Harken ye, thy mighty few – there be spoilers ahead.
Sexuality is very present thing in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” universe. It’s a necessary reality of a book series that is so obsessed with a realistic representation of a world at least tangentially related to the British “War of the Roses.” Martin has repeatedly suggested this idea, and I completely agree. You cannot have a series on war and subjugation and somehow have sex be absent. However, as I’m going to outline below, the writers of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series have taken that idea and ran much too far with it. They took what was a very real part of the ASOIAF universe and made a mockery of it – all in a futile attempt to really, really get us to hate King Joffery I of the Houses Baratheon and Lannister, the First of his Name.
Now, with King Joffrey I, he very much is a horrible child in the books. He cuts open a pregnant cat to see the kittens (and is throttled by King Baratheon for his troubles). He does behead Eddard Stark, repeatedly beat Sansa Stark, kill plenty of animals with his crossbow, and order the torture and death of numerous prisoners. He may or may not be the one who ordered the attack on Tyrion during the Battle of the Blackwater. He is a terrifying child who has no business on the Iron Throne; a fact that King Robert I, Eddard Stark, and everyone but Cersei (including Jamie Lannister) admit.
For all of the evils that King Joffrey I commits his actions are (mostly) not sexually motivated. He gets a thrill from killing, but it is not necessarily sexual. His violence does not have a sexual undertone (unless you think the pregnant cat is inherently sexual in nature – I tend to explain it as the actions of a morbidly curious and ultimately destructive child) as much as an obsession with power and right. He beheads Eddard Stark for daring to say he has no claim to the throne. He gets Sansa’s dire wolf “Lady” and Arya’s friend Mycah killed when he is embarrassed by Arya’s superior sword skills. In the books Joffrey is a child who is trying to prove himself a powerful king in the only way a 13 year old child can understand – terror.
Now, he does have one outlet of sexual anger, Sansa Stark. He repeatedly threatens to rape Sansa Stark when she “has her blood.” When Robb Stark keeps winning on the battlefield, King Joffrey I wants to vent his frustration by stripping Sansa in front of the royal court and beating her (after threatening to kill her with his crossbow). Tyrion Lannister stops him, but only by obliquely threatening assassination. This is one part that HBO gets right – Joffrey is obsessed with the idea of having sex with Sansa. It’s as if he cannot end a conversation with Sansa without noting that he had her father beheaded or threatening to rape her while she is at her most vulnerable.
However, where George R.R. Martin drew the line, HBO continues. Tyrion concludes that King Joffrey I’s violence is puberty related, so he sends two prostitutes to the king. King Joffrey I responds by having one prostitute beat the other. Later King Joffrey I persuades Paeter Baelish to give him a prostitute to use as live target practice. This live target practice, of course, takes the form of stripping her naked and tying her to her bed while he shoots crossbow bolts into her chest.
King Joffrey I is, in the books, a character that is generally refused his own sexuality. He is a 13 year old child that Robb Stark remarks as having the looks of a woman. He cannot interact with Sansa on a level that will keep her love his own. Since he knows he cannot have her love, and with it her consensual sexuality, Joffrey reasons that since he’s the king he can just take it (or at least threaten to). His psychopathy keeps him from marrying Sansa Stark, and his decision to marry Margaery Tyrell instead dooms him to a death without sex.
In the TV series our despicable king is a young man desperately aware of sex and its uses for intimidation. In the book series he never actually rapes anyone, and neither does he in the TV series. However, he does cross that line into sexual violence with prostitutes at least twice, with the implication that he has convinced Baelish to allow him more. The HBO series directors are leveraging our society’s relative hatred and exile of rapists and sexual deviants to make sure we hate him. Martin took the sexual threats to their rational extension and kept them there. These writers saw that line and jumped it for no other reason than to jump it and make sure we all really hated Joffrey.
This playing to the audience is obvious in one of King Joffrey I’s conversations with Margaery Tyrell. She admits that she doesn’t think her first husband liked women, and King Joffrey I responds by revealing that he’s been thinking about making homosexuality punishable by death. What? Why? King Joffrey I has no reason for this want. No one in his court is openly homosexual, so it’s not an act of intimidation. His want to outlaw homosexuality is nothing more than the whim of a man who hates for the sake of hating, and that is not a character of the sort of depth that George R.R. Martin has shown he is capable of creating.
In their attempt to make King Joffery I obviously worthy of our hatred, the HBO writers have instead made him a caricature of our society’s hatred toward rapists. This addition to Joffrey’s psychopathy was unneeded. Everyone who read the books before the show already hated Joffrey’s petulant guts. Instead, the show writers illustrate that they are willing to leverage whatever they need to to make it obvious who we should hate, and in so doing, make Joffrey little more than every Law and Order: SVU villain rolled into a small, Jack Gleeson sized package.
In my return to this curious balance between A Song of Ice and Fire and “Game of Thrones,” I will tackle the difference in Jamie and Cersei Lannister’s relationship. The uncle-father and aunt-mother of our hopelessly immoral and deliriously evil King Joffrey I, their relationship is about as complicated as one can imagine. Of course, the TV series does little to clear that fog.