06.05.11

'Game of Thrones' Sexual Politics

While HBO hasn't shied away from the abundant sex in the Game of Thrones books (even amping it up), the presence of rape within George R.R. Martin's novels has been nearly eliminated. Jace Lacob examines why sex and violence, but not sexual violence, has played out on the show—and why some viewers and critics are angry.

When HBO announced that it would be adapting George R.R. Martin's bestselling fantasy novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, as the television drama Game of Thrones, it seemed like a perfect match. Not beholden to advertisers or the FCC, HBO has the freedom to push the boundaries of content, and its depiction of a power-hungry feudal society has been sensational, highly sexual, and ultra-violent. Martin's novels take place within a brutal world where war, death, and all manner of sexual impulses are commonplace. But while HBO hasn't shied away from the sex (in fact, they've amped it up), Game of Thrones skirts the presence of rape within Martin's novels. While readers wade through sex, violence, and even sexual assault as part of the ruthlessness of Martin's fictional world, television audiences can seemingly only handle two out of three.

Let's back up a minute. Game of Thrones has been a ratings success for HBO and has already been renewed for a second season. But as a few critics have remarked, the show often goes for the groin instead of the head. The books provide a powder keg of sexuality, yet producers have injected even more sex into the mix, introducing, for instance, a provocative lesbian scene into the May 29 episode that didn't appear in the source material, as Aidan Gillen's Peter "Littlefinger" Baelish "auditioned" two new whores for his brothel and delivered a monologue while watching them indulge each other with varying degrees of arousal.

For some critics, that episode was a turning point: it appeared to cross a line in a show that has already been overflowing with sex scenes between lovers, johns and whores, and even siblings. (Cersei and Jaime, I'm looking at you.) Those who were turned off didn't like the gratuitousness of the sequence, coining such terms as "sexposition" and "whorexposition" about the way in which story had been slipped into a sex scene rather than vice-versa.

AOLtv critic Maureen Ryan took the producers to task. "Sometimes Game of Thrones uses sexual scenes to shed light on character," wrote Ryan. "But quite often, it shows naked women because it can. At times, the show appears to be trying to cover up clunky exposition with naked flesh, and at other moments, the vibe comes off as, 'Hey! It's HBO! Here are some boobs!' Sigh." And academic Myles McNutt, who devised the "sexposition" terminology, wrote on his blog, "The show is really letting Littlefinger become his own character, and that scene is an important part of giving him agency... but any real symbolism is lost amidst the moaning."

Others had more visceral reactions. After last week's episode, Salon and New York Times writer Laura Miller tweeted, "OK, the sexual attitude of the Game of Thrones TV series (and its promo [material]) is now officially creeping me out."

While frank sex in HBO shows is common (just look at True Blood), Game of Thrones appears to be placing it front and center, as though the only way to make exposition-heavy bits like these interesting was to couch them in terms of sexuality. There's been a litany of such scenes: Harry Lloyd's Viserys recounts his family's sordid history to a pleasure slave astride him in the bathtub; Alfie Allen's Theon offers a full-frontal view of his manhood after having sex with a prostitute; there's Peter Dinklage's Tyrion, abed with multiple whores in the series opener; and a scene between Emilia Clarke's Daenerys and her handmaiden turns into a steamy lesbian-tinged sex training sequence.

But if Game of Thrones is having its cake with Martin's sexed up fantasy drama, and eating it too, by adding even more nudity to the mix, the adaptation has not been faithful to the source material as far as rape goes—sexual assault is persistent, disturbing, and occurs often within Martin's novels. But that also demonstrates, perhaps, a key underlying difference between written and visual entertainment. The instances of rape within Martin's novels are distressing for the readers because they're experienced via the characters' innermost thoughts (as in the case of Daenerys), or are described second-hand. But that's not possible in a television setting, where the action does—and must—unfold before our eyes.

The one rape of many from the novel that remains in the HBO adaptation is that of Emilia Clarke's Daenerys, who has been aged up from a 13-year-old in the book to a 16-year-old, who is raped by her warlord husband on her wedding night.

"It's ground that you have to tread carefully on," said Executive Producer D.B. Weiss, speaking to The Daily Beast in March. "It's not our world but it is a real world, and it's a violent world, a more brutal world… It's a world where these horrible things are definitely pervasive elements of their lives and their cultures. We felt that shying away from these things would be doing a disservice to the reality and groundedness of George's vision."

The most recent episode on Sunday, its eighth, makes it abundantly clear that producers are still holding back when it comes to rape, even if they're willing to indulge in not only massive amounts of sex, but violence, too. (Witness the beheadings of several characters, including a horse, the slaying of a beloved pet, and the evisceration of a character this week.)

In the novel on which the first season of Game of Thrones is based, the sequence within Sunday's episode is a nightmarish one, as Dothraki invaders rape multiple women before Daenerys (Clarke) puts a stop to their abhorrent behavior. Here, however, the scenes play out with the intangible threat of rape (the "spoils of war") hanging over the heads of the female POWs, who are shoved around and put in pens. Given the forcible consummation of Daenerys' own wedding, it seems a strange about-face in a show that hasn't shied away from other kinds of brutality.

But pulling back on the depiction of rape is a good thing for viewers. And those who haven't enjoyed the sexed-up elements of the show can find relief in knowing that the show is treading carefully in other areas. By aging up Daenerys, by eliminating the en masse rape of the Dothraki prisoners, it enables Game of Thrones to be much less harrowing, keeping the horror restricted to the supernatural realm.

When asked back in March about the prominence of sexual assault within his novels, Martin disagreed with the assessment that rape is pervasive in the books ("I don't think I ever have any on-stage rapes," he said), and was quick to point out that, in the case of Daenerys' wedding night, marital rape is a modern-day concept that held no sway over Dark Ages gender politics, or indeed over Westerosi laws.

"In a medieval society, there was no such thing as marital rape," said Martin. "Marital rape is a conception that just came out of the [Oregon v.] Rideout case… Even in British common-law and all that, it was thought that you cannot have rape within marriage and that's been the law for thousands of years of history. I am not endorsing it, mind you, but let me make it clear here: I am glad we have evolved to the point that we have but I am not writing about 21st-century America. I'm writing about a quasi-medieval society, which had very different standards on these issues."

Clarke felt that the violence against her highborn character, sold into marriage with a Dothraki warlord, strengthened Daenerys.

"Because we're looking at it from a modern vantage point, it's much, much more shocking," said Clarke. "If you look at the way that women have been treated from medieval times until now, there's a huge change… But the wonderful thing about Daenerys is that she is a brilliant feminist character because she overcomes all of these things, even in a time when those kinds of monstrosities were considered normal."

(It's also worth pointing out that Daenerys herself could be a feudal victim of Stockholm Syndome: she falls in love with her captors and specifically her rapist husband, sympathizing with the Dothraki until she becomes one of them in speech, dress, and attitude.)

Martin, meanwhile, said that within the novels, the men committing acts of rape aren't depicted as noble or good. One particularly sadistic character, Gregor Clegane, is infamous for his atrocious acts of violence and rapine, spinning a story in the series second novel, A Clash of Kings, that would turn the stomachs of even the most unemotional readers.

But that's the point, Martin would argue: despite its omnipresence within the world of Game of Thrones, rape is never acceptable behavior embraced by anyone with a shred of decency within them. Which fits into the overall philosophy of Martin's novels: bad things happen to good people, and bad people often get away with the blackest of deeds.

"Gregor Clegane is one of the least sympathetic characters in the books," said Martin. "He's as close as you come to absolute evil, I suppose, although even then I try to give him some motivations and some reasons for him being the way he is. I don't want to write about orks… who are just born evil."