Sunday night’s episode of Game Of Thrones took an even darker turn than usual: Jaime Lannister, who has transitioned from one of the story’s villains to one of its heroes, takes the opportunity of his son’s death to rape his sister and lover, Cersei—in the Westerosi equivalent of a church, while Joffrey’s corpse is laid out on the slab. It’s hyperbolically awful—a violation of Cersei’s agency, a violation of the sanctity of the grand sept, a violation of the reverence that ought to be provided to a corpse.
Much has been made, and will continue to be made, about George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, a violent, dark, dangerous world, especially for women. And it’s true, Martin’s A Storm Of Swords has that same sex scene, complete with the empty sept and dead boy-king. Except for one crucial difference. Cersei wants to have sex.
Here’s the text:
She kissed him. A light kiss, the merest brush of her lips on his, but he could feel her tremble as he slid his arms around her. “I am not whole without you.”
There was no tenderness in the kiss he returned to her, only hunger. Her mouth opened for his tongue. “No,” she said weakly when his lips moved down her neck, “not here. The septons…”
“The Others can take the septons.” He kissed her again, kissed her silent, kissed her until she moaned. Then he knocked the candles aside and lifted her up onto the Mother’s altar, pushing up her skirts and the silken shift beneath. 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. He undid his breeches and climbed up and pushed her bare white legs apart. One hand slid up her thigh and underneath her smallclothes. When he tore them away, he saw that her moon’s blood was on her, but it made no difference.
“Hurry,” she was whispering now, “quickly, quickly, now, do it now, do me now. Jaime Jaime Jaime.” Her hands helped guide him. “Yes,” Cersei said as he thrust, “my brother, sweet brother, yes, like that, yes, I have you, you’re home now, you’re home now, you’re home.” She kissed his ear and stroked his short bristly hair. Jaime lost himself in her flesh. He could feel Cersei’s heart beating in time with his own, and the wetness of blood and seed where they were joined.
There’s certainly some wiggle-room in terms of what Dan Savage might call “enthusiastic consent”—Cersei raises objections, in the midst of lovemaking. But compare this to the long, brutal scene of Cersei’s rape in Game Of Thrones, where Jaime, clearly motivated by anger, drags Cersei down to the floor and thrusts into her over her repeated objections and even sobs.
There is nothing easy about adapting a series of longwinded books into a show made up of just 10-hour seasons. The showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have taken on a Herculean task and executed it with aplomb (for the most part). And as pedantic as fans of the books (including myself) can be about some of the details, it’s inevitable that the process of adapting and compressing and reworking these stories for television will lead to changes—sometimes major changes.
So the question is not, exactly, “Why change the books?” Because the answer is clear: Many, many details must be changed, just to make the transition from book series to televised series work. The question is, instead: “Why change this?” Why make a scene from the book that depicts consensual sex into one in the show that depicts rape?
It’s not impossible that this rape is a conscious choice that will take these characters in a new direction. Benioff and Weiss might use the fallout of the rape to take these characters on a journey; this could turn out to be the foundation for strong plot development and characterization. It’s not impossible for rape to be part of a storytelling process that humanizes victim and rapist, both.
But this has happened before, in Game Of Thrones—and that time, the rape was largely forgotten just a few episodes later. The other significant rape scene in the series happens in the pilot, when Daenerys Targaryen is sold in marriage by her brother Viserys to Khal Drogo. Much has been made of the fact that Dany falls in love with Drogo, despite that initial rape; less has been said of the fact that Khal Drogo goes out of his way to obtain consent from his child bride in the books. But the actual text from the consummation scene after their wedding reads:
He stopped then, and drew her down onto his lap. Dany was flushed and breathless, her heart fluttering in her chest. He cupped her face in his huge hands and looked into his eyes. “No?” he said, and she knew it was a question.
She took his hand and moved it down to the wetness between her thighs. “Yes,” she whispered as she put his finger inside her.
You might argue that it is impossible for a 14-year-old girl to grant consent to a man nearly 30. I grant you that. But the scene described above is very different from their consummation in the show’s pilot, where Drogo flips Dany over and forces himself inside her. Perhaps there is something lost there in translation. But none of the dialogue quoted above occurs in the show. And in the pilot episode, Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys is crying throughout.
It’s hard to shake the idea that Game Of Thrones, the show, doesn’t see a problem with pushing a scene from complicated, consensual sex to outright rape. It would be easier to accept that idea if it were clear what the show was trying to do with those changes. Rape is a tricky thing to use as character development, for either the victim or the rapist; doing it twice raises a lot of red flags. It assumes that rape between characters doesn’t fundamentally change the rest of their story—and it assumes that the difference between consent and rape is, to use the parlance, a “blurred line.”
Unfortunately, the show is wrong, on both counts. Changing a scene from consensual sex to rape is not just a pedantic issue of accuracy—it’s a problem with story. The Daenerys Targaryen who falls in love with a man who granted her respect when no one else would is different from the Daenerys Targaryen who fell in love with her rapist. It changes that relationship. (Dany falling in love with Drogo, and calling him her “sun and stars,” makes a whole lot more sense now, doesn’t it?)
Similarly, Jaime is a figure of chivalric love in the books—despite his arrogance and ruthlessness, his devotion and sense of duty to Cersei, the only woman he has ever loved, is so fervent as to border on adoration. Admittedly, the show can’t rely on his point-of-view chapters, as the book does, to communicate that love. But given what we have seen Cersei Lannister capable of—her ex-husband is hardly the only man she’s had killed—is it even conceivable that she would stand for it? Jaime raping Cersei is a major anomaly for these two characters—even based purely on what we’ve seen in the show. It’s just not something that either character would do.
Rape is a complicated plot device, but it’s not inherently problematic. And it’s not even that Martin’s books don’t deal with rape—Westeros is a cruel land for women, both in the books and the show. Rape is an omnipresent threat for women, especially during the war, when households are uprooted and the usual systems of justice cease to function. Brienne of Tarth is repeatedly threatened with rape for being a woman in a man’s role; Arya disguises herself as a boy to protect herself.
But Martin’s creation is notable for grappling with issues of female agency and power within a misogynist world. (Alyssa Rosenberg tackled the series of books in 2011; Alison Herman, the elements of the show, in 2013.) By and large, Game Of Thrones has proven itself to be a fascinating story about power and identity—for men and women.
But decisions like the ones made in these two relationships calls the adaptation process into question—which leads to other awkward questions. Why is one of the show’s few original characters a relatively two-dimensional redheaded prostitute who ends up dead? Why does this same episode, “Breaker Of Chains,” include an invented, apparently irrelevant scene where a man confesses to Arya and the Hound that he is protecting his young daughter’s virtue?
There are a few possible answers. One is that Game Of Thrones is trying to tell broad stories about how women are treated in Westeros by using these snapshots; Dany’s rape in the pilot is not canon, but it’s offered as an introduction to the sexual politics of this world. That’s not unreasonable; but, if that is what’s happening, it’s a little misleading. A single character—especially a character who is already an individual with agency, or one who is going to evolve into an individual with agency—doesn’t accurately provide context. It opens up a whole new can of worms, in fact—wherein an individual is expected to stand in for a whole culture. And given that so much of the show is about these characters upending or reinterpreting the rules of their world, it’s hard to follow that a rape scene might say more about the world than it does about its rapist. And even if you could make that case for Khal Drogo—who is a stranger in that first scene with Dany—it’s impossible to make the same claim for Jaime.
It seems more likely that Game Of Thrones is falling into the same trap that so much television does—exploitation for shock value. And, in particular, the exploitation of women’s bodies. This is a show that inspired the term “sexposition,” and a show that may have created a character who is a prostitute so as to set as many scenes as possible in brothels. And though it has done both those things with surprising grace, it’s still making a play for male viewers who want skin. Because unlike Ginia Bellafante, in her infamous pre-air review of the series in The New York Times, I don’t think the sex is there to “patronizingly” draw in female viewers—I think it’s there to reel in the all-important male demographic.
It’s an unfortunate ploy. It might work—Game Of Thrones’ fourth-season premiere was its best-rated yet—but there’s no way Thrones would have reached the cultural primacy it has without the viewership and support of women. After all, both men and women have enthusiastically loved the books. The show does not need to rewrite them to impress anyone.