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Somehow, HBO is still surprised by criticism of sexualized violence on its shows

Sansa and Ramsay
Sansa’s storyline on Game of Thrones only intensified this debate
HBO

At this point, HBO’s ready for questions about Game of Throness filming schedule and diversity — but it apparently still gets blindsided by criticism of its dramas dependence on sexualized violence against women to propel plots.

HBO kicked off its day at the Television Critics Association summer press tour on July 30 with a question and answer session with Casey Bloys, the network’s new President of Programming.

A few minutes in, Bloys was visibly caught off guard when NPR’s Linda Holmes asked about the perception that HBO shows depend too much on sexualized violence towards women as basic plot devices, in the context of dark new procedural The Night Of (which features frequent shots of a naked woman's corpse) and the upcoming sci-fi series Westworld (which features rape in its pilot).

HBO’s come under fire for disproportionate violence before, especially as Game of Thrones’s fifth season included some horrific, controversial rapes that strayed from George R.R. Martin’s original source material. But Bloys was still surprised, and it showed.

After some uncomfortable silence, Bloys said that he considers the violence on HBO to be "not specific to women" and "indiscriminate."

When writer and Vox contributor Melanie McFarland asked if Bloys’s prior answer means we’ll ever see the same level of sexualized violence against the male characters on Game of Thrones as we have with women, Bloys referenced one character’s castration before ending his answer with a joke: "We’re going to kill everybody."

Later, NPR’s Eric Deggans pressed Bloys to further clarify. Finally, Bloys maintained that HBO’s violence is gender-blind, but also that "the criticism is valid" and "point taken."

What was most surprising here wasn’t necessarily Bloys’s fumbling — and even glib — answers. No, it was that he wasn’t expecting to answer questions on this subject — or even ready to do so.

Also: it was a weird answer, and Bloys clearly knew it.

Later, Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy addressed the show's sexual violence during its panel. While she maintained that Westworld's premise — involving a fantasy world where humans can do whatever they want without consequence — meant that they would inevitably have to address sexual violence, the storylines were "heavily considered," and are about "exploring the crime ... and the torment of the characters within the story, and exploring their stories hopefully with dignity and depth."

"Sexual violence is an issue we take very seriously," Joy said. "It's extraordinarily disturbing and horrifying. In its portrayal, we really endeavored for it to not be about the fetishization of those acts."

This is exactly the kind of thoughtful answer reporters might have been hoping for from Bloys, to no avail.

Bloys’s initial confusion about reporters presenting The Night Of and Westworld in this same context be because the shows were filmed months apart and are incredibly different, besides.

But while the sexualized violence in these shows — and Game of Thrones, and beyond — might make sense within their individual contexts, the issue becomes when a narrative of rape and murdered women becomes an expected one, or even the default. It’s not only disappointing that Bloys couldn’t see this forest for the individual trees, but alarming.

Updated to include Joy's reponse.

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