This article was originally published on May 23rd, 6 days after the episode in discussion aired. Unfortunately, the website went down soon after publication, with no time for anyone to read the article. As such, some of the content may seem slightly out of date, as I have decided to leave the article as is.
A recent episode of Game of Thrones has unleashed an avalanche of criticism upon the show’s cable network, HBO. The issue in question, once again, is the use of rape in the series. I say once again because last season of Game of Thrones kicked off a similar controversy, though if you take a broad look at each case, they are quite separate. Today, I want to approach the issue of rape in Game of Thrones from my own perspective of things. At first I felt uncomfortable approaching this article. As a man, I considered bringing some of our female editors in on the discussion. Though, oddly enough, recent episodes of Silicon Valley and Community have inspired me to not hide my opinions behind a politically correct approach. That, and neither of our 2 female editors watch Game of Thrones. Before I begin, I acknowledge that I am of the male sex, and that I have never directly faced the traumas or fear of rape. I also want to clarify that this is my own opinion, and is not that of anybody else involved in the site, nor do I hold my opinion to any greater value than that of anyone else’s. As with everything, I find my opinions on such issues to be fluid, and capable of changing.
Lets start out by highlighting the 2 rape events from Game of Thrones that will be primarily discussed within. Last season included a scene in which Jaime had sex with his sister/lover Cersei in the presence of their deceased child, as she protested. In a modern context, Cersei’s protest make this act an undeniable rape. However, it can be, and has been, argued that this was not the intent, and that the scene merely came together wrong, without giving enough context to what was actually happening. The most recent rape scene, involving Ramsay Bolton and Sansa Stark, has no such debate over intention or context, it was a vile rape through and through. The debate about Sansa’s rape is more about if it was necessary, and if the creation of her rape in the story itself was wrong on the part of the writers.
Why is Rape so Much More Reprehensible Than Other Forms of Violence?
Game of Thrones has featured MANY rapes, but it has also included horrific acts of homicide, infanticide, patricide, torture, disfigurement, slavery, abuse, virtually every form of violence and cruelty has been explored on the show. So why is rape held to such a different standard? The common logic is that rape is a deprival of one’s own agencies and, that as such, is a dehumanizing and traumatic event that many women in reality struggle against. This is psychologically accurate, and I have no dispute with the assessment. I do argue, however, that while rape is the most common act of violence that directly reaches these traumas, it is not the only act of violence in Game of Thrones that has such an effect.
In particular, I would argue that what Theon suffered at the hands of Sansa’s rapist Ramsay, was more than on par with what Sansa suffered. Theon was permanently dismembered, separated from a piece of his anatomy that he identified himself with. Without said anatomy, his father dismissed the importance of ever recovering his son at all. In addition Theon was aggressively and meticulously robbed of his very identity, to the point in which he acts as a willing slave to his tormentor, bowing to his every whim no matter how humiliating or cruel. Every known psychological effect of rape could easily be applied to Theon’s position as well, and yet Theon suffered additional traumas, such as permanent and significant disfigurement, through the severing of the most important symbol of masculinity amongst the culture of the world in which Game of Thrones is set.
An argument could be made that Theon deserved it, but would those excusing it as such ever use that excuse in a case of rape? Was it an acceptable argument for Cersei’s debated rape last season? After all, Cersei has committed just as many and just as vile atrocities as Theon had, though unlike Theon, she never showed a moment of remorse. So then, why was her rape so hotly protested, though nothing was said of Theon’s disfigurement?
Rape as a Tool in Storytelling
This seems to be the biggest point of debate, should rape be allowed as a tool in storytelling? My position? YES! Why? Because rape is real, it happens, why should it be the only thing in reality that is not used in storytelling. Perhaps it should be handled more delicately, but so should so many other horrible acts of violence, including child molestation (often used in comedy), neglect (same), slavery, disfigurement, brainwashing and religious indoctrination, and more. It is my personal belief that NOTHING is sacred. The moment we make something universally taboo in fiction, we have ourselves committed a great crime against all of humanity.
Fiction is a mirror we hold to ourselves to learn and grow, to laugh and cry, outside of the tragedies of reality. A vile rape in fiction helps to reinforce society’s perception that rape is vile. Hopefully the show will explore the consequences in greater detail. If it does not, perhaps that will be a greater reason to protest than the existence of the act itself
The real danger, in my opinion, is our choice to force the ignorance of things we find unpleasant. We cannot change our reality by ignoring the parts we dislike. That kind of thinking is excessively dangerous. Also, We can hardly abolish fictional rape, while allowing other forms of abuse in fiction. Just because fiction is fiction, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t reflect the uglier aspects of society.
I am a Sansa hater (no, I never thought she deserved any of her horrible fate), I feel that she is partially responsible for the death of her wolf, Joffrey’s unchallenged atrocities, and her family’s destruction. Though I hold her responsible for much of this, I also recognize that she is a child, and I don’t actively blame her. That being said, I feel that the Sansa’s angry fans are fooling themselves. Sansa has had only 1 moment of cleverness in the entire run of the series, and even that might have been a terrible mistake on her part. Some Sansa fans got too wrapped up in the ides of “Dark Sansa”, and then used that to color their anger at her rape. Personally, I always saw “Dark Sansa” as actual Sansa merely dressing the part of what her fans thought she had suddenly become. This season Sansa has not stepped outside of her new role as Littlefinger’s willing pawn, she hasn’t made any strong strategic moves, and she hasn’t maneuvered to protect herself from the world’s cruelty in any way. She is, ironically enough, completely, and willingly, at the mercy of a male presence (Littlefinger, that is). Arya took control of her own agency, Sansa merely attached herself to another dominant figure. The idea that Sansa becoming a victim is outside of her character is abstract, at best, to me. Not only because ANYONE can become a victim, but because she has never made a single smart move to her own benefit. I am not saying she deserved anything that happened to her, only that she is not the wronged but competent figure so many seem to think she is, she has done nothing to prove her self reliance. Hopefully that changes soon, perhaps the title of the episode, though also the motto of house Martell, serves to suggest that she is unbroken by the rape she suffered.
Gender Bias in Cases of Rape on TV
This is the part where people will likely tell me to “check my privilege” as a man, but I feel it would be horrible to not address the hypocrisy of coverage between male and female rape. Rectify is an amazing series, and the male character was raped, with far less meaning than Sansa’s rape held. His rape, however, was never questioned. Likewise, most prison stories with male characters heavily involve rape. From Prison Break, to Oz, rape is common, and never called into question. Not only is it never called into question, but it is often used as a joke. The ending of Mallrats featured a brief scene that implied that Ben Affleck’s character is raped, a scene played for laughs. A similar approach is taken in just about any comedy set in prison. Oftentimes, with the victims being “jerks” who deserved it, and the perpetrators being less than the monsters they would be portrayed as if the victim’s gender was changed.
Male rape in fiction is often overlooked, or made into a joke, while female rape was hotly debated this week when an already known to be vile character horrifically raped a girl who has continuously been a victim (as in, their was little to be shocked about). It is a hypocrisy that is ignored in the discussion of rape. Why didn’t reviewers threaten to stop covering Oz or Rectify? Why wasn’t Theon’s disfigurement, constant abuse, and psychological deconstruction met with similar controversy?
Sansa’s rape on Game of Thrones was a horrible event. It was also an event that was MEANT to be horrible. It would not have made sense for it not to happen, considering the nature of the perpetrator. Not raping Sansa in such a cruel and brutal way would have been out of character for Ramsay Bolton, one of the most vile characters on the show. It was an event that will likely have huge repercussions for the entire continent of Westeros. And will HOPEFULLY have a profound and shaping effect on the character of Sansa, perhaps one which will show her to be Unbroken, and an all around stronger person than Theon. Perhaps a discussion of how her rape affected the story will be necessary if the show fails to properly address its aftermath. But the current outrage is not only ridiculous, but hypocritical, and spurred on by what I consider to be a mistaken perception. It is also potentially dangerous, as it advocates the removal of something found in reality from all of fiction.
We at TVEnthusiast will continue to cover Game of Thrones. If you would like to continue the discussion, please do so in our comments or forums. Lets be civil, and hear each other out. We may not agree, but we can try and see things from eachothers eyes with empathy.