Warning: discussion of abuse and sexual assault.
Spoilers for Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, and The Royal Tenenbaums.
Incest is, rightfully, often seen as abusive or repulsive, but the topic is explored in media anyway. Shows like Game of Thrones and Arrested Development have brought the sexual taboo back into cultural discussion. At times, incest in media is presented as something meant to repulse the audience, but there is a definite trend of making incest the romantic conflict between protagonists. While Cersei and Jamie’s relationship may be the cause of disgust among the characters and audience, Jon and Dany’s nephew-aunt relationship is a cause of conflict, but not as inherently repulsive.
Making something taboo like incest is a feat. In fan fiction or otherwise smaller works that can be extremely taboo, less care is required around the subject because a fair amount of the audience is seeking out that particular aspect of the story. However, in more mainstream media, the subject has to be dealt with finesse. In the most popular examples of incest in mainstream media, the story has gone out of its way to prove that the characters are either ignorant of the familial relationship or that the familial relationship is incidental or otherwise doesn’t matter.
Most shows or movies feature one or both solutions for protagonists, but sometimes incest can also be used to show that a character is evil or damaged. The most well-known example of this is Jamie and Cersei in Game of Thrones. The Lannister twins keep up a romantic and sexual relationship throughout the show. While characters on Game of Thrones are known to marry cousins or abuse children, Jamie and Cersei’s relationship is one of the closest we see on the show. Incest is discussed, especially in regards to the Targaryens, but never examined as closely as with Jamie and Cersei.
Jamie and Cersei’s relationship is presented, at first, as repulsive, but not necessarily abusive. Both parties seem to be participating willingly and evenly. If this was a non-incestuous relationship, it might not raise any eyebrows until abuse occurs later in the series. However, the readers are meant to be against the Lannisters. They represent greed and elitism. While Tyrion is a heroic character and Jamie is arguably complicated, Cersei and Tywin represent every horrible thing about royalty. Cersei acts as both his wife and his sister, demanding his loyalty and preservation of their children. Their relationship is also the catalyst for most of the conflict in the show. Joffrey’s legitimacy as Robert’s heir is the biggest conflict of the first season. It would be humiliating to the Lannisters to have Joffrey not be Robert’s heir, but it is especially humiliating have him be the product of incest.
Still, most media doesn’t want their characters to be Jamie and Cersei. Instead, they tread the line of incest (but not really) and ignorance of why this is wrong. In Arrested Development, George Michael’s young age excuses most of the squickiness of his crush on Maeby. His crush can be seen as a quirk of being young rather than a troubling line of thinking. This also helps the storyline to be played for laughs. With a topic that can so easy veer into abuse and repulsion, care is needed.
In another Game of Thrones couple, ignorance is essential to the development of the relationship. While most fans could guess that Jon was Dany’s nephew, the two characters had no reason to think this. The revelation of the fact that their relationship is incestuous adds conflict to their budding romance not only because they may not be able to pursue one another (though this has not historically been a problem with the Targaryens), but it also calls into question Dany’s claim to the Iron Throne. Because these characters are ignorant to their biological relationship, they can be romantic heroes and still have the drama associated with the claims to the Iron Throne.
However, not all media relies on the ignorance of the other characters to present incest. The story just has to make the audience reasonably believe that the characters are actually not related in an important way. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Richie and Margot, though they are brother and sister, are never meant to provoke disgust as a couple. Their relationship stops them from pursuing one another romantically, but the audience is meant to root for them.
Margot is adopted into the Tenenbaums at age 2, and her family never truly accepts her as a legitimate member of the family. The movie takes great care to show the other characters defining her by the fact she was adopted–putting her in a catagory closer to family friend Eli Cash than with Richie or Chas. Because there’s no biological relationship or familial connection, Richie and Margot are assumed to be given a pass by the audience to pursue one another. The relationship may be legally incestuous, but not biologically or ethically incestuous. Moreover, they show mutual interest in one another and the audience is not meant to assume there is any abuse or manipulation occurring.
Though it’s an uncommon method of conflict in romantic relationships in media, it’s not unheard of to use incest as a conflict between characters. Incest will elicit a particular reaction from audiences, but it’s on the story to show either why the relationship is actually not incestuous or the characters are unaware of the implications. Alternatively, the story may lean into these perceptions and allow the audience to form particular ideas about the characters as a result. However, the latter is generally meant to show how the characters are evil. Still, using incest between willing characters is meant to shape the audience’s perceptions of the characters’ actions.