SPOILERS for Game of Thrones’ past season and finale follow.
I absolutely love Game of Thrones. It’s got dragons and giants and massive ice walls and political intrigue, all of which I am very much into. I’ve read all the books, seen every episode, and am currently on the lookout for a Ned Stark action figure whilst on vacation. I’m a huge, nerdy fan.
That being said, this season of Game of Thrones has been troubling in terms of its gender dynamics. Poor treatment of female characters is nothing new for the show, but they seem to have stepped it up a notch and even deviated from the books to make things worse for the women of Westeros. This was most glaringly demonstrated earlier in the season where a sexual encounter between Cersei and Jaime that was consensual in the book became rape in the show. In the book, Cersei expressed some location-based trepidation about being caught with Jaime but quickly relented, while in the show she repeatedly refused him as he forced himself on her and never assented.
Few people involved in the show seemed particularly irked about the change, with several of them saying it wasn’t actually rape (it was). Furthermore, the change served no real narrative purpose. The arcs for both characters continued unchanged, and in fact coloured the way the rape was viewed.
Jaime’s arc this year was one of completed redemption. He’d grown as a character over the past three seasons, and now we’re supposed to see him as a hero, a shining knight in the cesspool of King’s Landing. He stood up to his father, sided with his brother when no one else would, and sent Brienne off with new armour and a sword made of Valyrian steel. The last thing he did this season was defy his father, the courts, and the gods by freeing Tyrion and helping him escape his death sentence.
Cersei’s arc was one of vengeance. After Joffrey was murdered, she blamed Tyrion and pursued him with a crazed fury. The audience loves Tyrion, so we were supposed to hate Cersei for falsely accusing him just as we were supposed to love Jaime for helping him. The season was further riddled with digs against Cersei, particularly via the new, younger queen, Margaery. The last thing Cersei did this season was stand up to her father and refuse to marry Ser Loras, a moment of redemption that was quickly undermined when she ran to Jaime and declared her undying love before having sex with her rapist in a scene that implied all was forgiven. She was willing to tear down her dynasty just to be with the man who raped her.
Basically, Jaime was supposed to be the hero and Cersei was supposed to be the villain. Thus, when Jaime raped Cersei, many commenters excused Jaime (“He’s a good guy, really!”, “He loves her!”) and were entirely unsympathetic to Cersei (“Deep down, she actually wanted it,” “It’s not like they haven’t had sex before”). It’s a classic example of rape culture that the show went out of its way to depict and then excuse.
In the books, when Cersei and Jaime have sex next to Joffrey’s dead body in the sept it was not only consensual, it was also the last time they did so. Various anger and resentments soon boiled up, culminating in Jaime helping Tyrion instead of giving Cersei what she wanted, and the relationship turned acrimonious.
The television writers deviated from the book twice, first in turning the sex in the sept into rape and then in changing their arc so that Cersei came back to Jaime so as to demonstrate that all was forgiven. I’m not a diehard about adaptation; I recognize that things have to change in new mediums and am all for television shows and movies tweaking books to make the story work better. But all these changes do is add yet another depiction of rape to a rape-addled show and then wave the rape away like it’s no big deal. There is no acknowledgment that Cersei was wronged and violated, despite the fact that we all saw it happen. Instead, the hero Jaime is vindicated and we’re all supposed to go on hating Cersei because she was so cruel to Tyrion.
I have no answers for how to deal with this cavalier approach to wronging and undermining female characters. The books are rough for women as well but rarely excessively so, while the show has taken it to new levels for no discernible purpose. I hope that in the off-season, the producers think about what they’ve done with Cersei and their approach to female characters generally, and come at season five with a more careful eye for the gender dynamics of the show. Westeros is a brutal world, obviously, but they don’t need to lean into it and put their female characters at the forefront of it. Especially with all that’s coming up; things are not going to get better for anyone, but there are ways to depict the brutality of this world without making it worse than it needs to be. Some cognizance of how they’ve treated women and concern for doing better moving forward would go a long way.