An acquaintance recently reached out to me about the much-talked about rape scene on Game of Thrones. As a fan of the show, she had been following the media and blogger reaction to the scene, and was bothered by the fact that she didn’t find it all that disturbing. As a woman informed about and compassionate towards the issue of sexual violence, she wanted to talk about her reaction, but didn’t want to step on any landmines with her network by doing so in public venues.
What bothered ME was the fact that a strong potential champion on the issue of sexual violence felt shut out of a conversation because the public dialogue did not make space for her to express her perspective or ask questions without fear of being seen as insensitive, or worse.
The internet furor and debate reminds us that we can all work a little harder to understand why a rape scene in a popular television series this might be interpreted in different ways. And we all owe each other a quick minute before we jump to the conclusion that anyone who disagrees with us is an ignorant rape apologist or angry over-the-top feminist.
So let’s talk through this like human beings, okay? Here are the themes that a scene like this brings up:
Theme #1: The right of an artist to reflect a variety of perspective on challenging social and human issues. Art has an important place in our culture and society, but one that has always been controversial in some ways. Artists create, provoke, and reflect their experience of the world in sometimes raw and shocking ways. Art imitates life but it’s not necessarily a reliable way to learn about common experiences.
Some artists are informed and educated, and use their art for social change. Some artists are gifted at reflected a core aspect of the human experience through a particular creative medium. Some artists are simply psychopaths who are gifted with the paintbrush or pen. All have their place in the world. And the mere fact that your art has gained a following doesn’t reflect which category of artist you might be.
Discussion Questions: Do the writers, directors, and producers of Game of Thrones have more or a less of a right to their art than someone like Emma Sulkowicz, the sexual assault advocate from Columbia University who has expressed herself through performance art? Why is one artist more entitled to portray sexual violence than another?
Theme #2: The responsibility of the entertainment industry to educate themselves about how sexual violence takes place and the degree to which their work reflects reality. If we extrapolated common experience from television, you’d think that most Americans were doctors, detectives, serial killers, or dancers/singers. On the one hand, we have come to accept that entertainment is distinct from reality. On the other hand, it’s odd that such a common experience is missing from entertainment.
If 1 out of 4 women and 1 out of 6 men will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes, why don’t we see more survivors on television and in movies? One would assume that rates of sexual violence are the same among writers, directors, producers, and studio owners. Sexual violence is an inherent part of the identities of so many humans – and impacts those around them – yet is largely invisible when it comes to prominent characters and shows. Perhaps if sexual violence incidents and survivors were more commonly portrayed in television and movies, we would spend less time picking apart individual scenes and shows.
There are many themes around sexual violence that could be more intentionally reflected in entertainment, such as the fact that the crime impacts both men and women, survivors usually know their perpetrator, perpetrators typically commit multiple crimes. At the same time, a single story of sexual violence or assault will never represent every survivor’s story. Some are raped in college. Some in high school. Some are abused as children by coaches, teachers, priests, or friends.
Discussion Questions: Is violence on television entertainment? Why are we entertained by violence? Are we comfortable with the things that entertain us? How could incidents of sexual violence and sexual violence survivors be more accurately reflected in entertainment?
Theme #3: The ways in which ANY public discussion or representation of sexual violence triggers a polarized conversation, making it difficult for folks to engage in constructive dialogue. When seeking information or context on sexual violence, there aren’t a lot of places you can go for information that doesn’t make direct or inferred judgments about you. And there is a much higher risk of being attacked in a very personal way if you ask a question about something – even with the best intentions.
In this case, if the scene really bothered you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you believe that television should never reflect sexual violence or that the writers of Game of Thrones are monsters. And if the scene doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t sensitive to the experiences of sexual violence survivors or that you aren’t a champion for these issues. There is range of reactions that are totally normal and appropriate, and you are allowed to have them.
I love it when people reach out with “dumb questions” or asking for perspective on something related to sexual violence. But I wish there were more places where people could find a non-judgmental way to explore these issues.
Discussion Questions: What are the “dumb” questions you have about sexual violence? Where can you go to get more information? What is your reaction if someone asks you a “dumb” question about sexual violence? How can we all help each other learn?
With all of this in mind, here are a few takeaways from Game of Thrones and all of the surrounding debate:
- Don’t be afraid to ask all your “dumb” questions. It’s the only way to learn. It’s up to all of us to create safe spaces for discussion. If you don’t have a place where you can ask your questions, come to The Enliven Project’s Facebook Page and we’ll take them on.
- Make sexual violence survivors – and their range of experiences, personalities, and pathways to healing and justice – visible in entertainment. (There is an effort to do this with veterans called 6 Certified – why not create a similar effort with survivors of sexual violence?)
- Showcase and promote art that reflects diverse perspectives on sexual violence – as survivors, as friends and partners, and as ourselves.