*MINOR MAD MAX SPOILERS WITHIN*
If you've been on the internet in the last week, chances are pretty good that you already know about the latest controversy surrounding Game of Thrones, so I won't waste your time recounting it here. Suffice it to say that, while I'm not yet convinced that I'm done with the show - I'd like to see if they can salvage anything from the corner they've written themselves into - any enthusiasm I had for it is basically gone.
And for me, that's heartbreaking. At the risk of being That Guy, I was a huge fan of the books before the show started, and I can still vividly remember the sheer glee I felt when they announced that Charles Dance would be playing Tywin Lannister. I've met GRRM; my copy of the first book has been signed by him; the point is, I genuinely love this story and these characters. And yet, for the first time in five years, I'm not looking forward to the next episode of Game of Thrones.
It's not that I have a problem with fiction including incidents of rape, or wanting to deal with the effects and consequences of it. Nothing should be off-limits in fiction, and exploring the darker side of human nature is absolutely worthwhile. The problem in this case is that GoT is obessed with rape and sexual violence, and with rare exception has only ever included them for shock value, not because it actually has anything to say on the subject.
You'd think they'd have learned after that Cersei/Jaime scene last season blew up in their faces, but apparently not - they're digging the same hole even more enthusiastically than before. More than that, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have decided to change the source material so that characters who don't get raped in the books do get raped on the TV show, and that's just sick. Why would you look at great books like these and think "You know, this is really good and all, but you know what it needs? More rape."
I've had enough. I've defended this show's female characters in the past, writing about how their struggles against adversity are what allow them to become great - but Benioff and Weiss don't seem to be interested in that any more. They just seem to want to brutalise and demean their characters without any regard for the character's arc or how the audience is going to react. I've given Game of Thrones the benefit of a lot of doubt, and stuck with it in the hope that it might be able to learn from its mistakes and do better, but they aren't even trying any more. They've bought into their own reputation as the shocking show that does horrible things to its characters, and shock value is seemingly all that matters now. So thank you, David and Dan, for making me look like an asshole. Much obliged.
I think part of what made this scene hurt so much was that I was still on a pretty massive high from seeing Mad Max: Fury Road, which deals with much the same subject matter but does so in a tactful, respectful way that acknowledges the horror of what its female characters have gone through while never diminishing their agency. The Five Wives, who drive much of the plot, are rape survivors, and the Immortan Joe, the villain, is their rapist. And yet, there's no scene of rape in Fury Road. They didn't feel the need to show us that, because it wouldn't have benefited the story they were trying to tell.
Instead, the very first thing we see the Wives doing is reclaiming their agency by removing their chastity belts with bolt cutters. It's a gesture symbolising their freedom from slavery, and their way of saying they'll sleep with whomever they damn well please from here on. As a man, director George Miller could easily have bungled a story about rape survivors as he presumably has very little experience with this sort of thing - so he hired Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, to consult on the film and help the actresses playing the Wives with their characters.
Miller made the effort to ensure that his film's female characters were treated with the respect they deserved, and that effort deserves to be recognised. Plenty has been written about the magnificent Imperator Furiosa - the short version is that she's up there with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor on the list of all-time great action ladies. But even though the Wives have undoubtedly been through a horrifying ordeal in their captivity, the film doesn't dwell on it. The performances of the actresses tell us everything we need to know: as we're told when the Immortan first discovers they've escaped, "We Are Not Things." They're never victimised and play a crucial role in their own escape, and are willing to stand up to their rapist to do so.
In one of the film's most striking images, which is saying a lot, Angharad puts her pregnant belly between Furiosa and the Immortan's gun, knowing that he'll never risk hurting his unborn child. It is an astoundingly powerful moment, showing that in spite of everything she's gone through, Angharad actually is "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" - in contrast to the episode of GoT in which Sansa was raped, which used that title in frankly revolting irony. Fury Road isn't perfect, but it still depicts women who refuse to be defined by the horrors in their past and who are always treated as actual human beings instead of punching bags. It makes the effort, and that counts for a lot.
That's the big difference between Mad Max and Game of Thrones. You can have deal with difficult subjects in fiction, and you can do it well. You just have to fucking try.
All images: Warner Bros.