This week in TV the biggest story hails not from AMC and the quiet brooding drama of Mad Men, but from the fantastical dragon and winter zombie filled world of Game of Thrones. I think it’s an excellent time to talk about why good writing is so important, particularly when dealing with sensitive subject matter.
Alright so Jamie and Cersei are everyone’s favorite conniving incestuous lovers. She, in my opinion, is the worst of all of them. I think she is pure manipulation and hatred, and I find her completely despicable and beyond saving. Which is super awesome, because true female villains are few and far between. The disdain she inspires in me is refreshing, and I relish it. Jamie has been on a journey that is largely redemptive, and I think his devotion for her (despite how creepy it is) is endearing. Which is why the choice of the writers to film the love scene that takes place next to their dead son as a rape is truly mind boggling. You can read about how it’s different from the book here, but it’s not the change itself that is upsetting.
I am not against portraying rape on TV or in movies. It’s a thing that happens in real life, and if it’s handled with care it can be important to see. The folks who filmed the scene between siblings seem to feel as though they shot a scene that started out as rape, but turned consensual. This is where I start to get itchy. First of all, that is not at all what happened, so there must have been some miscommunication. She is protesting throughout. But a blurred lines scene is really a tricky scene to attempt, and it already makes me nervous, because why? Why make the scene more complicated when it’s already a incestuous sex scene that takes place in the presence of their dead love child? The explanations from the directer feel lame (time line issues, rape turned consent) and feel alarmingly close to the kind of language that rapists and rape apologists use (I could tell she really wanted it, silence is consent.) I am baffled by the choice of the writers to make the change, and baffled at the execution. And then I thought, ‘what is the right way to do this?’ And as usual, I found my answer right where I expected.
In this scene, we watch a date rape occur when Joan’s fiancé visits her at work. The scene is important because we all learn just the exact kind of terrible person Greg is, but also because we see Joan’s inner struggle. Her whole arc is about coping with the loss of what she thought she wanted, and her life with Greg is the biggest piece of that debunked puzzle. The scene is violent without being big or obvious, it’s gut wrenching without having to hear her scream. We watch her try to flirt her way out of the situation, we watch her become frightened, and then we watch her escape the situation as a survival technique. It’s disturbing, but it feels very very real. The way the scene is shot allows us access to both characters, but most importantly to Joan, and we see each moment and her emotional response very clearly.
Rape can of course be incredibly violent and brutal. It can also be quieter, and more confusing, because most sexual assailants are known to the victim. The scene between Jamie and Cersei felt heavy handed and wrong because those characters wouldn’t have that interaction. It doesn’t feel true to who they are. And we are missing both their faces, we can’t get at their motivations. And if Cersei does stop fighting and either get into it or escape the reality of the moment, we cannot see that the way we can in Joan’s scene. the GoT scene feels oddly flashy, and mostly as though it were meant to be somehow more entertaining (which, as folks have pointed out, is not dissimilar to the rape scene is Season 1 between Daenerys and Khal Drogo.) I think that actions have to feel authentic, and should also tell you something about the character. What this tells us about the sibling lovers is yet to be seen, but it will have different implications than the original scene and storyline. Which also begs the question: should rape be used as a way to develop a character? As an interesting plot twist? And do we now continue to root for Jamie and his redemption, and just over look the fact that he is also a rapist because maybe Cersei is a raging sociopathic bitch who wants her brother/lover to kill her other brother just because she hates him and thinks he poisoned her first born son/nephew?
In conclusion: rape is never ok, even between sibling lovers or engaged persons. There is absolutely a way to write and film a scene about a reluctant sexual encounter, one that includes both protestations and then explicit consent. That is a real thing that happens to folks every day. But it didn’t happen in Westeros this week. And in the future, they should look to their retro TV drama peers to see what nuanced writing looks like, because Christina Hendricks journey in that office is flawless and complex, and I neither pity her nor hate him (although I grow to hate him later.) Complicated subjects deserve careful, thoughtful writing. I hope in the future GoT will think a little harder about the changes it’s making, and about how the changes will play out both in the fictional world and in the mind of it’s audience. Stories like these, pop culture and literature etc, are important because we all learn from them. Game of Thrones is cool, in my opinion, because it gives us a broad range of female characters to interact with, root for and despise. They aren’t all just victims or wives, they are strong and vulnerable in different ways, and I appreciate that. But if they don’t stay true to the characters they’ve drawn, these kinds of missteps send the wrong messages about the characters, and about rape and sex and love and all the messy things going on in that scene. They should remember to tread lightly, because like it or not the stories send a message, and folks are invested in the world of Westeros and all it’s power struggles. This scene sends weird messages about rape and rape culture, and it soured the whole episode for me and many others who were thrown. It’s ok to go there. You just gotta get there carefully and authentically.