Game of Thrones, the HBO hit series now in its fourth season, based on George R.R. Martin’s pseudo-medieval fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire, is big news. Every episode generates not only a tsunami of fan reaction but intense discussions by bloggers and journalists; the death of sadistic boy-king Joffrey may have made more headlines than Russia’s attempted takeover of Eastern Ukraine. And now, the latest episode has touched off a raging debate that goes beyond the show itself to a very current real-life issue: defining rape and consent. (The New Republic alone had two online articles on the subject.) But this controversy has revealed a fascinating fact: a lot of feminists who rail against “the rape culture” don’t actually practice the black-and-white, yes-or-no dogma that they preach—not even with regard to fiction.
Sexual violence on Game of Thrones is hardly new. But the problem with this particular episode, according to numerous—and especially feminist—critics, was that a consensual sex scene from the saga’s third novel, A Storm of Swords, was changed to a violent rape scene. (In both versions, the act involves incestuous twins and takes place in a holy temple next to the dead body of their recently murdered son, so this is definitely a case of “don’t try this at home, kids.” You may also want to stop reading at this point if you find this too disturbing.) Both the full text of the book scene and the clip of the TV scene can be found here.
Apparently, this is what many feminists including Slate.com’s Amanda Marcotte—who not long ago argued that any man who cannot prove his partner’s clear, explicit consent can be considered a rapist—regard as consensual rough sex:
The woman, Cersei, kisses her brother/lover Jaime; when he begins to take things further, she “weakly” protests—“No, not here”—and starts to say that they could be discovered by septons, the priests of Martin’s world. Jaime dismisses this and silences her with more kisses, then lifts Cersei up on the altar and pushes up her skirts: “She pounded on his chest with feeble fists, murmuring about the risk, the danger, about their father, about the septons, about the wrath of gods. He never heard her.”
After a few moments, when Jaime has already undone his clothing and pushed her legs apart, Cersei starts to encourage him with both words (“Hurry, quickly, do it now”) and actions, and once the sex begins she repeatedly says “yes.” But if “no always means no,” hasn’t he already committed sexual assault and attempted rape? If this was a real-life case involving, say, two college students—hopefully in less freakish circumstances—Marcotte and plenty of others would be certain to argue that the woman’s expressed consent was meaningless: the man had clearly refused to respect her “no,” and she may have been going along and faking eagerness out of self-preservation.
In the TV version, Cersei’s protests are somewhat more vehement, and she never switches from “no” to “yes” but keeps saying “this isn’t right.” The episode’s director, Alex Graves, has nonetheless said that he sees the scene as one in which the sex “becomes consensual by the end,” which has people up in arms about rape-condoning attitudes. (By the way, Cersei’s body language in the TV scene is still somewhat ambiguous: after saying “no” and “stop,” she kisses Jaime twice, presses her hands to his face, and at least once seems to pull him closer instead of pushing him away.) Time reporter Eliana Dockterman expresses dismay at the notion that a sexual encounter can become consensual if it’s forced at the start—but she, too, thinks it was consensual in the book.
So what exactly is going on? Partly, I suspect the books get the benefit of the doubt because the Game of Thrones phenomenon has a certain cachet of coolness in “progressive” circles: Maureen Dowd praises it as far more riveting than real-life politics, and Marcotte has called it “a complex, nuanced critique of patriarchy.”
But there is another factor: a crucial difference between the context and tone of the book scene and the TV version.
In the novel, the sex, while creepy on more levels than you can count, takes place during an emotional reunion between the siblings/secret lovers. Jaime has just returned from captivity during which Cersei had feared he was dead. With their son dead and Jaime crippled (he has lost his right hand), the tone of the scene is one of heartbreak and longing; Cersei is as eager as Jaime though more aware of the risks and the social transgressions. In this situation, her protests come across as half-hearted token resistance (admittedly from Jaime’s point of view, but this is supported by other material in the books). There is also little doubt that Jaime, deeply devoted to Cersei in his own twisted way, would have stopped at a clear sign that she was unwilling.
On the show, Jaime’s return took place earlier, and Cersei has already rebuffed his attempts to renew their relationship; she is repelled by his mutilation and feels that he failed her by taking so long to come back. Jaime, meanwhile, has started to realize that his sister/lady love is a rather awful person, something that doesn’t happen until much later in the books. In the scene in the temple, she kisses him but then backs away in disgust at his prosthetic hand. Hurt and angry, Jaime grabs her and forcefully kisses her, saying, “You are a hateful woman. Why have the gods made me love a hateful woman?” In that context, the sex is intended not to renew their bond but to humiliate and punish Cersei, and it seems probable that Jaime would not balk at physically hurting her.
Clearly, a lot of feminists instinctively recognize the difference between these two scenarios. So much for their claims that there is no such thing as token resistance, no gray areas or “blurred lines” (as it were), and that the slightest expression of ambivalence or reluctance should immediately halt all sexual advances. “Rape culture” dogma allows for no context or nuance: nonviolent physical advances after an uncertain “We shouldn’t be doing this” are no different from forcibly overpowering someone who shouts, “Stop!” But context matters; nuance matters; whether a person is in physical danger matters. In a different context, Jaime’s actions in the book would also cross the line into assault—not just from a radical feminist but from any non-Neanderthal point of view.
Why the show changed the scene, and whether Martin’s books have their own disturbing attitudes toward sex and violence, are questions for another time. Perhaps the show’s critics underestimate the coerciveness of the book scene and exaggerate that of the TV version. But they also reveal more than they realize about their own tacit understanding that when it comes to something as complex as human sexual behavior, gray areas are very real—in fiction and in fact.
See the related “Sexual Harassment Quagmire.”