HBO chief just proved why talking about sexual violence against women is important

07.30.16 7 months ago

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At their TCA presentation today, newly-appointed HBO programming chief Casey Bloys was seemingly unprepared for reporter's questions about the network's use of sexual violence against women, something many viewers have noted as a recurring theme.

Bloys, a former comedy executive, joined the network in May and was set to speak on several of HBO's properties at the TCA event today. But when one reporter's question about the rape of women as a plot device was brushed off, others rallied to the cause. The Hollywood Reporter wrote of the scene:

Five reporters pushed Bloys on the HBO dramas' penchant for including rape, murder and other violence (particularly against women) as plot devises, as the conversation about an opening scene in Westworld and [Game of] Thrones' track record nearly hijacked the entire panel. Bloys, who was visibly frustrated by the repetitive line of questioning, pointed to the fact that men are frequently victims of violence on Game of Thrones – but none of his responses seemed to satisfy the crowd. “I think the criticism is valid,” he concluded. “It's something that people to take into account. It's not something we're wanting to highlight “

Fans have been talking about HBO's use of sexual violence against women on Game of Thrones for years. And loudly. You have to have been pretty oblivious to miss it. But that in and of itself is part of the problem. Many people are uncomfortable having these kinds of discussions and therefor they aren't given the thoughtful observation they deserve. And while Thrones may be ending with Season 8, HBO is moving forward with other shows that seem to be falling into the same trappings.

So why weren't Bloys' responses satisfying to critics in the audience? Here's a few first-hand accounts of the line of questioning that ran through my Twitter feed this morning.

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Sexualized violence against women is disproportionately used as a plot device and a throw-away one at that. While rape may play a part in a high number of fictional stories, the consequences and lasting effects of those events are rarely covered. The topic wasn't brought up only because of Game of Thrones, however. HBO's Westworld is also going to depicted sexual violence against women.

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While I may have more faith in the creators behind Westworld, I am still very nervous about the end result because of just this kind of thinking. First of all there's the derailing tactic, often used when one wants to avoid a certain topic. Then we need to consider how this type of sexualized violence is seen as “not real” because they aren't “women” but robots. It misses the truly important points trying to be raised about consent.

Again, the reporters didn't stop there. HBO's new drama series The Night Of starts with a “beautiful, slaughtered woman” according to reports and one reporter wanted to know why that's all we ever see.

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The back and forth was both enlightening and disappointing but at least someone took it to mean there could be change on the horizon.

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But will they?

Previous HBO president of programming, Michael Lombardo, touched on this topic in 2014 after the creators and actors in the show couldn't agree on whether a scene between Cersei and Jaime on Thrones was consensual or rape.

I appreciate there was some controversy and it generated a conversation about what consensual sex is and isn”t…People responsible for programming have two responsibilities: To be responsible, not to have sex and violence that”s gratuitous. That is certainly not who we are. At the same time we don”t want to be a censor that inhibits the authentic organic creative process by policing how many breasts should be on a show.

“I personally don”t see myself as a libertine. I don”t think [graphic scenes] have ever been without any purpose. Dan [Weiss] and Dave [Benioff] are two very sober, thoughtful men,” he also said. “As long as I feel that [violence] isn”t the reason [people] are watching the show, that it isn”t a show trying to attract viewers with sex and violence, I am not going to play police.”

In December 2015, after another rape scene drew concern and worldwide attention, director Jeremy Podeswa said creators were listening. He said the creators “were responsive to the discussion and there were a couple of things that changed as a result.” However, in April 2016 producers rejected that statement with showrunner Dan Weiss saying, “I can literally say that not one word of the scripts this season have been changed in any way, shape or form by what people said on the Internet, or elsewhere.”

My stance is: creative freedom is important but knowing how your creative works affect your audience and influence culture are also important. To ignore that is a disservice to the audience. All I ever ask is for those putting works like this into the world to think about how they're putting them into the world. Having these discussions is vital because how we view and internalize the messages in media are played out every day in the real world. As I've been personal witness to in the past, just talking about talking about these issues will have gendered, violent comments thrown my way. If you're not able to have these serious conversations, or think they're beneath notice, maybe you shouldn't be using sexual violence in your work.

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