Women and Horses

Earlier this spring, HBO cancelled Luck, a show set in and around a struggling Southern California horse-racing track from Deadwood creator David Milch, then several weeks into the filming of its second season, following the death of one the horses used on set.  Two other horses had already died during the filming of Luck's first season, and in the face of intense criticism following those deaths the production promised to tighten its safety protocols.  When these proved ineffective, HBO and Luck's producers jointly came to the decision to pull the plug. 

I never fell in love with Luck, which outside of its tense, riveting horse racing sequences always seemed a little too benign for its subject matter, but I did enjoy the first season and was looking forward to the second.  Nevertheless, the news of the show's cancellation came as a relief to me.  I was deeply troubled when I learned about the first two horse deaths on Luck's set, and the third one left me wondering whether I had any right to continue watching the show.  Much as I liked Luck, it seemed like the height of entitled hedonism to accept and even expect that helpless, innocent creatures would have to die for the sake of my entertainment.  At the time of the cancellation, a lot of people (myself included) assumed that HBO was using the horses' deaths as an excuse to justify cancelling a low-rated and only moderately well-received show, but information that has come to light since then (including HBO's claims about the cost of cancelling the show) suggests that the people who made that decision had qualms similar to mine, and that they truly did put an end to something they loved because it could only live at another creature's expense.

Not long after Luck's cancellation, however, I read the New York Times's profile of safety practices--or rather their absence--in real American racetracks, which result in a rate of death for horses (and of death and catastrophic injury for jockeys) besides which Luck's death count is practically insignificant.  The gap between these two entertainment industries' attitude towards the deaths of horses--a show-stopping calamity on television is just the cost of doing business in horse racing--made me realize just how situational were the ethical qualms that I--and, presumably, executives at HBO and the Luck production--had experienced.  That gap came once again to my mind last week when I read Emily Nussbaum's essay on Game of Thrones in The New Yorker.  Nussbaum, notwithstanding that she has an excellent last name, has for some time been my favorite professional TV reviewer, but the Game of Thrones piece felt a little by the numbers, a little too repetitive of ideas that have already been raised about this much-discussed show.  It was only in her final paragraph that Nussbaum made me sit up and take notice.
As with “True Blood,” the show’s most graphic elements—the cruel ones, the fantasy ones, and the cruel-fantasy ones—speak to female as well as male viewers. (One of the nuttiest quotes I’ve ever read came from Alan Ball, “True Blood” ’s showrunner, who said that a focus group had revealed that men watched his series for the sex and women for the romance. Please.) But there is something troubling about this sea of C.G.I.-perfect flesh, shaved and scentless and not especially medieval. It’s unsettling to recall that these are not merely pretty women; they are unknown actresses who must strip, front and back, then mimic graphic sex and sexual torture, a skill increasingly key to attaining employment on cable dramas. During the filming of the second season, an Irish actress walked off the set when her scene shifted to what she termed “soft porn.” Of course, not everyone strips: there are no truly explicit scenes of gay male sex, fewer lingering shots of male bodies, and the leading actresses stay mostly buttoned up. Artistically, “Game of Thrones” is in a different class from “House of Lies,” “Californication,” and “Entourage.” But it’s still part of another colorful patriarchal subculture, the one called Los Angeles.
The train of thought this observation started on its tracks received a boost several days later from Troy VanDerWerff's AV Club review of the most recent Game of Thrones episode, "The Old Gods and the New."  Discussing a brutal, graphic scene in which the character Sansa Stark (played by Sophie Turner) is separated from her guards by rioters who beat her, tear her clothes, and are about to rape her when she is rescued with murderous efficiency, VanDerWerff notes:
Sophie Turner was most likely 15 when that scene was filmed. 15! I know that’s old enough to know about the ugly things of the world, like sexual violence, but it still horrifies me.
Since its premiere last year, Game of Thrones has come under a lot of fire for its copious use--some might say reliance--on nudity and depictions of sex and sexual violence.  Some of these complaints have obviously been heard and applied to the show's second season--the much-derided "sexposition" has been toned down considerably (I can think of only one scene in the second season that answers the description, a somewhat sickening sequences in the second episode in which the weaselly, self-important Theon monologues to the lovestruck daughter of the captain of the ship carrying him home--whom he obviously holds in something just barely above contempt--as he thrusts into her).  In its place, however, we have copious amounts of "plot-relevant" nudity--the scene in which the priestess Melisandre gives birth to a demon leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination--and sexual violence--two episodes before Sansa's attempted rape, she is humiliated by her fianc√© and captor, the psychotic boy-king Joffrey, who orders that she be publicly stripped and beaten in retaliation for her brother's military triumphs against Joffrey's grandfather; later in that same episode, Joffrey orders one of a pair of prostitutes (sent to him by his uncle and fan favorite Tyrion) to viciously beat the other on pain of her own death.

Until now, the terms in which the discussion of nudity and sex on Game of Thrones has been conducted have stressed the "necessity" of these images--were they created simply to titillate and distract the audience from a dry bit of exposition, or to cement the producers' sense that they were creating high, mature art?--and the second season seemingly addresses that concern with a shift in the way it uses sex and sexual violence to advance the plot and our understanding of the characters.  But as Nussbaum and VanDerWerff point out, there is another question that is not adequately served by the argument of "necessity."  Even if it is necessary for the story that a young girl be beaten and nearly raped, is it alright to ask a young actress to simulate that experience?  Why are we, on the one hand, outraged by the deaths of horses on the set of Luck, and on the other, casually accepting of the potential mistreatment of human women on the set of Game of Thrones?

There's a danger of reducing this question to a glib joke, similar to the one that George R.R. Martin himself made when irate fans complained about the end of the second episode of Game of Thrones's first season, in which Sansa's father Ned is forced to kill her dog.  After assuring his readers that the dog wasn't really killed, Martin drily noted that "Rhodri Hosking, the young actor who played the butcher's boy Mycah [who also dies at the end of the episode], was not actually killed either, though oddly, no one seems quite so upset about him."  The issue here isn't that people get more upset about violence when it's directed towards animals than when it is directed towards people (though this is often the case).  No one in the racing industry, after all--or at least not enough people--is getting worked up over dead horses in the same way that Game of Thrones fans became upset over the simulated death of a puppy, or that HBO and the producers of Luck became upset over the real deaths of horses.  The lack of a corresponding outrage on behalf of actresses on Game of Thrones, the fact that, on the contrary, the ubiquity of sexual and sexually violent scenes in cable drama has created a market for attractive young women--historically the most vulnerable and exploited group in show business--who are willing to be stripped and to simulate often humiliating or violent sex on camera, suggests something much more disturbing than that fans of the show don't value the well-being of women as much as they do that of a dog.  It suggests that, just as dead horses are the cost of doing business in the racing industry, traumatized and humiliated actresses are the cost of doing business in cable television.  And it suggests that we, as viewers who enjoy Game of Thrones and excuse its violent sexual content because it is necessary to the story, have accepted and even come to expect that vulnerable young women will be mistreated for the sake of our entertainment.

The two situations are not entirely the same, of course.  Women are not horses.  They will naturally have a range of opinions and reactions to acting in the nude and simulating violent sex, and the actresses who have knowingly chosen to appear in explicit or violent material on a show like Game of Thrones deserve to have their choice respected--even if we question the choices of the people who decide to film such scenes.  The damage caused by a scene like Sansa's simulated assault is ambiguous, determined by personality and circumstances--and in some cases maybe even nonexistent.  We're suffering from a dearth of information from the actresses themselves, about what it's like to actually film these scenes, and what their potentially harmful components are, without which this whole discussion has the potential to be patronizing in the worst possible way.  Still, it bothers me that hardly anyone is asking the question of whether scenes like these are harmful to the actresses performing in them, especially as those actresses are often the ones least in a position to raise the issue in a way that will get it heard and treated seriously.  The Irish actress Nussbaum mentions was free to leave a shoot that she found demeaning, but what did that cost her in terms of money, professional connections, and bad will with the agent and casting director who got her the job?  Sophie Turner may have been consulted with and counseled about her rape scene, but does that mean she didn't feel pressure to accede to it?  Not a lot of people are asking these questions, and with cable television, especially HBO, now firmly ensconced as the standard-bearer--and standard-setter--for quality and high drama on TV, it's long past time that they gained higher prominence.  The cancellation of Luck showed that the cable industry has lines in the sand, ethical boundaries it will not cross.  It's time to find out where more those boundaries lie--where women, and not just horses, are concerned.


cofax said…
I read that NYT article too, and was both horrified by its content, and horrified that it wasn't linked widely, and didn't result in a national call to increase regulation of racing. It seems to have simply sunk without a trace.

As for the rest of your post, thank you for it. It's not something I'd thought of before, in part because I don't watch GOK. But of course the issue applies beyond just that one show...
You know, now that I think about it, it's possible that you're the one who linked me to that NYT horse racing article.

You're right that this issue applies to more than one show, but the confluence of factors on Game of Thrones seems to make it particularly relevant to this conversation. It's a quality show, so the nudity can't be dismissed as porn (or, presumably, treated that way by the producers) the way it is on True Blood. It's aimed more at men than at women, so it's mostly women showing us naked on screen. The sex isn't just sex but violent and often brutal, and this feels very much in tune with the themes of the story, which for all the questions I've raised here is trying to address the issue of sexual violence against women (even if it's doing so by simulating that violence). I'm having trouble thinking of another show where all of these factors have come together (maybe GoT's one-time competitor Camelot, though it never one the prestige crown, or either The Tudors or The Borgias, which I don't watch).
Rob said…
It's interesting, because these questions have been asked for a long time and hashed over to no end about pornography and the actresses in it, but people don't seem to be as interested when it's in a big-budget TV show and there's no penetration.
Kate said…
We are upset if a dog "character" dies in a show because the dog "actor" isn't sentient enough to understand the filming process and agree to its terms. Perhaps, we think, the dog felt fear during the filming, or was hurt. Do you remember the old movie "The Incredible Journey"? It is unwatchable now because the animals were literally tortured (the cat has to fight a bear, almost drowns, etc.) in order to make the movie. I'm glad, as I believe most people are, that we will no longer condone animal suffering in exchange for entertainment.

I don't watch GoT, partly because I had heard about its content. Now that you have explained the content in more detail I am disappointed (well, horrified) that any woman would agree to watch women characters treated like this. As for an underage actress placed in this role, she should be held to the same standard as the dog (so to speak). She is not mature enough, or legally old enough, to understand what her consent to this kind of role means. A child should not be mimicking this kind of behavior, especially a vulnerable young woman. Her parents should be strung up.

I am glad you are speaking out about this. Of course, men can also be outraged that women (the wives, mothers and daughters of their lives) are portrayed in such an exploitative fashion. We can't justify filming Tao the Cat while he's carried down a raging river, and we equally can't justify brutalizing young women in the name of art.

That occurred to me as I was writing this piece, and particularly the beginning of the last paragraph. I do believe that it's important to get the actresses' input and to respect their choices, but I can't help but think that if I'm using the same language with regard to mainstream entertainment that I'd use to discuss sex work, then something has gone seriously wrong.

Kaffee Beast:

I don't know how the laws protecting child actors in the UK work, but it's possible that Turner's parents' consent wasn't necessary for the scene I mentioned, which contains no nudity (Sansa's clothes are torn but because she's wearing several layers she's never naked) or simulated sex acts (the assailants are stopped before they can rape her). The same goes for the earlier scene in which Joffrey humiliates Sansa - her clothes are torn but she holds them together, and Tyrion stops Joffrey from getting any further. Both scenes are brutal, but it's possible that they get around any limitations on how the production can use an underage actress, though hopefully both Turner and her parents were consulted even if the law didn't require it.
turtle said…
I agree there is an issue regarding the child actresses, but isn't it very patronizing to compare the consenting adults in this situations to horses? The actresses are professionals who are paid for their performances in the show; Shouldn't the respect for their choices be enough to settle the matter?
That's precisely what the last paragraph of this essay is about, turtle, and for that matter a sizable portion of the conversation about sex work, and hell, exploitative labor practices in general. To simply say that the actresses are choosing to do nude and sexual work and that's that is a vast oversimplification of the issue (even leaving aside the question of whether a child so young that the law considers her incapable of meaningfully consenting to sex can offer meaningful consent for a scene in which she simulates being raped). If the choice is between working in the nude and not working at all, is it really a choice? If the consequences of refusing to be fake-raped are being blackballed by an agent, a casting director, or a production company, is your consent meaningful? What you're doing is placing the burden of keeping this system fair and non-exploitative on the shoulders on the weakest, most powerless players in it, and implicitly placing the blame with them when they are exploited.
Turtle said…
I think there is a big difference between sex work and acting. There is a credible factual claim that women involved in porn and in sex works are in general an especially expolited group, often from immigrant background, and otherwise with great psychological, personal, or economic problems (for example, substance abuse).

There is no (that I know of) comparable problem in the population from which actors and actresses come from. Would be actors and actresses are generally speaking normative individuals. They have freely chosen an entry into a highly competitive profession, in which there are stratospheric rewards for a small elite of highly successful "stars", and a much harder life for the majority of the members of this profession. These people have made a choice, and there is no indication that they are unhappy with their choices as a whole, or that they are somewhat more restrained in their choices than the rest of humankind.

In a liberal society we believe that the normal adult persons are capable of making their own choices in life, and furthermore, that their dignity is infringed when we prevent them from making these choices.

Absent strong evidence that the adults who freely chose to participate in these scenes were unreasonably pressured or forced to do so, I don't think there's any basis for third parties to question their choices, and that it is paternalistic to do so.
David P. said…
I recently worked on a student documentary about Santa Anita track photographer Bill Mochon. At the time they were still shooting Luck and while he didn't care either for the portrayal of injuries suffered by the horses he was happy about the exposure the track got. This was how I learned of how common horse deaths were at tracks and how different the audiences were for this live entertainment (I bet once while there) and tapped shows.

Generally the human behavior we see in TV and Movies is akin to the response by schools to bullying ("Boys will be boys") or the popularity of sexist comedians (particularly here in L.A.). To a stranger it seems obscene, but to the general viewing public it's commonplace. I think like serialized entertainment (books, TV, games) no matter how out of your comfort zone it may take you, you'll eventually become invested. In time Luck could've become a hit. The horses are bred for racing anyways just like cows bred for their milk and beef.

With this in mind, I would imagine that audiences that take simulated gang rape for granted could eventually change their tone if they found themselves watching female characters they care about and enjoy more than just physically. While I know just as many girls who enjoy GoT and True Blood for the sex, they have no one to root for and thus have only the waves of unpleasantness to titillate in place of entertainment.

And great essay BTW, will share!

Once again, it really seems as if you haven't read either the last paragraph of my post or my previous comment to you, because you keep misreading and misstating my points. As I specifically say, it's important to seek out the input of actresses who appear or have been asked to appear in the scenes of violent sexual content in order not to patronize them or invalidate their choices. But on the other hand, we also need to recognize that those actresses are in a vulnerable position where speaking up may have serious professional repercussions for them, so it's up to us - the viewers, who have more power over the show than the actress playing whore #2 - to start the conversation.

You say that evidence of misconduct, and of social and professional pressure on actresses to appear in the nude and in sexually violent situations, is absent, but to me it seems that no one is looking for that evidence (and the sweeping generalizations you make about both sex workers and actors in mainstream entertainment don't incline me to believe that you've done a lot of work of seeking that evidence yourself). What I'm calling for in this essay - what you've termed patronizing - is nothing more and nothing less than for people to start asking questions, and gathering the evidence that you've decided doesn't exist.


I'm not sure that sympathetic characters are the answer. Almost all of the scenes I discuss in this essay are designed to make us sympathize with the women and dislike the men - the scene in which Joffrey forces a prostitute to beat her companion to death is intended to both demonstrate his odiousness and intensify our dislike of him, and Sansa is one of the most sympathetic and pitiable characters on the show. My question is whether using the device of rape to signpost sympathetic and unsympathetic characters isn't placing a burden on the actresses playing the rape victims that is unnecessary, and might have been obviated by more subtle, more intelligent writing.
turtle said…
"What I'm calling for in this essay - what you've termed patronizing - is nothing more and nothing less than for people to start asking questions, and gathering the evidence that you've decided doesn't exist."

Precisely my point. The basic assumption in a liberal society is that consenting adults can decide what's good for them alone. I presume you don't actively go around asking whether every product you consume is made by adults who are not exploited in any way. I don't know anyone who does that. We assume as a matter of course that the businesses we patronize are not exploitative.

Given that there's no evidence that the women in the sex scenes were exploited in any way, why treat them in any other way.

BTW, I don't think I've made any generalizations (sweeping or otherwise) about sex workers.
News flash: most of the products you consume were made under exploitative conditions, and rarely by adults. The clothes you wear? Sewn by children in sweatshops. The food you eat? Picked by migrant workers with little or no legal protection or rights. Your smartphone? Full of conflict metals. Your TV, microwave, and many other appliances? Constructed by Chinese factory workers under appalling conditions. And that's just off the top of my head. The real list is much longer and much scarier.

If you're truly not aware of these basic, widely circulated facts, then how seriously am I supposed to take your insistence that there is no evidence that women in the entertainment industry are exploited? It really seems as if you'd rather not see evidence of exploitation of any stripe, even when it's right in front of you.
Foxessa said…
A discussion along these lines going on at a Tor.com blog here, though the focus is on authors and series that kill off characters the audience likes.
Foxessa said…
"The actresses are professionals who are paid for their performances in the show; Shouldn't the respect for their choices be enough to settle the matter?"

You can as easily state that child sex workers are professionals who have consented to be paid for their work of providing sexual thrills to old men over their other choices which are to starve and / or be beaten. Since they made the choice it's all OK.

And actually, from what I hear via my friends who work in the industry, these aren't actresses who have terrific going careers -- they don't act much, you notice, other than pretending to pretend they love the sex that they don't love. They also have to sign waivers in their contracts that they will be filmed nuded doing certain things. There's a class structure there --

Michelle Dockery isn't going to be shown nude, nor was she in (body doubles) because she's got a career. These girls playing the endless parade of whores in GOT don't. And now, with these parts, it's unlikely you're going to see them in a primary starring part in anything down the road.

This discussion about the direction Fantasy and SF works are taking in terms of rape, violence and torture of women -- and having them be primarily raped and / or whoring, has been going on for at least a year, and is heating up.

GOT is the most visible because it's the most successful.

But Showtime's Spartacus is even worse.

Really, much of what's on cable is porn. Though it doesn't show actual penetration, it shows everything else, and more often than not accompanied by rape and / or blood in one way or another.

It's gone too far. I long for the Codes to come back. For one thing the writers wrote far better generally in those days. :)
ibmiller said…
Excellent point about the "class system" among the performers, Foxessa. Reminds me of the (very problematic from my perspective) response by Joss Whedon when asked about the exploitative scene(s) in "Cabin in the Woods."

And I love this article, Abigail - will definitely be sharing, and hope it sparks some discussions!
turtle said…
Abigail - "most of the products you consume were made under exploitative conditions, and rarely by adults. The clothes you wear? Sewn by children in sweatshops. The food you eat? Picked by migrant workers with little or no legal protection or rights. Your smartphone? Full of conflict metals. Your TV, microwave, and many other appliances? Constructed by Chinese factory workers under appalling conditions. And that's just off the top of my head. The real list is much longer and much scarier"

Who is making sweeping generalizations now?

furthermore, if exploitation is as inherent in the labor market as you think it is, why focus on the plight of actresses of whose choises you have no notion whatsoever?


"You can as easily state that child sex workers are professionals who have consented to be paid for their work of providing sexual thrills to old men over their other choices which are to starve and / or be beaten. Since they made the choice it's all OK."

No, I specifically said "I agree there is an issue regarding the child actresses". That was my very first line.

In our society we think children are supposed to be protected by adults. Paternalism is perfectly acceptable when it comes to minors. It is objectionable when it comes to adults.

As for the class system in acting, certainly it exist to an extent. I doubt many actresses went to Hollywood dreaming of playing the part of "Naked Whore #2"; But there is a class system everywhere in Capitalism: there is no end to lousy jobs that people take for a paycheck; And there no reason to think that the young women who take these parts are more restricted in their job opportunities than other members of society.

"Who is making sweeping generalizations now?"

Uh, not me? These are all known facts.

"if exploitation is as inherent in the labor market as you think it is, why focus on the plight of actresses of whose choises you have no notion whatsoever?"

And with that, we're done. Until now, I was willing to excuse your behavior on this thread as stemming from ignorance, but with this comment you've crossed the line into bad faith. You made a patently false statement and I showed you that it is false, and instead of acknowledging that you're not only doubling down on your ignorance but trying to shift the goalposts of the conversation so that your original goal - to discredit and silence this discussion - is achieved.

If you want to talk about the very real and very terrible exploitation of workers all over the world, there are many places on the internet where you can educate yourself and continue the conversation. But here we're talking about actresses. You walked in here trying to shut this conversation down and now that you've realized you can't do that on its merits you're trying to do it by chastising us for not having a another, more important conversation - even though you have no intention of having that conversation, and have in fact expressed doubts over whether it, too, is necessary. This is a classic silencing tactic and I will not accept it on my blog. From the beginning your comments have been characterized by an unwillingness to engage with the points that have been made against you, but now you've crossed the line and have demonstrated that you have no interest in meaningful discussion. I'm going to ask you not to comment here again.


"Class system" is an interesting way of putting it. I'm not sure, though, how well Spartacus fits into that model (or for that matter True Blood). I don't watch either show but from what I gather both of them strip the main cast - men and women - on a regular basis. I do agree, though, that we've reached the point where the difference between soft porn and a lot of mainstream entertainment is hard to discern. Which would bother me less if I thought that all actors doing that work were along the lines of the stars of Spartacus and True Blood, and amply compensated in money and fame for that work, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
Anonymous said…
Totally agree with your points Abigail. I think the second season of Game of Thrones has gotten 'worse' in terms of its sexual content, particularly content that is more of a experiment by the producer/director rather than being part of the adaptation (e.g. the Littlefinger brothel scene was a waste of time/Joffrey with the prostitutes even...). Tbh, the Sansa scenes have not bothered me much, as they do fit within the chain of events of the story, but it is a cogent point that we don't know how much of the simulated violence was acceded to while filming. In contrast, Arya's story seems to be fairly light on that issue given the rowdy place she's in...perhaps one line that won't be crossed?
turtle said…
I don't think you characterization of my views is very fair, but I will respect your wishes and abstain from commenting further. I apologise if I offended you.
Foxessa said…
The primary protagonists aren't shown nude in either True Blood or Spartacus. It's like in Sex and the City -- the ladies kept their bras on while having sex.

It's the supporting and extras -- generally of color when male in Spartacus who strip to full frontal whether in fighting scenes or the sex entertainment scenes for the aristos -- and female in all of them, whatever color.

Kelly Macdonald in Boardwalk Empire doesn't strip down to full frontal, and there are body doubles. That's how you know you'really made it as an actor -- your sex scenes are done by doubles.

Another friend (of color who works in the biz -- with a pretty respectable resume so I know you've seen him -- I can provide his name via e-mail) says, "You know which people of color are the actors -- the guy's got a gun and the girl's tits are showing."

Ourselves were asked to consult for the coming Tarantino vileness, Django, and we declined, as we've declined several such things in the last 5 years. Because they really are about nekkid female black slaves as whores, as raped, as tortured, etc. -- that's the story. And yes, I've seen the shows' bibles and pilot scripts, and every one of them opens with a black female slave as prostitute or not, being raped, whipped, and giving a blowjob or being anally raped.

Love, C.
Foxessa said…
I just saw this -- pertinent to the conversation -- posted on Tiger Beatdown about the intersectionality of racism, porn and degradation.

It's on this site too, that its creator, Sady Doyle, took on the sexism in GOT -- and this before the series began on HBO. As to the response, you can imagine from many quarters the outrage and fury that in any way could GOT be criticized as not perfect in every way. I.E. we like what we like and we like whores, we like rape, we like torture, we like seeing even more than reading about it -- because it is historically authentic -- and just stop harshing our fun, you prudish bitch.

It's in these forum topics in various places that also include Richard Morgan, Joe Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker, as well as GRRM, that I learned those who insist these constant scenes are historically real and must be included, and that mature means rape, whores and torture, and if you don't like it it means you are an immature non-feminist wimp. Thus it's hard not to believe it's somebody male about age 15 who is objecting to women's objections to these constants of praise of the so-called new gritty grim dark New! Improved! Historically Accurate! Real! Fantasy, like no other fantasy before and better too!

I have wondered if these guys got the idea that 'mature' means rape, sex, torture, etc. because that's the term the industry uses in terms of its ratings of 'mature audiences.'

However, when one looks into any dictionary we learn that mature actually has much older and extensive definitions than this ....
George said…
I've been bothered by GOT's treatment of violence against women ever since Daenerys fell deeply in love with the man who raped her. God, I hate that character...
David P. said…
I agree its a cheap way to get "sympathy" for what is really a pitiful character. To use a show I'm more familiar with as an example...

In Mad Men I sympathize with Peggy because, like myself and regardless of gender, she faces a uphill struggle to keep her job, finagle her way over do-or-die impromptu obstacles from her bosses, and at times feels very alone (even with a boyfriend around).

Meanwhile, I strictly pity Joan. I pity her for the sexual abuse she's endured. As a man, I can not relate and the writers know this, thus she is a sad little creature under the foot of the men in the show who I do like. I need more personality in female characters to attach to them.
Alexander said…
David P: That take on Mad Men sells the character of Joan a bit short. There is considerably more to the writing of her character, her interactions with others and for that matter her relationship with Greg then "sad little creature under the foot of the met in the show". I can somewhat understand the response in contrast to Peggy, but the contrast here isn't as inevitable as you're claiming. Put another way, there are some significant differences in how Mad Men portrays this--it doesn't involve nudity, it's in the context of a pretty specific plot development, it doesn't make Joan a purely passive character in the show, etc.
I don't watch Mad Men, David P., but from what I've read its handling of Joan does sound more in line with what Alexander describes than your version. More importantly, I'm troubled by the notion that having been raped - something that sadly happens to many real women - makes a female character unrelatable, or a personality-free victim. I do agree that popular culture often uses rape as a shortcut for audience sympathy, but that's not what I've heard about Mad Men or what I take away from Game of Thrones. Though on the whole I think that Sansa's attempted rape is not a necessary component of it, I've found her handling in the second season, which repeatedly stresses the way that her femininity boxes her in and leaves her vulnerable (among other things, to rape) even as it saves her life, to be one of the most interesting and nuanced character arcs of the show. Far from being personality-free or unrelatably pitiable, I find Sansa to be the most understandable character on the show. Her desperate efforts to figure out womanhood fast enough to use it against Joffrey and Cersei, even as she tries to sort out her confused feelings and untangle romantic fantasy from grim reality, make for some of the show's most compelling viewing.

All that said, the point I'm making in this post isn't really about the show's plotting choices. I don't have a problem with the writers choosing to have Sansa almost raped - since, as I say above, I think the incident has been handled well. My problem is with their having asked a minor child to play that scene.
Allan Lloyd said…
My daughter is a successful TV and stage actress who auditioned for Game of Thrones as one of the main characters and almost got the job. I haven't seen any of the programmes but is there a twin sister who has sex with her brother? My daughter is no prude and has undressed on stage in serious parts, but she still won't tell me what she was asked to do in the GOT audition.

There is so much pressure on actresses, especially for parts in productions from companies like HBO, and the rewards,not just monetary but for career progression, are enormous. In the end she was glad that she failed to get the part but there is a very fine line between artistic freedom and exploitation. It is not an easy life for young actresses and, while the casting couch may have pretty well gone theneed for work can make them cross boundaries that they would prefer not to.
David P. said…
Abigail Nussbaum: I don't entirely follow. It the fact that the actress is a minor is apart of your essay (and the contrast with the horses). And it is a repellent difference in what audiences deem acceptable, but isn't that the writer's fault in GoT? It's the plotting that put a underage girl in that scene, not casting.

Allan Lloyd: Casting fully discloses the nature of each part in writing (usually). So they can't surprise her with a nude scene.

Thanks for that information. From your description, it sounds like your daughter auditioned for the role of Cersei, one of the main characters of the show. She's played by Lena Headey who has to my recollection, never been naked on screen, though I've often wondered whether that's because she had enough clout to rule out nudity in her contract - clout that your daughter may not have had.


There are any number of ways that the scene of Sansa's attempted rape could have been shot without requiring Sophie Turner to act out a sequence as brutal and graphic as the one in "The Old Gods and the New." The scene could not have been shot at all - Sansa could have been separated from the group, we could have seen the would-be rapists going after her, and the rest of the scene could have been from the point of view of the characters looking for her, who rejoin her just in time to stop the rape. A body double could have been used and shot from the back or in the shadows. The assault could have been significantly less graphic - instead of ending up on the ground in torn clothes and with a man forcing her legs apart and groping between them, Sansa could have been found huddling in fear as he would-be rapists close in on her. And that's just off the top of my head. There was a conscious choice at the GoT production to make the rape scene as graphic as possible, just as the many scenes of nudity and sex have consciously been made as prurient as possible - presumably out of the belief that this makes the show mature or respectable. And that's happening on the backs - sometimes quite literally - of young actresses.

As for casting calls, I don't know much about that world, but I can easily imagine that an actress might show up for a call that says simply "nudity," when the reality is "you're being rogered from behind by a guy who despises you while being made to look as pathetic and unattractive as possible." Anyway, it's probably not a good idea to assume that we know more about what's going on in a total stranger's life than her own father.
Allan said…
David P: I think you are being very naive if you think that an actress gets a look at the whole script when she goes for an audition. Scripts change during shooting. Camera angles and director's attitudes can transform a scene from subtle nudity to full-blown exploitation. And when you get the part how do you know the direction that the story will take in future episodes or series.

I spoke to my daughter last night and she said that she would not have taken the part if offered because of the way the casting panel treated her. She said they made her feel like a piece of meat. The money and fame would have been nice, but you have to consider what effect it has on the rest of your career.
Tom Elrod said…
Abigail: It's a little different, but have you followed the controversy surrounding HBO's Girls? While there's been numerous debates raging around that show (race, class issues, etc.), one debate has been about women and sex. Creator/writer/director/star Lena Dunham has multiple nude scenes where she's partaking in very degrading sexual activity. As "auteur" television, these are creative choices Dunham is making herself and is presumably comfortable with, but it has garnered quite a reaction. Some of it is just plain misogyny, with people (i.e., men) not wanting to think too hard women's agency over their own bodies. But I wonder how much of it might also be related to some of the issues presented here, that is, discomfort with putting real, live women in positions where they enact abusive sex acts so that other people can watch and comment on that enactment.

More to the point of this thread: how much would opinions about Game of Thrones change if more men were the subject of nudity and sexual violence, and if the creators and producers consisted of more women? (I think one of the writers is a woman, but otherwise all of the top creatives are men.) If, in other words, there was more equity in the show between the sexes? (I don't mean in the fictional world, which is clearly patriarchal, but in the presentation of nudity and acts of sexual violence within that world.) Personally, I think many of the same issues would still be present, but it might feel a bit less like "men making younger women do horrible things for entertainment."

I haven't been watching Girls, and most of what I've heard about it has centered around issues of race. It's interesting to hear that it also connects to what we've been talking about here. As you say there's a huge difference in a writer/producer putting herself on camera in compromising situations and asking another actress to do the same, but there can still be problems with the former scenario - see for example the criticism that has been voiced about Tina Fey's presentation of Liz Lemon on 30 Rock.

The question of whether male nudity would change the problematic nature of Game of Thrones feels a bit chicken-and-eggish to me. It's not necessarily unrealistic to Game of Thrones's setting for men to be naked, or subject to the same or similar sexual violence and humiliation that women on the show have been subjected to - patriarchy, after all, often victimizes young and lower class men as well as women, and though I'm again going on what I've heard rather than my own viewing I think that Spartacus, for example, has featured the sexual humiliation of men as well as women. But I think that if the show's producers were the kind of people who are willing to consider that this might be true of their setting, they would also be less inclined to use female nudity and sexual violence against women as entertainment.
Foxessa said…
I for one do not believe the solution to this increasing number of ever more nakend, graphic scenes of sexual violence and degradation is having more male characters subjected to scenes of naked graphic sexual violence and degradation.

The solution is better writing, more creative and honest writing, and the male writers, producers and viewers facing up to why they love these scenes so much that they are determined this is historically accurate, so very cool to do and see.
Anonymous said…
Abigail, you bring up a lot of well considered thoughts and ideas on your blog, but sometimes I find them a bit cynical or excessive. It could be said the very process of reviewing is cynical, because it means deconstructing another's work, often based solely on entertainment value or some abstract aesthetic. I do not claim to be perfect myself, but allow me to enter the arena ...

Abigail, I'd almost ask for a short version and a link to an extended version of your essays, because for myself at least, it's easy to miss something. I think the gist of your essay is the following line: "...It suggests that, just as dead horses are the cost of doing business in the racing industry, traumatized and humiliated actresses are the cost of doing business in cable television."

First, I enjoy my sensuality and sexuality, but I don't need graphic sex and violence to enjoy a show: in fact, they often take from my enjoyment. I have watched only clips from Game of Thrones (a tongue cutting scene?) and that was enough for me: I see enough baseness of human behavior on a daily basis that I don't need to "escape" to it.

Now, I don't object to pornography, prostitution or polyamory, as long as it's consensual and respects people's wellbeing: but there's the rub. What is a liberating act for one person, is demeaning to another. So if directors (employers) are compelling their actors (employees) to do things they are uncomfortable with, well, this is a dilemma I think all of us face in our work at some point. I've introduced this squeamish topic in conversation sometimes, and "how we pay for our lunch", like a famous scene in the film "Regarding Henry", is a tough one. Aspiring actors make a name for themselves by getting attention, and sometimes that means confronting societal taboos, about drugs, sex, etc. If the creators of a show want their actors to do what you consider demeaning scenes, they have to decide whether or not to participate, and that can mean sacrificing a career (but I'd be careful about predicting the future).

Let's move a little further into the sea of irony: it's entirely possible that a person watching Game of Thrones or reading the book, is doing so on their fantastic Ipad or e-reader. And that very e-reader was probably made at a Chinese factory in sub-standard working conditions, so bad that some have committed suicide in protest. Is that screwed up or what? Further, I'm from Canada, and our oil sands are a big source of the carbon making a mess of the climate cycles, and could lead to ecosystem breakdown. Yet, along with mining, it is the major driver of our economy.

I also remember you mentioning you are from Israel, and is not Israel a top exporter of arms and hi-tech to combat the war on terror? War is business, and not much of an incentive for peace in your region. That does not mean many want peace, just that there may not be as much money in it for some people. (See Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine")

What I'm getting at, is that sexuality on television is a low priority for me: sex trafficking of Asian women into North America, for example, is a more serious issue. It would be great if actors can call their shots, but I have had many jobs where it's been a power struggle between labor and management, and this is no different. Would I welcome more scenes of loving sex in cinema? Sure, I support that. In Canada, our gov't is more worried about sex than violence, which is ironic, because enjoyment of sex and affection discourages violence. I am all for opening people to safe, consensual avenues to enjoy their sexuality: whether being aroused by television, or in a relationship. I think your post misses some of the complexity and larger issues at play (pun intended ;).


Vancouver, BC
I can't help but feel that you're making a more verbose version of the argument made by turtle above, Dean. Yes, the plight of actresses in Hollywood is less severe than the plight of victims of sex trafficking, but is it really an either/or proposition? You make it sound as if, by discussing actresses, I have shut down all conversation about sex trafficking victims, when really it's you who's trying to shut conversation down - after all, you didn't come here to start a discussion about sex trafficking. You came here to tell me that the discussion I'm having isn't worthwhile because it isn't about sex trafficking. And neither, by the way, is the rest of my blog, which you claim to be fan of, and yet I've never seen you comment on a review of Sherlock or the latest China Mieville to say that this is a less serious issue than sex trafficking - even though they obviously are. Why does this post deserve that honor?
Anonymous said…

I think you've misread my post, like I was worried about doing to yours. The gist of my little essay is "... In Canada, our gov't is more worried about sex than violence, which is ironic, because enjoyment of sex and affection discourages violence. I am all for opening people to safe, consensual avenues to enjoy their sexuality: whether being aroused by television, or in a relationship." If producers are asking actors ( I use this word for all genders) to show graphic violence and violence in sex, it is up to the audience to turn away, and the actors to decline. I don't like to watch a lot of violence, but it is ironic that I love scifi battles where things get "blowed up real good" (i.e. latest Avengers movie). However, if an actor is willing to portray gruesome violence, then as long as I don't see images everywhere I go depicting theses scenes, I don't object. I do hope that my culture promotes healthy sexuality and fair labor/fair trade in more than just words, but the economic pressures make it (as you know) a tough dilemma.

Vancouver, BC
JP said…
'just as dead horses are the cost of doing business in the racing industry, traumatized and humiliated actresses are the cost of doing business in cable television'

I remember being excited when I heard about the TV series Rome - then put off by the fact that the first few episodes featured extensive full-frontal nudity, all female. I think there's a big problem here, it has to do with more than just whether individual actors make informed decisions or not. How many such decisions do their male counterparts make? How often are male actors given scenes where they are humiliated sexually, raped or simply made to function as sexy wallpaper for the main characters in the scene? There's this serial called The Client List about a woman who has to take up a job as a masseuse-with-happy-endings. It stars an actress who acted in some pretty high-profile projects at one time. One off things like Brokeback Mountain aside, can you imagine a male actor of similar stature acting in a movie or series where he is forced by poverty into being a sex worker? Anyway, I just want to say that I thought the other Nussbaum raised a great point and I'm glad you're amplifying it to your audience. I tried sharing her essay but must people just ignored me, already being deeply invested in Game of Thrones fandom.
Foxessa said…
There was a series, Hung, that did feature a Detroit man turning to sex work for financial reasons.

From wiki:

"It premiered on June 28, 2009 on HBO and ran for three seasons, airing its final episode on December 4, 2011, before being cancelled by HBO.[1]"

I watched some of the first episodes -- can't remember if they were streamed on netflix of I got the dvds -- but it was not a 'fun' series at all. Nor did it include much male nudity -- much more female nudity, and not all of the women were perfectly honed doll flesh and hair and wardrobe (when wardrobe is involved at all) as they are on most of these mucho nekkid women and violence shows.

IOW, it wasn't as popular as the other HBO and Showtimes series.
JP said…
Interesting that male sex work is not depicted in a fun context. There was some sleepiness induced garble in my last comment btw for which I apologise.
Unknown said…
Word is that Lena Headly hasn't done nude scenes for Game of Thrones and won't be doing any in future because she's got a bunch of tattoos which would be a) anachronistic and b) out of character. Though apparently that didn't stop her doing a nude scene in 300.

"The solution is better writing, more creative and honest writing, and the male writers, producers and viewers facing up to why they love these scenes so much that they are determined this is historically accurate, so very cool to do and see."

Can't speak for the producers or writers, but as a viewer I found those scenes pretty hard to watch and in no way "very cool". Daenerys scene at the end of the pilot was especially heart rending. They're horrible scenes but, then, horrible things are happening.
Polly Esther said…
There's nothing really new about violence, torture and rape in entertainment, Foxessa. Either you don't read a lot or you don't put a whole lot of thought into what you do read.

Titus Andronicus uses the rape and mutilation of a woman as a plot device, to provide an excuse for the male protagonist to seek brutal vengeance on her attackers. And that was a play, by the way, which meant that it was shown live in graphic detail.

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