Last night's episode [Easter Sunday, 4/20] was largely very excellent. It had all the things a watcher of the show tends to enjoy; Daenarys asserting authority over a slave city, Tywin being the most coldhearted Chessmaster around, Davos interacting with Stannis's daughter Shireen (one of the most under appreciated elements where the pop-culture radar is concerned). But there was a scene that happened last night a lot of viewers found problematic, if not outright disgusting. While standing over the dead body of Joffery (his son,) Jaime Lannister tries to comfort Cesei, Joffery's mother. The two are about to have a full-on incestuous make-out over their son's corpse. It's already at the point of being depraved. But then Cersei recoils at Jaime's prosthetic hand, prompting Jaime to kiss and undress her against her will, with Cersei going back and forth, but generally resisting, essentially forcing himself upon his sister. [continued below]
The show-runners, and actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau [Jaime Lannister] have stated the ambiguity of Cersei's agency in the scene, saying that by the end Cersei kind of gets into it, and its status as an act of rape is a "yes and no" answer. Is this a very irresponsible form of storytelling? Now, is it possible Cersei was aroused by it? Well, her response is whatever the writer says it is, and I can see that's what they were going for. But that makes it all worse. Real-life rapists use the rationalization that their victims enjoyed it, and scenes like this play into that mentality. Likewise, that Cersei is a horrible person with weird sexual hang-ups who was at the receiving end of retribution reinforces the idea that rape is "what you get" for not conforming to society's norms or even morality. That's an awful message to send. It makes it harder to enjoy Cersei's comeuppance, and it makes it harder to appreciate Jaime's redemption arc. (Many fans are saying "impossible".) Yes, they have a twisted relationship, but when these kinds of thing happen in real life, it's not with the dark comical elements of treasonous incest, poisoned kings, and gilded prosthetic hands. Whether or not either party would consider it rape, Jaime undeniably acted like a rapist. I got the impression that he would have continued regardless of whether Cersei was willing, reluctant, or fighting back with all her might.
Now, the conceit of Game of Thrones is that it is a deconstruction of heroic fiction like "Lord of the Rings", showing feudal societies for the oppressive, ugly places they can be. But it is also a fantasy show that is willing to dazzle and provide a sense of escapism. And that is most definitely the case with its sexual aspects. Kate Beaton for one, has noted on her twitter that HBO is all about grittiness of a medieval world until it's time for women to shave in all the right places. So it's hard to take the show at its word when it says it's just trying to be "accurate" and "multi-layered", especially when it comes to sexual politics. This isn't just ugly on a narrative and literal level, but also on a meta-textual one. I'm going to have to get into the books here, but the sex scene in the novel, while taking place, does not go far into the realms of sexual assault. Therefore, unless Jaime's character arc is wildly divergent from the show, this will receive little blowback, and an egregious sex crime will be chalked up to the same "What was that? Oh forget it" sentiment of that episode of Bonanza where Hoss saw leprechauns. Previews from the upcoming episode shows that there will not be a lot of long-term consequences. Cersei may in fact rebuke Jaime for his actions, but no more than her usual tendency to rebuke people for just about anything. Black Sails had a main character get raped, and it was shown as the bloody act of brutality it actually is. It's not very good when something with Michael Bay's name attached exhibits a less troubling sense of sexual politics.
I'm not going to join the chorus of "It's only because they're guys! They just don't understand!", because looking at many female fan-fiction writers, or even the writings of say, Margaret Mitchell, to know the lack of understanding about this subject matter, and the temptation to fall into troubling sexual assault tropes is not limited to the y-chromosoned. But the show does have a large female following, and a large literary following, and this kind of thing alienates them to what is essentially a stunt. Premium cable has thrived with being able to tell stories broadcast television can't tell, but the line from "daring" to "lurid" is crossed so much that the "It's not TV, it's HBO" feels like a bit of unnearned smugness. If it's supposed to be a cut above normal television programming, it should do more than hit the reptilian spots in people's brains.
I'm sure the show will continue to be a well-acted, sumptuous piece of programming for years to come. But the makers of it should stop to think if they really have something to say, or they're just invoking shock value because they have the freedom to. Right now, less people are talking about the craftsmanship that went into the episode. Less people are speculating on theories and mysteries and plot twists. More people are talking about the writers' sick minds, male privilege, or at best, inability to convey a dicey plot device with clarity. The freedom to express oneself through art is an amazing thing. But it's going to suck if years from now, people don't remember you as pioneers in storytelling, but slaves to attention-grabbing antics.