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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Has the ‘Game of Thrones’ Franchise Learned Anything About Portraying Rape?

The showrunner of upcoming prequel series House of the Dragons confirms it will continue to depict sexual violence, despite criticisms of the original.

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Screenshot: The Hollywood Reporter/Instagram

For whatever reason, Game of Thrones, an epic fantasy series that (allegedly) ran from 2011 to 2019, is returning with a spin-off prequel series called House of the Dragon, set to begin streaming on HBO next month. This series will follow the dramatic and presumably very violent years of the incestuous, madness-prone, dragon-taming Targaryen dynasty—the ancestors of the original show’s Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow.

Because it seems old habits die hard, in a new interview with The Hollywood Reporter, writer and showrunner Miguel Sapochnik confirmed that like Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon will also feature (probably quite a bit of) sexual violence. Per the interview:

“Sexual assault is still very much part of the world. Sapochnik says the duo’s approach is done ‘carefully, thoughtfully and [we] don’t shy away from it. If anything, we’re going to shine a light on that aspect. You can’t ignore the violence that was perpetrated on women by men in that time. It shouldn’t be downplayed and it shouldn’t be glorified.’”

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House of the Dragon has yet to premiere, meaning we have only these comments and the storied history of gender-based violence-related controversies attached to Game of Thrones. But Bridget Todd, a spokesperson for the women’s rights organization Ultraviolet, has concerns. “I really invite the writers to ask themselves why they feel sexual violence is necessary to ‘accurately’ depict that specific time and ‘history,’ but not other things, in a clearly fictionalized universe,” Todd told Jezebel. To Todd’s point, Sapochnik notably said House of the Dragon will “pull back” on the famed sex scenes from its predecessor, while continuing its depictions of sexual violence—despite many criticisms of Game of Thrones for rare-to-nonexistent portrayals of female pleasure and male nudity, in contrast with frequent sexual assaults and notoriously rampant female nudity.

Todd added, “Prestige shows like GoT have always really relied on sexual violence to move a plot along, in ways that have desensitized viewers to the actual gravity and seriousness of sexual violence.” This, she says, is particularly frustrating, because given how mainstream epic fantasy is often catered to male audiences—a problem in itself—it’s a “missed opportunity” to educate said male audiences about the gravity and devastating toll of sexual violence.

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I hope that Sapochnik is right and that scenes depicting sexual violence in House of the Dragon are, indeed, done “carefully” and “thoughtfully.” In the years since Game of Thrones’ original run, a number of movies and shows have addressed gender-based violence in their storytelling in meaningful, resonant ways, and importantly, they’ve done so without re-traumatizing audiences or reducing rape to shock-factor porn.

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The same year Game of Thrones concluded, the adult cartoon Tuca & Bertie received critical acclaim for exploring the trauma that follows sexual assault in a Season 1 episode, without portraying a scene of the assault in question. The show’s creator noted this was specifically done so that audiences couldn’t “judge whether or not Bertie [the victim] overreacted.” HBO’s I May Destroy You and the 2020 movie Promising Young Woman revolve around the aftermath of sexual violence, also without visually depicting it, instead centering the long-term impacts of violence. All of these projects were written and created by women.

Todd emphasizes that there are absolutely ways that sexual violence in storytelling can do justice by characters—and audience members—who are survivors, and we’re starting to see more of that. Nonetheless, do notably male screenwriters always have to make sexual violence central to female characters’ stories? Do female characters always have to be defined by what men do to them, forever positioned as objects rather than subjects? In Game of Thrones’ final season, the show’s writers faced backlash for a line from Sansa Stark in which she credits her Season 5 rape and years of violence and abuse with her growth: “Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would’ve stayed a little bird all my life.” The exchange seemed to validate rape and abuse as the only plot devices that make female characters “interesting” or strong, and reductively, lazily write off the trauma of sexual violence as “character development”—as something to be grateful for.

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Of course, this one, aforementioned line from Sansa was the tip of the iceberg. For years, Game of Thrones casually relied on extreme, grotesque violence against women and girls: Daenerys’ marital rape on her wedding night in the pilot episode; Cersei Lannister’s naked walk of shame; Gilly’s life in Craster’s Keep; Shireen Baratheon—a little girl—being burnt alive; the routine beatings inflicted on Sansa by Joffrey, before ultimately being raped on her wedding night by Ramsay Bolton; the beheading of Missandei, the sole woman of color on the series, as a means to drive Daenerys to madness and move her story forward. And then, of course, there are all the other examples of peripheral, even nameless, female characters being tormented and assaulted by powerful men in truly horrifying ways, all very transparently for shock factor and titillation.

“The folks watching and the community that’s built around it deserve better than the previous, really lazy depictions of something as serious as sexual violence—especially when statistically speaking, much of the viewership will be survivors of sexual violence,” Todd said. “Viewers deserve better, and we’ll be watching out for that in this new show.”

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In any case, I take particular issue with Sapochnik’s comment that “can’t ignore the violence that was perpetrated on women by men in that time”—“in that time”?? He says this as if A) Game of Thrones is set in the real world, and not a fictional television show with dragons, and B) sexual violence is some relic of the past that we, privileged modern women and survivors need condescendingly explained to us. I think we’re all very much aware—some of us very personally—that it exists, and has always existed, thank you very much.

What gives me added pause is that Sapochnik was esssentially repeating the same lines that former Game of Thrones writer and author George R.R. Martin have been parroting out for years. Following backlash against Sansa’s rape in 2015, writer Jeremy Podeswa said: “It is important that [the producers] not self-censor. The show depicts a brutal world where horrible things happen. They did not want to be too overly influenced by [criticism].” That same year, Martin mansplained:

“The books reflect a patriarchal society based on the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were not a time of sexual egalitarianism. Most stories depict what I call the ‘Disneyland Middle Ages’ — there are princes and princesses and knights in shining armor, but they didn’t want to show what those societies meant and how they functioned . . . And then there’s the whole issue of sexual violence . . . I’m writing about war, which [is] what almost all epic fantasy is about.”

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That Sapochnik is so committed to recycling the same condescending talking points from Podeswa and Martin gives me serious doubts about whether House of the Dragon’s depictions of sexual violence will also be the same as Game of Thrones’. It’s been more than a decade since the original show premiered; I and other feminists and women in media have been making the same demands of the franchise for years. Ultimately, we’ll have to wait for the show’s premiere to see, but based on these comments and Game of Thrones’ long, upsetting history, I’m already exhausted and nervous for what House of the Dragon has in store.