Why do HBO shows show so much sexual violence?

In a Q&A session Saturday, an HBO executive and producer defended the graphic portrayals of rape and assault on women in the network's shows. 

Fred Prouser/Reuters/File
The logo for HBO is seen at the Cable portion of the Television Critics Association Summer press tour in Beverly Hills, California in this file photo taken August 1, 2012.

HBO's president of programming took the stage at the Television Critics Association press tour on Saturday to field questions from reporters, including one that viewers and critics alike have been asking for years: Why is there so much sexual violence against women in the cable network's shows? 

The question was posed to programming president Casey Bloys in the context of HBO's newest show, Westworld, the pilot for which was shared with the press shortly before the question and answer session. The science fiction show, based on a film from 1973, revolves around an adult amusement park filled with human-like androids, which visitors can kill or rape with impunity. In one scene in the pilot, a female android is raped off-screen by a human male guest. 

After noting a difference between human-on-android assault and human-on-human assault, Mr. Bloys pointed out that the sexual violence in shows such as Game of Thrones, which has long been criticized for its rape scenes, falls under a larger umbrella of violence in the show that is "not just specific to women." He cited castration as one example of a violent act toward men portrayed on Game of Thrones

Speaking later in the day, Westworld showrunner Lisa Joy addressed the sexual violence in her show specifically, explaining that because "violence and sexual violence have sadly been a fact of human history since the beginning of human history," the producers of the show felt they "had to address" the issue in a show that's about "the basest part of human nature." 

An important aspect of the show's portrayal of sexual violence, she continued, is that "we really endeavored for it to not be about the fetishization of those acts. It is about exploring the crime and establishing the crime. And the torment of the characters within the story. And exploring the stories, hopefully, with dignity and depth." 

These answers provided by Joy and Bloys didn't sit well with some critics, who took to Twitter to criticize what Vanity Fair blogger Joanna Robinson described as "an epidemic of dehumanizing victims of sexual violence."

Much of the debate surrounding this "epidemic" can be found in discussions of Game of Thrones, known for its graphic portrayal of sex and violence, which has made headlines on several occasions for controversial scenes depicting rape.

Like Westworld, some say, the patriarchal society that Game of Thrones is set in requires that such acts be included in the storyline. 

But some experts speculate that the inclusion of such material is, above all, a way to attract viewers. As The Christian Science Monitor's Molly Driscoll writes

While some observers say there may be value in the moral wrestling or self-examination prompted by these portrayals, that's not why filmmakers or TV execs make them. This is a business, and controversy draws attention, especially in social media. [Sociologist Junhow] Wei says TV shows in particular depict violent acts – or shocking choices by heroes – in an effort to stand out in a crowded marketplace. "If you have more complex, maybe dark shows with complex and morally ambiguous characters, that maybe is one way to cause more conversation," Wei says.

The inclusion of graphic sexual acts – sometimes violent – in particular may be a simple case of "exploitation for shock value. And, in particular, the exploitation of women's bodies," suggests Sonia Saraiya, a television critic for A.V. Club. "I think it's there to reel in the all-important male demographic." 

At the same time, other critics say such depictions can be valuable. In a blog post for Flavorwire titled "The 'Game of Thrones' Universe is Violent and Sexist – And That's Not a Bad Thing," Alison Herman defends the show's portrayal of brutal violence against women within "a genre that’s often just as averse to including complicated women with serious problems as it is to killing off protagonists."

"Fantasy may be the opposite of reality, but it's also meant to reflect it," Ms. Herman writes. "Just as Game of Thrones deals with themes of power and governance that resonate with the way we do politics today – realpolitik versus black-and-white morals, obligation versus opportunity – it adopts a similar approach to gender. The women of Game of Thrones face problems still epidemic in the world off-screen... And those real problems are all too often left out of fantasy narratives altogether."

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