The 'House of the Dragon' Press Tour Hits a Snag

·5 min read

As House of the Dragon approaches its August 21 premiere, HBO has been eager to distance the new series from the sins of its predecessor. Game of Thrones, you’ll remember, faced frequent criticism for its gratuitous sexual violence against female characters, as well as its paucity of actors of color in lead roles. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, co-showrunner Ryan Condal expressed a desire to “change that conversation”—but recent press casts doubt on how much progress has actually been made.

At last weekend’s House of the Dragon Comic-Con panel, Game of Thrones author and serial procrastinator George R.R. Martin addressed criticisms of how the former TV series represented female characters. “I get inspiration from history, and then I take elements from history and I turn it up to 11,” Martin explained. “I don’t think Westeros is particularly more anti-woman or more misogynistic than real life and what we call history.”

Condal and his co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik echoed Martin’s statements, telling The Hollywood Reporter that House of the Dragon plans to “pull back” from the amount of sex scenes featured in Game of Thrones, while still committing to depictions of sexual assault. According to Sapochnik, House of the Dragon “won’t shy away from it,” and they plan to depict sexual assault “carefully and thoughtfully.” Sapochnik continued, “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.”

Did this team learn nothing from the Game of Thrones era, when viewers begged the show to stop brutalizing women and glorifying sexual violence? Moreover, the plan to pull back on fun, romantic, mutually pleasurable sex scenes seems baffling, especially when Game of Thrones was already dreadfully short on such moments. Who watches television hoping to see less consensual sex and more graphic sexual violence?

But it’s the implications about history that really boggle the mind. This commitment to period accuracy in a high fantasy legendarium about dragon-riders and ice zombies is pretty comical. Westeros isn’t a real place bound to real historical conventions, but if we follow that thought experiment through to its logical conclusion, then where’s the dysentery, the rotting teeth, the sores and boils? Why is it only sexual violence that’s central to creating “historical accuracy”? This selective approach to “realism” hints that these creators may still see sexual violence as plot device, character development, and shock-value entertainment. This is a fantasy series stuffed with winged beasts and magic, but for all that imaginative prowess, somehow House of the Dragon can't dream up a world without rape. Call it “realism” if you want—I'll call it a failure of imagination.

I'm not saying that television should never go there, by the way. There are shows that depict sexual violence and do it masterfully, like I May Destroy You and Unbelievable, each one a sensitive study in trauma, consent, and memory. Television can highlight the horror of sexual violence without portraying it in blockbuster detail. If "realism" should apply to any part of these stories, it should begin in the writers' room, with survivors' voices centered, psychological professionals on hand, and in the case of House of the Dragon, medievalists at the ready to advise on rape culture during the Middle Ages. (If anyone'd ask, I’d encourage House of the Dragon to consult the work of Carissa Harris, a scholar who specializes in gender, sexuality, and consent in medieval culture.)

It’s worth noting that Game of Thrones was as troubled in its dealings with women off-screen as it was on-screen. Talk about realism! The series notably didn’t employ intimacy coordinators, and several actresses resultantly felt harmed by their treatment on set. Speaking on the Armchair Expert podcast in 2019, Emilia Clarke revealed that she felt uncomfortable and unprotected during Daenerys' sex scenes. “I'd been on a film set twice before then, and I'm now on a film set completely naked with all of these people," she said. "I don't know what I'm meant to do, and I don't know what's expected of me, and I don't know what you want, and I don't know what I want." Meanwhile, Hannah Waddingham, who played Septa Unella, revealed that her character’s planned rape was scrapped after backlash to the rape of Sansa Stark. Instead, Septa Unella was waterboarded; Waddingham called that day of filming “the worst day of my life,” and later sought psychological treatment to confront her newfound phobia of water.

On the press circuit, the House of the Dragon team has hyped the show as a bold leap forward from Game of Thrones’ mistakes. Now, the show does have an intimacy coordinator, as has become standard on all HBO productions. And much like Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon centers on familial succession and the battle to rule Westeros, but this time, gender is at the forefront of the conversation after a princess is passed over for the crown. "Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend the Iron Throne,” another character tells her. Sure, it’s progress, but whether the series can do enough to win back the scores of women who’ve sworn off Game of Thrones remains to be seen. Unless House of the Dragon decides to become as committed to period accuracy when it comes to women's underarm hair in pre-razor times as it is their sexual experiences, I'll keep my doubts.

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