As an unambitious blob of hindered erudition, I really like television. A lot. Even the crap stuff. Mediocre drama fills in the hours that separate disappointment from death, and a good character arc can stand in well for my own tedious life’s progress. I was much more invested in Don and Betty Draper’s divorce than my own simultaneously unfolding separation, and I still feel real grief for all the pig brain stems claimed by zombie influenza in The Walking Dead.
I adore and watch far too much television drama; I even write about it for a living. I am culturally and professionally dependent on the form. Yet, somehow, I hold the opinion and retain the emotional view that television isn’t actually, you know, real.
And this pretty much isolates me from anyone writing about Game of Thrones this week. Spoiler alert/trigger warning: I am about to disclose (a) a key incident of brutal sexual assault from season four, episode three; and (b) the judgement that many contemporary critics are a bunch of stupid stupids who have lost the fucking plot.
The internet is screaming about the morality of a crime committed in a fictional kingdom
peopled by demons made of ice, paederasts and dragons. Or, to be specific, the internet is screaming less about the depiction of a crime per se than about the director’s comments that followed its broadcast.
If you are unfamiliar with Game of Thrones, that’s probably the way it’s going to stay. Anyone who likes a bit of softcore sorcery has been long since alerted to this bloodthirsty incest via the World of Warcraft chat box; those of us with a taste for less feudal power-porn will continue to watch House of Cards. What you need to know if you have not seen GoT is that it is a very violent soap opera that was again very violent. The only problem with this moment of violence, it seems, is that the show’s director declared he didn’t intend a particular scene to be violent.
Before I describe the scene, it is unfortunately true that you need the bloody context of this tits-and-broadsword drama.
Murder abounds in a show that once appeased its worldwide fanbase with a game of musical heads. When screenwriters aren’t dreaming up fun new ways with mix’n’match decapitation, they are waterboarding noblemen with molten gold. Onscreen deaths now exceed 5000, and there have been moments of sexual abuse that include rape by the child-king Joffrey and rape of the child-bride Daenerys. That the narrative led the young queen to fall in love with her rapist following her abuse in season one, episode one seemed to pose no problem for the drama’s many avowedly feminist fans who did not utter broad disapproval until this week.
If GoT had not offered up three previous seasons of dismemberment and sexual torture, then the rape of a sister by her brother next to the corpse of the child begat by their unwholesome, albeit previously consensual, union might be something worth protesting. The act is as unprecedented, however, as Walter White lying to Skyler or Carrie Bradshaw buying a new pair of Louboutins. The chief problem viewers have with the violent rape scene is not that it is a violent rape scene but that the director of the episode thinks it is not a violent rape scene.
In an interview with entertainment site HitFox, Alex Graves said of the scene that “it becomes consensual by the end”. And it is this statement, not the act of rape itself, that has half of the internet mistaking an interview on a minor geek site for an ethical dilemma written by Peter Singer.
Let it be plainly said: rape is a horrid crime, and part of its horror inheres in the tragic truth that many fail to recognise it. But in this fantasy ultra-patriarchal universe, brutal and ambiguously rapey family sex seems to the chief reason for the show’s popularity. It’s not the thin plots and thick blood alone that has turned GoT into history’s most pirated series. It’s all the transgressive, violent sex.
I am not saying that the rape scene wasn’t rape. Like any sex scene I have ever been able to stomach on GoT, it looks exactly like a brutal crime. But, you know. You don’t get to ask a show that debuts with a rape, depicts an adolescent monarch torturing prostitutes to death and gives you regular interludes of hot incest for a sexual consent form. Especially if you’ve been masturbating to it non-stop for three years.
Nor do you get to transpose the mores of an alternate reality peopled by ice-dragons or whatever the fuck they are on our own time and place. It is bonkers to charge, as many have, Game of Thrones with “enabling the rape culture” simply because its director learned everything he knew about depicting fantasy sex-scenes from the depiction of fantasy sex-scenes. It is lunacy to expect any kind of resonance, save for the ghost of a boner, from an evanescent text that has all the durability of the gossamer bodices we see so routinely ripped within it.
Which is to say, this work is as ultimately meaningless as it is obviously fabulist. Anyone who confuses GoT for an ethical handbook is already fucked, and the type of near-fictional lunatic who would actually be “inspired” to rape or even change their views about rape by it is every bit as rare as all those imaginary kiddies we worried would be impelled to kill by Grand Theft Auto, or all those impressionable colonial souls Alfred Deakin worried would be turned into fiends by the vice of French novels.
The argument that cultural goods reflect and do not reproduce violence aside: FFS. The internet is currently arguing about the “ethics” of a sexual act that took place in an imaginary sex-verse full of paedophile frost-demons. Ours is an age far less interested in actual brutal injustice than it is in the items it imagines to be their cause. The photographs of Bill Henson or the muttering of Alan Jones or the unpleasant tweets of nobodies are all seen not only as unambiguous evidence of violence but as its starting point. The new reflex to “call out” and “shout back” at anything we decide is unseemly is the most reprehensible stupidity.
Sexual violence has a genealogy far more complex and sinister than Game of Thrones, and blaming yet another wilfully ambiguous moment of fictional rape for its maintenance is like blaming racism on Andrew Bolt. Which is to say: it gives a lot of credit to something pretty innocuous and dumb.
Honestly, GoT is not as bad as Bolt, but nor is it actually good enough to test the monthly download limit of anyone who never seriously thrown a pair of Dungeons and Dragons dice.
No diss to my mediaeval homeslice, here. It’s just a fact that some of us failed to evolve the fantasy gene. But these days it seems that many of us have failed to maintain an understanding that television is not now, nor has it ever been, a useful way to educate or indoctrinate the masses. The most dangerous thing about television continues to be its power of mass delusion masquerading as mass enlightenment. And the most dangerous thing about GoT is that it is not even half as good as Sex and the City ever was.