HBO has a rape problem.
The network has been criticized numerous times, for shows that rely heavily on rape and sexual violence against women like “The News Room,” “The Night Of,” and, of course, “Game Of Thrones.” It’s “Game of Thrones,” the gritty fantasy-drama based on George R.R. Martin’s series of novels that has probably drawn the most ire for its gratuitous sexual violence against women ― including main characters like Sansa Stark and Cersei Lannister.
On Saturday, during a Television Critics Association summer Q&A, several reporters asked Casey Bloys (HBO’s new President of Programming) to give an explanation for the cable network’s strange and disturbing trend of rape and sexual assault against women on its shows, including the upcoming sci-fi Western “Westworld.”
Bloys’s answers were beyond cringeworthy. According to Buzzfeed, he mumbled something about the violence on HBO being “indiscriminate” and “not specific to women,” and that “men are castrated” and that “we’re going to kill everybody.”
He did finally concede, after being grilled for several minutes, that “the criticism is valid.”
One would hope, especially in light of past criticisms of HBO’s over-reliance on rape as a plot point, that its head of programming would have a more thoughtful and nuanced response to some very necessary ― and frequently asked ― questions. But as the television landscape suggests, with shows including “Downton Abbey,” “Top of the Lake,” “The Americans,” “House of Cards,” and even “Scandal” using rape as a plot device, the rape plot has become so pervasive that it’s almost a given in a prestige drama.
Perhaps more frustrating than this pervasiveness and Bloys’s inability to speak to that, is the fact that his only explanation was to compare violence against men on HBO shows to sexual violence against women. Let’s not. The two are very different things. Why? Because the violence against women is usually gendered and sexualized, with the women, as Guardian writer Noah Berlatsky puts it, “always vulnerable and unheroic.” (We can debate the danger of desensitizing audiences to violence on the big and small screens, but that’s a separate conversation.)
An over-reliance on rape plots is simply a symptom of lazy storytelling. So often, when a TV show wants to give a female character a tragic backstory, or put her on the path to redemption, or punish her, it uses rape to achieve that end.
We’ve seen it on “Orange is the New Black” with Pennsatucky, “Scandal” with Mellie, and of course on “Game of Thrones” with Cersei. Rape scenes are used for shock value, and they’re often filmed, disgustingly, in a way that sexualizes the victim. Scenes in which women are raped or murdered (or both) are almost never filmed from the woman’s point of view.
Of course, rape can be depicted effectively ― season one of Netflix’s “Jessica Jones” for example, has a compelling and nuanced approach to rape.” The writers of the show managed to devote an entire season to exploring the impact and trauma of villain Kilgrave’s physical and mental violation of Jones without ever actually showing her rape. If a Marvel show can figure out how to tackle rape, others shows should be able to follow suit.
Surely, there are things other than rape that can be used to build and broaden female characters. Surely, we can get past a point where writers willfully perpetuate rape culture by actually debating whether scenes involving blatant rape (as in the case of Cersei and Jamie) are actually scenes of consensual sex.
What happened at Saturday’s TCA Q&A was incredibly important. The persistence of the reporters and the vague responses from Casey Bloys, are the epitome of HBO’s (and so many other TV networks’) rape problem.
We need to keep asking questions of those in positions of power at these studios, and, hopefully, the people behind these shows will not just try to hedge with half-baked answers, but actually start making some changes.