‘Game of Thrones” romanticizing of incest could be problematic

In 2017 Sex Issue
Courtesy of HBO

Against all odds, “Game of Thrones” has become a cultural touchstone. Now done with a seventh season that saw the show average over 29 million viewers an episode and heading for an eighth and final run next summer — with spinoffs reportedly on the way — HBO’s fantasy epic had several factors working against it as it reached its current level of success, not the least of which was it being a fantasy epic.

Other factors initially working against “Game of Thrones” were its prestige-cable location, making it less accessible to fans than shows on a more widely-carried channel, and its nihilistic source material.

Oh, and the fact that two of its main characters are involved in an incestuous relationship.

“When I saw that the first time I was shocked, I have to say,” said Nikolaj Coster-Waldau regarding his character Jaime Lannister’s incestuous relationship with his sister Cersei (Lena Headey) in a 2011 interview with Digital Spy.

Viewers were probably shocked as well, because incest is a taboo not often covered in mainstream fiction. And while Cersei and Jaime Lannister are the show’s villains (albeit a now somewhat-sympathetic one in the latter’s case), the show has now fully embraced an interfamilial romance between two of its most beloved heroes.

HUGE SPOILERS FOLLOW. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

With Jon Snow doing a whole lot more than bending the knee for Daenerys Targaryen during a sex scene that was part of a montage revealing she was his aunt in the season 7 finale, “Game of Thrones” begged the question: Is having two of it’s most attractive heroes engage in heavily sexualized incest the healthiest way to portray inbreeding to viewers?

“I think it could be (a problem) if they don’t highlight the problematic nature of it,” said Janna Kim, an assistant professor of child and adolescent studies at Cal State Fullerton.

Hunter Hargraves, an assistant professor of cinema and television arts at CSUF, said that while he can’t recall there being “a scripted dramatic series with the prestige of ‘Game of Thrones’ that’s really sort of broached the topic” of incest so explicitly, he also thinks the show is dancing around it in a few ways.

“I think the fact that people think of it as fantasy — and its genre is very clearly fantasy, there are dragons — that allows people to kind of put some distance between their real lives and what’s going on on the screen,” Hargraves said.

Kim says that distance exists, but only because viewers’ subconscious thoughts can potentially be changed, rather than their conscious ones.

“If you ask people ‘Do you think incest is okay?’ Well of course they’re going to say ‘No, no it’s bad.’ But slowly, slowly through seeing it as something normal and something that generally is not punished on the show, we might develop a sort of callousness towards the issue, where if we hear about it in real life we’re less likely to think it’s a big deal or respond or get help,” Kim said.

Kim has studied how portrayals of sexuality in the media can affect teenagers and while she says the way the show’s writers are romanticizing Snow and Targaryen’s relationship is “definitely not the healthiest way to portray that,” she felt the way they’ve softened the Lannister’s interfamilial romance is more problematic, citing how characters went from reacting with visible disgust to the siblings’ sexual relationship in season one to the way characters joke about it or roll their eyes now.

“Even though it’s sort of portrayed as a dysfunctional relationship … It does glamorize it at the same time, because they’re very, very physically attractive characters and they have high status in that show. The scenes where they have consensual intercourse are nice to watch. They can arouse the viewer because they’re titillating and they’re shown as deeply in love,” Kim said. “It’s a very mixed message and it’s very much not what we know the reality of incestuous relationships are like.”

Far from the starry-eyed portrayal of Snow and Targaryen’s romance and even the sympathetic way the showrunners have portrayed the Lannisters’ love for one another, Kim said that “experts regard incest as a form of sexual violence. It’s a form of sexual assault” and that in most cases incestuous relationships aren’t consensual like the Lannisters’ is portrayed to be.

“I think they’re minimizing the reality of incest and I think that they are trivializing it and romanticizing the way that it’s portrayed,” Kim said.

Not only are incestuous relationships normally one-sided and abusive, but Kim said they can lead to things like physical pain, psychological and emotional problems, depression, anxiety, withdrawal, substance use and suicide for the victims.

Kim said these same victims could then see the way incest is shown on the show and feel like it was normal and be less likely to report their abuse, which like all forms of sexual violence is drastically underreported and sometimes even more so because of the potential it has to tear families apart scaring victims into silence.

In order to avoid that risk, Kim said there are a few ways the show could improve the way it handles incest. For one, it could go back to the visible disgust and other consequences for their relationship the Lannister’s faced in the early seasons of the show.

If the showrunners don’t want to change the way “Game of Thrones” is written, Kim said the simplest thing they could do is just to put the phone number or website information for an organization like the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network that helps victims of sexual violence or abuse before or after the show airs in a similar fashion to program’s like Netflix’s controversial “13 Reasons Why.”

“They could do that without doing anything else, and that could help some people,” Kim said.

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