The media's poverty of imagination and poor script writing skills belie the power – and importance – of sexual assault narratives on TV and in movies.
Since its 2011 debut, HBO's Game of Thrones has sparked numerous discussions about sexual violence on television; with critics charging that the show's repeated use of rape scenes is a sign of misogyny, exploitation of female characters, and, at the very least, a ham fisted understanding of the female experience. The conversations sparked by this debut are not new, or even specific to Game of Thrones: Sonia Soraiya's Rape of Thrones makes similar points as Clementine Ford's 2013 essay Can we stop using rape as a plot device which in turn cites a 2012 essay by Alyssa Rosenberg. We've been having this discussion for a while now – and I can't help but think that the discussion we're having is the wrong one.
There is no question that rape and sexual assault are frequently treated as blunt tools of exposition. Too often, writers and directors fall back on rape as an explanation for a woman's anger, frustration, or desire for revenge; and for every well-done, nuanced portrayal of the experience of sexual assault, there are far more treatments that lazily turn to rape rather than coming up with something thoughtful or creative, or play up the sex in sexual assault, turning a protagonist's horrific assault into titillation for the audience. But the media's poverty of imagination and poor script writing skills belie the power – and importance – of sexual assault narratives on TV and in movies.
According to RAINN, one in six, or just shy of 18 million, American women have been the victim of attempted or completed sexual assault. My personal experience suggests the number may be even higher: virtually all of my female friends have experienced some sort of sexual assault in their life times. Even the ones who haven't personally experienced assault live lives that are shaped by the awareness that they are "at risk," that being a woman in America means being ever vigilant against the threat of unwanted sexual attentions. This is, of course, what we mean when we talk about rape culture; and given its pervasiveness, it is hard for me to imagine a narrative of adult female experience that isn't somehow colored by the topic of rape.
In "Breaker of Chains," the third episode of Game of Thrones's fourth season, Jaime Lannister rapes his sister Cersei next to the corpse of their dead son Joffrey. It's a quick, but brutal, scene. After months away at war, Jaime has returned home to find his sister/lover no longer interested in his attentions. When his attempts to seduce her are rejected, he forcibly takes what he wants.
Watching last night's Game of Thrones, the most chilling moment was this: through the course of the episode, I found myself repeatedly cheering for Jaime Lannister. Jaime Lannister, who just one episode prior had held down and raped his sister, was now suddenly my hero: the man who was going to keep his oath to save and protect Sansa, the man who was coming to the aid of his persecuted brother, even if it meant standing against the wishes of his father and sister. But then, this is how sexual assault persists. It’s as if the writers had not just forgiven him, but had completely forgotten it. His rape had no impact on either of the characters.
Towns like Steubenville don't rally around their accused rapists because they want to see their young women repeatedly victimized; they do it because, in their eyes, those young men are far more than just rapists – in the same way that Game of Thrones reminds us that each and every character on the show is far more than the brutal horrors they unleash each other.
This, then, is what we should talk about when we talk about rape on television. Rape as a blunt device to add depth to poorly sketched out female character may have reached the end of its utility. But rape as a plot device to force us to examine the nuance and intricacies of sexual assault in our culture? That would actually be TV worth watching.
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