OVER MY DEAD BODY: Sexual Violence in HBO's Game of Thrones

*Spoilers for the most recent series of HBO’s Game of Thrones in this article.Ye be warned*

For a show that exposes within its roughly 56 minute segments a medieval concoction of incest, prostitution, murder, torture, beheadings, zombies, slavery, and sacrifice, people sure do love it, and people sure do get worked over a bit of rape.

And I sure find it very hard to write “bit” in jest. Because there is nothing at all light about sexual violence, and for it to be displayed in one of the most popular and widely pirated television series of all time has done more than ruffle a few ravens. The episode in question, “Breaker of Chains” aired recently as part of the newest season of HBO’s medieval drama currently showing on Foxtel in Australia, and received a good deal of backlash for its depiction of a previously deplorable – and now fan-favourited – character, Jaime Lannister, raping his twin sister in very close proximity to their dead son. Yes, this show is that insane.

Up until now it has garnered nothing but praise. Recently being renewed for a fifth and sixth season, GoT has received widespread critical acclaim and popular support, boasting one of the largest casts and budgets in television. Set in the fictional medieval land of Westeros, it chronicles the violent dynastic struggles of seven noble families as they fight for control of the Iron Throne, all the while shadowed by looming supernatural threats in the icy north and fiery east.

Game of Thrones has become well known for its merciless displays of violence, sexual intrigue, and the innumerable dark facets of human nature, evoking a realism and moral ambiguity that sets it apart from fantasy stereotypes. In short, there seems to be no line in this gritty series. But recently, viewers stood up and marked one, ripping their ‘Jaime Lannister’ banners through gold-flecked tears.

Let’s just recap for a second on how far this show has gone in the past. In season one, we witnessed incest, the attempted murder of a child, nudity, and beheading. In season two, sadism, the sacrifice of infants. In season three, castration, torture, mass slaughter and the sowing of a wolf’s head onto a human body. And yet for some reason, none of these portrayals have triggered a peep of outrage when compared to the uproar that followed one recent scene.

There is a surprisingly simple reason for this. In our society, we are fortunate enough that beheadings, incest, torture, and slavery are virtually unheard of. They strike a chord with very few viewers, providing only bloody colour for a world of entirely foreign substance, a world that doesn’t even exist. They blend into the fantasy. They become, in this context, forgivable.

Rape does not. And that is because it remains for us – more so than ever due to its exposure – a social concern that has ongoing implications. Sexual violence remains prevalent, and the psychological scars it inflicts on victims run deep and are everlasting. That is why the blasé handling of rape on the show has sparked so much uproar, and with good reason. Personally this widespread reaction, unique thus far to the series, has triggered in me very conflicting concerns.

The first is  that Game of Thrones now has an extremely far-reaching influence, and that this arguably affords it a degree of responsibility. It is unable to continue to stretch the line when it is a cultural phenomenon that can at any point be seen to be championing or over-exposing issues that are of huge social sensitivity. It cannot be careless with its portrayal of crimes that are still abhorrently prevalent in our society.

My second contrasting concern is that viewers are being selective about the deplorable facets of the human condition they condemn. As mentioned repeatedly, Game of Thrones far from holds back in depicting shocking events. Let’s come away from Westeros for a second. As a politics student, I have Thomas Hobbes’ famous quote claiming life is “nasty, brutish, and short” tattooed on my eyelids. Humans do evil things. The reality of ‘medieval’ times was that these things often went un-policed, and Game of Thrones is famed for addressing this with ruthless accuracy.

It is perhaps irrational to expect that in a fictional universe where incest, murder, torture etc is a daily reality, sexual crimes are not. “I know rape happens, but they shouldn’t show it.” But can you really expect a show famed for its realism to suddenly omit its portrayal of one aspect of human evil? This would arguably cripple the power of its storytelling.

I will never defend sexual violence. It cannot be excused. But I do believe that fantasy is fantasy, and that storytelling should cause discomfort. Art exists to turn a mirror on us all, exposing human darkness.

Regardless, viewers have drawn a line. In reality, when a show’s influence pushes ever expanding edges, walls must be raised to keep out sensitive subject matter – the ‘White Walkers’ of our world. Though shiny and rogue in the early days of a far smaller viewership, with fame comes accountability.

And for a cultural phenomenon with such tremendous influence, viewers clearly demand it.