Do we really need sex, rape and gore in Game of Thrones?

Westeros is a cruel world, it's true, but there still is enough hope and heroism in its denizens for a viewer to stay with it.

 |  4-minute read |   12-06-2015
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Game of Thrones has become synonymous, some might say, with two things: sex and violence. There's no end to the articles, editorials, and forum discussions on these aspects of the show. A non-viewer might well be forgiven that really, that's all the show is about. The whole fantasy kingdom/dragons and sundry other supernatural monsters angle is just a tradeable backdrop to characters getting undressed or killing each other in increasingly creative ways.

I know there are people who watch the show for the violence. "I like the gore," one of my friends has said on multiple occasions. I wouldn't call him a bloodthirsty person, so the assertion might come as a bit of a surprise. It did however get me thinking on what, if anything, the violence of Westeros might contribute to the show's storyline. Does it overwhelm Martin's intricate plotting at various points? Does it ever become "needless" and "gratuitous", in the manner that, some might say, sexual violence, especially, has become on the show?

It's clear to anyone, both long-time lovers of fantasy and those less well-versed with the genre, that Westeros and the land of Ice and Fire in general is not a utopia. Far from it, it's not even a fantasy world that many of us would choose to live in. Unlike Tolkien's Middle Earth or the fantastical Hogwarts, it doesn't come across as a "better place". In fact, it seems a twisted version of ours, with some of the worse aspects - patriarchy, a rigid class system, corruption and power-crazed rulers-magnified and drawn larger than life.

This is where the violence of the show becomes useful, even a plot point. The show's writers have to illustrate just how messed up and terrible the world is, how much in need of the typical fantasy saviour. The constant denial of this saviour - through the killing of those we might suspect of being the one we need, such as Ned Stark or his son Robb - is how we are reminded time and again that Westeros, despite the presence of dragons, is depressingly like our real world, where no magical Messiah will appear to make everything all right.

But when it comes to the show's depiction of rape, the writers have pushed boundaries, inserting it as a plot device/character "building" element, even in places where it doesn't occur in the books. Season 1, for instance, begins with Khal Drogo raping his young bride on their wedding night. The books are quite clear that the union is consensual, that the Khal makes every effort to make Daenerys feel comfortable and that she is willing to consummate the marriage. The show offered no such palliative. This may have been the writers' way of depicting just how much of a "barbarian"/brute the Khal is and setting the tone for the world's harshness, but it was an uncomfortable viewing experience, as no doubt intended.

The constant use of rape as a threat against female characters continues in the later seasons. Even when dressed as a boy, Arya Stark (in Season 2 and 3) is told she will be "f*cked up the arse" with her sword by an array of convicts and lowlifes; Brienne of Tarth, perhaps the most martial of the women we meet in the show, is nearly raped by a band of sellswords until she is saved by Jaime Lannister; Craster's wives and daughters become hostages to the rogue Night's Watch men. The list of examples that one could provide are endless. The controversial scene in which Cerseiis wrestled to the floor by her brother has become, at best, emblematic of dubious consent, provoking questions about why the showrunners needed to add that element of unwillingness at all.

Rape is horrific, regardless of whether it happens in Westeros or in the "real world". It is obviously endemic to the world of "A Game of Thrones", as it is here. But is the constant highlighting of it, and the consequent reduction of otherwise self possessed, powerful female characters to victims of the men around them, necessary? We know that Westeros is patriarchal, we know that women here, some more than others, have to struggle against huge odds to make themselves heard and their opinions count. By using rape as a plot device, as has been done now with Sansa Stark, the show runs the risk of desensitising its viewers, if not disgusting them.

Westeros is a cruel world, it's true, but there still is enough hope and heroism in its denizens for a viewer to stay with it. There's no point overwhelming that spark with the darkness of evils we are all too familiar with.


Achala Upendran Achala Upendran @achalaupendran

Editor, reader, Sindarin Elf. Reviews books for @NewIndianXpress. Blogger for @momentumbooks.

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