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medieval sex


There has been a lost of internet discussion (mainly outrage) about last week’s episode of Game of Thrones. I’m going to be talking about what happens in that episode, so if you haven’t seen it and want to be surprised, I suggest you don’t read the rest of this post.

In last week’s Game of Thrones, Jamie Lannister raped his sister/lover next to the corpse of their son in the great sept. There has been widespread condemnation of Alex Graves’ decision to change the scene from the book, and defend it as ‘not rape’, more a kind of sexy tussle where “No, stop, stop” and weeping are just charming lady-code for “yes yes more” (A far cry from the book where Cersei says “do me now”).

Sonia Saraiya has written a great article here: http://www.avclub.com/article/rape-thrones-203499 about the TV show’s propensity to change consensual sex in the books to rape on the TV show. It’s a great point, and it’s really worth reading. I don’t know why those decisions were made. To an extent, with the first episode she talks about – Daenerys and Khal Drogo – it might have been the case that the directors thought that in a pseudo-medieval world, the first night of an arranged marriage could only be rape. I don’t know. But the pattern is alarming.

However, there is one element that has been largely ignored in the changes made from Jamie and Cersei’s scene of rough sex in the book to rape on screen, that I think is the most telling in terms of the latent misogyny of television. It is this element of the sex scene in the book:

“The Others can take the septons.” He kissed her again, kissed her silent, kissed her until she moaned. Then he knocked the candles aside and lifted her up onto the Mother’s altar, pushing up her skirts and the silken shift beneath. She pounded on his chest with feeble fists, murmuring about the risk, the danger, about their father, about the septons, about the wrath of gods. He never heard her. He undid his breeches and climbed up and pushed her bare white legs apart. One hand slid up her thigh and underneath her smallclothes. When he tore them away, he saw that her moon’s blood was on her, but it made no difference.” 

That’s right folks, the good directors at HBO think that TV viewers can’t handle a bit of menstruation. Whatever people’s preferences, I this is a decision that beggars belief. It was as though the executive team at HBO had a conversation that went along the lines of, “Oh no, menstrual sex is so distasteful. Let’s make it more palatable for the audience by changing it to a rape.”

Is menstrual sex still so taboo? Is rape still seen as more “sexy”, more aesthetic, than menstrual sex? Certainly, Game of Thrones seeks to shock, and show violence, and I am not one of those people who are interested in complaining that this ruined Jamie’s “redemption arc” – an act of rashness is entirely in keeping with the character of a man who pushed a small boy out of the window, and perhaps the directors wanted to remind us that Jamie was not some healed soul who saved a woman from a bear and went on to live virtuously ever after. That’s not the point here.

The point is, rape has become an aesthetic of television, a sexy plot point, even to the extent that the directors of a TV show rightly lauded for its complex and powerful female characters consider a scene when a woman is shouting for the man raping her to stop, a “turn-on”. No wonder everyone is angry. What might have actually shocked people – in a progressive, positive way – is the sex as it is represented in the book. It’s rough, it’s incestuous, it’s menstrual. It’s fucking great. But the raped woman – and the rape of women – is an old aesthetic trope that we can’t seem to resist. From my dear old namesake Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, raped and maimed, to Tess of the D’Urbevilles, raped women have been represented as an object d’art rather than sufferers of a horrific crime.

Changing the scene puts Cersei unfairly into that box, and doesn’t faithfully recreate the complexity and interest of the scene in the book. More than anything it’s lazy and cowardly to hide from menstruation as though it is the monster under the bed, and jump right to rape. It was a brave scene for Martin to write, but he has shown himself not to be afraid of dealing with things that other authors – especially those of fantasy – have not. I am sure that I am not the only fan who feels let down by the lazy misogyny of the adaptors of his books for HBO.