“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”: “Game Of Thrones” And Rape On TV

Great big book and show spoilers ahead.

So! “Game of Thrones” last night. What are we to do.

I have to admit that when the show ended last night, I was angry. I thought the showrunners had made a crass move. I told my darling fiancé what happened in the books versus the show, and how this episode just validates my discomfort at the changes that are being made in the show to catch up with the books by the end of the season.

If you didn’t catch it (and are comfortable with spoilers), Sansa Stark is now married to the rapey-as-fuck Ramsay Bolton. And, as Ramsay does, he forced Theon to watch as he raped her to consummate their marriage.

So, first of all, I need to clarify that marital rape exists. It exists as a concept in the universe, and it exists as a reality for a lot of women (and men), and it exists in United States law (and elsewhere). There are Game of Thrones fans who like to say, “Well, things were different back then!” And the answer is always: There is no “back then.” Westeros is a fictional creation of a man who has lived in the United States his entire life and is currently living. George R. R. Martin created the social norms and mores of Westeros in his head, based loosely around medieval European social norms and mores (but not exactly – it is not historically accurate). Which is to say, it’s not anachronistic to call it marital rape, for a variety of reasons. 

One of which is that both Martin and the showrunners understand that there’s a difference between consensual marital sex (look at Ned and Catelyn, or, more recently, Tommen and Margaery) and marital rape (Sansa and Ramsay – on the show, anyway). The showrunners portrayed the Bolton marriage consummation as rape – and assault, as well, because forcing Theon to watch a sex act of any kind under threat of violence constitutes sexual assault.

So what do we do with this scene, right? Is it the same thing as Cersei’s rape scene last season? I’m going to say no, because there are a few differences. Here’s my thinking (and again, book spoilers ahead):

  • Yes, both scenes are different in the books than on the show, but … In Cersei’s case, the sex was consensual in the book. In Sansa’s case, the scene in the book was rape, it just wasn’t Sansa who was being raped. In the book, Ramsay is married to Jeyne Poole, Sansa’s friend from Winterfell (who fans of the show haven’t seen since season one), who’s posing as Arya. Sansa’s all the fuck out in the Vale, still. Ramsay still consummates his marriage via rape, just with a different character. It’s not really fair, of course, to be upset that it was Sansa who was raped in the show and not Jeyne, because Jeyne’s rape and subsequent abuse was horrific.
  • Sansa’s rape was handled with a modicum of dignity. In Cersei’s scene, we saw her being manhandled and forced despite her pleas on screen, which is a way that cultural products (like television shows) normalize rape. In Sansa’s, we get only the suggestion of rape, via sound, as the camera focuses on Theon’s distraught face. If the camera had been on Sansa (I imagine pained facial expressions, etc.), I would be inclined to argue that the showrunners were being cruel to the audience and to the character, using the rape to tug at our heartstrings and ergo using Sansa as a prop to make an emotional play at the audience. But doing it the way they did, rather…
  • There is a reason, plotwise, for Sansa’s scene to happen. (Spoilers ahead.) Which is to say that her distress is going to both turn many Northerners against the Boltons, it’s going to be the start of an alliance between Sansa and Theon, and it’s going to harden her will to escape. Sansa is not going to be made into a perfect victim or a damsel in distress because of this scene; it’s going to carry forward her already-ongoing development as a resilient woman who will do what she needs to do for her own survival and for the honor of her family.

And there’s a point to be made here, I think, about whether or not it’s fair to feel aggrieved if a woman (or man, or otherwise) is ever raped during the plot of a show. I’m kind of guessing, here, that a lot of people will be angry about this scene because a rape happened, period. The thing is, rapes do happen. All the time. I don’t think the purpose of fiction is to tell us stories without ever confronting violence, and if all fictional works did leave out rape, it would be a form of erasure to real-world rape victims and our experiences. It would mean that the issue just wasn’t being addressed or talked about or acknowledged as a thing that happens and hurts. It’d be tucking us away, making us a non-point, rendering our experiences invalid, and sacrificing us and our lives to protect the rest of the audience’s feelings.

My concern with rape in fiction isn’t that it never happen at all. It’s that it never happen gratuitously. Cersei’s rape was gratuitous: It wasn’t necessary, it wasn’t in line with the character development, it was just a way to get the audience emotionally involved. It was needless violence to a female character for the sake of shock value. And while I know that the audience is more emotionally attached to Sansa than we are to Jeyne, the fact that it’s upsetting to the audience doesn’t mean that that’s the single and only reason the showrunners chose to do it.

And I can’t help but point out that if Weiss and Benioff had gone with the Jeyne-as-Arya plot, it would be way more objectifying to women. We’d have a character we know almost nothing about being raped; ergo she would be defined as “rape victim” as a character, it being one of the only events, and certainly the most significant event, in her storyline. Substituting Sansa for Jeyne creates a storyline in which a complex and developed female character who the audience values for her resilience, wit, courage, and sort of silent strength goes through a trauma and survives. Because we know a lot about Sansa already (and, I’d argue, because we aren’t subjected to images of her being raped, which would be hard to shake), we can’t define her as just a rape victim. I’d predict, too, that because of the Sansa-Jeyne switch, we’ll be subjected to many fewer scenes of abuse in the show than we are in the books.

Martin’s novels, despite containing female characters who are whole, real people, can be extremely cruel to women, regardless of whether the narrative voice of the novels is also really sympathetic about that cruelty: Women are raped, forced into sex slavery, constantly threatened; a woman’s uterus is hexed and burned to bits when her fertility is one of her greatest priorities; mothers watch their children die, a pregnant woman and her baby are brutally murdered; other characters treat sex workers as props. The challenge is to absorb that cruelty into the show in a way that humanizes those women as much as it humanizes the male characters who experience other forms of violence. It was upsetting, but on Weiss and Benioff’s part, I think last night’s episode represented progress toward that goal.

[Image via HBO]

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