But We Are Not Men:
Male-Authored Sexual Violence in Game of Thrones and Ovid’s Metamorphoses
CW: mentions of sexual violence/violence against women.
Male authors of fantasy works are notorious for subjecting their women to sexual violence in the name of “historical accuracy.” Somehow, in a series about dragons and ice zombies and magically hairless women (somewhere in Westeros, an esthetician is making absolute bank), the touchstone to realism always seems to be rape. Period-accurate diseases are too gross and boring, period-accurate textiles, garments, and metalwork are too much effort and cost. But seeing women being violated on screen in graphic, extended scenes? That’s a visual and emotional minefield where fantasy authors will step willy-nilly, and then act absolutely gobsmacked when it blows up in their face. The hard truth is that accurately portraying historical sexual violence requires a ton of nuance that a lot of fantasy writers miss, and the audience suffers as a result. What better way to show how Game of Thrones fails to properly interact with such a delicate topic than to see how people from those historical periods depicted this facet of their society?
That’s where Ovid comes into play. Roman society's rigid social order and fascination with the bloody spectacle of violence meant that it is the type of place GRRM writes Westeros to be: a place where women suffer inevitable sexual trauma at the hands of powerful men. The Metamorphoses is arguably the most popular work of the poet, and sexual violence runs rampant throughout the story at a similar rate as Game of Thrones, with an estimated 50-ish occurrences of sexual violence in both works (roughly 4-5 occurrances for every season of the show or book of the poem). However, there’s a huge discrepancy between both the motives and methods of Ovid and Benioff/Weiss in their inclusion of sexual violence as plot points: how their characters react to their trauma, and why it is portrayed in the first place.
Is Ovid a Feminist Icon? A Brief Historical Foray
Short answer? No. Long answer? Allow me to hop onto my soapbox real quick.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Roman princeps, in possession of newly consolidated imperial power, must be in want of some sweet, sweet cultural reshaping. Among the esteemed poets that the victorious Emperor Augustus employed in his attempt to ‘Make Rome Great Again’ was one Publius Ovidius Naso.
Ovid was, to put it in layman’s terms, a good old-fashioned loverboy. His stories were primarily about sexual and romantic education, love poetry, and reframed myths, and were widely absorbed by the public (let’s call him the Taylor Swift of Roman poets). Before he got punted to Tomis for the crime of poem-ing and mistake-ing, he spent his time on his patron’s dime writing some of his most influential works, including the Metamorphoses.
These “Transformations” were a catalogue of re-written Greco-Roman myths that manipulated the epic structure of the Iliad and Odyssey to address themes of love, desire, and (insert gasp of real shock here) women. Many scholars have historically seen in Ovid's works as scorning both gods and men, and sympathizing for the women they pursue. Other readers, however, have pointed out that no one who writes that much violence against women could possibly be sympathetic to them. So what gives?
Well, reader, I’ll tell you what gives. Rome gives.
While Roman gender roles are way too complicated to discuss in depth here, the TLDR is that they are not as simple as biological sex differences. In both Greece and Rome, gender was a dichotomy of the dominant and the submissive, or more accurately, the penetrator and the penetrated. To be sexually submissive was overtly effeminizing and therefore dehumanizing. Taking the penetrative position, sometimes by force, was part of being an upper-class man, and suffering sexual violence was characteristic of a lower-class or foreign woman (for more details about sexual violence in Rome, check out this article).
With these societally ingrained roles in mind, Ovid’s repeated records of sexual violence begin to make sense: it was the nature of gods and heroes to take what they wanted, no matter what their partner thought. Rape was a figment of these stories long before Ovid, and he is simply continuing an established mythological tradition. But Ovid is interpreted by many scholars to treat rape not as an inevitable quality of society, but as a tragedy of it. That’s what some say the Transformation is all about: women who suffer and flee sexual assault become something outside of it, shedding the weight of societally induced violence against their bodies by becoming disembodied. Their transmutation is often a consequence of sexual violence, or a preventative measure, allowing survivors to escape their assaulted human forms and become something new. It’s often a last resort, but when being a tree or patch of reeds forever is shown as preferable to being violated, even a reader who has never feared sexual violence can easily grasp Ovid’s indictment of the assaulters, no matter their status.
Handle With Care: Sexual Violence as a Plot Device
To bring this back around, GRRM isn’t exactly stellar for how he treats sexual violence, but in this case, today’s beef is largely with Benioff/Weiss. Game of Thrones is well-known in its earlier seasons for incredible characterisation and writing: Benioff and Weiss showed an initial capacity to create incredibly visceral emotional responses through combinations of musical cues, subtle acting choices, and their manipulation of audience expectation and suspense (which makes it all the more heartbreaking when they absolutely demolish their own brilliance in later seasons).
However, one thing that has been graphic, drawn out, and heavy-handed from the get-go are scenes of sexual assault. The kind of thing that should be treated with the most delicacy, Benioff and Weiss drop the ball from the first season, and continue to fumble it harder for about seven more. For them, sexual violence is an almost gladiatorial spectacle: Daenerys is openly and explicitly brutalized by both her brother and husband, Sansa is violently assaulted by Ramsay Bolton, Cersei is violated by her twin brother. All of these scenes have stirred some level of controversy for their egregious, drawn out nature.
This corresponds with a recent and troubling fascination with eliminating subtlety and nuance in visual media that shows its ugly face in Game of Thrones. One might argue that the visual medium is naturally more vivid than paper and ink, and therefore the scenes it shows have to be vibrantly visualized. But Ovid shows us that’s not the case: Roman elegiac poetry was written to be seen as much as it is read, where the details included in the poetry are carefully selected to help the reader visualize the scene with precise imagery. Ovid intends for his readers to imagine exactly what’s going down, but he still manages to walk that fine line between imagery that is visceral but sensitive to its audience, and imagery that goes too far. This begs an inevitable question: where does that line even start, and why do Benioff/Weiss seem to have such a hard time walking it?
The way I see it, the emotional intent of portraying scenes of rape is often to elicit disgust and sympathy, but what I don’t think Benioff/Weiss understand is when they cross the line into sensationalism and excitement. In portraying graphic rape outright in brutal and fully visualized scenes, too much room is left for viewers to be fascinated, excited, or, in the case of the rape of the eminently unlikeable Cersei, gratified by the denigration. Cersei’s assault in Season 4 of the show is particularly troublesome in this respect: where in the books her incestuous entanglement is consensual, the same scene portrayed by the show removes any form of consent, and has Cersei raped on screen by her brother Jaime.
Cersei’s role as a widely-hated primary villainess of the series means that by Season 4, much of the audience was actively praying for her downfall. But when the audience’s thirst for revenge was combined with this unfounded occurance of sexual violence, it set a dangerous new precedent where sexual assault can be seen as a form of justice, leading to an emotional catharsis at the sight of the rape. The showrunners double down on this in Season 5, where Cersei is violated once more by being forced to parade naked through the streets in a “walk of atonement”. Benioff/Weiss might have intended for these scenes to be difficult to view, but it appears to me that they forgot to account for those who would find them easy or “titillating” to watch, and that makes them irresponsible at best.
You know it becomes a problem when a dead Roman writes the tension, disgust, and horror that accompanies sexual violence with more delicacy and emotional weight than two dudes from the 21st century. The myth of Philomela and Procne is probably the most graphic of Ovid’s episodes, where Procne’s husband, Tereus, kidnaps and rapes his sister in law Philomela, and then cuts out her tongue to silence her. Philomela, robbed of her speech, weaves a tapestry depicting her assault and sends it to Procne. Discovering her sister’s trauma, Procne frees Philomela, and the two take revenge on Tereus by killing Procne and Tereus’ son and feeding him to his father before being transformed into nightingales to escape Tereus’ wrath.
It’s a horrifying and tragic story about the death of innocence and the physical silencing of the suffering women, with a plot that revolves around Philomela’s assault. Instead of shoving graphic imagery in the audience’s face in hopes we might find the notion of it difficult, Ovid plays on our emotions and expectations by creating a revulsion and steadily growing sense of dread and terror preceding the assault. He depicts the details not in the rape itself, but in the thoughts of Tereus as he hungers for the chance to violate his wife’s sister. Ovid conjures imagery of Philomela being stalked like prey giving the reader a sense of the creeping dread of expectation, and he does it all without describing the sexual violence outright.
In comparison, Benioff/Weiss don’t even come close to a delicately nuanced portrayal, which is shameful for all that we claim to have learned and grown in the last two millennia. The worst part is that they can create similar scenes of tension and implication without including the explicit sexual violence. The scene of Ramsay Bolton menacing Theon Greyjoy before the rape of Sansa in Season 5 (another invention by the showrunners that did not appear in the books) is designed to be frightening and uncomfortable, not to mention actor Iwan Rheon’s incredible use of subtle expressions throughout the series to convey his sadistic nature. With all that was shown about the character, even prior to the marriage between him and Sansa, we already knew Ramsay Bolton was a ruthless, perverted rat before he ever raped anyone on screen, rendering the scene of assault itself entirely unnecessary. That horse was dead, guys. You did not have to keep beating it.
Ovid gets the nuance that Benioff/Weiss do not. Instead of expounding the details of sexual violence, Ovid portrays the lasting consequences of that violence. After her assault, Philomela gives a speech where she recounts exactly what effects the assault will have on her, bringing the audience a sense of the bone-deep violation and self-hatred she has experienced without describing the act of violence itself. Even after Tereus tears out Philomela’s tongue to keep his own secret, her anger and sorrow is viscerally described as she seeks comfort in her sister’s arms after her rescue, and later in her revenge.
Ovid goes on to show the grief and rage of the survivor’s family, with Procne vowing to avenge Tereus’ crime in a rousing speech of her own. She follows through in the most tragic way possible, showing the inevitably emotional conflict one feels when entangled in the messy horrors of sexual violence. Ovid’s women are human first, no matter what they later become, and their trauma is treated with the weight it deserves. The women are allowed to grieve their lost autonomy and tragedy, fully experiencing emotions like grief, sorrow, and helplessness that might be considered “ugly” or “weak” but are a result of such trauma.
Ovid is also careful to include the way that trauma changes the survivor, showing the sweet Philomela and devoted Procne before the sexual violence, and their state of mind and body in the tragedy that results from it. It is one of the starkest reminders of the effects of this kind of violence: within 200 lines, Philomela goes from earnestly pleading her father to allow her to visit her sister to flinging the head of her cannibalized nephew at her rapist. Chances are that part of the reader can’t even fully fault her for it. But Philomela is never portrayed as a Strong Female Character in the sense that we are expected to be inspired by her strength and gratified by her revenge — she has been unimaginably violated, and is responding with equally unimaginable depth of emotion. After all, this is a tragedy at its core.
When contrasting Philomela’s myth with Daenerys Targaryen, we can see exactly how Benioff/Weiss continue to miss the mark. Daenerys begins the series as a wide-eyed and innocent girl not unlike Philomela, before being sold into marriage by her brother and explicitly raped on more than one occasion by her new husband, Khal Drogo. However, rather than portraying this as disgusting and tragic, Benioff and Weiss, following GRRM’s storyline, have her fall in love with her rapist (!!!!!). Daenerys is shown to retake her sexual autonomy onscreen in what I think Benioff and Weiss might have considered a hashtag girlboss moment, but that doesn’t erase that she suffered multiple occasions of marital rape. The writers seem to forget it even happened to her as the seasons progress past Drogo’s death.
Daenerys is never shown to come to terms with this trauma for herself. Instead, the writers nominally shoehorn mentions of her sexual assault into various speeches as a way to show her inner strength or something about blah blah overcoming adversity blah. At the same time, they treat Drogo as a lover rather than a rapist. But where the triumph of Daenerys is a victory for the trope of the woman strengthened by her sexual trauma, Philomela’s story tells us the hard truth: a sexually violated woman will carry the lingering effect of it with her, no matter how much a male author would like her to conquer it. Trauma doesn’t just disappear once justice has been served (if it is ever served at all). The idea that a woman must be stoic in the face of her own violation to be considered strong is fundamentally flawed. Grappling with the effects of trauma is necessary to begin healing. Experiencing and showing the grief and pain of it, even in private, should not be an indictment of the survivor’s strength. But in Game of Thrones, sexual assault isn’t the thing considered disgusting or ugly: contending with its repercussions is.
Look, I’m not endorsing flinging around baby heads as an acceptable response to emotional turmoil (I’ll take “sentences that have never been written before” for 200, Alex), nor am I saying that stoicism is an unrealistic or invalid response to trauma. But what I don’t think Benioff/Weiss understand is that sexual violence just isn’t the same as physical violence. Rape isn’t like death on the battlefield or in the arena: it’s a uniquely traumatizing and violating thing to suffer, a singularly unjustifiable action, and even the Romans understood that. If you’re going to include sexual assault for any reason, it can’t just be for the sake of bolstering your female character’s strength of will — you had better be ready to deal with its aftermath. Otherwise, it’s a clear grab for the entertainment factor with something that should never and has never been entertaining. We consider the gladiatorial arenas of Rome to be barbaric, and we say we would never do that in our civilized society. But how can we do this and then say that we’ve really progressed?
Obviously there are many elements of Ovid not mentioned here that are very problematic. He was, after all, a product of his time, and the reception of his works can and should be criticized when necessary. But the fact that a Roman author, writing from a time where marital rape was not even a concept and some variants of sexual assault were thought of as part of being manly, could portray sexual violence more effectively than a modern author is clearly a huge problem.
The dilution of nuance and subtlety in literature and art in favour of graphic violence, especially in a visual medium, is a simple tragedy until we apply it to complicated topics such as sexual violence. At that point, it becomes a fundamental flaw of how modern art is created. Ovid may have been ahead of his time, but Benioff and Weiss are far behind theirs, and might be better suited to writing from the time period they’re depicting if they are so earnest to portray sexual violence to an extent they believe is “historically accurate” (and GRRM, you’re on thin ice too). They just might not be considered good writers back then, either.
Publius Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses, ed. Brooks More, 1922. (This is an open-access translation, but it has its flaws. For a more up to date translation, I recommend Dr. Stephanie McCarter’s Metamorphoses)
About the Author
Hi! My name is Piper and I'm a third year at the University of Toronto studying History and Classical Civilizations, with research interests in ancient colonialism, marginal identities, and classical reception. When I'm not stuck in a library, you can find me in cafes and bookstores, or struggling to learn German in time for grad school.