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The Handmaid's Tale shows that TV is still reliant on rape culture a decade after Game of Thrones

  • "Game of Thrones, which debuted 10 years ago this spring, has the dubious honor of being the ne plus ultra of rape culture on television," says Sophie Gilbert. "No series before, or since, has so flagrantly served up rape and assault simply for kicks, without a shadow of a nod toward 'realism' (because dragons). The genre is fantasy, and the fantasy at hand is a world in which every woman, no matter her power or fortune, is likely to be violated in front of our eyes. Rape is like blood on Game of Thrones, so commonplace that viewers become inured to it, necessitating ever more excess to grab our attention. It’s brutal, graphic, and hollow. It’s also intentional." But as Gilbert points out, Game of Thrones cut down on rape scenes in later seasons after backlash, yet its viewership didn't suffer. So why are shows like The Handmaid's Tale and, recently, Amazon's Them so reliant on depictions of rape? "The time has long since come, I think, to stop watching any show that treats sexual assault cheaply or as any kind of temporary narrative hot potato to be picked up and rapidly discarded," says Gilbert. "Rape shouldn’t be a motivating force for a male character (The Sopranos, True Detective), a humbling or instigating force for an unlikable character (House of Cards, Bates Motel, Private Practice, The Americans), or a casual expression of tastelessness (pick any season of American Horror Story). Writers should stop imagining female characters falling in love with rapists, a trope that began with Laura and Luke on General Hospital and has persisted ever since, on The Handmaid’s Tale, The Fall, and Orange Is the New Black, justifying assault as a twisted kind of courtship. Writers who don’t identify as women or who have no first- or secondhand experience with sexual assault should consider carefully why they want to add it to a show, and should have to defend their impulses in doing so. The strange value of Game of Thrones is that it highlighted how tediously prestige television has come to rely on rape, both as titillation and as a catchall traumatic event that even the most lauded shows overuse to enable male heroism and character development." Pointing to Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You, Gilbert says she's not arguing that rape has to be a taboo subject. "Watching HBO up to its premiere, you could have been forgiven for understanding rape as simply the violent sexual abuse of a woman," says Gilbert. "I May Destroy You, more gratifyingly, reframed it as a series of realistic violations—the stealthy removal of a condom during sex, a con played to trick a woman into a threesome, a consensual encounter between two men that becomes assault when the word no is ignored. Above all, the question that writers should ask themselves, and that viewers should weigh, is why a rape is appearing onscreen or onstage in a work of art. When it is, it should be written, or at the very least talked through, with women or those with lived experience on the subject, who have enough power to challenge it. It should do more than simply exploit a real-life scourge for dramatic reasons. It should be able to make the staggering number of people who’ve survived sexual violence feel something more than pain when they watch."

    TOPICS: The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu, Game of Thrones, Them