Ten years after the hit series debuted, television’s reliance on rape culture still feels exploitative.
By Sophie GilbertHBO / Focus / Amazon / Hulu / The AtlanticMay 4, 2021
I don’t have much tolerance these days for scenes involving the casual, ritualistic degradation of women, which is why deciding to rewatch Game of Thrones was such a colossal unforced error. Idiotic! Foolhardy! Own goal! I made it through the first episode, where a sobbing Daenerys Targaryen is raped by Khal Drogo on their wedding night in front of a romantic orange sunset. I got through the part where Daenerys learns to get her rapist to be nicer to her by being more of an engaged participant in her own sexual assault, and the moment where she subsequently falls in love with him and he with her. I watched as Ros is forced to violently beat another woman with a scepter to gratify the sadistic sexual predilections of King Joffrey, and as Brienne is dragged away to be gang-raped by Roose Bolton’s soldiers, until Jaime saves her. I stopped watching shortly before Jaime rapes his sister, Cersei, next to their son’s dead body, and before Sansa is raped by Ramsay Bolton while Theon Greyjoy watches. It occurred to me at some point that this was becoming an ordeal, and I could rewatch New Girl for a third time instead, where the only instance of sexualized violence is a comedic subplot involving Schmidt’s accidentally broken penis.
Game of Thrones, which debuted 10 years ago this spring, has the dubious honor of being the ne plus ultra of rape culture on television. No series before, or since, has so flagrantly served up rape and assault simply for kicks, without a shadow of a nod toward “realism” (because dragons). The genre is fantasy, and the fantasy at hand is a world in which every woman, no matter her power or fortune, is likely to be violated in front of our eyes. Rape is like blood on Game of Thrones, so commonplace that viewers become inured to it, necessitating ever more excess to grab our attention. It’s brutal, graphic, and hollow. It’s also intentional. Daenerys’s wedding night isn’t explicitly written as being nonconsensual in George R. R. Martin’s 1996 novel (despite the fact that the character was 13 at the time), and it wasn’t filmed as such in the first, unreleased Game of Thrones pilot. At some point, the decision was made to introduce viewers to the series’s most significant female character via her humiliating assault—with pornified aesthetics for added titillation—by a man who had purchased her.
When Thrones was on the air, each season brought with it ample discussion of its wearying reliance on rape for dramatic fodder. My colleague Chris Orr did a character-by-character breakdown in 2015 of the exaggerated and invented instances of sexualized violence that the show’s creators, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, introduced in adapting the show; in response to widespread criticism, Weiss and Benioff eventually toned down depictions of rape and assault and sacrificed neither viewership nor Holy shit watercooler moments in the process, proving the show never needed them in the first place.
Read: Why does ‘Game of Thrones’ feature so much sexual violence?
A show treating sexual violence as casually now as Thrones did then is nearly unimaginable. And yet rape, on television, is as common as ever, sewn into crusading feminist tales and gritty crime series and quirky teenage dramedies and schlocky horror anthologies. It’s the trope that won’t quit, the Klaxon for supposed narrative fearlessness, the device that humanizes “difficult” women and adds supposed texture to vulnerable ones. Many creators who draw on sexual assault claim that they’re doing so because it’s so commonplace in culture and always has been. “An artist has an obligation to tell the truth,” Martin once told The New York Times about why sexual violence is such a persistent theme in his work. “My novels are epic fantasy, but they are inspired by and grounded in history. Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought.” So have gangrene and post-traumatic stress disorder and male sexual assault, and yet none of those feature as pathologically in his “historical” narratives as the brutal rape of women.
Some progress is visible. Many writers, mostly men, continue to rely on rape as a nuclear option for female characters, a tool with which to impassion viewers, precipitate drama, and stir up controversy. Others, mostly women, treat sexual assault and the culture surrounding it as their subject, the nucleus around which characters revolve and from which plotlines extend. Rape as a trope, a joke—I could never encounter these devices again and sleep better for it. But in the hands of artists who want to deconstruct the idea of the rape plot altogether, we see a version of storytelling that serves us, and survivors, something more transformative.
Still more common, though, is the series that mistakes graphically portraying rape for having something insightful to say about it. At one point in the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale, June (played by Elisabeth Moss) recounts in detail some of the assaults inflicted on her as a handmaid in Gilead, a merciless Christian theocracy in the show’s alternate version of America. Her list is long, and yet not as long as the one I made while thinking about the show’s historical treatment of assault. Over three previous seasons, viewers have watched June be raped by Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes); have nonconsensual sex with Nick (Max Minghella), followed by consensual sex when she later falls in love with him (there’s that trope again); be raped by Waterford while nine months pregnant; be raped by Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) when Waterford orders it; and murder Commander Winslow (Christopher Meloni) after he attempts to rape her. We’ve also seen female characters suffer genital mutilation, have their eyes taken out, be beaten with straps, and have fingers removed. The current season presents a 14-year-old who’s already been raped by multiple men, the prolonged torture of June after she’s recaptured (yet again) by Gilead, and a different handmaid who develops romantic feelings for a man who’s assaulted her.
I’ll remind you that Hulu markets this show as a feminist fable. A trailer for the latest season that was released last year features a character saying “Blessed be the squad,” as if to borrow some of AOC’s radical chic. The show’s 2017 debut mere months into the Trump-Pence administration aligned it with ideas of a female-led resistance against patriarchal overreach. I loved the first season, the cool painterliness of the show’s aesthetic and the thought experiment it offered about American puritanism, unleashed and institutionalized. But the longer the show went on—fueled, paradoxically, by the critical success of that first season—the more it became simply a series about the abuse of women. Nothing more, nothing less.
Read: The growing paradox of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
The second season made clear that its only objective was to keep people watching. The violence the show inflicts upon its characters delivers no overarching message, no moment of transcendence. In Gilead, sexual violence is a categorical imperative, and June and her allies are beaten and raped and tortured until they escape; when they’re inevitably recaptured they are beaten and raped and tortured again. Unlike Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, on which the series is based and in which June’s “ceremony” with the Commander is described in clinical, disassociated language, the sexual violence of the show is cruel and up-close. Your tolerance for it depends on you. In one scene in the new season, June is waterboarded while Aunt Lydia uneasily does needlepoint in the hallway outside, and it occurred to me that viewers are essentially adopting Lydia’s role, spectators tacitly encouraging the characters’ prolonged abuse, uncomfortable but silent. Meanwhile the show’s writers, not content with tormenting June, are increasingly portraying her as a problematic antihero, encouraging viewers to condemn her for being emotionally and psychologically undone for everything they’ve put her through.
In 2018, I wrote that The Handmaid’s Tale had crossed the line into exploitation for its repeated victimization of its characters. In the fourth season, Moira (Samira Wiley) expresses a wish to “take all the shit from Gilead and turn it into something useful,” an unintentionally apt summary of the show’s primary failure. Usefulness is also lacking in the most vile scene in Amazon’s recent horror series Them, a 1950s-set drama in which racism and supernatural forces terrorize a Black family. In the fifth episode, a flashback details the violent gang rape of the show’s female protagonist, Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), as her baby is murdered in front of her in a monstrous kind of game. The episode was written by two men: the show’s creator, Little Marvin, and the playwright Dominic Orlando. It feels peculiarly grotesque to me that both so viscerally imagine and stage a scene that neither of them could ever experience—the twofold torture of a woman whose own rape becomes almost incidental to her compared with the loss of her child. It does nothing but appall, its evil too unsubtle to nurture anything but shock.
My colleague Hannah Giorgis, writing about Them, stated that “the sheer intensity and meaninglessness of the cruelty on display lends credence to arguments that Little Marvin didn’t anticipate how the show might affect Black audiences, many of whom view it as a bloodied funhouse mirror of an already-horrifying reality.” The argument that Marvin and The Handmaid’s Tale showrunner, Bruce Miller, have made in defense of their work is that they’re simply portraying what racist sexual violence and instutionalized sexual violence can and have looked like. But this thesis assumes we don’t already know what this looks like, and ignores the fact that both men are simultaneously turning their subjects into entertainment, and profit. For all the criticism it garnered over the years, Game of Thrones was a ratings juggernaut, and many creators since have assumed that its willingness to dole out gratuitous sex and violence was the reason. But the era of peak TV has also mandated excess for new shows trying to break through: In a frantically crowded TV marketplace, the more shocking you can be, the more people pay attention.
The time has long since come, I think, to stop watching any show that treats sexual assault cheaply or as any kind of temporary narrative hot potato to be picked up and rapidly discarded. Rape shouldn’t be a motivating force for a male character (The Sopranos, True Detective), a humbling or instigating force for an unlikable character (House of Cards, Bates Motel, Private Practice, The Americans), or a casual expression of tastelessness (pick any season of American Horror Story). Writers should stop imagining female characters falling in love with rapists, a trope that began with Laura and Luke on General Hospital and has persisted ever since, on The Handmaid’s Tale, The Fall, and Orange Is the New Black, justifying assault as a twisted kind of courtship. Writers who don’t identify as women or who have no first- or secondhand experience with sexual assault should consider carefully why they want to add it to a show, and should have to defend their impulses in doing so. The strange value of Game of Thrones is that it highlighted how tediously prestige television has come to rely on rape, both as titillation and as a catchall traumatic event that even the most lauded shows overuse to enable male heroism and character development.
That doesn’t mean rape has to become a taboo subject. Critics have been divided over Promising Young Woman, which won an Oscar last week for Best Original Screenplay, but the movie by Emerald Fennell breaks all kinds of traditions in using assault as a subject—it never shows violation on camera, it suggests that rapists are less-commonly evil serial abusers than banal office-types in button-downs, and it offers no redemptive arc for anyone. The movie begins and ends in a world mired in rape culture. HBO’s I May Destroy You, which aired last year, was less a drama about rape than a way for an artist, Michaela Coel, to write her way through it; the show explored the limits of consent and the in-between instances of assault that aren’t usually clarified by television. Watching HBO up to its premiere, you could have been forgiven for understanding rape as simply the violent sexual abuse of a woman. I May Destroy You, more gratifyingly, reframed it as a series of realistic violations—the stealthy removal of a condom during sex, a con played to trick a woman into a threesome, a consensual encounter between two men that becomes assault when the word no is ignored.
Above all, the question that writers should ask themselves, and that viewers should weigh, is why a rape is appearing onscreen or onstage in a work of art. When it is, it should be written, or at the very least talked through, with women or those with lived experience on the subject, who have enough power to challenge it. It should do more than simply exploit a real-life scourge for dramatic reasons. It should be able to make the staggering number of people who’ve survived sexual violence feel something more than pain when they watch.