SPOILER ALERT: Jaime Lannister rapes his sister-lover Cersei in the third episode of Game of Thrones’ fourth season. The social hurricane that raged afterwards was justifiable in and of itself (after all, why should anyone be tormented, physically or sexually?). Sadly, though, it is inexcusably arbitrary. With all the torture, mutilation, grievous bodily harm and wanton sadism that goes on in this show, why does a rape scene arouse the only substantial condemnation after nearly three and a half seasons? It is an unbalanced and superbly in-a-vacuum criticism.
For example, in a Guardian piece Danielle Henderson wrote that “[h]aving two back-to-back episodes which depict rape creates an environment of distrust.” She nonetheless neglects to mention the show’s continual back-to-back, season-to-season smorgasbord of dismemberment, mutilation, death and other sadisms to draw viewers. Though her critique dovetails with the fact that the Cersei rape did not appear in the books, the clear argument she makes is that the rape appeared for unacceptable shock value. Apparently character arcs and storylines are not served by “gratuitous” rape, so I take it that Danielle’s silence on gratuitous non-sexual violence means that immolation, having your limbs pulled off, being stabbed through the eye and other goodies are okay?
Cersei’s rape may not have appeared in the books, but nor did so many other gruesome or morally repulsive scenes. Many of these “shock and awe” changes also involve Jaime Lannister, ironically. Where in the books did Jaime Lannister casually impale Jory Cassel’s head? Or bludgeon his own cousin to death to attempt escape from the North’s military camp? There needs to be a more well-rounded discussion about why these changes fail to rile us, but Cersei’s rape does.
If we take a normal definition of sexual consent, the gay prostitute Olyver was also raped two episodes before Cersei was. He had declined to partake in the bisexual orgy of Prince Oberyn, at which point the Dornish royal reminded him of his power and forcefully demanded he take off his clothes. Rape does not need to be by physical coercion and categorically includes the kind of verbal threat Oberyn made. What social media anger transpired when this first part of a male-on-male rape occurred? Where was Danielle Henderson to write a big spiel about it, beat her chest and decry the big crime he had endured?
The negative commentary surrounding the Cersei rape reflects a sad decline in the acknowledgment of all forms of suffering and violence. Nowadays the rigid category determines the sympathy or outrage we feel, not the actual level of victimisation or pain of the victims. Did the moral crusaders come out of the woodwork when the Thenns butchered a young boy’s parents, and his neighbours, in front of him? No, they did not. Or how about when an innocent girl was ritualistically hunted down and turned into dog food as Ramsay Snow and his female bed-warmer smiled? Or when Theon Greyjoy was genitally mutilated last season?
Membership of a particular crime demographic should not be the benchmark for how we react. You may be female and have been subjected to the horrors of rape, but should you receive more sympathy and rally more people to your plight than the man burned at the stake (Stannis Baratheon’s brother-in-law), the prisoner of war who has his hand amputated (Jaime Lannister) or the blameless girl with a slit throat (Walder Frey’s child bride)?
Tell me also, did Ned Stark feel relieved – or die any less – when Ilyn Payne swung the sword that ended his honourable existence? Did he say to himself in his Yorkshire accent, “Oh well, this is shit, ain’t it? But it would be even worse if I were raped”? What’s the moral disparity between the injustice of basically murdering Ned and the rape Cersei suffered? And why is rape so taboo in a show where we happily watch people being murdered or disfigured every episode? Stop forming little islands of outrage in a sea of sadistic television behaviour.
Characters also constantly make comments and jokes at the expense of the eunuch Varys, who was sexually abused as a child and his hacked off genitals used for a macabre spell. Did the same people now complaining about the Cersei rape heed a call to arms over the verbal treatment dished out to Varys regarding his trauma? No, they did not, namely because they are hypocrites interested in narrow conceptions of violence. Rape is terrible but it is just one of the many equally repulsive (moral) crimes featured or referenced on Game of Thrones.
If we are interested in eradicating violence and misogyny against women, perhaps it would be better we call out and recognise violence of all kinds, even in entertainment. Considering the shared experiences of both men and women who have been abused (including this male author as a child, might I add), it would have made more sense for them to comment on Varys or Olyver en masse much earlier as well. Discussing sexual or other violence and the jokes that sadly accompany it is not a zero-sum game where only the experiences of women can or should be acknowledged. Neither is a dialogue about violence more generally.
One peculiar aspect of the show’s fan base (or just the Lannister haters) is that many online pundits expressed a desire for Joffrey to die well before he actually did. Yet what’s the jump in sadism between wishing death on Joffrey and someone wishing rape on Cersei? Both these Lannisters showed comparable streaks of villainy prior to their respective sufferings, so ideas of different karmas do not apply here.
It is a quaint anachronism that we permit ourselves to gleefully wait for a character like Joffrey to die or be maimed beyond recognition (such as those who were happy to see Theon’s pecker cut off), but it’s taboo to have the same attitude towards rape. It has been ingrained in our society, true, but it is objectively ridiculous to have mores against showing a rape on-screen when acts just as brutal but non-sexual are inflicted on characters ten to a hundred times every episode. How about some consistency either way?
This is not to say that wishing violence on anyone, real or a character, should be permissible. But for feminists and others upset at the Cersei rape to have any cogency in their argument, they need to explain why the rape of Cersei made her suffer any less than hundreds of others injured or killed in similar or different ways. But no such argument exists.
Let’s be clear: no woman, no matter how morally disgusting, deserves to be raped. Neither do men (or women) deserve to be mutilated, tortured or attacked. But if you’re going to call out a rape scene, for God’s sake call out every other act of brutality splashed across our screens for the pure purpose of shock and sensationalism.