CW: rape, sexual assault, and consent involving a minor
In standard fashion, I am inexcusably late to a cultural phenomenon. It was only after the incredibly chilling and tense first fifteen minutes of last week’s episode of Game of Thrones that I realized that the show offered more than attractive women and CGI dragons. I downloaded the first book—A Game of Thrones—and have been reading ever since.
This book is rife with philosophical material, from Bran asking the classic Socratic question as to the content of “bravery,” to Tyrion’s discussion of inferiority: “all dwarfs may be bastards, yet not all bastards need be dwarfs.” Questions of subjectivity and objectivity, possibility in the face of limitation, sex and promiscuity, and politics appear throughout.
But it is the world of Daenerys and the Dothraki that has stuck with me. When the reader first meets Daenerys, in chapter three, the thirteen-year-old’s world is presented as both alien and horrifying. From her complete powerlessness to her overt and often incestuous sexualization, Daenerys’ world and the ethics that govern her treatment are utterly different from ours. She is but a child, and yet she is a sexual object to be pawned off to the highest bidder. While the reader follows Dany’s perspective and her accompanying thoughts, emotions, and reactions to her treatment, it’s clear that no one else in her life pays attention to whether she is happy, fulfilled, satisfied or otherwise. Or, on the contrary, her sadistic brother gets a perverted pleasure in her total objectification and frequent suffering. This is all to say that George R. R. Martin has positioned Dany in such a state of deprivation and powerlessness that our moral expectations are put on hold.
With cautious hopes and a renewed understanding of the depravity of callous, power-hungry men, we follow Daenerys on to her wedding to the cruel Khal Drogo, where again she is but an object for appraisal. Her betrothed is a monster of a man who doesn’t speak her language. She is surrounded by strange acts of violence and sex (and more often sex as violence.)
Finally, we reach the horrifying act that we’ve been dreading: the consummation of her marriage. And yet, bizarrely, we find “a tenderness she had never expected from this man.” This strange moment of tenderness draws out the ambiguity of the concept of consent in a world where women are structurally and continuously made powerless objects. But it also comments on the way words gain their meaning.
The first comment to make about this scene is that Martin has created a world where our moral preconceptions cannot be brought to bear. By framing the scene within the context of the strange and violent world of the Dothraki (and equally the Targaryens), Martin prepares the reader for the moral ambiguity of the scene. It will not fit seamlessly into our available categories: rape or sex, consent or denial. In a world where women daily face horrifying and limited options, their desires are deformed and therefore must be subject to different moral norms.
But the striking part of the interaction is not it’s horrifying context and our inability to morally evaluate the moment. Rather, it is the language that the two exchange throughout. Khal Drogo and Dany are mutually unintelligible, as each does not speak the other’s language. But Dany is surprised when Khal seems to know one word: “No.” He repeats this phrase, tenderly, over and over to her as his hands roam over her body, removing her clothing, caressing her skin. She cannot tell what he means when he says “no,” whether the term has any meaning or is a simple syllable. Bizarrely, she begins saying it back to him; “no” she tenderly says over and over, setting the tempo as the sex scene unfolds. “No” she says, as he removes yet another piece of her clothing, and manipulates and tweaks her body completely at his will. The stage is eventually set for the marriage to be consummated—all of their clothes have been removed. Khal finally says “No?” but now as a sort of question, and she responds, “yes.”
What are we to make of these words? It’s as if “no” and “yes” have become so fully removed from any sense or reference that they serve as a simple language game. “No” means nothing, or “no” means continue, or “no” simply keeps time. It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t consent or that Khal Drogo should stop, for he won’t and she knows that. But then again, Daenerys has never in her life had the ability to say no or yes. She has never had the power of consent. The words she has spoken throughout her short life have never had a real force, for they’ve never inspired those around her to pay her attention or behave in specific ways. And now, in this sex scene, Daenerys’ powerlessness and wordlessness is taken to its logical conclusion. The words she exchanges are but empty syllables, mimicking real speech.
What are we to make of her “yes”? Is this her giving consent? In the context of a language game where “no” lacks any sort of sense, how can she say yes? In the scene, we see a picture of the power of speech even when a speaker’s power is gone. For, while Dany is in no way able to give consent, for she cannot say “no” and mean it, her saying “yes” seems important for her.
This scene, and the way that words work in it, is a reflection of one of the standard arguments made by anti-pornography feminists regarding porn’s propensity to strip women of speech. In How to Do Things with Pornography, Nancy Bauer explains it as follows:
Langton calls this silencing “illocutionary disablement.” It occurs when someone can utter the words she wishes to utter but is doomed to fail to do what she wishes to do in uttering them. [For example,] A man says “I do” during marriage ceremony; but his partner is also a man and so he fails to marry…A woman wishing to repel the sexual advances of a man says “No!”; but because pornography has made it the case that men hear this “no” as a “yes,” she fails to refuse.
Illocutionary disablement occurs when an individual’s words systematically fail to do what the individual wants them to do. If a philosopher of language were to analyze a moment of rape in which a woman says “no,” she could depict the scene with “no” meaning what it ought. But in the real world of action, where words are not only intended to mean things but also to do things (and inspires other to do things), a woman’s “no” in no sense means no.
In A Game of Thrones, Dany can’t really use her words effectively. Her words are so ineffective, in fact, that in the moment of losing her virginity all words lose sense—language is gone. In this sense, Martin has positioned the reader in the mind of a girl whose words are entirely disabled. But despite this disablement, much remains: the capacity for tenderness, for complexity, for arousal, and for a kind of limited mutual understanding through movement and touch. Language, for this reason, is capacious even when words fail. But from outside their exchange, the ambiguity remains. Only from within is their clarity, a space we as readers and watchers can never enter.