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The Violent Legacy of “Game of Thrones”

by I.E.
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Recently, I wrote an article for this site about HBO’s Game of Thrones spin-off series, House of the Dragon, which is currently in production. In that article, I discussed an interview with actress Olivia Cooke who will play Alicent Hightower in the series. Regarding Dragon, Cooke told The Telegraph that “I wouldn’t feel comfortable in being a part of anything that has just egregious graphic violence towards women for no reason whatsoever, just because they want it to be tantalizing in a way that gets viewers.” I was encouraged by Cooke’s suggestion that Dragon might be more intentional in its use of violence than its predecessor.

Sansa-Theon-LoversGOT’s depictions of gratuitous violence, particularly violence towards women, were a recurring source of controversy throughout the show’s eight-year run. While violence can play an important role in fiction, Game of Thrones’s use of violence was often exploitive and in very poor taste. Well-known examples of the show’s preoccupation with shocking its audience include the murder of Robb Stark and his pregnant wife, the torture of Theon Greyjoy (an unnecessary narrative that ultimately devolved into a relentless mockery of those who experience trauma), and the rape of Sansa Stark. Game of Thrones didn’t just portray violence, it made light of it (we see this in the repeated use of unamusing jokes about rape and castration) or justified it (for example, in Season Eight, Sansa credits the man who raped her for her strength of character). The show’s attitude towards violence normalized inhumane behavior and language, rather than emphasizing the horrors of brutality.

Worse, reports have steadily trickled in that actors were sexually exploited and physically harmed during the production of the show. For example, in 2019, Emilia Clarke, who played Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, reported that she was pressured to appear in scenes nude rather than “disappoint her fans.” In 2021, Hannah Waddingham, who played Septa Unella, said that that the physical and mental discomfort that she experienced filming the show’s depiction of her character’s torture led her to seek counseling.

When our entertainment normalizes violence, rather than interrogating it, violence becomes normalized in our everyday lives. Violence has always been part of entertainment, but it should not be entertainment. A recent visitor to HBO Watch took to our comments section to voice a different opinion. “Change a formula,” the commentator wrote in response to Cooke’s statement, “lose an audience.” The notion that audiences flock to HBO because they are interested in depictions of violence, particularly sexual violence, is an opinion that seems to be shared by HBO executives. In 2012, Thrones director Neil Marshall reported that an “exec producer” took him aside to say: “You can go full frontal, you know. This is television, you can do whatever you want! And do it! I urge you to do it!… Look, I represent the pervert side of the audience, okay? Everybody else is the serious drama side, [but] I represent the perv side of the audience, and I’m saying I want full frontal nudity in this scene.” Sex, vulnerability, and violence (which are often inseparable from each other in Game of Thrones) sell. But at what cost?

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8 comments

Craig Tarbeck September 6, 2023 - 8:28 am

As a World of Ice & Fire historian, I 100% agree that this is a needlessly woke article on an island of its own that really only exists to anger and provoke those who are being targeted in it. First of all, for at least the first four seasons, the television show “Game of Thrones” didn’t just make up its own plot and depict sexual violence to make people watch it. There are five 500+ page novels that it comes from, and the producers followed the very meticulous story gardening of a mega super-genius and adapted those novels as well as they could to TV. George R. R. Martin came up with these characters and plot points far before the show was ever even thought of, and it appalls me that not in one paragraph or in one comment does it mention him even once. This is a writer who is generally regarded as being near the same level as Tolkien. He is a master of story. He knows what’s right and what might be going too far. If Daenerys were a real human who was put in that situation in that time period in that place, then yes what would have happened is she would have been r*ped. Sorry, that’s just what it is. And this is not something people debate at length either, George R. R. Martin knows what he’s doing. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it or watch it or ridicule people who have put so much thought and love into this fiction. Grow up.

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Paul September 20, 2022 - 7:41 pm

Oh boo hoo! This is how this stuff worked in this day and age. If too much realism isn’t your thing just walk away and shut your mouth. Nothing worse then a sexist complainer, especially about such a marvelous show. You are on an island, kid.

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Dinah July 22, 2022 - 12:53 pm

I agree.. my first time watching GOT lead me to turn it off completely when Daenerys Targaryen is wed to the Khal, who begins to rape her, and she learns to love him… what a fucked up story— NO THANK YOU!

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I.E. July 22, 2022 - 2:51 pm

Thanks for your comment, Dinah. I agree– it is hard to stomach the romanticization of sexual assault.

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Teapot Tempest September 28, 2021 - 10:42 am

GOT is just part of a more widepread devolution of narrative in popular entertainment. Do modern audiences really engage with outdated mediums like books and movies? We like the merchandise, but without overt cues (SEX! VIOLENCE! EDGY CASTING!) most productions just don’t survive. It is more a commentary about who we are becoming than the writers/directors who cater to us.

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none September 9, 2021 - 3:56 am

There was no controversy whatsoever.
If HBO churn out another “hollywoodised” piece of inept garbage
that ignores the attitudes and mores of the world it is set in for
the sake of political correctness – they will follow theair greatest success with their greatest failure.

This article is clearly politically correct manipulation designed to create
trouble after the fact.
If find it amazing anyone would publish such manufactured nonesense
by someone so clearly agenda driven.

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I.E. September 9, 2021 - 5:17 am

Thanks for reading my article! You are more than welcome to find a site willing to publish your own perspective on GoT. I recommend learning basic grammar and spelling conventions first, though.

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Paul September 20, 2022 - 7:45 pm

“If find it amazing anyone would publish such manufactured nonesense
by someone so clearly agenda driven.”

I totally agree and well said. This article is just a grab for attention. Truly just another feminist that will shake her finger at you and tell you she is offended, but offer up nothing of meaning in return.

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