Ever since the first episode, Game of Thrones has been notorious as an ‘adult’ take on fantasy, by which by I mean a sexed-up one, not afraid to show nudity, explicit scenes of coitus, really anything up to actual penetration (thank you, HBO). It tends to be a little coyer with male nudity – preferring to depict ‘floppy wieners’ (as South Park put it) rather than the rigid kind – but then that’s simply the world we live in, the wiener is typically an object of fun rather than of titillation. Nevertheless the show has achieved a certain reputation for itself in this realm, which Peep Show neatly summarised by calling it ‘dragon-tits’.
In my recent review of episode 2 of series 7, ‘Stormborn’, I gushed over the Grey Worm/Missandei sex scene, a genuinely quite sweet distraction from the rest of the show’s overwhelming grimdark aura. ‘But sex scenes are meant to be light little interludes!’ I hear you cry – oh, my sweet summer child. That one stood out for a reason, and to fully understand why we need all the context, so let’s take a trip down memory lane, back to when Sean Bean was in the credits and Maisie Williams could convincingly play a child.
Speaking of the man I don’t think anyone actually refers to as ‘the Bean’, there’s a scene in the first episode where Ned and Catelyn are in bed together. This is meant to be post-coital, and in the books this is made incredibly clear, we get Catelyn’s inner monologue hoping she’s pregnant again and them both being naked, yet the show plays it as incredibly chaste, just a married couple in bed together fully clothed and having a cuddle. There’s nothing wrong with that, obviously, but it seems strikingly out of place given the show’s willingness to squeeze in sex scenes anywhere it’s remotely possible. So what have they got against a married couple doing it for the purposes of procreation (the last taboo)?
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Well, the showrunners are on record saying something to the effect that the all-important 18-30 male demographic don’t want to see ‘their parents having sex’. More importantly, though, in the first series one of the words that flew about a lot in describing the show was ‘sexposition’. One of the problems you’ll always face in adapting a book for the screen is the volume of information you’re able to convey at any one time, and doubly so for a series like Game of Thrones that by nature involves a lot of worldbuilding, a lot of history, and a lot of mythology.
The DVDs have extra features in which various characters narrate the history of their family over an animation, but this isn’t a lot of help with the show itself. So, particularly in the first series, you get a lot of people abruptly saying out loud ‘Look, it’s Lord such-and-such!’ – but what happens when you need more than just an introduction? That’s where a woman called Ros comes in, a character invented for the show whose purpose is basically just to give or receive exposition while naked. The most egregious example of this can only be that time Littlefinger had Ros and another woman have sex while he explained his entire backstory, as a longform soliloquy that involves the aside ‘play with her arse’. It’s practically Shakespearean.
The first series features a couple of scenes of, shall we say, dubious consent. The first is the Jaime/Cersei scene that Bran stumbles on, revealing their incestuous affair to the audience – it’s not fully non-consensual, but still, this is an aspect which is intended to illustrate that their relationship is, on the face of it, unhealthy (other clues to this include how it caused a war). The second is Daenerys and Drogo’s wedding night, and while the books had a stab at making it consensual, however you slice it it’s an arranged marriage between a little girl and a full-grown man, who’s also a warlord. Going on to romanticise this relationship is, by modern standards, incredibly iffy at best, but that arc was drawn straight from the books, so can hardly be laid at the showrunners’ door. Notably, both of these take place in the first episode, so you could say they’re intended to demonstrate just what sort of a fantasy series this is – much like Viserys casually dropping an f-bomb in his first scene.
There are a few more scenes of almost-rape over the years, typically stemming from captivity taken to its vile extremes – Sansa is grabbed by a rioting crowd, Brienne is captured by roaming Bolton hunters, and Theon is at one point ridden down, debagged, and then saved at the last second only for Ramsay to recapture him (that entire series-length torture session had more than its share of weird sexual dynamics). All of these, though, were treated as horrible things happening – not so with the Jaime/Cersei scene in the sept after Joffrey’s death, in which Jaime forces himself on Cersei while she pleads with him to stop, and which the writers claim ‘became consensual’ and didn’t think was a rape scene, even though the musical cues clearly knew something bad was going on. This was adapted from a scene in which Cersei is mildly reluctant (because they’re in a church and next to their son’s dead body), her exact words being “No, not here…” and then a paragraph later “Now, do it now, do me now”. So you can perhaps see where they got the idea that it ‘became consensual’, it’s just that they transferred it to television dreadfully and with a shocking lack of self-awareness. (This scene, incidentally, makes absolutely no difference to their relationship. They carry on afterwards as they did before and the fact he raped her never comes up again.)
None of these examples, though, incited as much controversy as Sansa’s wedding night in series 5, when Ramsay – by then, the clearest antagonist figure in the entire series bar the white walkers – raped her in front of Theon. You might ask ‘why would this incite so much controversy if the first episode also featured a rape scene?’, as indeed many did. It’s partially down to the way it was shot, focusing on Theon’s face as if he’s the real victim here. Mainly, though, it was because Sansa had been shoehorned into a story arc that had nothing to do with her, when she was meant to have an arc of her own.
In the books, Sansa’s role is occupied by her childhood friend Jeyne Poole, who’s being passed off as Arya to legitimise the Boltons’ rule in the North. It’s an important role in that plotline – Theon, in his abused Reek persona, is the only person to want to help Jeyne for the sake of it, rather than wanting to help a (supposed) Stark – but it’s still a minor role with little ‘screentime’. Which adds insult to injury, given the fact that the showrunners’ thinking in slotting Sansa into this role was to include ‘one of [our] leading ladies—who is an incredibly talented actor who we’ve followed for five years and viewers love and adore’. This is to say nothing of the fundamental illogic involved in having Sansa marry into the Boltons (who killed her mother and brother) to take revenge – a concept that is dropped within five minutes anyway, in favour of a bog-standard damsel in distress plotline. If you take a side-by-side comparison of the plot points in this storyline in the show and the books, the only common point is ‘Ramsay rapes his wife, who Theon then helps escape’.
A good percentage of sex scenes and nudity in the show involve prostitutes, Ros obviously being just the tip of that particular iceberg. This is to the franchise’s credit in terms of realism – a good many historical or pseudo-historical works of fantasy make no mention of the sex trade, making even the grittiest scenarios seem oddly cloistered and Puritan. The Puritans, incidentally, were only Puritan in that sense outside of marriage – after that all bets were off – which gives a hint as to where this worldview comes from. There is a general perception of the past as uptight and desexed, as an unbroken stretch of Puritan or Victorian values until modernity, which ignores the Restoration, the roaring ‘20s, and Rome at its decadent height, to say nothing of the many early civilisations which reacted to outsiders by butchering the men and stealing the women. Still, even if Ros is some sort of walking hole for receiving exposition up until her grisly and sexualised death, Shae, at least, gets a bit of depth and character development – opening the door for shows like Westworld featuring prostitutes as full-on protagonists. This said, Game of Thrones’s depiction of the sex trade is far from perfect – there are several instances involving people who are canonically sex slaves, in which the moral implications of this are glossed over. And it’s not as if it’s only villains making use of sex slaves – both Tyrion and Yara visit brothels in Volantis, where, canonically, slaves are forcibly tattooed with a marker of their profession (in the case of sex slaves, a tear).
To leap straight on to another example of the show having trouble with sexual morality: at the end of the first season, with Jaime taken prisoner, Cersei starts sleeping with Lancel Lannister, a much younger cousin. Whether he’s actually underage at this point is unclear, and, as many critics have pointed out, an established age of consent was much less of a thing in the kind of time period depicted (in the real world, the legal concept of an age of consent dates back to the 16th century, but it was only by 1885 that the British age of consent was raised to 16 as it is today). Either way, there is an incredibly clear power imbalance at play in their relationship, which it wouldn’t be a reach to categorise as abuse. After Cersei gets sick of him, because that’s the kind of relationship they had, where one party gets tossed aside when the other is sick of them, the next time we see Lancel he’s become a religious nut. This is partially to do with his being culpable for murdering King Robert, but can’t be separated from his feeling of guilt and shame – the books make this point far more strongly, with Jaime finding out about Cersei and Lancel’s dalliances, and Lancel, now a broken, wasted-away skeleton of a man, confessing to Jaime that ‘I wanted to be you’.
Either way, though, the show paints that whole episode as another aspect of Cersei’s villainy. The same can’t be said for the marriage between Tommen and Margaery, which is basically the same situation – a much older, more sexually experienced woman abusing and manipulating a young man, or in Tommen’s case a boy. Yet Margaery was always portrayed sympathetically, and this doesn’t change once she begins statutory-raping Tommen into doing what she says – meanwhile, Cersei’s objection to her one remaining child being sexually abused is treated like further villainy, rather than the entirely natural reaction to that situation. When Tommen, on learning of Margaery’s death, immediately commits suicide, this should not be read as an indicator of ‘aww, they loved each other so much’ but rather an illustration of how successfully she manipulated him into dependence on her, and how profoundly screwed-up the sexual abuse made him. And sadly, this is only one instance of the incredibly pervasive idea that male victims of rape and molestation by women are – if the woman is conventionally attractive – ‘lucky’.
There isn’t anything wrong as such with the show’s use of same-sex sex scenes, only the stuff around them. Loras, who was so in love with Renly he murdered two people in a fit of blind rage on hearing about Renly’s death, then going on to have a casual fling with a male prostitute is bit of a stereotype, and worse, strikes at the feet of Loras’s established characterisation. (Loras’s characterisation from that point on involved being persecuted for being gay, then dying horribly.) Oberyn, meanwhile, seems to live in a brothel during his time in King’s Landing, and while he’s meant to be a sexpot, he’s also meant to have other motivations, such as revenge (the very reason he’s there) – this is also vaguely fantasy-racist, given that being oversexed is a stereotype often applied to the Dornish by other Westerosi. As for woman/woman scenes, there’s a curious consistency in that a good few of them are ultimately intended for the benefit of men, both in-universe and out.
Daenerys’s encounter with Doreah was an exercise in teaching her to pleasure Drogo. Littlefinger’s overwrought villain monologue had him watching two women make love the whole time, presumably so neither he nor the viewer at home would get bored and tune out. Ramsay has two women be all playful with both Theon and each other, as an element of torturing Theon. Yara and Ellaria, at least, seem to be into it for their own benefit, and luckily get to share a scene – although, as mentioned, Yara had the encounter with the Volantene sex slave, so you can hardly call it an uncomplicatedly positive depiction of a gay character. (Ellaria, whose main achievements are murdering a little girl and betraying her liege lord and brother-in-law, has issues of her own, but none strictly to do with her bisexuality.)
So, to recap – we have the showrunners filming a rape scene without even being aware that’s what they’ve done, put an actress who’s been on the show since the age of 15 into another rape scene for reasons that make the opposite of sense, have a supposedly sympathetic character rape a sex slave, have another supposedly sympathetic character rape and manipulate a young boy, and portray Westeros’s two-strong population of non-heterosexual men as raving sex fiends. (Without wishing to harp on a point, most of these are as a result of the show straying from its source material.) Against this relentlessly grimdark backdrop, Grey Worm and Missandei finally getting a sweet, intimate sex scene together isn’t just a breath of fresh air, it’s like being rescued from drowning. Both were slaves who had been horrendously abused in the past, then were liberated by Daenerys and served her with honour only to be quickly pushed aside in favour of everyone’s pal, Tyrion ‘I was a slave for two days, I know what it’s like’ Lannister. There are those who would criticise their romantic subplot for taking vital screentime away from battles and intrigue, and it’s perfectly true that it did, but given everything, it’s honestly quite touching that they got thrown a bone (no pun intended).
Nevertheless I’m forced to imagine this will be a lone bright spot, a point of contrast introduced to make all the darkness that much darker. Furthermore, given the writers’ track record, it would not be unfair to suggest they created this bright spot completely accidentally. Game of Thrones runs on titillation and shock, and if at all possible, both at once, hence Ros dying naked and Sansa marrying Ramsay for no apparent reason other than the showrunners wanted a rape scene that would probably get its own hashtag. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I do not write this in order to condemn those who enjoy titillation and shock – there are those who would say the use of titillation and shock in art is a sacred right, and I do number myself among that class. Just please, please, let’s not pretend the dragontits show is realistic or that the writers take a particularly pleasant or informed approach to sexuality.