In Game of Thrones, rape doesn't matter.
It's a bleak conclusion, and I don't want to believe it, but after this week's episode, I'm pretty damn convinced. Sure, rape can be used as a threat against characters. It can be used for viewer shock value. But rape itself -- or at least, rape that isn't brutal-gang-rape-by-strangers -- just isn't that significant.
In this week's episode, Jaime Lannister raped his sister/true love Cersei beside the body of their newly dead son. Directors, actors and viewers alike can call it as "consensual" or "grey area" as they like, but Jaime called his sister a "hateful woman," tore her dress and held her down while she pushed him away and told him, again and again, to stop. His response to her pleas? "I don't care."
That is not anything close to a "grey area." I could sadly understand the debate if Cersei said no and then gave in, even if it was just resignation. I could at least see the perspective of those who said it wasn't rape in that case. But that didn't happen. Cersei said no, again, and again, and again. Jaime tore her clothes and held her down. This was indisputably, undeniably rape.
Jaime Lannister, in the context of the show, is now a rapist. And that means that Broken Chains has the dubious honor of the show's first case of male character assassination. Because Jaime Lannister, as he appears in the books, is not a rapist. And I don't just mean "he never rapes anyone." Jaime Lannister, as a character, is staunchly against rape. His disgust towards rape and his understanding of the horror of it is one of the driving forces of his character: one of the reasons he despised King Aerys is that he was forced to stand guard outside the door while he raped his wife and was forbidden by the other members of the Kingsguard to stop him. He loses his hand because he protects Brienne from being raped when they're captured by the Bloody Mummers, even though he disdains Brienne and tried to kill her in a swordfight the day before. He says that, if he were a woman, he'd rather die than be raped. Most of Westeros's knights barely give it a thought, or consider it an acceptable part of war, but Jaime is one of the few male characters who is actually empathetic and honorable in that regard. Sure, he'll shove children out of windows, attack Ned Stark in the street and make crass comments whenever he pleases, but he is not a rapist.
Except, according to the show, he is. A remarkable change, considering the fact that, Joffrey excepted, the show has always changed male characters to make them appear more heroic. Tyrion has been transformed into a true heroic protagonist. Robb Stark became a bold crusader instead of a lost boy king. Even morally grey Theon was given a far more sympathetic treatment in the show than in the books. He betrayed the Starks, but the show gave us plenty of insight into his inner turmoil and his confused point of view.
Why, then, would the show completely destroy the character of one of its main, sympathetic male protagonists? Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's name is now second in the credits. He's been given a lot of screen time, and the entire last season focussed on transforming Jaime from a villain character into a fan favorite. Why would they ruin all that by making Jaime rape his sister/true love next to their dead son's body, when the scene is consensual in the books? Why would they make him do something so out of character, and so unforgivable?
The only reasonable answer is that they don't believe it's unforgivable. They might think that it's intriguingly dark, but they don't think that it changes Jaime's character in any significant way or even needs to have consequences for him and his relationships, beyond possibly any regret on Jaime's own part.
I wish this was a crazy theory on my part, but several people have spoken up to damn themselves over the past couple of days. Director Alex Graves says Jaime is "trying to believe as hard as he can that he's in love with Cersei," when really he's "the good knight, like Brienne." He also commented that the scene "became consensual by the end" because the two characters love power plays. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau called it an "act of powerlessness" on Jaime's part because Cersei pushed him away. Strangely, no one has commented on how Cersei feels or how she will react to this betrayal. No one has out-and-out condemned Jaime or claimed that it shows how twisted and selfish and villainous he can be, that the viewers had been taken in by him and made to forget all the horrific things he's done before and now they see his true colors again. It's all about understanding, about sympathy for him, and about explaining that it's not rape in the end.
So perhaps I should adjust my thesis slightly. It's not that rape doesn't matter in Game of Thrones. It's that only "true rape" matters. The kind that's not committed by a beloved character, that involves kidnap, perhaps, where the victim doesn't kiss the person at all and has never loved them. Where the rapist isn't entitled to sex because of x, y and z, and isn't going through some emotional turmoil that the viewers can otherwise sympathize with it. You know, that kind of rape. Not what happened in this scene.
And I think a lot of effort is put into making the rape scene shocking, but "not rape." No effort into making it actually not rape, of course, which would have been the easiest path considering that that's how it happens in the books, but into making it seem somewhat acceptable from a twisted perspective. Jaime calls Cersei a "hateful woman," and the look of disgust on his face, coupled with Cersei's cruel rejection of him in episode one, attempts to give us sympathy with him, because he loves someone so evil, because he struggled to return to her and has been rejected so coldly.
Of course, even this attempt to make Jaime the sympathetic one has extremely misogynistic overtones. Cersei is either "hateful" here because she refuses Jaime's advances, or because she wants him to kill Tyrion. So either Jaime believes that he's entitled to sex with Cersei, because he worked so hard to get back to her (and we're supposed to believe in that entitlement), and is entitled to that sex next to the body of her newly dead son, or he's using rape to punish her for her anger with Tyrion. Neither angle paints Jaime in a particularly good light.
And where is the show planning to go from here? It hasn't shied away from changing plotlines before, but unless it alters the entire direction of the plot, some things coming very shortly cannot be changed. Last week, it made explicit that Brienne is in love with Jaime. Are we then meant to think that she's misguided, or think that this is acceptable and supportable, since Jaime didn't do anything too awful, certainly nothing Brienne would disapprove of? And (spoilers for the books to the end of the paragraph) how are we supposed to respond to the Oathkeeper plotline now? Does his "last chance for honor" include erasing the rape of his sister? Will Brienne heading off to rescue Sansa Stark be seen as acceptable redemption for this? Jaime's complicated relationship with Brienne and Sansa only works because he is, at heart, a rather chivalrous knight who had all of those ideals beaten out of him when he was a teenager. He learns about honor from Brienne just as Brienne learns about the true greyness of morality from him. But TV Jaime is no longer that character. If we are to believe in the Oathkeeper plotline, we need to see Jaime as a character who's at least likeable and sympathetic, if not entirely good. And for him to be likeable and sympathetic now, we need to see his rape of Cersei as "not a big deal." Either not rape at all, or something that doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things.
Both possibilities are worrying. And they once again lead back to the idea that rape, in the context of the show, simply doesn't matter. It's window dressing for scenes. It's a useful threat against female characters to show how dangerous things are or to give a male character a heroic moment. It's a punishment for "hateful" female characters, and a dark but overall acceptable way for a male character to act. It's as notable as a visit to a brothel -- shocking, titillating, but not really a significant character moment, and probably not worth commenting on again.
Edit: I wanted to add a note to this after rereading the scene as it appears in the books, reading other people's reactions, and thinking on the whole issue some more. I stand by the idea that Jaime isn't meant to be a rapist, or anyone who would ever condone rape, but the original scene in the book is NOT a shining example of loving consent. Even from Jaime's point of view, we hear that Cersei initially says "no" and pushes him away with "feeble fists." Jaime assuming that Cersei doesn't really mean it is disrespectful and the entire scene could be (and has been) read as rape if we assume that Cersei feels like she cannot say no or fight him off (a reading I ultimately disagree with, considering how she's written in the rest of the scene, but it's a messy call). The fact that the majority of readers remember it as entirely consensual is a pretty good sign of the rape culture we all exist in. Jaime would never rape somebody in the violent manner that he does in the show. He would never knowingly hold down Cersei against her will. But considering the messed up "we are one person, she rejects me to hurt me and then accepts me, I haven't seen her in months, we need and complete one another" context of their relationship, he doesn't see ignoring her initial "feeble" protests as a problem. The character and narrative implications of that are a much bigger topic for another day. But the fact that the show chose to "simplify" this by making the rape stark and violent, by making Cersei protest until the very end of the scene, by choosing to portray the scene as one of violence rather than one of (really disturbing and messed up) passion remains horrifying, and is still, in my opinion, a plot-destroying disservice to both Jaime and Cersei's characters.