Exploring Sibling Incest in Modern Television

By ·May 24, 2016 6:00 am

In modern television (specifically the last 10-15 years), we have noticed a sharp increase in the quantity of incest content on the small screen. Specifically, this focus tends to be on sibling incest. This means a brother and sister finding love and comfort in each other to a level that is not platonic, but which is romantic and often sexual.

It is first important to ask why incest is such a draw for audiences that it features so heavily in modern shows.

In a recent New Girl episode, Cece, while making up lies about how her and Schmidt met, states:

“We[‘re] cousins, because there is nothing more romantic than forbidden love.”

We feel that Cece hits the nail on the head here; it is the forbidden aspect of the romance between family members that makes it such enticing viewing.

Forbidden love in the form of sibling incest has long been a source of intrigue and fascination in stories tracing right back to ancient narratives. In Greek mythology the Gods Zeus and Hera were brother and sister as well as husband and wife. They were the children of Cronus and Rhea, who were also married siblings. Cronus and Rhea’s siblings Nyx and Erebus were also married.

In Norse mythology, Loki accuses Freyr and Freyja of committing incest, while in Egyptian mythology the Gods frequently married their siblings.

These tales have shown a strong resilience in surviving through the millennia. It is their unique combination of shock and romance that makes them such riveting narratives. Where normal romances can offer only forbidden love in the form of such things as warring families (Romeo and Juliet), the love of sibling incest takes the shock, the disgrace and the risk all one step farther. For if the sibling lovers are caught, the act will be seen as sacrilege greater than any other and few are likely to sympathise with the lovers.

Straight after Cece says her line in New Girl the camera quickly cuts to two other characters in the scene who give disgusted looks. This reinforces a methodology that we have noticed in television: modern television seems to follow the rule that as long as incest is highlighted as something that is disgusting by at least one character, then incest is seen as permissible for the writers to focus on.

This approach seems to exist to relay any fears that the writers or networks might have that anyone might call their show incest-promoting. We will call this method ‘the disgust response’ during this article and we will observe how often this tactic arises.

We have chosen five modern television shows that we feel most prominently showcase sibling incest. These shows all treat sibling incest in very different ways, which is makes them ripe for comparative analysis.

LOST

Boone and Shannon bicker during a flashback scene.

Boone and Shannon bicker during a flashback scene.

  • Characters: Boone Carlyle and Shannon Rutherford
  • Relationship: Step siblings
  • Degree of incest: Sexual
  • Depiction of incest: Shown
  • Key episode: Hearts and Minds (Season 1, Episode 13)

“You brought the money because you’re in love with me… You’ve always been in love with me… I’ve always known it.”

LOST was innovative and groundbreaking for its grandeur and its science fiction themes, but it also pushed the boundaries of sibling incest within popular television. Boone and Shannon are not blood related; rather, they are step siblings.

This raises the question of what causes the disgust around incest to arise in general – is it that the two lovers are blood related, or is it that they grew up together? We would argue it is both things and that when they arise alongside each other, it makes the situation even more abhorrent to witnesses.

Therefore, step siblings can prove just as controversial as real siblings, because it is that growing together that is one crucial half of what makes sibling incest such a taboo subject.

Boone and Shannon’s story began when Boone’s Mother Sabrina Carlyle married Shannon’s father Adam Rutherford. When this happened Boone was 10 years old and Shannon was 8 years old

During their youth Boone always harboured a fondness for his sister, which developed into a romantic attraction.

When Boone reached 20 years of age, he became the Chief Operating Officer of his Mother’s wedding company. Their adult relationship became very one-sided, with Shannon even going as far as to con Boone out of his money on many occasions.

Shannon would achieve this by calling Boone, claiming that she had an abusive boyfriend and each and every time Boone would come to Shannon’s rescue by finding her and paying off her boyfriend. When in fact, the boyfriend is in on the scheme.

When Boone learns of this ruse while attempting to rescue Shannon in Sydney, he is deeply hurt by her deception.

After Shannon’s boyfriend runs away with Boone’s money, Shannon – while drunk – turns up at Boone’s apartment. Shannon tells Boone that she has always known that he’s always been in love with her. After first telling her “you’re sick” (note: ‘the disgust response’ here comes from the mouth of one of the incest committers, which is highly unusual), Shannon tries to kiss him and tells him “it’s ok” and Boone relents. They kiss and sleep together, and the next day they board the fateful Flight 815.

LOST treats sibling incest romantically. Boone is infatuated with Shannon, even if she only uses him in return. Other than Boone’s half-hearted comment about it being sick, the show doesn’t really make a point of highlighting their relationship being disgusting from an outside point of view. This is perhaps because the relationship is a step relationship, so the writers felt that there was little need to lean on ‘the disgust response’, which allowed them in turn to run free with the incest, without fear of lash back.

Game of Thrones

Jaime comforts his twin sister and lover Cersei.

  • Characters: Jaime Lannister and Cersei Lannister
  • Relationship: Twin siblings
  • Degree of incest: Sexual
  • Depiction of incest: Shown
  • Key episode: Breaker of Chains (Season 4, Episode 3)

“I’ll kill[…] the whole bloody lot of them, until you and I are the only people left in this world.”

Blood sibling incest is more taboo than step sibling incest. In turn then, twin sibling incest is certainly the most frowned upon scenario of them all.

It is no wonder then, that Jaime and Cersei Lannister – who are members of one of the richest and most despised families in Westeros – choose to keep their love a secret. As is want to happen, however, despite however hard they try to keep their romance under wraps, the public always see through the ruse and start to whisper rumours of incest of them.

Their enemy Stannis Baratheon even goes as far as to send letters to important Westeros nobles to directly point out the incest and that Cersei’s children are not born of Robert but of Jaime (note: ‘the disgust response’ is evident here in Stannis’ assumption that Westeros will frown on the incest).

Children born of incest are typically pre-judged before their birth as being likely to hold genetic defects. Game of Thrones here proves that this is not always the case, for two of Cersei and Jaime’s children(Myrcella and Tommen) are sweet and innocent, and are perfectly normal children. It is only one of their children (Joffrey) that has a madness to him.

The show adds a certain brutality to Cersei and Jaime’s love, which the books avoid. This is when Jaime effectively rapes Cersei on the altar on which their dead son Joffrey lays. Even in the pilot episode, Game of Thrones shows us Cersei and Jaime having sex. In this respect, the show is not afraid to go all the way when depicting incest.

Game of Thrones treats Cersei and Jaime’s romance and something so brimming with passion that they almost cannot contain themselves. Such a strong passion implies that these two characters cannot help the ones that they love, even if they try (and in the books, Jaime does try).

Viserys Targaryen kisses his sister Daenerys on the forehead.

Viserys Targaryen kisses his sister Daenerys on the forehead.

  • Characters: The Targaryens
  • Relationship: Blood siblings
  • Degree of incest: Marital and sexual
  • Depiction of incest: Spoken about
  • Key episode: None (all incest occurred years prior to the events depicted in the show)

“Every child knows that the Targaryens have always danced too close to madness… Every time a new Targaryen is born, the Gods toss the coin in the air and the world hold its breath to see how it will land.”

Westeros has a vast history that spans back through many ages, full of different Kings and different families holding power. The Targaryens are among the most recent families to hold the iron throne. Their familial history is not only steeped in incest but, for them, incest is in fact a way of life. The Targaryens were renowned for marrying their children to other family members.

As established above, genetic defects in children born of incest are not a certainly but they are certainly a possibility, and there is a quote (listed above) which beautifully explains how the general populace of Westeros viewed the Targaryens and their inbreeding. However, the focus of this quote is madness, rather than physical deformity (which is what most would assume the result of inbreeding is).

It is not made too clear how other families viewed the incest of the Targaryens, back in the time of their rule. We can only assume that they despised their incest as much as their manner of rule. In this respect, ‘the disgust response’ is not evident here.

With the Targaryens, Game of Thrones treats incest as an every day part of life. However, since the Targaryens are mostly gone, all of this inbreeding is treated with a “that happened years ago and is no longer practiced”-type mindset. This seems to make the notion less taboo, as it’s a practice that has been abolished, which is only viewed now as a mistake that the ancestors made.

Bates Motel

Norma allows Caleb in for a brief moment.

Norma allows Caleb in emotionally, for a brief moment.

  • Characters: Norma Bates and Caleb Calhoun
  • Relationship: Blood siblings
  • Degree of incest: Sexual
  • Depiction of incest: Spoken about
  • Key episode: Unbreakable (Season 3, Episode 4)

“It just happened. You know, she was more than a sister to me. I mean, she was my whole world, my whole life and I loved her. You can’t help who you love… I loved her more than anything and I just couldn’t let her go. I hate myself for it.”

In its later seasons, Bates Motel revealed that Norma Bates had a very troubled childhood. As a way to escape from this trouble Norma and her brother Caleb found comfort in each other, as children. This began as platonic but then turned sexual.

Norma describes their relationship as kids as being consensually romantic for a long time, up until the point where Norma wished to stop and Caleb raped her.

Caleb eventually moved out, but Norma had already fallen pregnant with Caleb’s child. She had the baby and named him Dillon.

As an adult, Norma is horrified to learn that Caleb has arrived in White Pine Bay. Norma tries her best to keep Dillon away from Caleb, but fails, and Dillon eventually learns of his manner of conception.

Norma also tries her best to hate and steer clear of Caleb herself (note: ‘the disgust response’, again from one of the lovers), but it is evident that she does hold some remnant of affection for him, underneath her malice.

The show treats this incest for the most part as something heinous, but this is only because of the rape element involved. Norma views the whole experience (including the consensual sex) as wrong, but it is the rape that is the focus of her hate for Caleb (and rightly so, as this is an unforgivable crime).

Yet, just from the above quote from Caleb it can be seen that the writers present sympathy for sibling incest too. “You can’t help who you love,” they state, which beautifully vocalises all of the sibling relationships within this article and it is certainly the most common defence used for incest. It takes the stance that love is love and not being able to choose who you love takes the blame away a little (and only a little, as they can choose not to act on this) from the guilty parties.

The show doesn’t shy away from leaning into incest in other respects too – Norman Bates and his Mother Norma share a ridiculously close relationship, which sometimes borders on a love too intense to be platonic (such as sleeping in the same bed and romantically stroking one another). This intense love for this Mother is the very basis of Norman’s psychosis.

Bates Motel has a delicate balance of both using incest as an essential tool to keep the primary relationship of the show interesting (Norma and Norman), while also placing incest in a very negative light indeed, but only by tying it in closely with rape.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

The McPoyles

  • Characters: The McPoyles (Ryan and Liam McPoyle, plus the McPoyle family)
  • Relationship: Blood siblings
  • Degree of incest: Sexual and reproductive
  • Depiction of incest: Spoken about
  • Key episode: Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass (Season 2, Episode 9)

“Hey man, there’s nothing wrong with us. We just express ourselves. It’s society that has the problem.”

Ryan and Liam McPoyle are two members of an inbred family that make sporadic appearances in this show. They don’t dress in any kind of real clothing at all – rather choosing to go around in dressing gowns and pants.

Everyone views The McPoyles negatively, including the show’s core characters. Our gang has interactions with The McPoyles, but they always try to keep these interactions as brief and distant as possible, due to their disgust for Ryan and Liam.

Early on in the show it is established that Ryan and Liam sleep together. This begins – as many incest claims do – as conjecture from others. The difference with here though is that The McPoyles never deny their incest. They instead choose to be proud of it, to the degree that they do such things as copulate with their sister in public, without caring who is watching.

When our gang outright state: “We’ve heard some things about you two… what’s wrong with you people?” (note: ‘the disgust response’) Ryan and Liam state the above quote; that there is nothing wrong with them and that it is society that has the problem.

Ryan and Liam being of the same sex should not be ignored here either, as this switches up the sibling incest norm – instead of brother and sister, here we have brother and brother.

Much like the Targareyns then, The McPoyles fully own their incest choice. Though, unlike the Targaryens, you get the impression that The McPoyles’ litter of inbred children is less planned. The McPoyles also exist within modern day society, rather than being part of a long lost empire, which makes them all the more daring.

With The McPoyles, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia offers up the boldest and brashest showcasing of sibling incest on television. The McPoyles aren’t in the show that often, but when they are they are ceaselessly incestuous and this is used as a direct source of humour. Incest is not something that is usually joked about, to this degree, so it’s commendable that the show can execute this and get away with it.

Dennis and Dee bicker, while the gang looks on.

Dennis and Dee bicker, while the gang looks on.

  • Characters: Dennis Reynolds and Dee Reynolds
  • Relationship: Blood siblings
  • Degree of incest: Theoretical only
  • Depiction of incest: Alluded to and joked about only
  • Key episode: Dennis and Dee Get a New Dad (Season 2, Episode 10)

“I am not banging my sister!”

Sometimes incest is only alluded to and skirted around and we feel that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia likes to strongly hint and play around with the idea of Dennis and Dee being incestuous. Although this may not actually be happening in the literal sense of them sleeping together, the show very often nods towards their relationship not being fully platonic.

We re-watched some of the show with an eye on this and there are many indications towards this. From Dennis preferring blondes, to the fact that Dennis pulls disgusted faces when others tell him “that dude’s gonna bang your sister”, to Dennis never liking any of Dee’s boyfriends, to Dennis looking Dee up and down while she is in a trampy outfit and saying “whoa, Sweet Dee”. There is much cause to think that maybe they are more than just siblings.

This is such a heavy theme that Frank even asks them outright, in Season 2, Episode 10: “you two aren’t banging are you?” which leads to Dennis to retort: “what, no, that’s disgusting,” (note: ‘the disgust response’ – again here from the mouth of one of the accused).

Frank then goes on to state: “Yeah it is. Stay away from that kind of thing. No good can come of it, trust me,” (which implies that Frank might have dabbled in incest himself) and “banging your sister is perverted, Dennis.” Dennis ends the debate by shouting: “I am not banging my sister!” in a crowded restaurant, drawing much attention.

Incest between Dennis and Dee is therefore used both as a source of humour and also as something to hint at, rather than directly being utilised. The show already has The McPoyles for full on incest, so we like that the show is far more crafty and subtle about when it comes to venturing into this territory with Dennis and Dee.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia treats incest both openly and overtly (with The McPoyles), and also discreetly and subtly (with Dennis and Dee). It treats the subject as a source of humour in both instances, which is brave television indeed.

The Borgias

Lucrezia and Cesare sleep together for the first time in Season 3, Episode 3, Siblings.

Lucrezia and Cesare sleep together for the first time in Season 3, Episode 3, Siblings.

  • Characters: Lucrezia Borgia and Cesare Borgia
  • Relationship: Blood siblings
  • Degree of incest: Sexual
  • Depiction of incest: Shown
  • Key episode: Siblings (Season 3, Episode 3)

“Why deny ourselves the pleasure of which we are already accused?”

The Borgias is different to the preceding entries in this list, in that is is based on historical fact. The Borgia were a real Renaissance family who held the papacy in 1400s Italy. During their reign, they were suspected of many crimes, including adultery, simony, theft, murder and you guessed it – incest. This was accused of the daughter named Lucrezia and one of the brothers named Cesare.

Right from the pilot episode, the show never hides the flirtation between Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia. Immediately you can see that they are a little too close and that Cesare is more fascinated with Lucrezia than she is with him (which is a reverse of Boone and Shannon’s situation).

This all builds into one beautiful crescendo in Season 3, when events conspire to leave Lucrezia feeling unloved. This pushes her over that line that she dared not cross until this point and she outright seduces her brother Cesare into sleeping with her. Which she knows, will be an easy task.

Lucrezia uses a line that sings to beautifully and speaks so accurately of history: “Why deny ourselves the pleasure of which we are already accused?” (note: ‘the disgust response’ in the use of the word ‘accused’ – which implies that incest is viewed as a crime).

This is a very pragmatic view of incest. Lucrezia and Cesare have always walked that line, but have never dared to cross it, and thus showed restraint. However, once the masses suspect them of it anyway – no doubt due to them having witnessed how close to two are – then why not cross that line?

Therefore, this is an instance of assumption causing incest to elevate. When viewed as the black sheep to a that degree, you may as well act upon it and do what you want. This is Lucrezia’s logic.

Like most of the other characters on this list, Lucrezia and Cesare’s relationship is one borne out of a natural love that they can only deny for so long (albeit a one way love, with Cesare feeling it more than Lucrezia does).

Yes, this show is not set in modern times, which – like with the Targaryens – allows a little leeway for getting away with incestuous content, however, the show crosses lines in Season 3 that few other shows would dare to, when it shows Lucrezia seduce Cesare and their bedding of one another.

The Borgias is most impressive instance of sibling incest because it never once shies away from the love between Lucrezia and Cesare, and although the couple choose not to act on their love for a long time, once they do the show dives into the romance guns blazing. Where Game of Thrones and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia treat incest as a side plots, The Borgias instead keeps the romance kind and treats it as the core focus of the show. And what other show could make such a claim as having sibling incest be its core drawing factor? We love the show for it.

To conclude, the many different ways in which modern television portrays incest have been explored. Almost all of the these shows used ‘the disgust response’ (often from the mouths of the lovers themselves) as a way of softening the blow of depicting such overt scenes of incest.

Overall, shows seem to have a great deal of free reign these days when it comes to the limitations of what they can show. Two of these shows literally show incestuous sex (Game of Thrones and The Borgias) and two more show incestuous copulation (LOST and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).

As enticing fiction, it is undeniable that sibling incest is a huge draw. If it didn’t bring in the viewing figures then these shows would have failed or stopped showing incest long ago. Personally, we love seeing it and we do hope that this trend continues. Why do we love it? We have to agree with Cece on this one – nothing is more romantic than forbidden love and sibling incest is the most forbidden kind of love imaginable.

Image credits: ABC, HBO, A&E, Showtime, FOX, FX

Written by Christopher Hart

Lead Writer and Copywriter

Chris is a Copywriter for a major bank. He an MA in Publishing and a BA in Comparative Literature. He's also a self-published author (Altered Stone).

His areas of interest include LOST, The Leftovers, The Prisoner, Y: The Last Man, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, BioShock, Supergiant Games and Josh Malerman.

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