Why Is The On-Screen Series Game Of Thrones More Problematic For An Indian Audience?

Posted: January 21, 2020

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In a country where rape videos are easily available as porn for sale at Rs 10 at roadside shops, a show like GoT pandering to the male gaze seriously affects mindsets.

Films have constantly influenced many things in India right from language to fashion to behavior. In 2015, Sandesh Baliga, an Indian man, was acquitted by the courts of Australia of the charges of stalking 2 women as he pleaded ‘not guilty’ stating that he belonged to a remote town in India and that Bollywood was responsible for influencing his behavior since it’s a norm to stalk non-consenting women in it. It was only after the 2012 gang-rape when angry students marched through the national capital that finally Bollywood came under the spot-light after decades.

The report from the Geena Davis Institute of Gender and Media studies says, “While media does not tell people what to think, it does tell us what to think about and how to think about it.”

Many articles have been written in the Indian media about how Bollywood promotes misogyny and heinous crimes against women making it acceptable and influencing the youth.

What is rape culture?

Rape Culture is the one in which rape and other forms of sexual assault are viewed as normal and unavoidable by the society, culture and media. It is often trivialised and seen as a small plot point in a story all about men.

Western literature had commonly used this trope which in turn has been given back in a much more glamorous form by Hollywood. This is one industry which remains above the scrutiny of both the media and the woke liberal audience in India. There is no discussions on the constant misogynist, transphobic, homophobic content promoting rape culture and stalking in many series from North American English media even by people who identify themselves as feminists, instead such series are promoted by most of them.

Hindi films too were criticised after few decades for using rape to bring an eroticism in the plot point. There is no sensitive portrayal of the victim’s trauma and no aim other than titillating the heterosexual male audience. It is all further brushed underneath the carpet for the story to move ahead.

Western media has acquired a loyal fandom in India. It is considered to be the platinum standard of progressive thought and liberalism by an India which has still not decolonised its mind. While criticism of Bollywood for its portrayal of women is even welcomed, calling out the content on the internet specifically that from the Western media and its stars, invites a lot of trolling and attack from the fandom.

Why is GoT more problematic for India?

Game of Thrones is one such series and perhaps the most problematic till date in third world countries or deeply patriarchal societies like India, for its portrayal of rape.

Women in India have to battle right from the womb to be born, and even to acquire an education later on. Even today in many villages, women are considered ‘characterless’ or ‘inviting trouble’ for wearing jeans, having a mobile phone and trying to venture out of the house to work or study. These restrictions are in place because of the existence of a rape culture where a victim is blamed for bringing trouble onto herself. Protectionism is society’s idea of ‘keeping women safe’.

The problem in India is not that people are not aware of rape culture. It’s more of the fact that people remain silent spectators thinking street sexual harassment, stalking and groping are normal everyday activities which most women have to face. Cries of help of the women of marginalised groups, and others bereft of any social privilege are further pushed into the background as everyday activities.

Even in workplaces bawdy jokes by men, vulgar comments on women, and sexually inappropriate gestures are considered normal even by most of the educated crowd as we could see from the testimonies of the #MeToo wave which happened in 2018.  A woman protesting against it is seen as a troublemaker by both men and women who have normalised it all. This behaviour shows that India is living in the rape culture with awareness but is reacting in a very negative and detrimental manner towards it.

The #Metoo wave in 2018 proved that the most progressive and woke boys had maintained a silence for years on multiple women’s repeated and legitimate complaints against their colleagues. In this atmosphere you have a series like Game of Thrones which has glamourised rape by its insensitive portrayal, which objectifies women for the heterosexual man’s gaze and then reduces the incident to a mere plot point in the background without it reaching a conclusive end.

Titillating the heterosexual male gaze

Till season 5 of the series there were at least 50 attempts of rape and 29 victims in it. Many people justified it saying that the makers were trying to show the reality of the Middle Ages in a show which had innumerable zombies, dragons, and a lot of magic. Some other boys pretending to be woke state that watching the rape scenes, which are insensitively filmed, makes them aware of the reality. Newspapers, which are full of headlines of sexual assault everyday, apparently are not enough to create this awareness, but a multimillion dollar TV series aesthetically hanging the corpse of a prostitute in a beautiful curve is needed to do that. Most others justify it away because it was a prostitute who was hanged.

The youth watching Game of Thrones in India is simply unaware of the power dynamics of a rape. Cercei’s rape was not found to be problematic by the youth as that could not match their definition of rape. The makers too justified it saying it became a consensual intercourse later on despite her repeatedly saying ‘No’, while the screen faded out from that scene.

Insensitive actors and directors

In the first episode of Season 1 itself there was a gratuitous scene of the show’s heroine Deanerys Targaryn being groped by her brother and raped by her husband while facing the camera nude from the front. Her repeated ‘No’ did not stop her husband. It was later on developed to be a love story between the rapist and the victim with her being his faithful wife.

A trope we have often criticised in Bollywood is something which makes young people believe that sexual violence is the way forward to a woman’s heart.

There was less focus on her trauma and more on her rapist violating her. The actor who played her husband even went on to joke about liking the opportunity of raping beautiful women on screen. He has appeared on major talk shows, yet no one has questioned him about that comment.

One of the directors of the show, Neil Marshal, had spoken about how the executive producer urged him to go full frontal in a scene saying he represented the pervy side of the audience.

A case on how popular media affects mindsets

According to two different reports, the number of teenage suicides in USA, a developed country, had increased after the release of ‘13 Reasons Why’.

In psychology, behavioural scientists have studied the phenomenon of media having a direct impact on one’s actions. Dating back to the 1960s, Albert Bandura conducted a series of controversial experiments on children where they imitated violence shown on television, while the ones who weren’t exposed to violence on television did not behave violently to the same object. There were follow up studies and many psychologists reported the same observations over decades.

Critics, after the first season itself, had pointed out that the overly filled random shots of women’s breasts cut short the show’s aspirations of seriously addressing any problems of women’s oppression.

In denial?

There are some others, including feminist celebrities, who practise what young men advise women to do – ignore those largely spanned, poorly filmed scenes and concentrate on the overall story. After all, multiple sexual assaults and nudity shown for pornographic purposes in the name of entertainment and modernity is forgivable since the Western media ‘can never be wrong’.

Men and women deny the need to answer these questions. Till season seven, 164 breasts were shown versus 7 penises. If this was about artistic creativity, how is it that it only involved the objectification of women for the male gaze?

The old defence given by young men comes to place – men are raped too. Then why is that not shown in equal numbers? The closest the series could come to it was when Theon was castrated, and during Sansa’s rape sequence, instead of showing her plight, it was Theon’s trauma that was shown.

There were reports that pornographic websites such as Pornhub reported much less traffic during the times when a new episode of Game Of Thrones was launched.

Over the years I have heard several men say things like, “This show is a must-watch because it makes me feel like a man. This is a show for men, not kids.” Not only are these statements problematic by themselves, they also promote and celebrate a culture of toxic masculinity.

In countries like India where ‘rape videos’ are sold on roadside shops in the name of regular porn at Rs 10, the popularity of Game Of Thrones is particularly problematic. It reiterates the fact that we live in a deeply patriarchal world where rape is becoming common, and people are hence desensitized to it.

The role of peer pressure

My observation has also been that a lot of people only watch this show out of peer pressure, as the ones who speak up against it are victimized and shamed publicly for being ‘unevolved’ or ‘uncool’. More than anything else, it is the culture of desensitization towards rapes, sexual violence, and graphic nudity presented for the male gaze, which is deeply problematic. It leads to a very negative perception, especially for impressionable teenagers.

Psychologist Andrea Bonior raises some serious questions about whether teenagers are able to process the whole thing. Girls consider it to be a normal part of men trying to exert control while boys think that it is how intimate relationships function.

For long, the show having an all men’s team of writers, directors and producers sold itself on being ‘realistic’, but the same show does not show body hair, venereal diseases or diseased body parts on these nude women for realism.

Graphic portrayals traumatic for survivors

The makers have not shown rape sensitively even once; instead, they have made it akin to pornographic content. It is no wonder that the most searched categories on Pornhub are: Incest, Rape, Virgin/ Barely Legal and keywords are: “bound helpless fucked”, “helpless teen” and “captured abused”. This is directly linked to the content of Game Of Thrones.

Even more torturous is the fact that women, and media channels that pride themselves on being feminist, failed to see how this show treats women, and its obviously problematic effects in real life. As a survivor of rape and sexual violence, this show traumatized me and the fact that anyone would actually enjoy watching it is nothing short of horrifying for me.

Reviews of the show pander to male gaze

In a patriarchal world obsessed with female nudity and sexual violence, it does not come as a shock that reviews of TV shows and movies are based on the male gaze, as demonstrated by portals like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, where any form of cinema is applauded and given very high ratings when it is full of violence, toxic masculinity, graphic nudity featuring women, and sexual violence, while cinema made from a feminist perspective is deeply loathed, heavily criticized and labelled as ‘chick flicks’ or ‘juvenile’.

It is clear that men can’t handle power being taken away from them even on the cinematic realm. They seem to be screaming, “How dare women make cinema which they enjoy? They should watch sexual violence against them so that we can normalize it”. This is precisely the toxic culture which makes it ‘cool’ to watch incest and rape porn of a TV show, while a show like ‘Sex and the City’, which shows women enjoying sex is heavily criticized and considered ‘uncool’. Not only is violence celebrated in GOT, it is also perpetuated by its fans online when any individual dares to say they don’t like or watch the show. The amount of hatred one receives on criticizing this show is heavier than what an unwarranted political rant gets you.

Women’s feelings minimised, infantilised, gaslighted

Hollywood for long has explained the strength of prominent characters by showing that they were sexually assaulted or raped. The point about women developing as strong characters turned out to be false after the final episode of the series was broadcasted. The trauma of sexual assault of none of the characters was addressed, nor was there any retribution for it.

If you think Alabama passing anti-abortion law is highly shocking, then please have a look at the popular culture which is shaping the worldview. In Alabama, a bunch of white men thought it was their God-ordained right to control women’s bodies, just like a bunch of white men believe that they have every right to show graphic sexual violence and celebrate rape by creating a toxic TV show solely for the male gaze. It is an extension of the same mentality that celebrates TV Shows like Game Of Thrones and gets off on child pornography and sexual violence on pornographic platforms. If you think they are separate then I am sorry to say you too are desensitized.

In a world where women are constantly told to, “Get over it” or “Not be overly sensitive”, it is amazing how one criticism against a show meant to be enjoyed by male audience primarily by appealing to their cavemen instinct leads to online hatred, proving once and for all that nothing is more fragile than a man’s ego on the internet. Privileged women too have defended the show along with promoting it, because they are unaware that neither are women’s problems alleviated nor are they getting portrayed through these shows by the so called awareness it is generating; instead, rape culture is getting normalised.

It is the same mindset that elects problematic people like Trump as president, or takes women less seriously at the workplace. After all, if the conditioning is to look at women as sex objects, and it gets reinstated by popular culture through a critically acclaimed TV show that is among the world’s most famous shows, there is very little that feminist books or movements can actually do to change that.

This article has been co-authored by Shivangi Singh and Ruddhi.

Shivangi Singh is a social entrepreneur and activist with a diverse academic and professional background. She keeps the UN SDGs as the focal point for all personal and professional activities. Ruddhi is actively working in the field of women’s issues and studying the implicit male sexual aggression represented on women.

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Shivangi Singh is a social entrepreneur and activist with a diverse academic and professional background.

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