The Game of Thrones Rape Scene: Why We Can't Pretend It Never Happened

Pretending that a rape never happened is a problem—regardless of whether it took place in fiction or reality.
Cersei Lannister photo courtesy of HBO

The character Cersei Lannister from the show Game of Thrones. Photo courtesy of HBO.

*Editor's Note: This post contains one spoiler for season 4 of Game of Thrones, but you probably already know what happened.

In the third episode of the fourth season of Game of Thrones, Jaime Lannister rapes Cersei Lannister. The two are siblings and long-time lovers, and in the scene Jaime forces himself on Cersei. Terrible moments are common in Game of Thrones, but this one reached a new level of disturbance and even the show’s creators, from series author George R.R. Martin to episode director Alex Graves, commented publicly on this scene.

“They’re doing for the show the same thing that happens all the time, finding reasons to excuse a rapist for rape.”

Now two weeks have passed and, according to some, it’s time to let it go. Yesterday at the Daily Beast, Andrew Romano wrote a piece headlined “Why We Should Pretend the Game of Thrones Rape Scene Never Happened.” Romano writes that we should move forward watching the show as though Jaime’s not a rapist.

Romano’s argument is basically this: the rape is based on a parallel scene in the books, where Cersei is reluctant but eventually consents to sex with her brother. In adapting this scene for television, Alex Graves and his writers intended this scene to be consensual, but failed in execution. This is why Alex Graves, when asked about the scene, said it wasn’t rape: he honestly did not think he had made a rape scene.

Romano writes: “The rape wasn’t supposed to be a rape. It was supposed to look consensual. The filmmakers messed up. (Italics in original.)

Romano presents his evidence, some of it convincing, that viewers should not consider this rape scene for the purposes of watching Game of Thrones. “Pull the clip from show. Play it in sex ed class. Use it as a teachable moment.” But if you watch Game of Thrones, ignore it entirely.

On Twitter, Christopher Orr from The Atlantic, who made a similar argument after the episode aired, voiced his support of Romano’s piece.

For the record, I’m not convinced by this argument. The showrunners may or may not have intended to write the scene as it unfolded, but as a viewer, that’s irrelevant. In the HBO series Game of Thrones, Jamie raped Cersei. Whether that was intentional or just bad filmmaking, Graves filmed and edited a rape scene. It happened; now the show’s creators have to write these characters with the consequences. No take-backs.

But whether or not one is convinced that we should ignore this moment on a television show in order to perhaps increase our enjoyment of Jaime Lannister and Game of Thrones, I think we would be remiss not to step back one more level and think about the argument that Romano is making, and logic that it follows.

In Game of Thrones, Jaime raped Cersei. No one disputes this. Jaime has sex with a woman who repeatedly tells him “no” and “stop.” That’s rape.

It's also clear that Alex Graves, the director of this episode, did not intend to film a rape scene. Graves’ defense winds through power struggles and turn-ons and consent, but his take on this scene is that Jaime and Cersei had, by the end, consensual sex. He did not intend to orchestrate a rape scene.

Andrew Romano, a writer for The Daily Beast, is convinced by Alex Graves and the context of the show and the characters, that this wasn’t supposed to be rape, and as a result we should pretend it didn’t happen. Despite what we “unequivocally, unavoidably, undeniably” know was a rape, and “as morally discomfiting as it is,” Romano says it’s time we forget it.

Christopher Orr, taking up Romano’s argument, tweets that we should not blame Jaime, the rapist, for the failures of the showrunners. The showrunners did not intend it to happen, and thus, it’s not Jaime’s fault that he raped Cersei.

You see what’s going on here. A rape occurs. A claim is made that this rape was unintentional. Another person says it’s better if we all just forget it. Then another person says, don’t blame the rapist.

Game of Thrones is fiction, and nobody, Alex Graves or Andrew Romano or Christopher Orr, is staking controversial positions here. Television, no matter how much it might affect our culture, is not reality. But this progress of logic—from "We know it was rape" to "Just pretend it didn’t happen"—has become so familiar in our culture that we fail sometimes to even recognize it.

The first reaction I had to Romano’s piece was about my belief that once a piece of art is released to the world, the artist no longer has any authority to direct audiences’ impressions of that work. That’s the brain-space I inhabit.

The implications of pretending a rape did not happen, even a fictional one, should not go unnoticed.

When I mentioned Romano’s argument to a friend, her first response was: “They’re doing for the show the same thing that happens all the time, finding reasons to excuse a rapist for rape. Not only that—but they are actually performing the role of rapist—writing Cersei’s rape without even realizing she is not consenting.”

I have to admit as soon as she said this I was embarrassed that I had not made the connection. I was engaging in an important debate about a television adaptation of a fantasy series, and the consequences of creative decisions. But regardless of what side I was on, I wasn’t recognizing the other argument that was happening right under my nose: debating whether rape is better off ignored.

I’ve long partaken in the conversation about the value and consequences of rape inside the world of Game of Thrones, and I think that conversation will be one the lasting legacies of the show, for better or worse.

But here was an instance of moving the argument from the fictional world to the real one: to the showrunners, the directors, even the audience. The question was not, "Are Cersei and Jaime better of pretending this didn’t happen?" but "Are we better off pretending this rape didn’t happen?" It’s not the same thing.

None of this is to imply that Romano and Orr are wrong. They’re arguing for the most effective way to watch Game of Thrones, and nothing else.

But the implications of pretending a rape did not happen—even a fictional one—should not go unnoticed. Game of Thrones may be fiction, but its viewers live in the same real world where these arguments are used for a similar goal far too often.