Warning: This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful, and Hannibal.
This year marked something of a tipping point for Game of Thrones. Ratings suggest HBO viewers were happy with the show’s high body count and full-frontal nudity, but its casual attitude to sexual violence has become increasingly controversial. All those jokes about sexposition and beheadings were finally beginning to turn sour.
Four seasons in, most of the surviving women in Game of Thrones have been raped (Cersei, Gilly, a great many minor background characters), constantly live with the threat of rape (Arya, Sansa, Brienne), or are sex workers.
Intentionally or not, GoT has created an insidious kind of rape culture for its female characters to inhabit. And while it’s weirdly exciting to worry about whether Tyrion or Jon Snow will survive to the end of the episode, the fear that Sansa or Arya could be raped is a different matter entirely. After all, no one watching Game of Thrones has ever had their head chopped off or been forced to fight a horde of ice zombies. Sexual violence, on the other hand, is all too real.
The typical explanation for Game of Thrones‘s sexual content is that the show is a realistic depiction of a world inspired by medieval Europe, when life was cheap and rape was supposedly everywhere. As many critics have wryly pointed out, dragons may be acceptable, but a rape-free environment was apparently deemed too unrealistic.
The high rate of sexual violence in GoT can partly be attributed to the original novels, but the way women’s bodies are filmed throughout the series is another issue altogether.
Game of Thrones includes a great deal of narratively unnecessary female nudity and sex scenes, to the extent that viewers started complaining that the gender divide between women (who are naked in practically every episode) and men (no dongs allowed, huh?) was growing too obvious to ignore. CollegeHumor even made a parody video where female fans asked for more men to get naked onscreen, and actor Kit Harington eventually commented in an interview that he was in favor of more male nudity—so long as it wasn’t him.
There’s nothing intrinsically terrible about including a ton of gratuitous sex scenes, just as long as you admit why those scenes were filmed. If GoT is just a sexy cable entertainment show, sure, why not show a few boobs to liven up an otherwise boring exposition scene?
Except this poses the question of which genre Game of Thrones is meant to be. Is it a medieval grindhouse series that purposefully capitalizes on people’s desire to see hot girls get naked amid all the assassinations and political intrigue? Or is it a sweeping fantasy epic that delves deep into the horror of the human spirit? The latter ostensibly has an excuse to include sexual violence on a regular basis; the former does not. Not unless Game of Thrones is trying to say rape is entertainment.
Obviously it’s not impossible to combine populist entertainment with smart writing and worldbuilding. However, it’s difficult to defend a show that’s touted as gritty and realistic but hired at least six porn stars to play prostitutes—a role that usually consists of standing around in front of the camera, being naked and available while other characters talk.
This idea of GoT as a gritty historical drama is further undermined by stories like actress Natalia Tena being told she wasn’t allowed to have pubic hair for a nude scene (despite playing a wilding who lives in the forest and doesn’t appear to wash or own a hairbrush), or director Neil Marshall reportedly being ordered to include more full-frontal nudity in the Blackwater battle episode. The underlying message here is that women’s naked bodies are there for decoration and titillation.
Criticisms of GoT’s dubious gender politics are often interpreted as either a puritanical desire for censorship or killjoy feminism. But there is at least one other cable show that provides the same kind of adult entertainment without resorting to the blatant objectification of women.
In a similar vein to Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful is a big-budget series that airs on a subscription cable channel, where it has free rein to include adult content. It also falls into the same broad category: a historical fantasy show populated by famous and critically acclaimed actors, most of whom are British.
Penny Dreadful is a Victorian melodrama pastiche, with all the ominous monologuing, over-the-top gothic seances and murky London cityscapes you might expect. The writing and acting are excellent, but you’d hardly accuse Penny Dreadful of being forbiddingly highbrow. This is a show where Frankenstein’s monster works backstage at the Grand Guignol theatre, Dorian Gray has blood spat on him by a consumptive prostitute during sex, and Eva Green regularly gets possessed by demons while hunting down a character from Dracula.
Like GoT, Penny Dreadful is framed as a high-quality fantasy series aimed at adult audiences. But unlike GoT, it doesn’t use its adult rating to promote completely gratuitous female nudity and sexual violence.
Because the majority of characters in Penny Dreadful are male, the first few episodes see far more full-frontal casual male nudity. Female sexuality isn’t portrayed as entertainment for the viewer, but as something individual to the characters and their surroundings. Even the way the sex scenes are filmed differs greatly from GoT, which has always relied on textbook examples of “male gaze” camerawork when filming female bodies. The impression one gets is that when women take off their clothes in Game of Thrones, it’s so that we can look at them, whereas people in Penny Dreadful only get naked when the situation demands it.
When GoT viewers reacted negatively toward the Cersei/Jaime rape scene this season, the episode’s writer and director presented conflicting accounts of what the scene was intended to mean. Against all evidence to the contrary, the director claimed that the sex “became consensual,” whereas the writer described the scene as “horrifying.” This came across as a depressing sign of how little the GoT showrunners must have discussed the impact of sexual violence on their show, not to mention why they included this rape scene in the first place.
As the season wore on, the Cersei/Jaime situation annoyed fans even further, partly because there was no real emotional payoff from either character and partly because it didn’t happen that way in the book. A rape scene had been written into the show for no apparent reason, with the only explanation being that Westeros is a dangerous place and that Cersei and Jaime’s relationship was pretty fucked up already.
A Song of Ice and Fire is full to the brim with so-called adult material. A sanitized adaptation would be ridiculous. But just because HBO gives adult-rated dramas the freedom to do basically whatever they want, that doesn’t mean the immediate response should be to launch headfirst into filming as many naked prostitutes as humanly possible.
What we’re seeing here is misunderstanding of how to use that adult cable rating to a show’s advantage. If you want to make a fun show with tons of gory battle sequences and gratuitous sex scenes, that’s cool. But it’s disingenuous to suggest that you can label it as a serious, gritty drama without acknowledging its cavalier attitude toward sexual assault.
Over on NBC, Hannibal has spent the past two years proving that you don’t need a subscription cable network to create a truly adult show. Hannibal Lecter still eats human flesh on a regular basis, but NBC simply can’t show the same kind of material as HBO. This has forced the filmmakers to be smarter about symbolism and subtext rather than relying on pure gore, which in the long run has counted in the show’s favor. Like a bonsai tree, trimming Hannibal down to its core has caused it to flourish.
Game of Thrones is reaching a turning point in the way it decides to treat its female characters. Rape scenes and female nudity were two of the most-discussed topics during season 4, and a repeat of the Jaime/Cersei situation would likely cause a lot of viewers to switch off.
Either the showrunners should give up and admit that Game of Thrones is purposefully aiming for grindhouse-style sexploitation, or they need to think seriously about that “adult” rating and start talking about sexual violence like actual grown-ups.
Photo via Game of Thrones Wiki