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rape culture

Yes, Of Course That Was Rape on Last Night’s Game of Thrones

[This post contains spoilers from last night's GoT.] Game of Thrones has been a rape-heavy show from very early on. And it hasn't exactly been progressive in its take on sexual violence — Daenerys falls in love with her rapist, for example. But last night's rape scene, in which Jaime assaults his sister Cersei inches away from their dead son's body, is a new low for the deeply violent series, because the scene was rewritten from the book to recast the sex as not consensual, and yet the show's cast and crew aren't even sure whether it constitutes rape. "It becomes consensual by the end," director Alex Graves tells us. (He also directed last week's episode.) Nikolaj Coster-Waldau tells the Daily Beast that,"There are moments where [Cersei] gives in, and moments where she pushes him away. But it’s not pretty." To the question of whether this encounter constitutes rape, Coster-Waldau says "yes and no." Were we watching different shows? The scene is unambiguously a rape scene, and to suggest otherwise is distressing: How can anyone possibly think this is what consent looks like?

Cersei says "no" and "don't" repeatedly, begs Jaime to stop several times, and the scene ends on weeping "it isn't right," while Jaime grunts "I don't care." If Graves filmed more of the scene, it didn't make it into the final cut; if there's a point at which we're supposed to believe this is anything other than nonconsensual sex, I don't know what it could be. It is absolutely not "consensual by the end" — plus, the idea that a rape could be "consensual by the end" is grotesque and dangerous. It plays into the worst she said no, but she meant yes pernicious lies of rape culture.

Westeros is not modernity; some could argue that it's unfair to hold these characters to the standards of our society. Except rape is mentioned repeatedly on last night's episode, and in each instance it is presented as something egregious: Samwell's nightmare is that Gilly could be raped. Oberyn wants to kill the Mountain for raping his sister. Rape is bad even in the brutal Seven Kingdoms! These people all know what rape is, and they know that it's bad. Jaime himself has said that if he were a woman, he'd make his rapists kill him before he ever stopped fighting them off. Sexual violence is used repeatedly throughout the show to victimize, marginalize, and terrorize women. (And some men.)

In general, I try not to compare Game of Thrones the show to the books its based on: First, because I haven't and will probably never read them, and second because the show is its own entity, with some distinct characters and condensed plotting. But let's at least mention here that in the books, the sex is absolutely consensual, if still sort of disturbing given that it takes place right next to Joffrey's corpse. Any corpse would make it creepy as hell, but your recently murdered son — whose lineage is a secret, given that he's actually the product of incest? Congratulations, GoT: You are really twisted. Turning this into a rape scene just adds another layer of unnecessary depravity to an already profoundly desperate moment.

I'm not opposed to shows depicting sexual violence, but rape-as-prop is always distressing, particularly in a show like this, where that disregard echoes the kinds of ideas that foster rape culture in the first place: that women's feelings don't matter, that sexual agency isn't a big deal, that rape is something that just kind of happens and that healthy people simply move on. Rape and abuse have consequences for the victims who carry those traumas with them. While I don't know exactly how the show will depict the aftermath of Jamie raping Cersei, GoT does not have a strong track record of acknowledging or exploring the lingering effects of surviving sexual assault, and given that this instance of rape isn't even in the source material, I'm skeptical about the show's ability or desire to depict Cersei's ongoing reaction to it. The next time the show depicts a nuanced understanding of sexual abuse will be the first time — though in fairness, one of the show's calling cards is that anything can happen.

Photo: HBO