There’s a lot of froth and excitement on the Interwebs about the recent episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which involved a graphic rape scene.
For a number of fans, this crossed a line and forced them to give up the show–a show which up to now has been extensively violent and sexual, with depictions of incest, dismemberment, beheadings, sadism, murder of children, murder of a pregnant woman and her unborn child, and the exploding of a human head with one’s bare hands… to name a few choice subjects.
The series is full of questionable matter, but we all draw our lines in the sand differently.
On the one hand, some question what makes rape any different from the above. The show’s writers are clearly depicting a horrible world in which people with power often abuse those without power, including through sexual assault. The perpetrator is an already-established cruel villain delighted by inflicting pain and stripping his victims of any shred of humanity left to them. Defenders of the show might say this accurately depicts evil, both in the individual perpetrator and in the world at large. This is the grim reality of the world Martin created in the novels and all too often reflective of the world around us. At this point, there’s sort of a sense that “you knew what you were in for when you clicked on this show, and you could turn it off if you really wanted to.”
On the other hand, is a rape scene necessary at all? Or is it a trope and a symptom of lazy writing? Abuse of women is all too common even in our modern “progressive” society, let alone medieval times–something I hope we’d all prefer to see changed. Doesn’t portraying such violence glorify or encourage the act? Is it just a cheap grab at the “feels” of the reader, an easy way to engender compassion or empathy for a character? Does the scene require graphic and detailed explanation? Will this moment serve a purpose? Or is it only there to prove the grittiness of the storyline? Are we pushing an edge to say something meaningful, or simply because there’s an edge to push?
I have to ask, what’s wrong with a simple fade-to-black? When the lovers passionately kiss and start pawing at each other, they can close the bedroom door without showing anything specific, and the meaning of that moment isn’t lost. When the sadistic villain makes obvious threats about what he intends to do with his captive, again, we don’t need to see it take place to guess at what actually takes place between scenes. When the killer is bearing down on his intended victim, we don’t have to see a knife plunge repeatedly into someone’s body to understand the peril of the moment.
I know, that’s a nicety for the prudes and the oddities who don’t want or need to see nudity and blood splashed on every other scene. There’s a reason this particular show plays on HBO and not NBC primetime.
And this leads me to think about writing and storytelling. Whether we’re talking graphic sex, graphic violence, or a combination of the two, I have to ask: What’s the point of it? Is it shock value or storytelling?
I’ve seen the question posed long before this episode of Game of Thrones. And I’ve given it some thought, but only in the distant sense of conjecture. Then I considered my fantasy novel, currently in first-draft form being read by a selection of alpha readers.
There’s a scene early on where the main character is assaulted. When writing, it struck me that rough men willing to murder an innocent and isolated woman would probably also have no qualms about taking advantage of her situation. I don’t provide a heap of details, and the moment “fades to black” before anything graphic takes place. In this case, the desperation she feels in the moment triggers activation of a hidden power as yet undiscovered, which leads to the rest of the events of the book.
One of my friends pointed out that the scene lacks the sense of utter powerlessness and helplessness that would take hold during an actual assault. There’s a sudden crippling realization, I’m told, that nothing you can do is going to stop this from happening.
Maybe that’s part of the fantasy, I guess… that in this one case, someone trapped in such a terrible situation suddenly finds empowerment and escape, and stops the assault before it goes too far.
A mantra I’ve often heard among writers is that “every word has to do double work” meaning every word counts and serves a purpose. There’s no room for bloat and fat. So if we include anything graphic in our creative works, it ought to have a greater point than mere spectacle or sensationalism. We can show how evil respects no boundary formed by civil society; that doesn’t mean we simply violate social bounds to show off.
I’m not sure that’s the guideline the show is following, but it works for me.
I’m curious: what are your thoughts as a reader or viewer regarding graphic violence and sexuality in a written story, movie, or television show?