Content warning: This piece contains references to sexual assault and harassment.
Turns out in the world of fantasy television, there are some real-world experiences that are still impossible to escape. One of them is sexual assault. Last week, House Of The Dragon showrunner Miguel Sapochnik told The Hollywood Reporter that the highly anticipated Game Of Thrones spin-off, premiering on HBO August 21, will pare back gratuitous sex scenes, a common criticism of GoT, but that sexual assault would still be depicted in the show. "If anything, we’re going to shine a light on that aspect," he said. "You can’t ignore the violence that was perpetrated on women by men in that time. It shouldn’t be downplayed and it shouldn’t be glorified."
But according to fans, there shouldn’t be any sexual assault at all. While House of the Dragon is far from the first TV series to use sexual violence against women as a titillating plot point or aspect of character development (see: Downton Abbey, Reign, and, yes, Game Of Thrones), in a world that’s complete fantasy, the reliance on this trope just feels lazy.
"It's a fantasy world, right?" Dr. Kim Snowden (PhD), a feminist media studies professor at the University of British Columbia, tells Refinery29. "If you can imagine a world with dragons, why can't you imagine a world without rape?" Snowden, whose research focuses on fairy-tale motifs in vampire popular culture, encounters these types of stories all too often. "My first question is always why?" she says. "Who is this for and why are you depicting this? Because [in shows like House of the Dragon] it’s certainly not for survivors of sexual violence."
The turn to sexual assault within a series like this isn’t that surprising, though. It’s unfortunately very common, especially in the world of fantasy. Before Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon, shows like Outlander, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood also used sexual violence to propel certain (often female) characters’ plots forward. In 2002, when Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is attacked and almost raped by her vampiric on-and-off again flame Spike (James Marsters), fans saw the moment as completely out of step with the tone of the series and the power of their heroine. Some fans even boycotted the show. And 20 years later, the episode is still talked about as an example of misusing rape tropes on TV.
The decision to rely on the rape trope is entirely gendered, Snowden says. Aside from a select few shows (like the sexual assault of James Fraser in season one of Outlander), a large number of sexual violence depicted on screen is toward women, specifically, Snowden emphasizes, "women with power." The violence is used as something to both diminish their authority and then act as a character flaw that they have to overcome. In the five seasons after Jamie’s sexual assault in Outlander, his wife Claire and daughter Brianna — both strong-willed women — were repeatedly raped, with the encounters used to prompt Jamie to enact revenge or teach each woman some sort of lesson. This is something that we saw consistently throughout Game of Thrones. Both Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) were sexually assaulted and punished through acts of sexual violence. Their vulnerability and powerlessness in those moments are meant to juxtapose their rise to power later in the series. The message here is that they could only come into their power after conquering and moving past their trauma.
"The fact that we always need to go back to this as a way to prove that women are worthy of where they got to because they've gone through this traumatic event in their past does nothing to talk about that power," Snowden says. "All it does is glorify those acts and create this storyline around women with power that it has to always be undermined."
"If you can imagine a world with dragons, why can't you imagine a world without rape?"
Dr. Kim Snowden
Fantasy genre shows can also perpetuate rape myths, like the idea that women lie about their sexual assaults, or the expectation that women like to submit in sexual encounters. "Yes it’s set in fantasy and not today’s world, but I worry that it would contribute to this broader [myth], yet another storyline," says Karyn Riddle, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, whose work focuses on the psychology of media effects. And featuring sexual violence in a fantasy setting can diminish the implications and seriousness of how we view assaults in the real world. "[When] it becomes a fantasy aspect, it can give people an excuse not to actually take it seriously," Snowden says.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t storylines about sexual assault that can’t be helpful or positively impactful— as long as they’re authentically handled with care. Snowden points to Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You as an example of this. "[Coel] talked a lot about making sure there are people involved who know how to handle these topics, who understand what it means to be a survivor or fight for justice, or who understand the larger social politics and the systems that perpetuate this kind of violence. And Coel talked about having a sensitivity coach on set, for example, and the importance of knowing how these kinds of topics can affect everyone involved: the cast, crew, and, of course, the audience."
But the fact remains that House of the Dragon isn’t in the real world. It’s an immersive fantasy that Martin has worked hard to create and something the showrunners of both series have taken every opportunity to reinforce, which makes their decision to pick and choose what’s real and what’s not all the more suspect and upsetting. I was optimistic that, with two female leads (Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke) vying for the Iron Throne, things would change. What could have been a great opportunity to showcase two powerful, complex, and capable female heroines, now feels like a missed opportunity, overshadowed by an almost impending threat of sexual assault to their stories.
"The idea that they have to be historically accurate, but it's a fantasy setting, just does not seem to make sense,” Riddle says. “If you really want to be accurate about medieval times, you can't just pick and choose some things.”
Refinery29 has reached out to HBO for comment.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).