House of the Dragon: Let’s stop using violence against women as a plot device

House of the Dragon: Trailer for brand new series

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WARNING: This article contains spoilers from House of the Dragon episode 1

TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains details about violence against women and maternal mortality

Game of Thrones was known for its sexual violence against women with the show frequently coming under fire during its original run. Sansa Stark’s (played by Sophie Turner) rape on her wedding night by the sadistic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) coercing Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) into having sex in a sept by the side of their son’s coffin are just a couple of examples. Then there was the violence Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) forced two prostitutes to mete out physical abuse on each other as well as murdering Ros (Esmé Bianco) with a crossbow.

Some of the most distressing scenes in Game of Thrones were from the Red Wedding when a heavily pregnant Talisa Stark (Oona Chaplin) was brutally stabbed in the stomach – a moment not in the original novel by George R.R. Martin but added in by Game of Thrones’ showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to make the sequence even more shocking.

I had high hopes for House of the Dragon with creator Miguel Sapochnik and writer Ryan Condal, who made the show with Martin’s help. The creative duo said they included the things which had made Game of Thrones a success and improved on those elements the parent show hadn’t done so well on.

Sadly, changing Westeros’ approach to violence against women wasn’t one of them, instead, audiences were subjected to some harrowing scenes in the opening episode.

Viewers witnessed a horrifying, drawn-out moment in which scenes of graphic bloodshed at a tourney were unnecessarily juxtaposed with Aemma Arryn’s (Sian Brooke) childbirth. But this wasn’t a protracted labour sequence viewers may have seen before on films and TV.

It played out like an explicit torture scene as Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) chose to save the baby over his beloved wife.

Aemma was held down and forced to undergo a fatal caesarean section despite begging her husband not to do it. Not only was the decision non-consensual, there wasn’t even the option of pain relief – milk of the poppy, anyone?

Yes, the moment demonstrated Viserys’ utter desperation for a male heir to continue the line of succession and end the in-fighting for the Iron Throne, but it felt so wholly unnecessary to show this in such an explicit manner.

For those who have gone through difficult pregnancies, suffered miscarriages, and had traumatic birthing experiences, this author included, this moment felt triggering.

I can already hear some already leaping to the show’s defence, saying it’s set in a barbaric medieval world where this is to be expected or not to watch House of the Dragon. Others may be banding about the term ‘snowflake’ – but this isn’t about being woke or politically correct, it’s about using shock value in place of strong writing.

Granted House of the Dragon isn’t an allegory or a contemporary tale, but this HBO TV show exists within a very real world where women are losing their reproductive rights with the reversal of Roe vs Wade; where the maternal outcomes for people of colour are far poorer compared to their white counterparts with black women four times more likely to die in pregnancy; where women still feel they are not listened to during childbirth.

House of the Dragon is supposed to provide escapist fantasy and yet it’s simply traumatic to watch this moment as it holds up a somewhat chilling mirror to the Gilead-esque reality we’re living in.

The Red Wedding aired in 2013 and very much hit hard as one of the biggest and bloodiest twists on TV at the time, but it feels like we’ve learnt nothing since then. Violence against women is still apparently shorthand for plot and character development.

Aemma’s childbirth scene wasn’t a sexual assault but a violation nonetheless, which was equally as devastating with a permanent, heartbreaking outcome. If there was ever a moment to loathe Viserys, this scene would be it.

What was the need to see that level of detail as Aemma was sacrificed? The camera could have very easily cut away.

This was a very deliberate stylistic choice by the programme-makers and played on the shock factor.

Once again, this sequence felt like a lazy attempt at exposition with the writers resorting to explicit violence against a woman to serve a narrative purpose.

Apparently, there’s plenty more to come as well with Sapochnik saying: “The child bed is our battlefield.”

He went on to say to The Hollywood Reporter: “In medieval times, giving birth was violence.

“It’s as dangerous as it gets. You have a 50/50 chance of making it. We have a number of births in the show and basically decided to give them different themes and explore them from different perspectives the same way I did for a bunch of battles on Thrones.”

Judging by this, viewers are seemingly in for more violence against women which could potentially be just as traumatic. It all seems such a shame as the political, machiavellian machinations, curveball twists, intricate plotting, and fabulous character development were some of the biggest selling points of the show – rather than just the sex and violence.

Producers take note: House of the Dragon doesn’t need to resort to such tactics to draw in viewers, they’re already here because of Game of Thrones – arguably still one the biggest television show in the world.

House of the Dragon airs on HBO on Sundays and Sky Atlantic on Mondays and streams on NOW

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