HBO, ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Westworld,’ and the Problem of Sexual Violence


Evan Rachel Wood in ‘Westworld’ (HBO)

The fifth season of Game of Thrones came under criticism for some scenes of graphic sexual violence against women, and in a sense, the sixth season that ended last month responded to that criticism — it tended to show most of the main female characters gaining in power and authority. It’s difficult to believe that shift wasn’t prompted by the media outrage, as well as complaints from some viewers. Now HBO is coming under attack for similar reasons with its forthcoming reboot of Westworld, a highly anticipated new series that will debut Oct 2.

At the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles on Saturday, HBO’s new president of programming, Casey Bloys, felt his first whiplash sting from TV critics and reporters, who are ever on the alert for what could be perceived as demeaning portrayals of women. It started out with a question about something you may have already seen: The first episode of a current HBO series, The Night Of. Bloys was asked about the insensitivity of showing the miniseries’ murder victim — “a beautiful woman,” in the phrase of the questioner — as a bloody corpse that had been stabbed multiple times. The reporter wondered whether this potential insult to viewers passed through editing because women are “underrepresented” in writing staffs filled with “men stuck in a different time.” (Rather bizarrely, this member of the press also suggested a palatable alternative would have been a “hot guy” corpse, presumably because historically TV hasn’t killed nearly as many males with great abs exposed.)

Related: ‘Game of Thrones’ Under Fire for Rape Scenes — Should It Be?

After reminding Bloys of the killings and sexual assaults on Game of Thrones, and noting that early on in the Westworld pilot, a woman is shown in a posture that implies she will soon be raped, the complaints from the TCA press corps began to pile up. “Having seen how The Night Of starts and how Westworld also starts, do you worry that HBO in particular or premium cable in general is relying a little heavily on sexual and sexualized violence as a way of scene-setting and stakes-creation?”

Another questioner told Bloys, “It’s not about indiscriminate killing, it’s that there seems to be specifically-directed sexualized violence as a story tool towards women in these series,” and still another reporter said, “I think what they’re getting at is this idea of rape directed towards women… we don’t see that happen to men.”

Bloys seemed taken aback, his answers vague or slightly off-point: “I guess the point I would make about Game of Thrones, for example — men are castrated,” Bloys said. “The violence is pretty extreme on all fronts. I take your point that so far there have not been any male rapes.” Bloys even tried a little joke: “We’re going to kill everybody.” Ooof. The TCA reporters smelled blood in the water after that.

Yet I wonder how much my colleagues’ outrage over depictions of sexual violence is shared among the great majority of HBO viewers. Someone who pays money for an HBO subscription really wants the channel to live up to its famous motto: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” and one of the things that motto has long implied is that pay-cable channels — Showtime, Cinemax, and others as well as HBO — can go much further in matters of sex, violence, and language than network TV or basic cable. HBO viewers might be taken aback by some of the shocking scenes in Game of Thrones, but it’s not as though George R.R. Martin and the Thrones showrunners haven’t set up a ruthless, cruel world.

And a corpse in a murder mystery such as The Night Of, whether it’s a “beautiful woman” or a “hot guy” corpse? I think decades of murder mysteries have prepared us for the notion that to solve a crime, the aftermath of the crime itself ought to be presented. Indeed, you could argue that when it comes to what one reporter called “scene-setting and stakes-building,” making a crime look truly horrible makes a viewer all the more sympathetic to both the victim and to seeing the perpetrators of the crime punished.

Related: Can ‘Game of Thrones’ Shed Sexist Rep With Rise of Cersei, Sansa and Daenerys?

Ever since Season 5’s Game of Thrones media complaints, I’ve noticed an increase in the way these objections are phrased: most often in postmodern academic language, and if the people who make these shows are not fluent in the phraseology of the fetishization of violence, they’re going to be roundly berated. Fortunately for Westworld, this is a language that executive producer Lisa Joy speaks fluently. She defended her show’s depiction of women with careful assurance: “Sexual violence is an issue we take seriously,” Joy said. “It’s extraordinarily disturbing and horrifying. In its portrayal, we endeavored for it to not be about the fetishization of those acts. It’s about exploring the crime… and the torment of the characters within this story, and exploring their stories hopefully with dignity and depth.”

This seemed to go down fine with the assembled TV press in a way that Bloys’ more halting responses did not. It also helped that the answer was coming from a woman, and one who insisted that “it was definitely something that was heavily discussed and considered as we worked on those scenes.” Indeed, this may be a key — perhaps part of the solution — to the objection to sexualized violence: an increased presence of women everywhere, onscreen and behind the scenes, writing for these shows and writing about them, women as active protagonists as well as the objects of violence (for to stop depicting such violence would be unrealistic to what we know of the world we, and survivor-superhero Jessica Jones, live in). As my colleague Mandi Bierly points out, on a series such as The Fall, “you have a serial killer of women, and yet it’s riveting, because it’s an exploration of why this occurs (and you have the wonderful Gillian Anderson as its star, in a power position as detective Stella Gibson).”

Related: ‘The Fall’ Postmortem: Creator Allan Cubitt’s Deep Dive Into Season 2

The outcry over sex and violence on television has been going on since the 1960s, when more TV programming tried to address adult themes in — depending on your point of view — more mature, or more exploitative, ways. In 1997, the late, great media critic John Leonard described television as “partly a window and partly a mirror, allowing for the messy software in our own systems as we sit down to process what we see.” Things have changed since then, to be sure — Leonard asserted that “right-wingers worry about sex and left-wingers worry about violence,” whereas in the 21st century, outrage knows no political affiliation.

It’s possible that the objections to Westworld will spark a new firestorm, mostly on social media the night or day after something disturbing to this viewer or that one airs. I think it’s more likely that most people will take in these HBO shows as they were intended, if everyone involved were being honest: As some combination of cynical ratings ploys and attempts at groundbreaking pop-culture; as adventurous entertainment and voyeuristic titillation. A good, vigorous debate about the balance of these elements can only add to our understanding of not merely the shows, but of ourselves.