Are You Not Entertained: Game of Thrones, and Waterboarding
I stumbled upon an interesting – and highly disturbing – interview today. Hannah Waddingham, an actress from Game of Thrones, talks about being waterboarded for ten hours, as part of a scene where Septa Unella is tortured by Cersei Lannister:
Waddingham describes her terrible experience, but ultimately concludes that non-fatal discomfort is an integral part of the actor’s job:
The one thing I kept thinking to myself, ‘The production company aren’t going to let you die, so get on with it, be uncomfortable.’ Like you were saying in your question, I would say, get on with it. As long as you feel like there’s not any genuine threat of something happening, push yourself, be uncomfortable. It’s the same as if people don’t cry on camera, don’t impart this emotion to the right moment. Why not? My whole thing has always been, take people to the absolute nth degree of their emotions and that’s the same thing. Give of yourself and then it gives back to you.
Now, as disclaimer, I am not an actor. My experience on the stage is low-level, and I have certainly never been involved with any form of screen production. But I am a writer, with an interest in the artistic representation of the human experience (including its more unpleasant aspects). I also happen to have a legal background, and as such am aware that there is good justification for saying that there are some things you cannot consent to (in Common Law jurisdictions anyway). Hence wanting to muse aloud on the matter.
In this case, Game of Thrones wanted to show the uglier side of Cersei Lannister, as though we weren’t aware of it already. The initial plan was to have Unella raped by the undead Gregor Clegane (the Qyborg), but they switched to waterboarding with wine. The problem is this: the waterboarding was real. The actress really was suffering bona fide torture (and just as uncomfortably, Lena Headey really was being forced to inflict it). No-one these days is under any illusion about how nasty a torture technique this is, courtesy of the wider Iraq fiasco.
Now, as a viewer, I realised none of this when watching the show. Special effects have been a staple of the screen for well over a century, and I thought this on-screen waterboarding was simply a matter of make-believe, with computer enhancement. Only Prince George from Blackadder III could possibly suspect otherwise.
But… we now know Prince George was right. Which really does raise some seriously uncomfortable questions about twenty-first century media consumption.
I can sit and watch make-believe people having their heads chopped off, and think nothing of it. I can read about make-believe people raping other make-believe people, in the comfort of my own home, and still operate as a comparatively well-adjusted member of society. Hell, I have literally written two-thousand words myself these past couple of days, where a character is subjected to the horrors of extended sensory deprivation. I can do this because I know these events are not really happening – there is a dividing line between the realm of the Imagination and the realm of Reality, keeping the two as separate domains. It is a vicarious exploration that hurts no-one. But here we have a popular, big-budget television production that wants to be so authentic in its representation of torture that it tortures people. And expects us, the audience, to derive pleasure from what they are doing.
It is as though we are back in second century Rome, watching gladiators fight (potentially fatally) for our amusement. Because that is really the logical extension of what Game of Thrones was doing, and while Waddingham may comfort herself that the production company was not going to let her die, accidents have been known to happen. I, for one, would be more than happy to dispense with authenticity (which is less important than the illusion of authenticity anyway) if it means I am not watching real suffering. No artistic depiction of an imaginary story is worth a real-life person being tortured, any more than it would justify real-life rape or murder… and I am genuinely angry that the production company behind Game of Thrones would think otherwise.
Then there is the legal side of things… and, honestly, so far as Common Law goes, Game of Thrones is actually on thin ice. A number of court precedents make it clear that just as one cannot legally consent to being murdered, one cannot legally consent to severe acts of bodily harm:
Why, yes. The test cases for this area involve BDSM. While comparing BDSM with torture is a… contentious matter, I do think one can see an analogy with the present issue – whether a television actress can legally consent to being tortured in the name of art. I also think Lord Templeman’s phrasing is vaguely appropriate here:
Society is entitled and bound to protect itself against a cult of violence. Pleasure derived from the infliction of pain is an evil thing. Cruelty is uncivilised.
Here it is audience pleasure, not individual pleasure, of course, but regardless of what one thinks of BDSM, I think this definitely works as a critique of Game of Thrones’ “authentic” waterboarding. I appreciate that Waddingham sees this in terms of the actor’s role in eliciting audience emotion, but she should not have been subjected to this. Lena Headey should also not have been subjected to this, and the producers should have expected better of a twenty-first century audience. Some of us have a different moral system from second century Rome.
I’d imagine that an actual police investigation would be unlikely, but I’d hope that this at least serves as a cautionary tale for the future, with a view to better oversight of actor safety. In the meantime, this provides one extra reason to not give Game of Thrones a re-watch.