House Of The Dragon's Violence Deserves A More Nuanced Conversation Than We're Giving It

Any concerns that the general public had lost interest in the stories of Westeros following the lackluster "Game of Thrones" finale have been rightfully put to rest, with last week's debut of the prequel series "House of the Dragon" earning the biggest premiere in HBO history. The world built by acclaimed author George R.R. Martin has proven to be one that appeals to a massively diverse audience, which is one of the most impressive attributes of the series. But it has unfortunately saddled it with the impossible task of also appeasing massively diverse perspectives, many of which are often in direct opposition of each other.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the endless debate over the way "Game of Thrones" and now "House of the Dragon" depicts violence, specifically misogynistic violence, on screen. The general discourse surrounding the way violence toward women is portrayed in media is often dubbed "The 'Game of Thrones' Problem," with the show declared the poster child of sexist abuse in fictionalized entertainment.

Even before "House of the Dragon" premiered, impassioned debate began on social media and many think pieces were written about the series, especially after it was announced that the show would be scaling back on the portrayal of gratuitous sex scenes and nudity, but would not be shying away from the cruel realities of the way sexual violence is used as a tool of oppression. "I don't think that Westeros is any more Anti-Woman or misogynist than real life and what we call history," said George R.R. Martin at this year's Comic-Con. Of course, this is a show with flying dragons and ice zombies, so mentioning history feels inappropriate, even if it is accurate.

There is no Iron Throne for discourse

When approaching any analysis of difficult art, it's vital that we remember all art is subjective. While fantastical elements like greyscale disease or historical aspects like how "House of the Dragon" is inspired by The Anarchy time period aren't things we as viewers can directly relate to, the actions of targeted violence and sexual abuse are unfortunately all too familiar. Given the relatability of these elements for many, many people, it's extremely difficult to watch the show and ignore how it relates to one's own lived experiences. Which is precisely why arguing against or in favor of depicting violence on the show is a fool's errand.

There's been a lot of discussions in recent years regarding "intent vs. impact," or the understanding that the intentions behind actions or words is not as important as the impact it has on the receiving end. While it's understandable to prioritize the end result rather than how "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," it is consistently frustrating to see the arguments surrounding "Game of Thrones" or House of the Dragon" relegated to " they present misogynistic sadism as entertainment." This perspective, while valid, can only exist if we're operating purely under bad faith, and it also implies that film and television solely exist to entertain and nothing more. Never in my life as a survivor of both intimate partner physical violence and gang-rape have I ever watched one of these moments on screen and viewed it as "entertainment," and I am sincerely concerned for those that believe these moments are meant to serve as such.

But there's no Iron Throne for discourse. There is no argument to be won, because it's not as simple as "right" and "wrong."

More than just entertainment

The argument of "that's what happened in history" doesn't hold any water with me, because even if all of the fantastical elements were eliminated from each show, the story is still fictional. "Game of Thrones" was inspired by the real life War of the Roses and "House of the Dragon" is inspired by the tumultuous period following the death of Henry I, but both stories are still completely fictional. "My books are fantasy but I get a lot of inspiration from history and I take elements from history and turn it up to 11," Martin said at this year's Comic-Con.

It is true that the events shown on screen are made up and therefore anything in the story can be deemed unnecessary, but in my personal opinion, eliminating the realities of how women have been systemically treated since the dawn of time in shows that are centered around power imbalances of the ruling classes feels weirdly insulting to those that have endured it.

Yes, "Game of Thrones" and "House of the Dragon" are shows to entertain audiences and make HBO a metric f*** ton of money, but it's alarming that the mere possibility of Martin and the show's writers including these brutal moments as an attempt to force audiences to interrogate their perceptions of how misogynistic violence is a linchpin to the patriarchal systems of oppression still in play today is ignored in favor of the assumption "writer uses fantasy platform to justify showing violence against women." Violence against women has never just been about violence against women, and it's curious that this reality is ignored when it comes to fictional storytelling.

Feel how you want to feel

I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not claiming that people need to "suck it up" or "just deal with it" when it comes to the misogynistic violence of these shows. If it's something that genuinely triggers a person, they have every right to opt out and not watch the show. At the same time, it's also ridiculous to expect a show to sugarcoat its depictions of violence to cater to those legitimate sensitivities.

We as humans cannot help what triggers us or may cause retraumatization, but it's also not the job of the world to accommodate us. I'll admit, I am a person that finds great catharsis in seeing these moments on screen, because it validates and affirms my experiences. After decades of telling people I was abused/assaulted and hearing them respond with "you seem fine so it couldn't have been that bad," there's something therapeutic about the horrors of misogyny treated with legitimacy. 

Everyone watching "House of the Dragon" is going to respond to the violence in ways that are shaped and molded by their own experiences, which means no two people will have the same perception. What this calls for is a more balanced approach to dissecting the scenes, and an understanding that there's no "one way" to analyze the material. There's no right/wrong way to process trauma in our real lives, and the same should not be expected when processing fictional stories centered on that same trauma.

Nuance is necessary

As Meghan O'Keefe of Decider wrote, "'House of the Dragon' is emphasizing how women aren't just politically squashed in this patriarchal world, but physically ground down by the demands of giving birth." Given the current state of restricted abortion access in America and the forced births that will follow in its wake, the visual presentation of the violence this begets feels vital.  The real world is terrible and when there's a show available with knights and dragons, it sounds like the perfect opportunity for escapism from the horrors of our day to day lives, but "Game of Thrones" and "House of the Dragon" were never meant to be used in this way. Martin has said many, many times that he uses fantasy as a vehicle to make commentary on the way things really haven't changed that much since the earliest years of documented society, which includes the less-than-stellar parts. 

The "but that's how it was back then!" crowd is just as correct and simultaneously off base as the "there's no point to depicting violence against women" team. Ultimately, how someone feels about the violence of "Game of Thrones" and "House of the Dragon" is how they're going to feel about it, and absolutely no one should try to convince anyone to feel any differently. There are an abundance of conversations to be had about how and why the violence is depicted, but calling for the erasure of it all will not erase violence in real life. 

It does, however, eliminate the necessary nuance required when trying to understand how and why violence is still able to prevail in our very real lives.