Of Bread and Circuses

As a card-carrying “geek girl,” it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that I’ve been watching Game of Thrones since it debuted on HBO back in 2011. Besides, I made this fact clear last summer when I reminisced about using the show as a touchpoint of connection between Mr. Mezzo and myself back during the late spring & early summer of 2013 when we were living apart as part of the Great Northern Relocation.*

(For the spoiler-averse, I’m going to be talking more about last night’s GoT episode, as well as plot points from previous episodes. So if you’re not caught up and don’t want to have plot surprises reveled to you, stop now rather than clicking through to after the jump. For the rest of you, who are up-to-speed or who don’t give many fucks about the series, come on in!)

The concluding scene of last night’s episode, with Ramsay Bolton raping Sansa Stark on their wedding night (after a forced marriage of political alliance and convenience) left me with all kinds of thoughts and feelings.

Surprise, however, was not on the menu.

Part of that was because I’d deliberately spoiled myself on the plot development. (Another post for another day.)

But even if I hadn’t known that scene was coming, I wonder if part of me would have known that scene was coming. After all, this is far from the first time that GoT‘s violence and misogyny level have given me pause for alarm.

There’s the grotesquerie of Ros’s death, after however-many episodes where her nude flesh was employed to make complicated universe-building and backstory-filling more palatable to the (presumably het-male) viewer in “sexposition” scenes. There’s the upping-the-ante part of the televised Red Wedding sequence (as compared to the already-plenty-violent version in the books), a scene so graphic that the phrase “womb-shanked” needed to be coined in order to convey the events. There’s Jaime’s rape of Cersei.**

And all of this plays out against a backdrop of astonishing liberalism and comical prudishness when comparing the frequency between depictions of female and male flesh.

So I’m not entirely sure whether I’m more upset at this latest crime against womanity than I was about any of the others. If nothing else, I can say am getting real tired of this particular cheap narrative trick.

As Nina Shen Rastogi writes in Vulture:

But it also feels hateful on a narrative level. It’s cruel to strip Sansa of the agency she’s been accruing so painstakingly, but to do so by literally stripping her is so cheap, such an obvious choice, I felt offended as a fan. And if this means Sansa loses all her momentum, which has brought such a fresh energy to the show’s plot — I’ll be mad as a fan, not just as a feminist. I suppose this is what rape is: a blunt way of taking a woman’s selfhood. But if it’s going to be used as a plot point, I want it wielded more intelligently, with more care, and especially from a show that has proved it can do graphic violence so hauntingly. To show Sansa being raped as the kicker to an episode — and then to cut to Theon, as if it’s his view, his reaction, his internalizing of the moment that matters — just felt like more of the same old same old we’ve been getting since Ros died, since Tansy was hunted, since Cersei was raped.

I don’t want to play this stupid game anymore, Sansa’s sister said.

And although I adore Rastogi’s hope that the show runners might use this plot turn as the materials for mature character development, I think the odds of that are slim-to-none. Especially considering that much the same wondering about mature character development vs. sweeping-under-the-rug happened a year ago when Sonia Saraiya tried to unpack the fall-out from Jaime raping Cersei:

But this has happened before, in Game Of Thrones—and that time, the rape was largely forgotten just a few episodes later. The other significant rape scene in the series happens in the pilot, when Daenerys Targaryen is sold in marriage by her brother Viserys to Khal Drogo. Much has been made of the fact that Dany falls in love with Drogo, despite that initial rape; less has been said of the fact that Khal Drogo goes out of his way to obtain consent from his child bride in the books. [. . .]

It’s hard to shake the idea that Game Of Thrones, the show, doesn’t see a problem with pushing a scene from complicated, consensual sex to outright rape. It would be easier to accept that idea if it were clear what the show was trying to do with those changes. Rape is a tricky thing to use as character development, for either the victim or the rapist; doing it twice raises a lot of red flags. It assumes that rape between characters doesn’t fundamentally change the rest of their story—and it assumes that the difference between consent and rape is, to use the parlance, a “blurred line.”

Unfortunately, the show is wrong, on both counts.

Yes, there is much the show is wrong about in its sexual politics and its narrative depiction of women.

scared-and-lookingAnd yet, I have continued watching it, despite my concerns. Which leaves me wondering a bit at my own hypocrisy in complaining while I continue to add to the viewership numbers and HBO subscription income that keeps the GoT train chug-chugging along.

I can’t bear to look anymore, but make sure to show me what happens next!

My sense of culpability and complicity is strong today, in a way that’s thoughtfully captured by James Hibberd’s recap of the episode:***

All of this brings to surface the strange relationship we have with the people who create our entertainment. As Joss Whedon once pointed out, we go to movies to see characters we care about “suffer.” Without suffering there is no drama. And in terms of making a dramatic choice, Sansa getting raped on her wedding night while being held prisoner in her own home is about as dramatic as it gets. Rick Rubin recently said “the best art divides the audience.” This scene definitely accomplished at least that much. So from a calculating perspective, this choice can be considered narratively effective. And the reason it’s effective is because we care about Sansa and because what happens is so horrible.

[. . . ] If nothing really bad ever happens to characters we love on Thrones, we would grow frustrated and bored. In fact, earlier this season you started to see some of this, with viewers complaining that not enough was happening. But do we want Thrones to really push our boundaries? Or do we want the show to stay within certain lines? To wound, but not too deeply?

In his original piece, Hibberd also makes an analogy–which I chose to ellipses out of my quotation–between being a viewer of GoT (and similar “torture porn” kinds of shows) and being in an abusive relationship. You see, I know just enough about abusive relationships in real life (which is to say: only the tiniest bit, and not from personal experience) to know that Hibberd’s analogy is dangerously facile. To ascribe culpability–even in the slightest degree–to survivors of domestic violence is mind-bendingly problematic. And kinda rage-inducing.

But my culpability as part of the corporate media machinery that encourages these misogynist tableaux to be endlessly remixed and regurgitated? Yeah, I’ll cop to being an accomplice to that sort of criminality.

In other words: welcome to the age of bread and circuses.

* Whatever happened to that old “25 songs in 25 slightly-more days” series, anyhow? Gone the way of so many good intentions in my life. I have a half-finished post about song #8 post somewhere back in the draft files. At this point, ’twere I to recommence (and, even, egads, to finish?!?) the series, I’d have to call it “25 songs in 25 a shitload of days.

** Which, even though the director tries to pretend was “consensual by the end,” um no, it wasn’t. Not the way you shot it: it was rape.

*** Note to self: renew my subscription to Entertainment Weekly!

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