying in a truly gruesome and graphic and horrific fashion? But in this fictional world where the rules are different, we feel outrage at Cersei’s rape. If Jamie had walked into that Sept and stabbed her in the heart, we would be celebrating again this week. But because he raped her, we are angry.
And don’t get me wrong, I think we should be angry. But where is the source of that anger? We are desensitized enough to violence that we applaud it when distributed upon a truly heinous character. But sexual violence is enough of a taboo in our culture that there is a public outcry when a character who most would say deserves to die is raped. I think it is very interesting but I also see it as problematic. Because if rape and sexual assault are such a taboo that it pains us to witness fictional characters who we hate experience it, then why is it that when you pull back and examine real-life rape in our society, victim-blaming and other facets of rape culture still run rampant with not as many people as the audience of Game of Thrones (which is millions) caring as much about real rape as they do about Cersei’s rape. You would think that the outrage on behalf of a fictional character would translate to outrage in the real world but it really doesn’t.
If we believe as an audience that rape is inexcusable no matter what the crimes of the victim may be, then why doesn’t that concern for a horrible person of a female character extend out of pop culture and into our own culture towards real-life victims of sexual violence? Do we care more about the fictional rape of a fictional person than we do about the actual injustices that happen to real people?
I don’t know the answer to that. But I am happy that so many people are asking these kinds of questions and talking about depictions of rape in popular culture and storytelling through the medium of television. I think it’s important to hold showrunners accountable for their choices, because it seems to me that they chose to have Cersei raped for no other reason except they kind of didn’t even realize that’s what they were doing? Which opens a giant can of worms regarding misogyny, the way rape is viewed in America, and the treatment of women on Game of Thrones especially. This show has come under fire for this before, which is such a shame since George R.R. Martin’s female characters in the book are some of the strongest and most complicated female characters I’ve ever read, and they’re written with respect.
But I also think we should see where they take these characters this season. Because rape as a storytelling device isn’t inherently wrong and can be used to a very powerful effect, but it’s very tricky to do so, and I feel that it is often used lazily and as a throwaway character arc for women. Perhaps this particular rape scene will create an excellent story for Jamie and Cersei’s characters (though I wouldn’t count on it) and we should wait to see if that happens (but I really doubt it will). In the meantime, I hope the discussion about rape depictions in popular culture continues because while I think the showrunners have done all of it inadvertently, they opened a really great national dialogue, so applause to Game of Thrones for doing something great by doing something bad, while both were probably unintentional.
A final interesting thing to note: Author George R.R. Martin posted something about this episode and this scene in particular on his blog, in response to fan criticism over the whole thing. In his response, GRRM spoke of the difference in where the characters were in the books versus the show (in the book, it was the first time Cersei was seeing Jamie in a long time, and in the show he had been there with her for a few weeks with mounting tension). He also said the scene in the book was always intended to be disturbing and that he wasn’t brought into discussion for this episode but that he apologizes if anyone was disturbed by either scene.
First of all, George, you are the father of the REALM, you bow to NO ONE. I’m not into the idea that artists should apologize for their work (though that seems to be happening a lot lately). But more than that, people SHOULD be disturbed by those scenes, whether it was the one in the book or the one on television. People SHOULD be disturbed when they’re watching a rape scene! If you’re not disturbed then you’re probably a rapist or the director of this episode. Furthermore, if GRRM is going to start apologizing for things in his books that disturbed me, I have a LONG list starting with his synonyms for “vagina” which include “lower lips” and “the wetness between her legs.” Please apologize for that, forever. Thank you.