Over the past month, we have been awash in discussions of sexual assault and harassment, largely suffered by women at the hands of powerful women in Hollywood and elsewhere. Every day, it seems like another male celebrity is being outed — which is both awful and kind of a relief, if I’m being honest. But there’s something I don’t want to get lost in all the noise: that Jason Momoa rape joke.
Just after the Harvey Weinstein news came out, folks dug up a video from a 2011 Comic-Con panel in which the Game of Thrones and Justice League star said:
“As far as sci-fi and fantasy, I love that genre 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.”
For those unfamiliar with the HBO series or the George R.R. Martin books on which it’s based, Momoa plays Khal Drogo, the leader of a massive tribe of horse-mounted warriors. Early in the story, another major character, Viserys Targaryen, essentially sells his teenaged sister Daenerys to Drogo in exchange for the use of Drogo’s army. On their wedding night, Drogo rapes Daenerys. The horror and misery on her face is apparent. Although the couple later develop a loving and consensual sexual relationship, there’s no doubt that first encounter was rape. She came out and said it last season.
After video from the Comic-Con emerged this month, Momoa quickly apologized:
“I awoke in Australia to the justified reactions by many people to a distasteful joke I made years ago in Hall H for which I am sorry. 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. Rape and sexual harassment can reach anyone and I have seen first hand its painful torment among members of my own family and friends. I made a truly tasteless comment. It is unacceptable and I sincerely apologize with a heavy heart for the words I said.”
I believe Momoa’s apology is sincere, though it would have been better for him to apologize right after he made the joke. I think he’s truly sorry that he said those things — and not just because creepy male celebs are currently being destroyed left and right.
But there are many problems with what he originally said, and an apology isn’t enough to set things right.
Let’s start with the fact that Momoa somehow forgot that rape isn’t funny in the first place. Rape is a serious crime that affects at least one in four women (and who knows how many men), leaving many with life-long PTSD that affects their future intimate relationships. Momoa says he’s aware of these aftereffects. As Lindy West put it, “So when you make a joke … that trivializes rape or mocks rape victims, you are deliberately (because now you know!) harming those people. On purpose. Not because you’re a rapist — you’re probably not — but because you’re selfish and amateurish and lazy and scared.”
It’s bad enough when someone makes a rape joke privately, among friends. But this was in a public setting, and a lot of people look up to Momoa. Joking about rape sends fans the message that it’s OK to laugh about this stuff, especially if the apology only comes six years later, after a call-out. Maybe people think rape jokes aren’t that big of a deal, especially compared to more serious sexual assault allegations. But they’re all part of the continuum of rape culture, in which sexual assault is pervasive, normalized and trivialized. A grease fire on the stove may not be as serious as your entire house catching fire, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grab the fire extinguisher.
Keep in mind that Momoa’s comments are within the context of a show that faced serious backlash in 2015 after another major character — Sansa Stark — was raped on her wedding night. Some of that backlash came because, in the books, the storyline belonged to another character, and only became Sansa’s as producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss worked to compress Martin’s massive story into something that works on screen. It’s fair to note that Momoa made his comments years before the Sansa scene happened, but his response didn’t. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
Rape has been a trope in fiction for a long time — a lazy way to give a female character some sort of gritty backstory. Or it serves to explain how a girly, classically feminine character becomes tough and powerful. This trope often reveals “the inability to consider female characters complexly,” writes Rhiannon Thomas at Feminist Fiction. After the Sansa backlash, Benioff and Weiss said they “changed some things” for the following seasons of Game of Thrones, and, remarkably, Season 7 contained some really lovely consensual sex scenes. However, Sansa still emerged from her rape colder, more violent and more powerful, fulfilling the trope’s blueprint to a T.
But back to Momoa. The fact that he apologized is important, and he sounds earnest. But there’s more to a good apology than just saying “sorry.” He should acknowledge how his remarks might have affected the rape survivors among his fans. He should admonish others — publicly, as well as privately — for making rape jokes. He should explain how he is going to make sure he never makes that kind of joke again. And he should refuse to share billing with anyone who perpetuates rape culture — and work to reform others who are part of the problem. He’s used his platform to trivialize rape. Now let’s see him use it to end rape culture.