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Asking Jason Momoa about rape scenes in Game of Thrones isn’t ‘icky’ – it’s fair and necessary

Momoa took issue with a New York Times interviewer’s line of questioning, but asking actors to reflect on their past roles is a constructive exercise, writes Clémence Michallon

Tuesday 03 August 2021 15:25
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<p>It was to Momoa’s credit that he engaged with the question in a thoughtful way.  He even ended on a pretty revealing note</p>

It was to Momoa’s credit that he engaged with the question in a thoughtful way. He even ended on a pretty revealing note

During a recent interview with The New York Times, Jason Momoa was asked about depictions of sex violence in Game of Thrones. This didn’t seem unusual, given that Momoa used to star in Game of Thrones, a show that quickly became infamous for its graphic depictions of – you guessed it – sexual violence. What was unusual was Momoa taking issue with interviewer David Marchese’s line of questioning. Even after providing a pretty thoughtful response, the actor seemed to shut down until Marchese ended the interview.

This is when Momoa circled back to Marchese’s question, telling him it had left “a bad feeling in my stomach”. “I was bummed when you asked me that,” he said. “It just feels icky – putting it upon me to remove something.”

Marchese’s question doesn’t read like it aimed to back Momoa into a corner. It  wasn’t phrased in a confrontational way. Nor was it what some publicists and commentators might refer to as a “gotcha”.

What Marchese asked was this: “I don’t know how much you followed any of this, but Game of Thrones inspired a lot of discussion about its depiction of scenes of sexual assault and its treatment of women generally. Do you think differently today about those scenes? Would you do one now? Do you have any regrets? Those types of scenes can seem as if they belong to an older cultural moment.”

It’s not unusual to ask actors and other artists to look back on their past work. The timing in Marchese’s question isn’t random, either: Game of Thrones recently celebrated 10 years since its first episode aired. We now get to see the show with fresh eyes and a fresh mind, and perhaps a better understanding of what on-screen depictions of sexual violence can mean for viewers. It’s not only a fair question, it’s an important one.

Marchese appeared to be referring in particular to one of the most talked-about scenes, which involved Momoa’s character, Khal Drogo, preparing to rape his new wife Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). It’s hard to watch, not because it’s especially graphic (it cuts away before the actual assault is depicted), but because it makes Daenerys’s distress so painfully clear. She sobs as Khal looms behind her, undressing her. She tries to wrap her arms around her chest, but he forces her hands down. The scene ends after Khal pushes a crying Daenerys down to her knees. Throughout the whole sequence, the camera focuses on Daenerys’s face, bringing us ever so close to her and her pain in that moment.

George RR Martin himself has criticised the scene, which is consensual in the book the episode is based on. The change, he has said, “made it worse, not better”. Clarke has said that Momoa “was crying more than I was” during filming, and has praised him for being “kind and considerate” on set.

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo and Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in season one of ‘Game of Thrones'

Momoa himself seems uncomfortable with the pilot scene, as suggested by his response to Marchese: “Well, it was important to depict Drogo and his style. You’re playing someone that’s like Genghis Khan. It was a really, really, really hard thing to do. But my job was to play something like that, and it’s not a nice thing, and it’s what that character was. It’s not my job to go, ‘Would I not do it?’ I’ve never really been questioned about ‘Do you regret playing a role?’ We’ll put it this way: I already did it. Not doing it again.”

This isn’t a bad answer at all. It brings to light several important factors: the character development aspect, Momoa’s own struggles filming the scene, and the limitations of his agency as an actor. He was far less famous then than he is now, and presumably far less influential. Last year, he said he struggled to get work after GOT and was “completely in debt” for a while. At that point in his career, he was working and trying to make ends meet. It was to his credit that he engaged with the question in a thoughtful way. He even ended on a pretty revealing note (“I already did it. Not doing it again”).

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Then, he clammed up, before – in an emotional rollercoaster of a Q&A – opening up again. “I wanted to bring something up that left a bad feeling in my stomach,” he told Marchese. “When you brought up Game of Thrones, you brought up stuff about what’s happening with my character and would I do it again. I was bummed when you asked me that. It just feels icky — putting it upon me to remove something. As if an actor even had the choice to do that.”

He added: “We’re not really allowed to do anything. There are producers, there are writers, there are directors, and you don’t get to come in and be like, ‘I’m not going to do that because this isn’t kosher right now and not right in the political climate.’ That never happens. So it’s a question that feels icky. I just wanted you to know that.”

Clearly, there’s real frustration here. We know actors are contracted to do certain things, and that those things don’t always align with their personal preferences or beliefs. This is all fair. And it’s crucial for someone of Momoa’s stature to be able to shine a light on that aspect of the industry. What’s harder for me to wrap my brain around is the claim that Marchese’s inquiry was “icky”. It wasn’t. It was necessary, and – as evidenced by Momoa’s own replies – led to some constructive comments on an important topic.

It’s possible to carbon-date Game of Thrones’s various seasons by looking at the many think pieces the show inspired throughout its run, questioning its depictions of sexual violence. In 2011, when GOT started airing, The Atlantic tried “Making Sense of All the Sex”. That same year, Wired proclaimed that “Sex, Violence and Geek Cred Make Game of Thrones a Hit”. In 2015, around season five, The Washington Post deemed GOT to have “always been a show about rape”. That same year, The Atlantic revisited the topic, this time pondering: “Why Does Game of Thrones Feature So Much Sexual Violence?” In 2019, as the series approached its final episode, Esquire predicted that “Game of Thrones’s Treatment of Women Will Tarnish Its Legacy”, while The Atlantic (again!) examined “What the Sexual Violence of Game of Thrones Begot”.

Momoa himself wasn’t always this coy when discussing GOT’s and sexual violence. In an infamous moment during the 2011 Comic-Con, he joked about loving sci-fi and fantasy as genres “because there are so many things you can do, like rip someone’s tongue out of their throat and get away with it, and rape beautiful women”. At the time, the joke drew laughter from the crowd. Nonetheless, Momoa apologised the next day in an Instagram post: “I am still severely disappointed in myself at the insensitivity of my remarks that day. I know my sincerest apology now won’t take away those hurtful words. … I made a truly tasteless comment. It is unacceptable and I sincerely apologise with a heavy heart for the words I said.”

Marchese’s question was a chance for Momoa to reflect on the role that changed his career. It was well-phrased and fair. It should have been on any reporter’s list of questions walking into that interview.

Perhaps Momoa didn’t appreciate Marchese’s question. Perhaps he didn’t want to weigh in on a sensitive issue, or worried that doing so might jeopardise other offers of work. But before declaring it “icky”, he did a fine job answering it. Interview questions aren’t tricks – they’re opportunities. Uncomfortable questions tend to be the best ones. They start conversations and get both interviewer and subject to see something in a different light.

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