Rape as a Plot Device: The Difference Between ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Game of Thrones’

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Spartacus, Starz, War of the Damned, Roman Gladiators
Would you believe the majority of people in this photo are rape victims? image via Starz

Spartacus and Game of Thrones have many similarities. Both are historicals, though Game of Thrones world is in a fantasy medieval setting while Spartacus is set in ancient Rome but both societies are patriarchal.

Both have a sprawling cast, romantic subplots, nudity, and violence, including many instances of rape. Both are set in a brutal world where human lives are cheap.

Both are shows in which beloved characters suffer shocking deaths and, yes, women are fridged to create conflict and drama.

Why, then, do I unreservedly love Spartacus while watching Game of Thrones lately often fills me with disgust?

I could go the easy route and say that Spartacus is better written, at least better written than this season of Game of Thrones, but that’s too easy, though it’s true.

From Jamie’s ridiculous plan to invade Dorne with only Bronn as back-up to the silliness of them actually being able to get close to Myrcella, and to Cersei’s absurd reasoning that put her former lover who helped commit regicide in charge of fanatics who have power over the crown, the logic on this season of GoT is lacking.

(Note: Steven S. DeKnight, executive producer of the excellent Daredevil series, also was an executive producer on Spartacus, which gives you an indication of his ability to create masterful shows.)

No, the real explanation is more complicated. For one, the women aren’t singled out for special rape treatment or showcased nude just for boobies. Men are also raped on Spartacus, sometimes repeatedly, to the point where when I looked up an episode summary once, it mentioned a shocking assault, and I had no idea if it would be against a man or a woman. (Spoiler: Julius Caesar was the victim.)

You deserved better plotting, Sansa. Image via HBO
You deserved better plotting, Sansa. Image via HBO

Men are also nude quite often in Spartacus. You like Manu Bennett as Slade Wilson? Let me introduce you to Crixus, the champion of Capua. Not to mention all those gladiator training sessions or the gladiator bathing sequences. Or the orgies.

Secondly, and most important, rape has consequences for the victims that are explored extensively in Spartacus. In one case, a character spends an entire season regaining their agency and, oh, it’s a glorious scene when she finally confronts her tormentor and wins. In the case of Crixus, who is being used as a sex toy and stud by his mistress, his lack of consent is made clear, as is his frustration at his failure to prevent what’s happening, though he, of course, has no way to fight back because he’s a slave.

He, too, is damaged, and he, too, is allowed to confront and triumph over his tormentor.

Spartacus isn’t a show that uses rape to shock viewers. It’s a show interested in the abuse of power, how that abuse destroys the psyche of those who suffer under it, and how the victims take back their power or sometimes crumble underneath it. It also explores the mistakes people make as a result of being damaged. Good people do bad things and sometimes bad people do something good.

These are complex characters.

Game of Thrones seems to be only showing abuse of women (and one man) to prove that, yes, it’s a violent and scary world and people die at any time. It’s not at all interested in showing us recovery from abuse, save in one case (Dany), so much as using women’s nude bodies to horrify or titillate viewers. This is the show that created a character, Ros, whose sole purpose was to be naked, be used for sex, and then tortured to death to prove how evil Joffrey was even though we already knew that. Heck, Ros even died off-screen. We’ve no idea how she felt.

In Spartacus, we know how all the victims feel. Some of them die and never get any resolution. Some of them are broken and commit suicide. Some of them fight back and lose. Most of them lose, really, given what happens to Spartacus’ army.

The story is about them and their struggles and the struggles of those who want to defeat them. As with Daredevil, the villains are complex.  Spartacus isn’t interested in simply proving how evil the Roman General who enslaved Spartacus is so much as showing how he got that way and what motivates him.

Spartacus shows us Katrina Law (Nyssa on Arrow) nude not because it’s cable and hey, boobies, but because the main character’s refusal to use her is important to both of them.

Spartacus knows where it’s going with its characters and never forgets that. You know the point of view, the hopes and dreams, of the victims of abuse and power in Spartacus.

In Game of Thrones, you know them as the women gang-raped in the background at Castor’s keep, or as naked now dead Ros, or any of Ramsey’s faceless victims.

And even when we know them, the producers sometimes insist it’s not rape, like Dany’s original wedding night or Cersei’s rape last season, which the producers claimed, hey, it really wasn’t, even though she said ‘no’ at the end. In any case, neither Cersei nor Jamie seemed bothered by it. So why did we even have that scene? What purpose did it serve?

I have no idea.

What purpose did the rape of Sansa serve?

I suspect it’s to show Theon’s change from Reek back to Sansa’s ally. How nice that Sansa’s rape is about the man pain and not her own. How horrible that we never saw her at least attempt to gain a little sense of herself  in a situation where she appeared powerless or even watched her put together a plan (however futile) that might have made this story a little bit about her and not about evil Ramsey. Plus, we’ve already seen Sansa terrorized and beaten. She’s in a tough situation. We know. We get it. Now show us something new.

For those who say ‘well, what did you expect from that scene, given the situation?” I say:

Something interesting. 

Something that showed me a different part of her personality. Something that isn’t used every other episode on Game of Thrones just to prove men are evil bastards.

Something far better written.

Something of the quality of Spartacus.

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17 thoughts on “Rape as a Plot Device: The Difference Between ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Game of Thrones’

  1. Something else really important about Spartacus’s depiction of rape– even when it’s Random Slave #4 who has no lines, we always get at least a shot of their face, their expression clearly indicating “Do Not Want”.

    It’s one of those shows that demonstrates how important strong characterization is. The sex and violence could be pretty OTT and ridiculous, but I kept coming back because I cared so deeply about so many of them (and loved to hate some of the nastier characters like Lucretia, Ilithiya, and Ashur). And the fact that the writers were so aware of what they were writing would mean to each character is a huge part of why it works.

    1. The characters are universally complicated on Spartacus. I figured it out–usually, the camera’s “eye” or the story “eye” clearly has compassion for the characters in the scene.

      I adored and hated Lucretia both. Unlike Ramsey, she wasn’t a mustache-twirling villain but complex, complicated, and with her own clear reasons for doing what she did. Man, that final scene with her and Ilithiya…hardcore and yet somehow perfect. And I usually hate tragedy!

  2. People too easily dismissed Spartacus. Maybe it was the X-rated Xena thing, or the 300-stylizing too many years after 300 was a thing, idk. But I always felt like people were missing out by abandoning it too early.

    Spartacus really went above and beyond to put their women on an equal playing field with their male characters, which was ostensibly a difficult task given the subject matter of gladiators and Roman politicians. Where GoT seems to keep reminding us that women are just victims of men in this world, Spartacus was all about how women were equal players, both as nobility and slaves, feminine power players and warriors alike. Spartacus could subvert the audience’s expectations without completely shattering hope- we were still left with a sense of victory, or at least recovery. Oftentimes, GoT likes to leave that part out, which in and of itself is now just feeding into the expectation that they’re going to ruin everything and there is no hope. It would be a refreshing change of pace to see their characters, especially the women, pick themselves up, recover and succeed at something.

    1. Spartacus was all about how women were equal players

      What? That isn’t true in the real world. Spartacus was more fantasy than GoT

  3. This has to be one of the most ridiculous articles I have ever read

    look I get that you hate that a fictional character was raped in game of thrones
    but to sit here try to and claim that Spartacus was better when it came to showing sex and violence against woman is pure nonsense and you know it

    if anything its the opposite

    Spartacus Had was more sex and nudity in it Than Game of thrones ever did and it objectified woman a lot more.

    P.S If going to do an article like this at least try sound like you are being fair
    instead of writing the biased anti Game of thrones trash

    1. Spartacus is overall a superior show to Game of Thrones, and I say that as someone who read the books because I enjoyed the Game of Thrones show that much.

    2. Its not a matter which show has more of it but which show treats it as a characterization and plot important motive and which treats it as cheap schlock and titillation.

      1. In this case its is a matter of which show has more of it

        The fact is Spartacus had a lot more pointless sex scenes and nudity in it than Game of thrones ever did

        I love Spartacus but Im am not going to try to pretend that those scene were anything more than cheap schlock and titillation.

        Those scene were not there to advanced the plot
        they were there show us some Hot naked woman and you know it

        P.S. If you author wanted to use another to show to attack Game of thrones

        Sparactor was a terrible pick

        1. Spartacus has more overall nudity but it’s integrated into the storyworld. Rape in Spartacus is also not almost exclusively aimed at women, like GoT (with the exception of Theon.)

          There are many parallels: Both feature brutal worlds, both feature gray characters who can sometimes do admirable things, both are involved in stories that don’t end well for anyone involved, and both are interested in the uses and abuses of power.

          Spartacus made its nudity almost commonplace as part of its world. One thing it never did was treat rape casually–it’s always seen as a violation, whether it’s Crixus and Lucretia, Naevia and Asher, Illyria and Spartacus. And even, later on, when it’s the younger Tiberius and Caesar.

          Nudity never bothers me as a viewer. It’s GoT’s storytelling that does, in using rape without exploring implications and, worse, using it to forward the story of those who aren’t the rape victims, as with Gilly’s story, which is all about Sam.

        2. I wont try because i dont care about what you think. And i havent watched Spartacus to know the details of it. I was just going off the comments written in the article which lists several examples of well used content like that in Spartacus – while in GoT there isnt any. Its all cheap schlock that is forced in completely illogical and utterly dumb ways too.

  4. The violation of Sansa is consummation of the wedding. Its a medieval show, all of this modernized politically correct opposition is just free publicity.

    1. It is a consummation of a wedding, true. I can agree with that, same or simialr as almost all women in ASOIAF setting go through, including Sansas mother who wed Ned Stark by being forced into that marriage and who grew to love him only later on.

      But here we talk about a wedding that is impossible to have ever occurred due to internal logic of the story and characters as they are, so it was done for cheap schlock purposes. Rape of Sansa is actually rape that D&D committed over her character by stupidly forcing her into a marriage with a Bolton and then Ramsey Bolton of all, against any kind f logic or common sense.

      And they clearly did it for cheap schlock purposes.

  5. Years later, I found the ‘true story’ of Naevia’s rape and abusive experimentation.

    Dr. J. Marion Sims did more than 30 vaginal surgeries on slaves Lucy, Betsey and Anarcha between 1845 and 1849 in the USA. Sims did not see a need to use any anesthetics during his experiments on black women, but did for white women. The dehumanization, abuse of power, ownership of a woman’s body and coercion… The trauma and the recovery are all memorialized in Spartacus like nowhere else in our entire history.

  6. As a fan of both shows, I think the real problem with this article is the shows are too vastly different, even in their similarities, to compare them this way. Of course Spartacus has more of the victims getting vengeance for what was done to them, that’s literally the entire show. The entire plot of every season is “evil” people getting what they deserve in one way or another. If anything, that just made it all the more predictable.
    Game of Thrones however, is a completely different storyline, almost opposite of Spartacus, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
    If you think all the rape scenes in GoT were meant purely for shock etc, you either weren’t paying attention, or are an idiot. The scene is only as deep as your mind will let it be. I’m not saying every single time there was sex or rape in a scene it was for some grand purpose in the main plot, but I can’t recall a single time there was absolutely no reason for the scene. Nudity is another story, but I’m talking sex and rape.
    Both shows are brilliant, and completely different concepts, settings, etc. They share very few common themes, and they shouldn’t be compared to one another. Nor should fans be claiming one better than the other. Everyone’s allowed an opinion, but bashing one show to support another is stupid. This entire thing is stupid. Given the nature of Spartacus I think it’s a great example to use in an article promoting a victim fighting back, but using GoT is a cheap shot that doesn’t make sense when compared, especially when you underplay so many important characters that have overcome their abuse, and act as if it wasn’t good enough for you. Honestly I get the feeling the author of this article hasn’t seen GoT, or hasn’t re-watched it since it began airing and has forgotten major points in many characters stories.

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