This Week on Dear Television:
By Sarah Mesle
May 6, 2014
"EVERYWHERE IN THE WORLD, they hurt little girls,” Cersei tells Oberyn. Oberyn wants to believe otherwise. I suppose we do too. Oberyn is from Dorne, a place much discussed in Game of Thrones but never (that I can remember) shown. It is extremely pleasant, as a viewer, to imagine Dorne the way Oberyn describes it: as a sort of feminist paradise, where young girls laugh and play in (check it!) “swimming gardens,” content in the knowledge that their sexual expression, whatever form it takes, will never be used against them.
All the critics are loving Oberyn this season — me too — and while his handsomely poetic anti-Lannistering is a part of the reason why, I’m also lured by his vigorous defense of a world where daughters (he has eight, we learn) are protected. “In Dorne, we don’t hurt little girls,” Oberyn purrs at us. But we know these words are wrong before Cersei tells us so. Or are we not supposed to consider it a “hurt” that Oberyn, in Dorne, has been keeping Cersei’s daughter captive?
Here is one part of our world where, right now, girls are being hurt: Nigeria. As I write, the New York Times reports that approximately 276 teenage girls are being held captive, apparently by the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram. In a video released Monday, the leader of this group links the abduction of the girls specifically to the education they were trying to receive. He threatens to sell these girls into “marriage,” which Nicholas Kristof, for one, interprets to mean sexual slavery. I do not always agree with Nicholas Kristof, in either content or tone, but I suspect he’s basically right here. These girls are trying to make a world where they can protect themselves against at least some kinds of hurt, and their world is fighting back.
Although I’ve been distantly following the story of these girls, the attention I was giving it snapped into focus Monday morning. I had the chance to talk about television, and specifically Game of Throne’s sexual violence, on the local NPR program Press Play. It was only when listening to the broadcast afterwards that I learned Press Play’s leading story on Monday was about Nigeria and the rise of militant groups there. From Nigeria to Westeros: Cersei, it seems, is right.
Listening to these segments back to back made me think differently about how I might write this recap. The questions the hurting of these Nigerian girls raises for viewers like me is: in a world where real girls are being kidnapped and carted into slavery, why and how should we talk about Cersei, even if she is right? What’s the relation between the fourteen million people who have watched the sexual violence of Game of Thrones, and the substantially smaller portion of that number, I’d wager, worrying today about the global traffic in women? And how does our awareness of the way those girls are hurting put pressure on our culture’s ongoing fascination with fictions of violence, and the way we discuss them?
It is very difficult, I find, to write about fictional sexual violence in a way that respects the complexity of the issue and the intensity of the feelings and experiences around it. Knowing that something I’d said about televisual sexual violence was going to be played over Los Angeles airwaves to anyone who wanted to hear sent me into spirals of miserable anxiety. Had I said the right thing? What had I left out? Press Play’s host, Madeleine Brand, had made the important point that when we evaluate a show’s portrayal of sexual violence, we should think first about whether the show treated the victim’s recovery as serious and important; I agreed, but then proceeded to talk about Jaime, not Cersei. WHY NOT CERSEI? What did it mean that, when on the spot, I found myself talking about a man’s experience?
I have been lately watching True Detective, a show that takes sexual violence against women as its starting point. One scene keeps returning to my mind: the detective Rustin Cohle, played by an angular Matthew McConaughey, stares at a flood of photographs of murdered women. The focus, in this scene, is not on the women themselves but rather on Cohle’s attempt to discern what their deaths mean. Even as he himself imagines their perspectives, the show’s primary interest is not the women but rather Cohle’s soulful attention to them. The camera moves between shots of the women’s dead faces and Cohle’s active one — a huge portion of True Detective is devoted to watching Cohle’s face — and the viewer is meant to admire the seriousness of McConaughey’s acting, the intelligence of the character he portrays, and, as many have pointed out, the great difficulty of being a man in a world where men do terrible things to girls.
I have two sons and there is no question in my mind that navigating their manhood in this world will be difficult for them. Patriarchal norms truly do fuck us all. Nevertheless, as a woman, I have little patience for shows like True Detective. Consider the difference between True Detective’s dead women and Game of Throne’s portrayal, last week, of the women in Craster’s Keep being actively assaulted by Karl and his mutinous crows. Which scene “goes too far”? For me, the scene in Game of Thrones was specifically about the revulsion and horror of men pushing women’s experience into the background. It was gut wrenching to watch, but I would rather encounter that terror directly. At least, while it was happening, Game of Thrones was in no way asking me to admire some dude’s acting.
“First of His Name,” this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, was kind of boring. I can’t lie. For me, one of the major plot points was Daenerys's new clothes: for some difficult-to-fathom reason she’s given up the beloved blue dress/boots combo for a drapey white halter. I guess it’s meant to look queenly, but it just makes me wonder if Missandei is stuck doing her laundry. Other than that, there was a lot of talking, which might have been satisfying, but wasn’t always. For example, Podrick and Brienne negotiate armor maintenance (maybe Podrick can do Dany’s laundry?), which is heartwarming, but Pod and Brienne are ultimately too similar — noble, self-sacrificing — to get enough friction for a good road trip story. Arya and the Hound don’t tell us much that’s new. The storyline that advances the most is Sansa’s: she’s gone to a new-to-her part of the world where they hurt girls in much the same way as elsewhere: isolating them; patrolling their sexuality; manipulating their emotions with a mixture of brutality and coddling; convincing them that imagining the world differently is naive and merits punishment.
The episode ends with a swashbuckling scene — John’s attack on Craster’s Keep — that is meant, I think, to give us a sense of revenge. The scene lacks much of Game of Thrones signature realism — in particular, we get an unnecessary one-on-one fight between John and Karl that plays out just like every heroic battle scene you’ve ever watched — but I was not sorry to see Karl stabbed by the blank-faced woman he had punched an episode before. I was thrilled to see John’s dire wolf Ghost get some revenge; I was glad (although worried: wouldn’t the flames bring the Wildings?) to see the women of Craster’s Keep reject the Crows and burn their prison to the ground.
But the end of the episode, it seems, leaves me still thinking about what to say about Cersei. How is Game of Thrones treating her, in the aftermath of her own sexual assault?
For those who do not recall, two episodes ago Cersei was forced into sex by Jaime. Despite the fact that Cersei says “no” basically throughout the event, the question of whether it is a rape is a matter of some controversy. Watching it, I myself felt somewhat confused. Does she kiss him back? She seems to? Does she hold her dead son’s hand? Critics have said yes, but I’ve been uncertain. If so, what does that mean? I have watched the episode several times, like a referee with my eyes glued to the instant replay monitor. Perhaps I need a different camera angle, or a bigger TV, or a better cable signal? At what level of pixels per inch does rape become undeniably visible?
Here is what’s complicated, this scene makes us remember, about rape. Rape is a psychological and physical fact. But as a word, it is also a legal category, and thus always a historical construction (you can read one fine account of rape as a US historical reality here). And rape is also an epistemological problem. I learned this, myself, in college, when a man inserted his penis into my good friend’s vagina, after she said that she did not want to have intercourse. This, to me, was rape. But to my friend, it was not. It was “an assault.” Shouldn’t she get to decide the facts of her own psyche? Every woman I know has versions of this story.
In trying to parse whether Cersei “was raped,” critics have asked the opinion of all sorts of people involved with the making of the show, but of course, no one can ask the one person who could answer definitively: Cersei. She is not real.
“First of His Name” prominently featured Cersei. She has strategic conversations with Margaery, with Tywin, and of course with Oberyn. These conversations show her to be full of both emotion and intelligence, and savvy about how she displays both qualities. In these scenes, Game of Thrones asks us to ponder what Cersei’s actions tell us about her emotional experience. Was this rape, or assault, to her? What does discussing Cersei help us understand about what we believe rape to be, now, and how we punish and reward the different ways women respond to it?
Last week I talked about Game of Thrones vis-à-vis Cliven Bundy; now I’m mentioning Nigeria. I do not think that television is only worthwhile if it resonates with meaningful political events. And I do not think that Cersei’s fictiveness makes her experience trivial or not worth discussing.
In fact, I think just the opposite. If novels put us in characters’ heads, forcing us to empathize, television shows leave us at the surface, forcing us to interpret. And this act of interpretation, and the arguments it provokes, might ideally help us hone the tools we need to act politically in a world where girls are hurt everywhere.
These interpretive tools might be politically feeble ones. Like Arya’s elegant sword, they might not be useful weapons in a direct attack on huge men in thick armor. But we have seen, elsewhere, what Arya’s needle can do. And there are too many girls who need us to turn down any weapon we might reach for.
Burn it all down,