Tuesday 27 September 2016

Game of Thrones - has the sexual violence against women gone too far in the TV series?

Published 18/05/2015 | 21:57

There are moments when you find yourself wondering if you really ought to be watching Game of Thrones.

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** SPOILERS**

Even the most devoted fan of all things Westeros will have had their fealty tested during the sadistic rape of Sansa Stark, the grim conclusion to episode six of the latest season.

Bad enough that the assault upon the Stark princess by ghastly Ramsay Bolton was explicitly presented as an exercise in voyeurism, with Theon Greyjoy forced to watch as Sansa was violently assailed.

What made the scene worse, and perhaps unforgivable, was that the rape was in the context of Sansa displaying increased maturity and independence.

Long a naive innocent, Sansa had proved herself all grown up and in possession of an impressively iron will when assenting to an arranged marriage with House Bolton (on the unspoken understanding that she could manipulate the situation and reclaim the family seat at Winterfell).

And what did her cleverness bring her? Humiliation at the hands of the most sociopathic characters in the Seven Kingdoms this side of her former betrothed, King Joffrey

By all account readers of George RR Martin's original books saw the rape coming. Still, there was a crucial distinction – in the novels the new bride upon whom Ramsay inflicts unspeakable deprivations was not Sansa but a handmaid posing as the Stark heiress.

This does not diminish the heinousness of Ramsay's deeds – however, in Martin's original telling the assault is not presented as the culmination of an arc in which a woman learns to stand tall and exercise control over her destiny. It was sadism, not a slapdown.

It isn't the first occasion the makers of Game of Thrones have departed from George RR Martin's texts and ratcheted up the sexual violence.

In the books, Daenerys Targaryen is not raped by Khal Drogo on their wedding night. On television it is heavily implied that she is.

Similarly, Martin makes clear that the post-Purple Wedding rough congress between Cersei and Jaime was consensual – confused, desperate, ill-advised yes… but assented to on both sides.

On the small screen last season, the scene played out in a far more ambivalent fashion and if you didn't have the time or inclination to sit back and reflect upon it, you might have straightforwardly concluded that Jaime forced himself upon his twin.

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This against the background of Game of Thrones' reliance on female nudity as a source of titillation. If the topless guest-star count is much diminished in the present season, it still remains one of Game of Thrones signature flourishes (recall the High Septon cavorting with  prostitutes in Littlefinger's brothel a few weeks ago).

Generally, Game of Thrones has been given a free pass in this respect – it's lusty, full blooded TV and thus naked ladies are part of the deal (and, it is true, there has been a conscious effort to raise the body count of nude male actors too).

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 Still not everyone has been quaffing the Seven Kingdom Kool Aid (Kool Mead?). Some actresses have publicly questioned why their big break in a top-rating drama should be conditional in them baring all.

For instance, Dublin actress Sinead Watters has revealed she turned down Game of Thrones for just that reason (she did eventually star opposite Aidan Gillen in a tale of Machiavellian skulduggery and tooth and claw ambition when she was cast in RTE's Charlie).

"'We have a role for you in Game of Thrones'," she said, recalling what ought to have been the job offer of a lifetime. "Would you be willing to go naked and play the role of a prostitute?' Eh no thanks."

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On a visit to the Game of Thrones set in Belfast several years ago, I put this very question to one of the scriptwriters – when does taboo-breaking descend into pandering?

His response was that the Middle Ages were a violent time and it was important for Game of Thrones to acknowledge that savagery on screen.

"Sex is part of the human experience. Sexual politics is very much part of the 'game'. It sets us apart from other fantasy shows.  I almost hesitate to call it a fantasy show. It's a human story. That's the reason people who might not normally watch this sort of thing keep coming back to it."

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