"House of the Dragon" will not "depict sexual violence"

"Game of Thrones" was criticized for its depiction of rape, which the prequel series seeks to treat less cavalierly

Published August 18, 2022 10:02PM (EDT)

Emma D’Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen in "Game of Thrones" prequel "House of the Dragon" (Ollie Upton/HBO)
Emma D’Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen in "Game of Thrones" prequel "House of the Dragon" (Ollie Upton/HBO)

This story originally appeared on Winter is Coming.

"Game of Thrones" occasionally came under fire for how it depicted sex, nudity, and sexual violence. There were really a couple different issues at play. In the first few seasons, the big issue was that the show treated female nudity as entertainment, trotting out body parts to titillate or distract. The most famous example is Littlefinger's "sexposition" scene in the first season, where the writers had Littlefinger exposit about his backstory while a couple of prostitutes writhed in the background lest the audience grow bored. That kind of thing cropped up often; think of the scene  in the third season where Tyrion walks Podrick through a brothel full of women showing off their bodies. The scene isn't at all important to the story and is basically an excuse to leer at naked women. As the show went on, that kind shameless nudity tapered off.

"Game of Thrones" was also dinged for its depictions of sexual violence, most notably in a Cersei-Jaime scene from Season 4 and then in Season 5 when Ramsay Bolton rapes Sansa Stark on their wedding night. While the final couple of seasons had some sex scenes — Missandei and Grey Worm make love towards the start of Season 7 and Jon Snow and Daenerys hook up at the end — the show was definitely more cautious about this topic. The final season had practically no nudity or sex at all.

And now we come to "House of the Dragon", HBO's "Game of Thrones" prequel show. Set some 200 years before the events of the main series, the show is about a brutal civil war fought between rival factions of the Targaryen dynasty. How will the new show treat this topic?

"House of the Dragon" will focus on "the violence against women that is inherent in a patriarchal system"

"A Song of Ice and Fire" author George R.R. Martin has long said that he draws inspiration from real-life history when writing stories about Westeros, that history is full of sexual violence, and that it would be dishonest to write a story about war and not acknowledge that. ("House of the Dragon" is based on his book "Fire & Blood".) He reiterated those general thoughts in a recent interview. "I don't think Westeros is particularly more anti-woman or more misogynistic than real life and what we call history," he said.

So sexual violence does exist in this world, but how will "House of the Dragon" handle it? Co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik recently said that the series will approach the topic "carefully, thoughtfully and [we] don't shy away from it. If anything, we're going to shine a light on that aspect. 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."

Now, "House of the Dragon" writer and executive producer Sara Hess has further clarified things: "I'd like to clarify that we do not depict sexual violence in the show," she told Vanity Fair. "We handle one instance off-screen, and instead show the aftermath and impact on the victim and the mother of the perpetrator."

I think what our show does, and what I'm proud of, is that we choose to focus on the violence against women that is inherent in a patriarchal system. There are many 'historical' or history-based shows that romanticize powerful men in sexual/marriage relationships with women who were actually not of an age to consent, even if they were 'willing.' We put that onscreen, and we don't shy away from the fact that our female leads in the first half of the show are coerced and manipulated into doing the will of adult men. This is done not necessarily by those we would define as rapists or abusers, but often by generally well-meaning men who are unable to see that what they are doing is traumatic and oppressive, because the system that they all live in normalizes it. It's less obvious than rape but just as insidious, though in a different way.

It's true that there are several relationships like this in "House of the Dragon." For example, the character of Alicent Hightower is married to King Viserys I Targaryen despite being roughly the same age as the king's daughter Rhaenyra, with whom she has a close friendship. "In general, depicting sexual violence is tricky," Hess continued, "and I think the ways we think about it as writers and creators are unique to our particular stories."

Based on what I'm reading here, it sounds like "House of the Dragon" will do a good job of exploring the reality of sexual violence without leering at it or romanticizing it, which is about where you want the show to be. The new series premieres on HBO and HBO Max on Aug.21.

By Dan Selcke

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