Fantasy Series Take a Selective Approach to Historical Accuracy as an Excuse for Sexual ViolenceHistorians in the News
tags: violence, medieval history, popular culture, womens history
Note: This article contains light spoilers for "House of the Dragon" and "Game of Thrones."
Whenever a fantasy story treads too far into gruesome violence or plain old human exploitation, storytellers like to trot out four little words:
"But it's historically accurate."
That was the explanation the creators of the "Game of Thrones" prequel "House of the Dragon" gave after the premiere served up a smorgasbord of gore, including an agonizing forced birth scene in which a woman is sliced through like a turkey in hopes of saving her baby at the expense of her own life. (Both die.)
"We felt that was an interesting way to explore the fact that for a woman in medieval times, giving birth was violence," co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik told The Hollywood Reporter about the scene. (HBO, home to "Game of Thrones" and "House of the Dragon," shares parent company Warner Bros. Discovery with CNN.)
Is sexual and reproductive violence historically accurate to the medieval age? To an extent, yes, as records show. But so are myriad other things that seem to conveniently fall off the storyboard when it's time to add authenticity.
"The desire to be 'accurate' suddenly disappears when sex isn't involved and it is actual interesting day to day minutiae," says Eleanor Janega, a medieval historian who teaches at the London School of Economics. "If the ('Game of Thrones') world was historically accurate, why isn't every single noble house or castle absolutely covered by huge gaudy, colourful murals? Why is it that this form of historical accuracy isn't important, but showing rape as endemic is?"
In fiction, history is always negotiable. Do we really need to see, for instance, the specifics of medieval plumbing, or glimpse the fraying cuff of a noblewoman to feel centered in a story that also includes dragons and magic fire? Probably not, as audiences have noted. But that means, as Janega observes, the details that do matter may say more about the present than the past.
"It would be more accurate to say that this is fiction, but it reflects the society which is creating the art, and that society is packed to the rafters with sexual assault, rather than implying that it simply has to be done in the name of bearing witness to a misogynistic past that we no longer experience," Janega says.