April 29, 2014

WEISMAN | Game of Thrones and Rape Culture

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Although I had no intention of making “A Weisman Once Said” into a television column, once again, something important has happened on TV that I think can have an impact on our campus and our culture. As I have said before, media has an immense power — and I would argue responsibility — to affect change and impact beliefs. The past two episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones truly illustrate the media’s role in rape culture and made me incredibly angry — and thus, here we are.

In the April 20 episode, “Breaker of Chains,” Jaime Lannister forces himself on and rapes his twin sister and former lover, Cersei, while they are standing next to their son’s dead body. While the scene is meant to be disturbing on many levels, according to book series author George R. R. Martin, the scene in the books was consensual. In the novel A Storm of Swords — which I have not read, but I read the scene this comes from — Cersei argues initially, and ultimately consents to the unsettling sexual encounter. In the episode, Jaime physically forces Cersei onto the ground, despite her verbal and physical protests, and rapes her. She never verbally consents as she does in the books, and, in my opinion, she never physically expresses consent either.

What I find most disturbing about this scene is that the director of the episode Alex Graves did not think that the scene was rape. In an interview, he says that it “becomes consensual by the end.” He explains, “The consensual part of it was that she wraps her legs around him, and she’s holding on to the table, clearly not to escape but to get some grounding in what’s going on.” It is extraordinarily troublesome to me that this director believes that holding onto a table implies that she approves of what is happening to her. While the writers’ and producers’ intentions may not have been for Jaime to rape her, the fact that this director — and also actor Nikolaij Coster-Waldau who plays Jaime, according to the interview — think that holding onto a table after verbally protesting implies “saying yes,” means that they do not understand what consent is, or how to express it to a vast, susceptible audience. This is rape culture: This attitude excuses and condones rape.

In this past week’s episode, “Oathkeeper,” since I have not read the books, I expected Jaime to face some repercussions for his actions. Instead, in addition to not facing any consequences whatsoever, Jaime was actually made even more likable in this episode. He appeared as a “good guy” in each of his scenes: He offers to help his brother, he sends Brienne off to find and protect Sansa and he even appears heroic when speaking with Cersei. In his scene with Cersei, she is made to look like the worse person, so that we sympathize with Jaime. I am not suggesting that when someone is raped they automatically become a better person, especially someone as cruel as Cersei, but this scene implies that we should feel bad for the rapist instead of the victim. Again, this is rape culture: A character commits a horrible crime (morally, if not legally in Westeros) and faces no repercussions, which forgives rape and pardons rapists.

Some may argue that this scene and its subsequent consequences — or lack thereof — does not contribute to rape culture, since Game of Thrones takes place in a fictional, medieval-like world. However, one of GOT’s most acclaimed strengths is depicting relatable problems and relationships in a different world. A show that illustrates the human experience, regardless of the world it takes place in, influences how people view our own world and our own experiences. Saying that Jaime’s actions are not relatable to our own culture is not only wrong, but an insult to the show itself.

As long as rape culture is present on influential shows like Game of Thrones, it will be present in our culture, and subsequently, our campus. Several columns last week, including Julius Kairey’s initial column that denies the existence of rape culture, and a few poignant responses in the form of letters to the editor, illustrate that rape culture is certainly present at Cornell. As long as people are writing columns that denies the existence of rape culture, it exists. While a fictional sexual assault in no way equates to the seriousness of real ones — such as the ones Julius Kairey claims happen less frequently than to one in four women — the attitudes displayed in the Game of Thrones’ portrayal of it represent the ones present in our culture, too.

Game of Thrones made a mistake when they accidentally portrayed a rape, and then made the rapist into a sympathetic figure — furthering the existence of rape culture by excusing and denying sexual assault. We should learn from this mistake, and work toward a culture in which rapists are not only punished for their actions, but work for one in which attitudes about rape and consent are based on an educational and healthy sexual environment. The media plays a vital role in informing people about consent and what it means; if GOT fails to adequately portray consent in it’s fictional world, then these harmful attitudes will persist in our real world today.