“Game of Thrones” a Modern Day Roman Colosseum

Game of Thrones Blog

This is a difficult post with tough subject matter. Out of desire to protect readers, I will not go into detail as I discuss scenes from Game of Thrones. However, links lead to further information that some may find disturbing. I wasn’t planning on going here, but some things need to be said.

The internet erupted this week with outrage from fans of HBO’s medieval drama Game of Thrones. While the show is no stranger to violence and sexually explicit material, this last week was particularly painful for some viewers.  One of the show’s most sympathetic characters, Sansa Stark, was raped on her wedding night.

I should tell you that I didn’t watch the episode.

I have never watched a single episode of Game of Thrones, ever.

However, the online commentary was so overwhelming that I looked into the scene and the series in an attempt to create context for the outrage. In the process I found out more than I cared to about #GOT. Senator Claire McCaskill tweeted the following after Sunday’s episode:

Ok, I’m done Game of Thrones.Water Garden, stupid.Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable.It was a rocky ride that just ended.

While some viewers empathized with Senator McCaskill’s incredulity, others called her a hypocrite, citing the dozens of other disturbing, horrific scenes that have been depicted throughout the series. If McCaskill was comfortable watching the other rapes, murders and tortures on previous episodes they reasoned, then her decision to raise a red flag was disingenuous.  People actually criticized Senator McCaskill for being offended at a gratuitous rape scene on television.

Was the Senator being inconsistent in her moral outrage? Perhaps.  Were there far more disturbing episodes of Games of Thrones? Possibly. But people were far too quick to discount the sincerity of McCaskill’s disgust.

I walked away from my computer and went outside to process what I had been reading. I stared at the miles of hay fields as though searching for an epiphany in the blades of grass.  I was longing for the purity of nature to somehow clean my mind from the most recent imagery that had become physically nauseating.

How did we get here? How did we go from separate beds for Ricky and Lucy sixty years ago to simulated castration and rape as a form of entertainment? Eight years ago I walked through the Colosseum in Rome and I remember staring at the stands where thousands of Roman citizens once stood.  What brought them there? What could these men and women have possibly told themselves to justify watching gladiators fight to the death, or witness Christian men and women be torn apart by wild beasts?  Was it blindly accepting a cultural norm? Was it the production value of the nautical battles and exotic animals? Was it the magnificence of the Colosseum itself? I naively, and wrongly believed the gladiator games were so barbaric that Christians would never have even dreamed of attending. To the contrary, they attended in droves. Around 200 A.D. Tertullian wrote a magnificent charge against Christians who attended the gladiator games, or “spectacles” as he called them.  In his letter of the same name, Tertullian pleads with Christians to recognize their flawed self-justification of attending the games under the guise of “culture”:

Learn, O you servants of God…recall what principle of faith…forbid…the pleasures of the spectacles, lest by ignorance or self-deception anyone fall into sin. For so strong is the appeal of pleasure that it can bring about a prolongation of ignorance with a resulting facility for sin, or a perversion of conscience leading to self-deception…

But this is precisely what we intend to prove: that these things are not compatible with true religion and true obedience to the true God…

..let us…treat the matter fully…for the benefit of those who delude themselves with the thought that such abstention is not expressly enjoined… For, just as there is a lust for money, a lust for high station in life, for gluttony, for sensual gratification, for fame, so there is a lust for pleasure. The spectacles, however are a sort of pleasure. In my opinion, under the general heading of lust…

For, even if a man enjoys spectacles modestly and soberly…he cannot go to them without his mind being roused and his soul being stirred by some unspoken agitation. No one…experiences this passion without its damaging effects.

On the other hand, if the passion ceases, there is no pleasure, and he who goes where he gains nothing is convicted of foolishness…

The success of Tertullian’s letter is unclear.  He certainly did not sway the powers that be to end the games. The “spectacles” were part of the Roman Empire for over six centuries, almost three times longer than the United States has been in existence.  It wasn’t until 404 A.D. that a monk brought the gladiator fights to a swift end. According to Fox’s Book of Matyrs, St. Telemachus came to Rome on a pilgrimage, and when he entered the Colosseum he was so disgusted at what he witnessed, he jumped down between two fighters pleading with them to stop. The defenseless monk was killed and the Emporer Honorius ended the games forever.

What was it about the martyrdom of Telemachus that soured the games for the emperor? The Coloseum had seen defenseless men and women martyred before.  What was so horrific about this particular death?

I suppose one could ask the same thing of Senator McCaskill. What was it about this specific scene that moved you to turn off Game of Thrones forever?

Have we, as a society, been desensitized to violence and gore on such a level that, as Tertullian put it, we have had “a perversion of conscience leading to self-deception?”  Are we blinded by this lack of conscience, and unknowingly creating a culture void of virtue and morality?

I am uncertain of the coordinates for that line of decency in regards to depicting life as art. But I can say with certainty that it has been crossed.

It sounds like Senator McCaskill agrees with me.

Should she have spoken up years ago? Sure. But she didn’t see it then. I don’t know who even sees it now.

A decade ago I would have likely watched Game of Thrones or Mad Max: Fury Road and been impressed with the writing, cinematography, and production quality.  I loved the craft of filmmaking and felt undefiled by stronger material.  “To the pure, all things are pure.” Titus 1:15.

I don’t think Paul was talking about simulated violence against women.

So what changed? I became a parent. While pregnant I avoided “adult only” music and movies out of a concern for the little lives inside my tummy.  I didn’t mean to become so sensitive again. It wasn’t intentional or out of personal conviction.  I attended a Christian film school where nothing seemed to be off limits. I question that decision now.  Creative license is a sad excuse for stripping society of its right to identify indecency.

I will continue to not watch Game of Thrones, along with dozens of other shows that have brilliance in the craft, but an insidious stench that has desensitized us. I am no Tertullian or Telemachus here. But I want to honor what they tried to achieve.

Would love to hear thoughts on this, especially from fans of the show. No judgement.

3 thoughts on ““Game of Thrones” a Modern Day Roman Colosseum

  1. I often wonder what happened and who decided exactly where it was acceptable to draw the line. Brilliant and thought provoking quote, “I am uncertain of the coordinates for that line of decency in regards to depicting life as art. But I can say with certainty that it has been crossed. “

  2. I have found myself becoming more sensitive to the gratuitous nature of movies and television…it’s as though they left a freeway and merged on to the Autoban accelerating without really understanding where they are going…..

    • You bring up a good point, Joe. Is there an examination of purpose on any level? Do they really think there is a benefit to our culture, or are they not thinking at all. I think the answer is that there are people in both camps, along with those who recognize that society is paying a price but are happy to be making money off of it.

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