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Here are my disclaimers: This post contains discussions of sexual assault and rape culture that may be upsetting for some readers. I also go into details about Game of Thrones season four and "A Song of Ice and Fire."
By now, a decent amount has been written regarding the rape scene between Jamie and Cersei in "Breaker of Chains," Sunday night's "Game of Thrones" episode. In the scene, set in a place of worship, Cersei mourns over her son's body and begs Jamie, her twin and illicit lover, to avenge his death by killing their brother. They kiss; she pulls away. Overcome with anger at her request and frustrated with their deteriorating relationship, Jamie pins Cersei to the floor and rapes her while she urges him to stop and tells him that "it's not right."
The scene, like the many depictions of rape in both "Game of Thrones" and "A Song of Ice and Fire," is difficult to endure. Neither the HBO showrunners nor George R. R. Martin has a notable track record of executing rape scenes flawlessly. Cersei, arguably the series' strongest female character, is grief-stricken and broken even before Jaime lays a hand on her, making the assault even darker and more upsetting. Watching the horrifying scene was painful, but I felt confident that it would spark some sort of online discussion about rape and rape culture. It did -- but not the one I was expecting.
One of the first articles on the topic, written by Sonia Saraiya of The A.V. Club, called the scene dark and "hyperbolically awful" -- even more so because "Cersei wants to have sex" in the corresponding scene from the novel. Jezebel's post on the subject echoed Saraiya's concerns, claiming that the showrunners decided to turn a sex scene into a rape scene, "the rapey cherry atop the already rapey sundae." Roxane Gay, a feminist whom I admire and whose opinion I trust, wrote in an article for Salon that "Cersei's consent is clear" in the novel.
I wonder if these authors were reading different versions of the text -- or maybe they were simply ignoring the blatant sexual violence in the scene. Read for yourself:
She kissed him. A light kiss, the merest brush of her lips on his, but he could feel her tremble as he slid his arms around her. “I am not whole without you.”
There was no tenderness in the kiss he returned to her, only hunger. Her mouth opened for his tongue. “No,” she said weakly when his lips moved down her neck, “not here. The septons…”
“The Others can take the septons.” He kissed her again, kissed her silent, kissed her until she moaned. Then he knocked the candles aside and lifted her up onto the Mother’s altar, pushing up her skirts and the silken shift beneath. She pounded on his chest with feeble fists, murmuring about the risk, the danger, about their father, about the septons, about the wrath of gods. He never heard her. He undid his breeches and climbed up and pushed her bare white legs apart. One hand slid up her thigh and underneath her smallclothes. When he tore them away, he saw that her moon’s blood was on her, but it made no difference.
“Hurry,” she was whispering now, “quickly, quickly, now, do it now, do me now. Jaime Jaime Jaime.” Her hands helped guide him. “Yes,” Cersei said as he thrust, “my brother, sweet brother, yes, like that, yes, I have you, you’re home now, you’re home now, you’re home.” She kissed his ear and stroked his short bristly hair. Jaime lost himself in her flesh. He could feel Cersei’s heart beating in time with his own, and the wetness of blood and seed where they were joined.
But no sooner were they done than the queen said, "Let me up. If we are discovered like this…"
In this scene, Cersei asks Jaime to stop, at one point resorting to physical force in an attempt to get away. They have sex because he physically overpowers her and refuses to let her go. When she finally relents, Jaime has already "pushed her bare white legs apart" and ripped off her underwear. Granted, the scene on television did not include Cersei eventually saying yes as she does in the novel -- but that doesn't make the preceding incidents any less sexually violent. Any reason is a good enough reason for a woman to not be forced into sex: Cersei gave five. "He never heard her."
Why are the authors of these articles so curiously forgiving of Jaime's forcefulness in the novel and so willing to equate Cersei's eventual acquiescence to consent? Since when is repeated, adamant refusal to perform a sex act compatible with "clear consent"?
Remember that last sex scene from "The Wolf of Wall Street"? Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Jordan Belfort, tries to have sex with Naomi, his wife. Naomi tells him to stop and tries to push him away, but eventually he muscles her onto the bed. Pinned beneath her husband, Naomi gives up. "OK, you want to fuck me?" she asks him. "Fuck me like it's the last time." In the scene, she lies on the bed without moving until he finishes, her face betraying a tired but fierce resentment. Naomi, like Cersei, does not consent: She is defeated.
The absence of "no" does not constitute consent. And in the cases of Cersei, Naomi, and the many women who have been manipulated, deceived or coerced into sex, sometimes the presence of an eventual "yes" doesn't even establish consent.
Here's the thing: As several of the show’s critics have argued, it's possible, even likely, that the showrunners are using the rape scene for its shock value. The plot of both the books and the show is dense with the abuse, murder, and cruel treatment of its female characters. But pretending that they wrote rape into a scene of consensual sex is ignoring the violence central to Jaime's and Cersei's exchange. We can all agree that Sunday's episode depicted rape, but let's not pretend that the novel depicted genuine, decisive consent.
"Breaker of Chains" is not perfectly true to the text; few of the episodes are. Nonetheless, if the show had portrayed a loving, consensual sex scene, in which "Cersei is pretty clearly into it," as one Jezebel commenter suggests, and Jamie remains "a figure of chivalric love," as Saraiya describes him, it would completely erase a sexually violent exchange from the plot.
Is the "Breaker of Chains" scene "more rapey" than the novel's? Perhaps -- but that's not a conversation I'm willing to prioritize, because it requires the use of trivializing words like "rapey." The conversation we should be having starts with these questions: Why are we so unwilling to expand our conversation about consent? Why does eventual acquiescence matter more than "No, not now, please don't"?
Sexual violence portrayed in pop culture is tricky territory. Assaulted women are too often characterized as permanently damaged victims or, even worse, they aren't characterized as victims at all. We should use episodes like "Breaker of Chains" to initiate more candid, public discussions of consent, healthy sexuality, and bodily autonomy instead of buying into the myth that "no" means "Keep going until I say yes."