What That Game of Thrones Scene Says About Rape Culture


This article discusses plot points from the latest episode of Game Of Thrones.

Viewers and TV critics alike agree that Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones depicted Jaime Lannister raping his sister Cersei, in a disturbing scene that Vulture’s Margeret Lyons calls “a new low for the deeply violent series.” The people involved in bringing that scene to the small screen, however, don’t see it that way. The director who shot the scene and the man who acted in it both believe it wasn’t necessarily nonconsensual sex — an attitude that isn’t totally surprising in a society that’s deeply confused about what constitutes consent, and that doesn’t always recognize sexual violence for what it is.

In the scene, Jaime forces himself on Cersei next to their son’s dead body. They had been kissing, but she pulls away from him, apparently still repulsed by the fact that he’s missing a hand — and Jaime becomes enraged with her rejection, hissing, “You’re a hateful woman. Why have the gods made me love a hateful woman?” He pushes her to the ground, holds her down, and thrusts into her despite her continued protests. After she repeatedly begs him to stop and tells him it’s not right, he responds, “I don’t care.”

Several critics have pointed out this is a sharp departure from the way things unfold on the page. The corresponding scene in George R.R Martin’s book describes Cersei as initially objecting to having sex with Jaime in a place where they could be caught, but quickly becoming an enthusiastic participant. That chapter is told from Jaime’s perspective, so it’s possible it’s colored by the character’s interpretation, but the dialogue is clear. Instead of saying “no” repeatedly, Cersei says “yes” three times.

Not everyone sees the scene as a reinterpretation, though. “There is significance in that scene, and it comes straight from the books — it’s George R.R. Martin’s mind at play,” the actor who plays Jaime, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, told the Daily Beast. “It took me awhile to wrap my head around it, because I think that, for some people, it’s just going to look like rape. The intention is that it’s not just that.”

When asked directly whether it’s rape, Coster-Waldau responded, “Yes, and no. There are moments where she gives in, and moments where she pushes him away. But it’s not pretty.” The director, Alex Graves, has expressed a similar perspective. “Well, it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle,” Graves told Alan Sepinwall in a recent interview.

Although Game of Thrones fans recoiled at the scene between Jaime and Cersei, it’s unfortunately not hard to see the attitudes that could have contributed to creating it. We’re raised in a society that doesn’t teach people they can withdraw their consent at any moment, doesn’t emphasize that sexual partners need to be seeking explicit consent every step of the way, and doesn’t draw hard lines in the sand when it comes to what’s considered assault. We frequently tell sexual assault survivors that what they experienced didn’t really “count” as rape.

The way we talk about rape, the systems we have in place for investigating and punishing rape, and the way we approach rape victims are all wrapped up in our struggle to recognize when someone’s consent has been violated, and our failure to acknowledge how serious that is. It’s perhaps no wonder we’re confused. Kids don’t grow up learning about consent, and it’s not a concept that’s deeply ingrained in our culture, so they don’t necessarily know when those boundaries have been crossed. Without that knowledge, people like Graves and Coster-Waldau can look at the interaction between Jaime and Cersei — or a college administrator can consider a sexual assault that occurred between two students after they attended a party together — and mislabel it as “consensual.”

This is already happening among our youth. A recent study of young women who have experienced some type of sexual violence found that most of them simply assume that sex is something that’s done to them, in the way that Jaime does what he pleases to Cersei, and not something that they can be an active participant in. Other research has found that rapists don’t necessarily believe they’ve done anything wrong because they simply feel entitled to women’s bodies.

If Graves and Coster-Waldau were attempting to portray something that viewers would perceive as consensual, they obviously didn’t succeed. And the fact that there’s such a gulf between those apparent intentions and the scene’s reception speaks to some fundamental truths about our society’s failure to clarify what constitutes a consensual sexual relationship in the first place. These two men certainly aren’t alone in their assumptions that sexual assault can have blurred lines, that something violent and invasive can become a “turn-on,” that two people who have a previous sexual history aren’t likely to have a purely nonconsensual experience. Those are incredibly common rape myths, and they’re pervasive in influencing our attitudes about sexual assault.