OVER the last decade, long form serial shows have taken over as the most popular format of storytelling on the small screen. This encourages viewers to be more empathetic towards characters through the course of the series. However, this increased empathy puts a spotlight on the plight of these characters, increasing controversy around the depiction of sexual violence in shows like GAME OF THRONES with critics questioning if the show normalises violence towards women.
In the early 2010s, the issue of violence towards women was already being discussed by groups such as the Parents Television Council. PTC studied network television between 2004 and 2009 and published their findings in a 2009 special report “Women in Peril: A Look at TV’s Disturbing New Storyline Trend”. They found that while general acts of violence had only risen by 2%, violence directed specifically towards women had raised by 120%. The report found violence towards women “overwhelmingly to be depicted (92%) rather than implied (5%) or described (3%)” and there was an 81% increase in the representation of intimate partner violence. The increase is alarming, not just because of the raw numbers, but because of the severity of the specific acts directed at female victims, including abuse of a sexual nature.
The topic of sexual violence directed at women has come to the forefront in recent years. With exposés on campus culture and 1970s entertainers, new light is being shed on the issue of rape and sexual abuse. In the UK, a study by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) found that in the year ending March 2015 reported rapes and other sexual offences were at their highest since the recording standard in 2002. Rather than suggesting an actual increase in sexual offences, however, the report partly attributed this increase to “improvements in recording” and “a greater willingness of victims to come forward to report such crimes”.
The issue of sexual violence is not going away anytime soon, which is where popular culture steps in. Dependent on how an issue is portrayed, a work of fiction can take advantage of a population's fear or disdain towards that issue to further benefit the narrative of that work. Or it can bring that issue into the public consciousness in a way that is palatable enough for its audience to take that subject on board and influence changes in how society perceives those issues.
RAPE IS OFTEN USED AS A DRAMATIC DEVICE.
Rape is a condemnable act, which is why it is often used in these TV shows as a dramatic device to make the audience loathe the perpetrators, usually villains. It takes something from reality that people are genuinely affected by and applies it to a fictional world to highlight those issues to the show’s benefit. Sansa Stark’s (Sophie Turner) rape by Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) on their wedding night in the fifth season of GAME OF THRONES is a case in point. Ramsay Bolton was already a despicable character even before he raped Sansa, which was why many viewers saw this event as a transparent act on the show runners’ behalf to further enhance his villain status. The argument surrounding the display of scenes like these, and others within GAME OF THRONES as a whole, is that they normalise the act of rape by sexualising the act, using the device to such an extent that the audience becomes numb to it or make rape appear to be a less significant issue in saturating television storylines with its depiction.
Many viewers questioned why the depiction of rape in the “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” episode was necessary. While the action was certainly in keeping with the characterisation of Ramsay, viewers argued that the rape could have easily taken place off screen or suggested in dialogue. However, this would arguably have the result of sweeping the issue under the rug; Sansa would still be raped but the audience would be spared the explicit depiction.
A decision was made to show the audience not just because they could but because it meant that the audience would be face to face with the "reality of the situation". They are supposed to be disgusted by this act, which as many articles went to show, certainly was the case. Writer-producer Bryan Cogman noted on the DVD commentary for the episode: “We made the decision
to not shy away from what would realistically happen on that wedding night with these two characters, and the reality of the situation, and the reality of this particular world”.
The scene brings about a sense of disgust by avoiding the titillation that the show is usually guilty of. There is no nudity in this scene, no part of Sansa is sexualised for the viewer during this act. The camera focuses on the characters’ faces and the emotions they convey for prolonged durations, two characters that viewers have grown sympathetic towards over previous seasons. The camera focuses particularly on the emotions of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), who is forced to watch the rape take place. The move was criticised by many for taking away from Sansa’s struggle to focus on another man’s reaction to this sight. However, the perspective also aligns the audience with a character that is watching this scene unfold before his eyes, as they are, and invites us to feel the same disgust and horror as he does in this moment.
THERE IS NO COMEUPPANCE FOR THE ACTIONS ON SCREEN.
Another reason scenes like this exist in GAME OF THRONES is to paint a picture of the setting and the attitudes towards sexual abuse in the story world. Certainly, within the context of this episode, there is no comeuppance for the actions on screen, and this seems to be the norm within the wider context of the series. In this setting, rape is not a serious issue, it is a reality that is ignored within the patriarchal society of Westeros. But this is never sold as a good thing or indeed anything our own society should aspire to. The fact that the issue of sexual abuse is glossed over in this setting could be considered as a reflection of some attitudes toward the subject.
But what about rape in a depiction of a more modern society? In HBO’s WESTWORLD the setting is a future world where all diseases are curable but the inhabitants of this new world crave escapism. That escapism is offered in the form of “Westworld”, a theme park of sorts where the guests can fulfil their every desire - their lust for adventure, their thirst for blood and their sexual urges - without consequence. This world without consequence leads to the violent abuse of its sentient android “hosts” who are patched up with their memories wiped and sent out for another day’s work. However, these hosts soon begin to gain these memories back and develop disdain for their human counterparts. Where WESTWORLD tackles the issue of rape from its more modern viewpoint, it is able to tackle the reasons as to why it occurs in modern society, and portray them in a way that shows exactly why they are wrong.
The main issue that is presented in the characters of WESTWORLD is their sense of entitlement; they paid money to be there, so they feel they should be able to treat the hosts however they like. And they do, so long as there are no consequences. This is very similar to some of the more prolific campus rape cases, such as those documented in THE HUNTING GROUND (Kirby Dick 2015), where young men from privileged backgrounds felt that they were entitled to sex and carried through with these acts with the mindset that they could get away with it. It is that particular mindset that is tackled in WESTWORLD.
There are not nearly as many cases of sexual abuse in the sci fi drama as there are in GAME OF THRONES. However, its context within the story is given more gravity. Dolores’s (Evan Rachel Wood) story encapsulates this narrative. Her abuse at the hands of the Man-in-Black (Ed Harris) is the only instance focused on in the show. We never see these acts of rape but we see how important it is to Dolores’s character arc, adding to the viewer’s fear that it will happen again by different perpetrators in this world where sexual abuse is free for all for the guests to engage in.
Clearly, the two shows have different approaches to the subject of rape in two very different fictional settings but what merits does choosing one method over the other hold? In GAME OF THRONES, the sexual abuse enacted against its characters is not necessarily crucial to the show’s main storyline as a whole but it is a part of that world and a part of many of the characters’ storylines. However, when rape does occur it is certainly depicted, not in any way that could be considered pro-rape, but in a way that allows us to sympathise with the victims. WESTWORLD,
on the other hand, has avoided controversy by refraining from graphically depicting the act and instead focusing on its implications. The discussions being had around rape in WESTWORLD by fans and audiences therefore appear to better question its implications in the real world.
For people to understand its prevalence and the poor attitudes toward it, sexual abuse is a subject that needs tackling in popular culture. Maybe there is no “right” way to portray rape and sexual violence but it should certainly not go unmentioned. Television shows like GAME OF THRONES and WESTWORLD have influenced discussions about the issue, coming to the forefront of popular cultural debate and discourse in a way that no facts and figures ever could. Whether through shock value or nuanced narrative, at least these shows are not silent.