Why That Controversial ‘Game of Thrones’ Rape Scene Was Supposed to Be Disturbing
Much discussion has been sparked today following an eyebrow-raising sex scene (to say the least) in last night’s episode of ‘Game of Thrones‘. In “Breaker of Chains,” incestuous and morally corrupt siblings Jaime and Cersei Lannister do what incestuous and morally corrupt siblings do best, but there was something very different about the dynamic between the two this time around: namely, it played out as a borderline rape (watch the scene in question here). But, things are much more complex than that in ‘Game of Thrones,’ particularly between these two characters. Given the world’s proclivity for the graphic exploitation of women, the scene is definitely scandalous.
“Breaker of Chains” finds Cersei mourning Joffrey’s corpse in the holy sept, where her father, Tywin, comes to claim her last remaining son, Tommen, and immediately begins instructing him on his new duties as king — it’s a moment that adds insult to injury, and we see Cersei more vulnerable and broken than ever before, a far cry from the typical calculating ice queen. When her brother Jaime comes to comfort her and the pair are left alone in the sept, she kisses him before retreating, looking upon the body of her dead son — their dead son — and it’s a world of complex feelings in Lena Headey’s face: a grieving mother, a lover who felt abandoned when her brother went off on a quest, and since he’s returned, things haven’t been the same between them romantically, especially since he’s missing his sword hand, a symbol of masculinity lost.
Things take a turn in that moment, and Jaime forces himself upon his sister, who seems to reciprocate his kisses but says “no” several times and adds “it’s not right” before eventually relenting. Under real-life circumstances, regardless of whether or not the two were in a consensual relationship at all, no means no, and what Jaime did would be considered sexual assault. But, this is the world of ‘Game of Thrones,’ and this is Westeros, where women are subjugated for the pleasures of men and men are locked in an endless battle over lands and titles, the things that define them, in their world and often in our own, as men.
"Yes, it is uncomfortable to watch Jaime forcefully have sex with his own sister next to the body of their dead son, but we’re meant to be discomforted and bothered by [this]…"
Cersei, like some of our favorite female characters on the show, is different than the naked prostitutes decorating the background of many episodes: she’s a woman who knows that her sexuality is a weapon in a male-dominated world, and so to see her weakened and taken advantage of in this scenario is meant to be jarring and uncomfortable, especially since she’s being taken on the floor next to her son’s corpse. She’s a woman who typically has full agency over her body and goes to great lengths to manipulate the circumstances around her to remain in power — to see her in mourning gives us pause, but to see her relinquish full control of her body to a man is alarming.
It may be even more difficult for fans to digest the scene, given Jaime’s story of redemption over the last two seasons and his journey with Brienne, which allowed us to understand his motivations. He’s gone from the ruthless villain who pushed young Bran Stark out a window for catching him having sex with Cersei, to a fully human and empathetic character — a guy you can actually root for. This is why it’s so hard for people to believe when star athletes are accused of rape; you don’t want to believe the guy you’ve been championing is capable of such a horrible thing, so you start to rationalize the situation and blame the victim.
But, there it is: Cersei’s not really a victim here. Part of the sexual dynamic between Jaime and Cersei is that they’re both getting off on how immoral their relationship is — they have to or else they wouldn’t be engaged in the relationship at all. When Cersei tells Jaime in “Breaker of Chains” that it’s not right, we’re meant to understand that she means that it’s not right to have sex in the sept, where they could be caught by their father or one of the priests, and especially not next to the dead body of their child. It’s not that Cersei doesn’t want to have sex with her brother – as evidenced by how she kisses him passionately and grabs him – it’s that she doesn’t want to have sex with him then and there. But a no is still a no, and even though she relents and seems to enjoy herself, we’re meant to understand that this is Cersei being taken against her will.
George R.R. Martin’s portrayal of the scene in ‘A Storm of Swords’ makes Cersei’s feelings more clear, as it is written that she is enjoying herself, only protesting “about the risk, the danger, about their father, about the septons, about the wrath of gods,” before she instructs Jaime to have sex with her quickly before they are caught. In that way, Cersei is given more agency, but the show’s portrayal, while seemingly very similar, becomes vastly different in tone with the change in dialogue. In an interview with HitFix, episode director Alex Graves does nothing to illuminate the intentions of the scene, and his comments are a bit irresponsible given the subject matter:
Well, it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle. Nobody really wanted to talk about what was going on between the two characters, so we had a rehearsal that was a blocking rehearsal.
Critics have accused the show of exploiting women, but to be fair, the world of Westeros is one in which women are often and unfairly exploited and have little to no power, which is why characters like Cersei, Daenerys, Margaery, and Ygritte are so compelling. For those who have been offended by the rampant female nudity on the show, the Cersei and Jaime sex scene does nothing to quell fears that ‘Game of Thrones’ has a problem with women. But, the world they’ve established is a mythical one evocative of medieval times, and given the strength of so many of their female leads and how hard they fight against the male powers that be, it seems unfair to accuse the showrunners of misogyny when the misogyny itself resides in the fiction. Yes, the treatment of women is unfair, and yes, the women are exploited, and yes, it is uncomfortable to watch Jaime forcefully have sex with his own sister next to the body of their dead son (who was born of that incest, no less) — we’re meant to be discomforted and bothered by these things.
If ‘Game of Thrones’ wasn’t inspiring these endless debates and conversations about singular plot points, then it wouldn’t be a very good show at all.