Thrones' routine rape scenes draw fire
FROM its very beginning, Game Of Thrones has been riddled with sexual brutality.
The franchise - which started as a series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin about a bleak, feudal world - has, at various times, included a warrior king who claims his child bride on their wedding night and a gang rape of a young woman by "half a hundred shouting men behind a tanner's shop".
These scenes and others raised concerns, but this discussion was confined to readers and critics of fantasy fiction.
Now, the debate over the series' sexual violence has spilled into the mainstream and grown vehement, fuelled by the explosive growth of HBO's Game Of Thrones series, now in its fourth season.
In the latest episode, women held captive in a wintry shelter are sexually brutalised. In the deeply controversial episode that preceded it, a scheming noblewoman in an incestuous relationship with her brother is forced to have sex with him, despite her cries of no.
Rape is often presented in television plot lines, where it has far-reaching and lasting consequences for the affected characters.
But critics of Game Of Thrones fear that rape has become so pervasive in the drama that it is almost background noise - a routine and unshocking occurrence.
Many viewers were riled by the television episode containing the rape of the noblewoman, Cersei Lannister, by her brother, Jaime, and protested on blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
The outrage was further fuelled by comments from the director of that episode, Alex Graves, who told the website Hitfix.com that the characters' coupling became "consensual by the end".
That left audiences wondering if the show's producers truly understood what they had depicted.
"That is not what I saw, and that is not what many people saw," said Maureen Ryan, a television critic for The Huffington Post, who wrote that the scene was unequivocally a rape.
In response to e-mail questions, Martin wrote that, as an artist, he had an obligation to tell the truth about history and human nature.
"Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day," said Martin, 65, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
"To omit them from a narrative centred on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest, and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history are derived not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves," he added.
David Benioff and Daniel Weiss, the show runners of the HBO series and responsible for its day-to-day operations, declined to be interviewed.
Michael Lombardo, president for programming at HBO, said in an e-mail message: "The choices our creative teams make are based on the motivations and sensibilities that they believe define their characters.
"We fully support the vision and artistry of Dan and David's exceptional work and we feel this work speaks for itself."
Other television shows, like Downton Abbey and Private Practice, have had story lines about rape, but they were singular events that explored the repercussions.
"The best depictions don't just leave it at the dramatic device of the rape itself," said Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an anti-sexual violence group.
"They use it to tell a deeper story about recovery and what effect it has on that person."
But Game Of Thrones does not seem to be doing that.
Mariah Huehner, a writer and editor of comic books who has contributed repeatedly to the online debate, said: "To have sexual violence treated so cavalierly, it's very difficult to see that.
"It's too upsetting to see, and I just don't know if I can keep going with that."
As for the books, readers say that Martin's presentation of rape underscores the harshness of his world, but some question what they say is his over-reliance on it and an often lurid tone when writing about sexual matters.
"The 'no means yes' thing is there in the books," said Sady Doyle, an essayist who often writes about Game Of Thrones.
"The sexualised punishments are there. It's in the text and it's vital to the text. It's something that comes up, over and over again."
Martin said his philosophy as a writer is to show and not tell, and doing so requires "vivid sensory detail".
As the books are adapted for other media, sequences that were described obliquely in the novels have become more explicit, more outrageous and more problematic.
Martin said the Game Of Thrones television and comic-book adaptations "are in the hands of others, who make their own artistic choices as to what sort of approach will work best in their respective mediums".