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 fiancé 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.