in Civilization

Rape Is Just One Horror During The Collapse Of Civilization In Westeros


This week’s episode of the HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s novels has produced a big fan controversy over Jaime Lanister’s rape of Cersei. What are the directors trying to do with this scene, which is not in the books? What does this mean for the two characters involved? Plenty of electrons are still getting spilled about this scene three days later as the controversy burns up chat rooms and blog comments. But ironically, the lessons we ought to take from Jaime’s assault on his sister are mostly being lost in this clash of opinions as the scene becomes isolated in our minds from everything else going on. Context is everything.

What I think many people continue to miss is that Westeros is a civilization in collapse. Not only is the climate changing (“Winter is Coming”), but the wars and power struggles depicted by Martin have destroyed all cultural norms and values in the society he has depicted. When outrage becomes a daily event, the survivors become numb to horror, and even the best of us become capable of shocking inhumanity. Martin’s fantasy, which already features torture, murder, rape and cannibalism, is a mirror on our actual human behavior in times of severe social stress and political upheaval. Just consider the news from Syria, where non-fictional rape is now a constant feature of the intractable conflict.

When detainees arrived at state detention facilities, they were “routinely beaten and humiliated for several hours by guards in what has come to be known as the ‘reception party’,” it said.

A 30-year-old university student described how he was beaten, had his beard pulled out and his feet burned at an Air Force Intelligence facility where he was interrogated in 2012.

In another session, “they pulled out two of my toenails with pliers,” he said.

And a 26-year-old woman gave an account of being beaten, raped and having her teeth pulled out.

“They called us prostitutes and spat in our faces,” said the woman, whose family rejected her after learning she had been raped.

Nearly half of Syria’s population have been forced to flee their homes since peaceful anti-government protests that began in 2011 spiralled into a violent conflict.

Bear in mind that Syria’s civil war began in part over the price of food during a time of severe drought (read: climate change). Food insecurity is probably the single most common cause of armed conflict, but the wars themselves always make the problem worse, just as hunger has become a constant challenge for most of the characters in Game of Thrones as the wars have progressed. Burning farms and dead farmers equal Malthusian starvation. Rape is simply one more part of the sad, depressing story of human brutality whenever things go to hell and people fight over what’s left. Remember Cersei in the Red Keep, telling Sansa that should the city fall, all the women in the room “are in for a bit of a rape”? Consider what else happened in this latest episode:

  • While a guest in a stranger’s home, Sandor Clegane declares that “guest rights” have been rendered meaningless. The next day, he demonstrates the truth of his statement by robbing his host.
  • Barbarian tribesmen from North of the wall slaughter and eat defenseless villagers who once enjoyed the protection of Ned Stark.
  • Ser Dontos, one of the very few people ever to show Sansa Stark any kindness while in King’s Landing, is murdered in order to cover her escape from the city.
  • Tywin Lannister strikes a deal with Oberyn Martell: help dispose of an embarrassing dwarf son, and gain the chance to avenge his sister’s rape and murder at the hands of Gregor Clegane.

In that context of atrocity, vengeance and betrayal, Jaime’s rape of Cersei next to the cold, dead body of their son seems almost…well, clinical. The scene is not graphic, and actually quite short, even if it is shocking to the conscience. Neither character is muddy or starving. And is it really any more shocking than the rest of the crimes against humanity portrayed in this series? The flaying, the murdering, the torture with rats, the people burned alive by Melisandre — none of it should be seen as minimizing any other part, but put it all together and you have the context for this episode in Jaime and Cersei’s unhealthy relationship. Jaime is a knight, but honor and chivalry have died in the war of noble houses. Cersei is queen, but her selfish machinations and manipulations caused the war, and now her mask of nobility has begun to slip. The intense secret these characters shared in the first episode is now tearing them apart, just as surely as Westeros is going to pieces as a result of the actions they took to cover up their secret.

It might be helpful to think of them as “the regime” in Martin’s Syria: actions that made perfect sense to Bashar al-Assad in 2011 turned a peaceful uprising into a civil war. Decisions that seemed perfectly logical to Assad in 2013 have made Syrian cities into collapsing, chemically toxic hellholes. As a result, Assad is more isolated and paranoid than ever before, and who knows what horrors and purges are taking place in the inner circles of his regime right now?

This one scene, however controversial, cannot be isolated from the whole. Westeros is a fantasy setting, but Martin has taken his inspiration from actual human history, where the reality of war is nothing like our cultural notions about it — and our conflicts rarely resolve the problems that spurred them, but generally make those problems infinitely worse for everyone. And even at the centers of power, no one is immune to the harsh realities at the end of the world. When civilizations collapse, they fall on all of us, high and low.

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  • Charlotte of Oz

    Speaking as someone who peaced out on Game of Thrones after book one and has spent a lot of time in the past year thinking about women’s issues and the spectre of rape, I’ve got a pretty good set of ideas why it’s this, and not what’s come before, that’s set fuses burning.

    1) Rape is one of many of the horrors of social breakdown, but it’s one that carries a very specific cultural cachet in that it is disproportionately something that is targeted at women and that women fear. It’s distinct from murder in that not too many people can have a violent flashback to their own murder, but far more women have flashbacks to sexual assault or attempted sexual assault than many men like to admit. Game of Thrones has a controversial-at-best stance on women – for someone who’s supposed to be a Strong Female Character™ Danerys sure fell in love with her own rapist and showed her boobs a lot – and for a lot of women, this is the tipping point, because…

    2) The director of the show didn’t seem to actually know that he was filming a rape scene, which is a sterling example of just how ingrained rape culture is. It’s not that folks walk around thinking about rape all the time and all the rapes they’re gonna get up to, it’s that a lot of the time they don’t actually know what is or is not rape to begin with, and won’t believe they’ve seen it no matter what you tell them. As Laura Hudson at the above link put it, it’s one thing to film a horrific scene and another to not know that it’s horrific as you’re doing it. One is illumination via deft artistry and another is illumination by lack of same.

    3) It’s a deviation from the books, as is the above bit with Darerys (it’s a bit more consentual, though I personally think it’s still over the line.) Speaking as someone who is ride or die on red trunks being on Superman, I 100% understand this. Some things do get changed in adaptation, such as the Iron Throne not literally being five thousand swords, but I find it interesting that they looked at the books and said “no, let’s add MORE rape. There isn’t enough.”

    4) If I was to write a parody of Game of Thrones, “then she gets raped by her brother on the grave of her dead kid” might not be the first line, but I’d probably get it in there somewhere. (“Also the sorceress shoots evil smoke out of her vagina” is not something I’d ever even think to write down.) You could make an argument that the relentless grinding misery of Game of Thrones is turning it into a parody of itself, much like it’s hard for a satirist like Colbert to keep pace with the fever swamps of modern conservatism (which may be why he’s taking over the Late Show as himself, which is a transition I’m looking forward to seeing because I’m genuinely conflicted on Colbert at times and I think this change will illuminate what parts of his act I find grating at part of his persona and which are genuine.)

    Much of this is second-hand musing because I can’t really avoid knowing the broad shape of Game of Thrones due to social media being what it is. Personally, I haven’t really had much interest in it – it’s very much intended to be a deconstructive, gritty, realistic take on medieval-era fantasy much the same as Watchmen is intended to be the same but for superheroes, and I never was that into fantasy to begin with so I already agree with most of its critiques of the romanticization of medieval society and my solution was to not spend any time there.* My major exception for fantasy is, and always has been, Terry Pratchett, whose Swiftian wit and dogged humanism have been a guiding light for me in my own writing. Plus, Terry Pratchett looks like your hard-travelling uncle, and George Martin looks like Super Mario’s dad.

    * Sure, I play D&D, but that’s basically ye olde superheroes in a more progressive world to begin with.

  • Great comment from a different perspective. I’ll add that if the scene winds up not advancing the plot in some way, and turns out to be just extra horror for its own sake, then the directors really will need to explain themselves. “Extra rape” is not what I was looking for, either.