Discourse of Thrones: Jaime, Cersei, and Confronting Rape
April 21st, 2014
When I wrote my review of “Breaker of Chains” on Sunday afternoon, I certainly knew that the scene between Jaime and Cersei at the Sept of Baelor would cause a conversation.
This is both because of the fact that it signals a departure from how the scene plays out in the books and the fact that it features a character that has become a more inherently likeable character in the series committing an absolutely vile, unforgivable act. On the whole, though, I thought the scene played in the same thematic territory as its literary progenitor, such that any conversation would be more about the impact on—rather than destruction of—the characters in question. I did not imagine the scenario we’ve arrived to, in which the scene is causing a considerable and often ugly debate (provided one makes the mistakes of reading the comments, perhaps even on this piece I’m in the process of writing).
Or, rather, it’s causing two debates.
The first debate is about the nature of Jaime’s character, and about the way we reconcile his actions relative to that character. The fact is that Game of Thrones, compared to A Song of Ice and Fire, began Jaime’s arc of redemption earlier, helped by the presence of the character’s point-of-view at an earlier point in the series. When Jaime is swordfighting with Bronn at the water’s edge earlier this season, that scene reads for the show as the start of a rehabilitative arc, and we at least generally root for Jaime to regain the parts of himself that define him. In the meantime, however, Cersei is the other thing that stabilizes him, a connection to his past life that could provide him comfort, and yet Cersei denies him. Through this lens, the rape becomes Jaime’s crisis of identity boiling over: here, in this moment of grief where their son is dead, she nonetheless denies his passion, leading him to lose control and sexually assault Cersei in an effort to take back his former identity by force.
This is how I read the scene, a reading that does not excuse Jaime’s behavior but frames it within a complicated characterization. Jaime rapes Cersei, and the fact that he has reasons for doing it that stem from an identity crisis does not change that fact. It firmly frames Jaime as one of a long list of television anti-heroes, albeit through an act that is much tougher to accept than those committed by characters like Don Draper or Walter White. It is as though the writers, searching for a similar character action in the specific set of politics operating in Westeros, landed on rape as an offense that is horrifying for audiences today but comparatively acceptable by the standards of the culture established in the series.
I can understand fans being upset about this choice, at the same time as I accepted it as a conscious effort to complicate the character. It definitively resists narratives that frame Jaime as a hero in this story, but I for one saw it as a reinforcement of how deep his insecurities—bred into him by his daddy issues—have corrupted his system in the wake of recent events. It is an act committed in grief but born out of a set of values that he has been asked to uphold, and which he has identified on some intrinsic level as being hand-in-hand with the identity he’s holding onto as hard as he can in a moment of instability.
This, I would argue, is a productive debate about the character’s development and our understanding of heroism in Westeros in the context of the series specifically. What I did not realize going into the post-air conversation was that there would be an actual discussion about whether or not this was rape. Actually, let me rephrase that: I knew this debate would exist in the comments on something like Sonia Sairaya’s cogent piece at The A.V. Club entitled “Rape of Thrones,” in which she compares the scene’s changes from the book relative to similar changes in the Daenerys/Drogo sequence in season one. Inevitably, the cultural conversation around issues like rape—or any kind of issue of sociocultural politics surrounding a popular television series online—will be dismissed as overthinking, and in this case as “feminist propaganda” or some other misrepresentation. It’s a sad state of affairs, but I’ve come to accept that even addressing issues like rape when engaging with a show like Game of Thrones will result in defensive statements that—knowingly or unknowingly—step into a minefield of misogyny from a certain breed of online commenter.
[As for the idea that the scene isn't rape at all, I imagine some would argue that Cersei's refrain of "It's not right" stands as a moral objection to the circumstances—the presence of Joffrey's corpse, for instance—rather than the act of sex itself, but he is nonetheless forcing himself on her. That is still rape.]
However, I had no expectation that this debate about the definition of rape would extend into comments from the episode’s director. Alex Graves did a round of interviews for the Purple Wedding, in which clearly multiple reporters spoke to him regarding this week’s episode as well. And what I’ve come to discover is that Alex Graves doesn’t think this was a rape in the same way. Asked by Alan Sepinwall about the sequence, he suggests that
“…it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.”
This conception of the scene is some insidious nonsense. It suggests that Cersei’s stern objections are foreplay that gets the two characters revved up for what becomes consensual sex over time. Now, Graves is also cited as referring to the scene as rape in The Hollywood Reporter, so he isn’t arguing that it wasn’t a rape. However, he’s leaving room for rape to turn into consensual sex, and works to reframe the act as rape as one more messed up part of this already messed up relationship (which isn’t helped by The Hollywood Reporter‘s insistence on using the word “taboo” to describe the sequence, foregrounding the incest/corpse and making it seem as though rape is only a stigma based on a lack of cultural acceptance).
Graves’ comments reveal a reading not dissimilar to my own of the sequence, but with the crucial difference that he perceives this as an act of love. In The Hollywood Reporter, Graves suggests
“Jaime is still trying to believe as hard as he possibly can that he’s in love with Cersei. He can’t admit that he is traumatized by his family and he’s been forced his whole life to be something he doesn’t want to be. What he is — but has to deny — is he is actually the good knight, like Brienne.”
How can Jaime be a good knight when he rapes Cersei? How is this in any way an act of love? As much as I would agree that his actions stem from his identity crisis, that words like “love” or “good” are associated with this sequence makes me incredibly uncomfortable, and once again works to minimize the fact—which Graves himself acknowledges—that Jaime raped her.
I will admit I didn’t have the same response to the scene as Sonia did. It’s undoubtedly problematic, but I thought the episode did some work through the Sam and Gilly storyline to reiterate the presence of rape both as a reality of Westeros and as a crime that is worthy of banishment to the Knight’s Watch but which nonetheless lingers as a consistent threat. For this reason, I’m not convinced that Graves’ reading of the scene is the series’ reading more broadly, and reserve any more definitive judgment on the story’s effectiveness until we see the next chapter in the story—as much as I agree that rape can be a problematic story development, and that the series ignored the implications of the changes to Drogo and Daenerys’ wedding night, I’m not so convinced that their plans for this one are as limited (particularly given that they’re showing more willingness to stray from the source material compared to the first season). I’m also not entirely convinced by her parallel between this scene and the series’ use of nudity as it relates to appealing to male audiences though sexualized shock value, given that both character remain fully clothed within the scene in question.
And yet we should be debating those kinds of questions. We should be debating how often rape is used in series like Game of Thrones, and how the series’ sexual politics work across the series’ run. We should be debating why no one—including Graves—is talking about the impact this event has on Cersei, as though it existed solely to represent Jaime’s existential crisis with no consideration of how it affects the woman being raped. What we shouldn’t be debating is the definition of rape, which is why Graves’ comments are so concerning (and why I’m much closer to Sonia’s response now than I was when I watched the episode in a vacuum). It’s a case where gaining perspective from the people behind the scenes actually makes the sequence more problematic, as at least in the absence of an “official” point-of-view there’s more room to give them the benefit of the doubt.
While judgment on the story as a whole will wait until the season (and perhaps even series) plays out, judgment on the discourse emerging after the event is well deserved in this instance.