HBO Isn’t Handling Questions About Its Sexual Violence Problem Well

By  · Published on August 3rd, 2016

Some notes from a fierce week at the TCAs.

All eyes were on HBO when they kicked off the fourth day of the TCA Press Tour. Inquiring minds were eager learn more about the untimely and surprising cancellation of Vinyl, the questionable future of True Detective, new information regarding old favorites like Jon Stewart, Deadwood, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the looming finish line for Game of Thrones. However, when the network’s newly minted president programming, Casey Bloys, open the floor up to critics, many responded with questions about why so many of HBO’s shows so frequently feature sexual violence against women.

Counting Game of Thrones, there is also The Night Of, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome, and, now, the highly anticipated Westworld that have provided solid evidence against HBO’s trend of gratuitous and pervasive violence against women. And, how did Bloys handle the issue being repeatedly brought up? Squirming in his seat and basically saying that that is just the type of world that those characters live in and that the violence is “kind of indiscriminate” because “plenty of men are killed as well.” Is it though? Because I watch a lot of shows on HBO and, while, yeah, plenty of men are killed, the kind of violence the men experience is not about oppressing them.

The casualness with which Game of Thrones, a show that I enjoy watching, has treated sexual violence is truly appalling. It often shows women as props there to be the abused wife, war trophy, or sex toy or as powerless and nameless victims of male dominance that motivate the story and provide shock value. The glimpses of the traumas these women suffer are so brief that the audience does not have time to wrestle with the gravity of what they witnessed. There are so many storylines and characters and places to keep up with and the showrunners do not devote the time to allow viewers to process their feelings for a random, unnamed woman being sexually assaulted in the background.

Perhaps the show’s most controversial moment, emphasis on the perhaps because this is Game of Thrones I’m talking about here, came at the end of season five in the episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” with the rape of Sansa Stark. Her rapist, Ramsay Bolton, had proved himself all throughout the show to be a psychosexual sadist and one of the most brutal villains to ever grace television screens so him raping Sansa provided no more function to the story. It did not add to his character, nor to Sansa’s (who was well into her incredible character development at that point). Inexplicably, Sansa’s rape was not about her at all because it was about how Theon felt about watching the girl he grew up with “become a woman.” The choice to have the camera linger on Theon’s face reduced Sansa’s horrific trauma down to how Theon felt about it. It took until near the end of the sixth season for Sansa to even bring it up and discuss her feelings about it.

As a contrast, Starz’s breakout hit Outlander has received praise for its realistic and respectful depictions of rape. In its two season run, Outlander’s treatment of sexual violence has been very different than that of HBO’s shows. So why is that? For starters, this show makes the trauma about the victims and does not exclusively depict sexual violence against women. One character flips the tables of her attempted rape by laughing in the face of her would-be rapist when he cannot get it up. When another character was tortured and raped at the end of the first season, viewers stay with him through his torture, rape, and recovery. Viewers get to watch how this male character is psychologically affected by his rape and how it affects his relationship with his wife after he is rescued. In the most recent season, both a young woman and boy are sexually assaulted. These characters, though, are vital to the show and their assaults have a significant impact on how the story continues. The sexual violence on Outlander serves an ultimate purpose and is treated with the weight it deserves within the story.

During the media firestorm at the TCA panel, Bloys said to critics that the sexual violence is not something the network is “wanting to highlight or trying to highlight.” Okay, that’s great, but what can HBO actually do to remedy issue? One, they can stop using this awful act as a shocking, break-the-Internet moment they feel obligated to have in their shows. Sexual violence against women should not be just a throwaway plot point that is going to blow-up the Twitterverse. Two, in the event that they absolutely need to portray sexual violence, give it the respect and room to grow that the moment needs. Do not sensationalize it, but rather honor the victim and the violence they have endured and allow it actually affect the character. The questions and insistence of the reporters at the HBO TCA panel are so important because they highlight that HBO has an issue that absolutely needs to be fixed and, hopefully, will be.

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