Is HBO forming a legacy of sexual violence?

Photo (cc) 2014 by twipzdeeauxilia

“Game of Thrones” has become popular for a number of reasons. It is, in my opinion, a well-written and well-acted show. It looks, and is, expensive, and gives television a narrative and visual complexity that is rare in the medium. Plus, there are dragons. Everyone loves a good dragon.

But it’s undeniable that a lot of the show’s success can also be attributed to its shock value. HBO has never been the network rainbows and kittens, and plenty of their previous shows like “True Blood” and “Rome” have had a whole lot of sex and violence. But “Game of Thrones” seems to have reached a new level, with its unusually creative violence that can befall even the most major characters and its appallingly twisted sex scenes. And people have eaten it up. It’s become known as the show that will kill anyone and will go to any lengths to gross out its eager audience.

Though we can argue for days about the merits and negatives of mature content in media, these shock value cinematics are relatively harmless and are easily avoidable for those who don’t like them. But a reoccurring theme in “Game of Thrones” criticism is that, in its attempt to be as violent as possible, the show has very often turned to sexual assault.

Including sexual assault in media is obviously a hot-button issue.”Thrones” has angered fans with many plots, including a rape scene that inspired Lena Headey, who played the sexual assault  victim, to defend the show.

“Thrones” is hardly the only show to include controversial depictions of sexual assault, but it’s perhaps the most visible, with its multiple related storylines and general popularity as a program.

That’s why it’s interesting that HBO’s newest show, “Westworld,” seems to be taking cues from “Thrones.”

The show is a “Thrones” wannabe in many ways. It’s a large-scale, big-budget science fiction show with a complicated ensemble of characters. It’s pretty easy to see it as HBO’s attempt at the next “Thrones.” It’s noteworthy, then, that HBO has taken more then just the big picture ideas of “Thrones” for “Westworld.” They’ve also taken the unabashed violence and sexual assault. 

“Westworld” star Evan Rachel Wood, who plays one of the show’s sexual assault victims, spoke to the Hollywood Reporter about the storylines:

“I don’t like gratuitous violence against women at all, but I would wait for the context in which it’s being used. As the show progresses, the way it’s being used is very much a commentary and a look at our humanity and why we find these things entertaining and why this is an epidemic, and flipping it on its head. The roles for the women on this show are going to be very revolutionary. It’s very gender-neutral. I would ask, as somebody who is an advocate against any kind of abuse or violence and is outspoken about it, to give it a chance and wait to see where it’s going. I think it will surprise people.”

In August, Huffington Post wrote an article about an HBO executives’ inability to justify their sexual assault stories. The author, Zeba Blay, included this passage:

“An over-reliance on rape plots is simply a symptom of lazy storytelling. So often, when a TV show wants to give a female character a tragic backstory, or put her on the path to redemption, or punish her, it uses rape to achieve that end.”

A few days later, the Salt Lake Tribune published an article called ‘From “Game of Thrones” to the new “Westworld,” Does HBO have a rape problem?’ The article included a quote from “Westworld” executive producer Lisa Joy:

“Violence and sexual violence have, sadly, been a fact of human history since the beginning of human history.”

Sexual assaulted storylines aren’t always universally panned by fans. Revelist wrote an interesting article earlier this year about movies and shows that have handled the topic well. But it’s worth noting that the article is almost written as a response to “Thrones” doing a bad job.

Is there a pattern forming here on America’s edgiest station? It’s probably to soon to say, but the channel found a formula that worked for it with “Thrones,” and it can be seen repeating in “Westworld.”

Personally, I think it’ll be very telling to see how “Westworld” unfolds. The question that the new show has to answer is this: is the treatment of sexual assault a specifically “Game of Thrones” problem, or, more disturbingly, is it a reoccurring theme on one of the world’s most beloved channels?


One thought on “Is HBO forming a legacy of sexual violence?

  1. Great post. I’m incredibly curious to see where the show makers are going with Westworld as well, looking forward to tonight’s third episode! Are you interested in sharing this article with our readers on Would love to help you share this perspective!


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