First Game of Thrones, now Star Wars: Why do incest stories keep popping up?


With rumors that Star Wars may be venturing into the incest arena after Game of Thrones, we have to ask: in 2019, why does incest continue to feature so heavily on film and TV?

In the very first episode of Game of Thrones, we see twin brother and sister Jaime and Cersei Lannister scheming over a secret; by the end, it becomes clear. They are sleeping together. It’s not the last time we see them do so, and from the three suspiciously blonde-wigged children they have together, it quite clearly isn’t their first time either.

It is not the only instance of incest in the Game of Thrones universe. Another notable occasion is in season 7, when one of our most beloved characters Jon Snow falls in love with Daenerys Targaryen, sister of his long-dead father Rhaegar, although, unlike Jaime and Cersei, neither of them know this at the start of the relationship.

It is also not the only place in modern popular culture that the act turns up. Much has been made about the fact that Luke Skywalker kissed his sister in 1980, and rumors have started to surface that perhaps there is more to the connection between his nephew Kylo and the scavenger apprentice Rey than mere Force ability.

Given that incest is a taboo in every culture across the world, perhaps due to its evolutionary consequences (see: The Mad King in Game of Thrones), it might seem surprising that two of the biggest franchises in the world would choose to tackle the issue on-screen. But it is, in fact, nothing new.

It has been used to spice up stories since pretty much the beginning of time, from the ancient Greek tale of Oedipus to modern-day soap operas. Soaps are particular fans of the “Surprise Incest” trope, because it is the ultimate dramatic complication. It has been used as a narrative device for years to add tension, to shock us, and to definitively up the stakes of whatever story is being told.

Game of Thrones is a soap opera, as much as it is anything else. It is serialized drama, about a group of characters, largely focusing on their relationships with each other, with big moments punctuating the endless little ones.

As Vox points out, “characters will be trapped in a single scene or story arc for the entirety of that week, and then at the end of the week, some tiny thing will happen to move the story forward.” With the exception of season 8, where six things happened at once before we’d even focused our eyes, this is generally the model Game of Thrones is worked from.

Also, it’s important to note that the world soap opera operates in is as much a fantasyland as Westeros is. Yes, such shows deal in very real emotion, as Game of Thrones did (tell me the Red Wedding didn’t break your heart!), but it does so with over-the-top, melodramatic scenes that take characters to their limits (see again: the Red Wedding).

Incest is popular in these types of stories because it can add unexpected parameters to an otherwise uncomplicated relationship, as it did with Jon and Dany. It adds a tension that cannot be resolved, and as such, it is the ultimate incarnation of the “Forbidden Fruit” trope, which works especially when two characters have undeniable chemistry as Dany and Jon did in season 7 (we don’t talk about season 8).

But, just as happened with Jon and Dany stans, many Rey and Kylo shippers show no signs of being put off by the insinuated incest. The majority are currently refuting the claims and will continue to ship them in the meantime, but will they stick with them even if it turns out to be true?  Should we be worried when fans stay glued to their ships, even when incest is hinted at, or worse, explicitly known by all parties, even when it is just a narrative device?

Generally, the answer is no, we shouldn’t. First of all, as any fan of soap operas can tell you, the OTPs of continuing dramas aren’t written in ink. The number of Luke and Leia shippers is extremely small since the sibling reveal in Return of the Jedi but, as Syfy points out, there were many fans at the time who steadfastly believed they were meant to be.

Secondly, fans who do ship incest are not more likely to be interested in it in real life, but rather in the way it definitively changes a character’s story, in much the same way that writers who read male pregnancy fics enjoy them because of how they tend to play with traditional gender roles, not because of the biology involved. In short, there’s a lot more to it than simply face value.

“There’s a difference between fantasy and reality. Game of Thrones is fantasy in every sense,” pscyhosexual therapist Mike Lousada told Newsweek after the Dany/Jon revelation. “There’s nothing wrong with people wanting that. The fantasy of taboo is always going to be exciting—to have that thrill enacted, and we know that it’s fantasy. To enact that in real life, to say that’s a justification for incest, no, that’s not OK.”

This is incredibly important thing to consider when we talk about how incest is actually presented in media. It is rarely shown uncritically. in fact, it’s quite the opposite. As The Atlantic points out, most of the time it is shown to be a personal and political failing. In the case of Jaime Lannister, his time apart from Cersei allows him to change and his character develops for the better, to the point where his relationship with his sister becomes shorthand for toxicity.

Similarly, Cersei’s love for her brother is what threatens her claim to the throne, and demonstrates her single-minded quest for power. It puts her at odds with that signalman of nobility, Ned Stark, who tells the audience in no uncertain terms that such acts are the height of dishonor.

This comes into play later too, when Daenerys – soon to be Mad Queen Daenerys – remains keen to continue her relationship with Jon, despite having found out about their blood ties. However, Jon, who’s taken up the mantle of Most Noble Character in Westeros after the death of his fake dad-real uncle Ned, can’t go through with it.

Star Wars is slightly more complicated, in that Luke wasn’t canonically Leia’s brother in The Empire Strikes Back. But Mark Hamill tweeted in 2016 that the whole thing was a traumatic event for Luke, having unknowingly kissed his sister. It’s hardly presented as something enjoyable.

Considering that Star Wars has gone down this route before then, it is perhaps concerning that they may do so again with Rey and Kylo, especially because Reylo shippers aren’t grasping for straws anymore after The Last Jedi. With frissons so palpably in the air, and Reylo fans straightening their tin hats, is it okay that the writers might now throw the incest card at us?

Call the insurers. We have a strong case of emotional whiplash.

The thing is, it comes down to narrative again. Unlike Luke and Leia, the relationship between Kylo and Rey is already deeply unhealthy. Objectively so. So if it turns out Kylo’s advances are indeed incestuous, accidentally or otherwise, it only serves to further complicate and sour any overtures of romance that fans have detected. It’s another entry into the These Two Don’t Belong Together and We Need You To Know That dossier.

It’s not that incest is shown to titillate fans, or to excuse it by showing it in a romantic light, it’s the opposite. It is used to add a high, inescapable level of “emotional intensity,” and you better believe that the audience knows that too, even if we find ourselves empathizing with the characters in question.

Whether it’s presented as downright villainy or, more rarely, amorality, its point is to sprinkle some angst, and make us squirm. Even when it comes to incest being shown in a relationship such as Jon and Dany’s — where many of us actively shipped them before the news was revealed — the fact we feel revulsion and sympathy simultaneously at the actions of a character is what makes it interesting. It’s why shows like Game of Thrones resonate so much. Nothing is black and white. Life is so much more challenging and fascinating than that. But it’s always dramatic.

With Rey and Kylo, it is similarly complex. Any notion that they may be related is, as of now, hearsay. Reylo shippers won’t be put off by rumors, in the same way that FinnPoe shippers aren’t put off by that canonical kiss between Finn and Rose (it remains the third most popular ship in the fandom on Archive of Our Own).

Then there’s the question whether whispers of incest really would really change anything about the way they ship Reylo anyway. It is already one of the series’ darker pairings; there is more than incest making it dubious. Fans who have already fallen for the pairing have done so because it is already prohibited: he is on the side of darkness, and she on light. They are already incompatible, and incest, as the peak incarnation of “forbidden fruit,” simply ratifies the the illegitimacy of the pairing. It intensifies the tragedy (if we like them) or the repulsion (if we don’t).

It might seem odd that incest crops up so often in modern tales, but, as a plot thickener, it is as old as storytelling itself. If the themes of incest resonate with fans, it is hardly because they condone it. It is the ultimate tale of forbidden love. It’s complicated, and creepy, and ultimately interesting. In other words, it’s what the relationship between Rey and Kylo was anyway.

It is not to be encouraged, and especially not admired, but in fanfiction, as in all fantasy worlds, the rules are made to be broken and plots are made to be thickened. It’s a place to search your feelings, knowing them to be fiction.

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For the record, though, we always preferred Jaime with Ser Brienne.