Trigger and Spoiler Warning: This post will contain spoilers related to three rape scenes in Game of Thrones (the TV Show) up through the sixth episode of season five. I will also very generally compare the specific scenes and plot points of the A Song of Ice and Fire books related to those television scenes. I will spoil nothing else from the books.
When “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”, Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones (Season 5, Episode 6), ended, I had one despairing thought, “Oh no, it’s over. It can’t stop there.” It felt so bleak and so hopeless. The crushing disappointment was reminiscent of that time when Oberyn Martell had knocked the Mountain off his feet, driven a spear through his chest, and could have killed him with a flick of the wrist any moment thereafter—only to wind up suddenly and terribly dead of a crushed in head, condemning Tyrion to death along with him. Now, here, Sansa Stark, who endured so much sickening torment from Joffrey (being forced to look at her own father’s head on a spike, being beaten and having her clothes torn at before the throne, being threatened with a wedding night rape, etc.) had escaped King’s Landing back to her home in the North and was leveraging her name to gain a modicum of political power, some control over her own fate at last, and, most of all, a shot to avenge her murdered family. And just minutes of show time earlier she had given a show of her confidence and thrown her family name around to tell off Ramsay’s jealous lover Myranda the kennel master’s daughter. She was naked being threatened with death at the teeth of mauling dogs and she asserted her invincibility to intimidation in her home, Winterfell. And in that very satisfying moment it was exciting to believe that the Stark name really did have the magic she assumed it had to protect her. And maybe that having endured so much threat for so long she had grown tough enough to be fearless in the face of would-be terrorizers. Maybe she really would take down the sociopathic Boltons.
But, no, she didn’t. It was like Oberyn Martell’s head bursting all over again. It was like Catelyn Stark’s neck getting slashed all over again. And I didn’t want it to end there. Lingering in the air unresolved. Couldn’t we stick around for 10 more minutes? Can’t we pop in with Dany standing in the sunshine in all her power applying some more smackdown to slaveholders? We haven’t been there yet this episode. No. It’s over. This has happened and can’t be undone.
I hated it as a viewer–as I was supposed to. But I appreciated the important value of the scene as a fan of the show and as someone concerned about the pervasive reality of rape.
And then I read the internet and was really disappointed at what seemed like a lopsided attack on the creative choice from so many feminist critics (and critics generally). I want to go through the criticisms of this scene and of two other scenes that the television show turned into rapes when the book had scripted them as consensual sexual encounters. I want to defend all three controversial choices on the grounds that rather than normalize or trivialize rape they are the kinds of artistic uncoverings of the ugly realities of normalized and trivialized rape that we desperately need to see.
There’s an ironic sort of victim blaming being aimed at Sansa from fans who are complaining about Sansa’s rape scene by arguing that we should have had more agency from Sansa. They’re blaming the writers for not having her fight back. They’re blaming them for not writing the scene where perhaps she chooses to have sex with Ramsay. Jill Pantozzi at The Mary Sue suggests the scene would have worked if only Sansa had a dagger up her sleeve and killed Ramsay.
I assumed Sansa would not go down the same path as Jeyne, especially when you consider Sansa’s own inner strength. As the scene played out, I though [sic] she might pull a dagger out of her wedding gown and end Ramsey once and for all.
She is essentially saying that Sansa, an internally strong, empowering role model of a character like Sansa Stark The Lady of Winterfell? Why, she can’t be raped without a fight! We already know from the books that the character whose storyline Sansa is taking over in the TV show is raped exactly at this point in the story but it’s a betrayal of women to portray a strong woman like Sansa Stark succumbing like that rather than being an agent who fights back and avenges her family, or who chooses with patient malice to have sex with her disgusting new husband as part of her master plot to destroy him. What’s this Sansa Stark doing here? One who can passively let herself be raped while she simpers, sobs, and screams.
It is morally appropriate to feel rage on Sansa’s behalf. She doesn’t deserve to be in that situation. She doesn’t deserve to be with a physically imposing and well-practiced sadist who has full legal sanction in a marital rape-approving society to exploit her sexually against her will and for his own amusement. But in reality, were she in that spot, she would probably have behaved as she did. The show was realistic. This story isn’t about cheap wish fulfillment and revenge fantasy. Sansa cannot simply murder her husband and expect to walk out of what has become the Boltons’ castle alive or a free woman. Sansa also hasn’t the slightest experience with killing anyone. In the Game of Thrones, this is taken seriously. Arya has taken seasons desperately wanting to become an avenging assassin who kills everyone who has harmed her family and both Martin and the show’s creators have consistently taken the long and serious way of getting her there rather than having her impossibly grow into a fully skilled warrior overnight. A realistic Sansa isn’t going to become the femme fatale we wish she could be to protect herself any faster. If she did it would be as silly as if Arya managed to kill the Hound with her attempted surprise sword to the gut that in the show wound up just trapping Needle in his chain mail and ending up with her receiving a backhanded slap and a lesson in the realities of combat.
But, more importantly than Sansa’s realistic limitations as a killer, every species of rape has its own heinousness to it. And one major form of rape is one where the woman does not believe that she can fight back. One where she knows that she is not in a moral universe where if only she starts kicking and screaming she can be spared. One where her survival instincts tell her not to physically resist, not to invite the unpredictable results of the violent reaction she might provoke if she tries to resist. One where a strong and otherwise fully-empowered woman finds herself frozen in panicked disbelief as to what is happening to her or making a fully present and calculated decision that yielding is physically safer than fighting.
One of the great myths that women who are raped have to deal with is that somehow there’s something they can do to make them invincible to rape. If they are strong enough, smart enough, confident enough, savvy enough, and moral enough they can’t be raped. And when they are raped, it shatters their sense of self. They blame themselves for not being able to prevent it or stop it midway. It almost becomes to them as though the rape is a punishment for their own failure to be strong enough.
In this context I think it is shameful, however well-intended, for feminist critics to be complaining that it’s a betrayal of Sansa’s strength or her agency for her to be raped—or to be raped in the “passive” way she is. The show is being truthful in laying bare the ugly reality. Even empowered women are vulnerable to being raped. Even role models are vulnerable to being raped. And, contrary to Panzotti’s bewildering insistence that it is narratively superfluous to put Sansa through another ordeal with an abusive man since her character has already been through one, it’s an ugly truth that even women who have escaped previous abusers don’t always avoid being trapped with another one. Is it an uplifting message? No. Is it one with the power to trigger and demoralize rape survivors? Absolutely. It’s horrible. But it’s true. And busting victim blaming means making it something everyone understands and acknowledges reflexively. And a work of art that depicts this truth shouldn’t be blamed on account of its honesty. I am grateful to George R.R. Martin and the numerous people responsible for adapting A Song of Ice and Fire for creating a show that represents the dark, brutal, and far-too-long enduring realities of human societies the world over, past and present.
The Truth About Living In An Amoral Universe
To demand that the creators of this story shield her from this completely expectable violence for moral reasons is to demand that she live in a moral universe. One where good people are spared by the Creator(s). Or one where all the evils they suffer are part of some larger, morally-good design for the universe. It’s apparently okay that Sansa be tormented by Joffrey if she can come out having empowered herself and go kick ass in the future. Maybe even killing the show’s next most famously ruthless torturer! That would be an exciting story of female empowerment. That might be a cause for moral uplift. That’s how the story should go.
But the lie that we live in such a moral universe is precisely what gives Game of Thrones its well-deserved credibility for skewering repeatedly. Even the critics of this rape understand that it was narratively inevitable. As soon as Sansa agreed to the marriage it was clear to every viewer that she would have to have sex with Ramsay. Does it make sense for her character to want to do so? Of course not. Why would she? His father murdered her mother and brother. His personality is erratic and creepy. Plus she’s a virgin inexperienced and uncomfortable with sex who already put off one husband sexually for the entire duration of a marriage because she didn’t want to be with him. The idea that she would be at all desirous of sex on that wedding night is pretty much inconceivable — even for the purposes of long term vengeance. Would you, as a scared teenager married off to a sociopath be able to have sex for the vengeance? Seriously?
And taken from his perspective–he needs her to consummate the marriage or the whole political significance of it can be voided. As we just saw the ease with which she was able to put her marriage to Tyrion behind her. The politics here require sexual consummation. He is legally entitled, and entirely expected by his father, to consummate the marriage, and to do so as soon as possible to seal the deal. And he is a sadistic torturer who would not only be willing to do it even if Sansa doesn’t want to but would actuallyprefer it that way.
The logical result was that she would be, at minimum, hesitant to have sex at the first opportunity and that he was going to rape her with delight in that case. It was absolutely inevitable save a deus ex machina or behavior totally out of character for either of them. This wasn’t something gratuitous. It wasn’t random to the story. It wasn’t just something to grease the wheels of the plot where something else might do. It was a consequence of where the plot placed these characters and it was true to who the characters are. The story, to its credit, also depicted this rape not as an act of some kind of merely overeager sexual excitement but an act of violent domination and sadism, in which the point is to overcome the victim’s resistance against their will. For those of us who think that a good deal of rape is motivated by the desire to dominate and subordinate rather than simply a normal sex drive, I think this should be seen as a welcomely accurate portrayal.
And while people are complaining that this development wasn’t needed to establish or advance any of the characters since we already know that Sansa can endure abuse and Ramsay dishes it out gratuitously, the scene was superfluous, this misses two key points. Sometimes scenes are not about adding something new to a character but expressing that character accurately. And this scene did so in both regards. Secondly, the plot demanded that we know what went down sexually between Sansa and Ramsay. It’s a natural question whether she’s going to be able to evade having to have sex with him despite marrying him. There was no way to unsuspiciously elide it. It wouldn’t have been fair to the character even to treat it as a trivial issue to be skipped. Whether or how she wound up having sex with the son of her mother and brother’s murderer was something important for the character. It doesn’t matter if it was “redundant” narratively. And, finally, the audience did have some mystery as to whether Ramsay might show more respect for his wife, even if just for strategic reasons, than he does for infamous child-killers like Theon or commoner women whom he can torture with impunity. Plus, again, it’s narratively consequential to Sansa to lose her virginity (for depressing reasons). It’s a real moment of potentially lost power for her here in addition to the awful violation.
Predictability and Consequences in Westeros and Essos
Some people have tried to argue that precisely the “predictable” character of the rape happening makes it a disappointing deviation from the Game of Thrones’s penchant for surprising our expectations. Yet, if there’s one expectation that Game of Thrones actually creates rather than disappoints, over and over, it’s that actions have consequences. And where in an ordinary story the hero wouldn’t wind up with his head chopped off at the end, or where the king who breaks his vow committing himself to an arranged marriage in order to wed another woman for true love instead will get away with his decision to follow his heart, in Westeros and Essos the axe will fall and the vow-breaker will die. That’s why those two moments in particular are perhaps the most iconic and celebrated of the entire story. They’re both shocking and logical. The shock in both cases is that the story is uncompromisingly logical precisely where most stories pander to our wishes.
What makes the logical consequences in Westeros so shocking and unpredictable is that we’re so ruined by an endless string of ordinary stories where the whole point is that the heroes can evade real-life terrible consequences by their virtue and luck and the audience’s love of a happy and morally fulfilling ending. Because of this some people apparently fantasized that Sansa would summon the strength to act completely out of character and either reveal newly developed Melissandre-esque powers of magical manipulation in order to dissuade Ramsay from touching her, or display a Machiavellian ruthless disregard for her own sexual propriety and willingly jump her appalling new husband’s bones despite being a virgin who never consummated her last marriage to someone she didn’t like, or reveal she has the trained dexterity and deathly commitment of a femme fatale actually capable of managing to successfully shank a man who flays people as his driving passion in life. Jill Panzotti hoped even that our damsel might be saved by other heroes watching out for her:
But looking at what has taken place this season so far — from Ramsey’s promise to Littlefinger, “I’ll never hurt her. I swear,” to Sansa’s friends at Winterfell, Brienne keeping close watch, and Stannis close to arriving — I assumed Sansa would not go down the same path as Jeyne.
However logically inevitable it was in principle, my heart still sank at the end. As it should have. Because one hopes for a respite. And even after the unalterable fact, there is hope that Sansa will have a plausible means of killing the Boltons without winding up dead herself and that she’ll manage it. There is hope that she will, at least, escape. There’s relief in knowing that in Game of Thrones, as in life, the wicked also quite often suffer logical consequences directly stemming from their evils. It’s not always, but it’s often. And Martin and the TV creators are expert in dishing out logically and emotionally satisfying payback to the most despicable people in all of Westeros and Essos, in turn.
The “Sansa Can’t Be Raped Because She Wasn’t Raped in the Books” Argument
The worst objection to this fate for Sansa is that she is not raped in the books and that due to that fact alone she should have been shielded from rape in the show too.
Traditionally, in most adventure stories, it is easy to identify the main characters and to trust as a reader or an audience member that these beloved characters who you’re forming attachments to have “plot armor”. Deep down you know that however perilous these heroes’ situations might be, this is their story and so they can’t exactly be killed without the whole plot coming to a premature and fairly pointless ending. So, the stakes are not as high as they might be. And, again, A Song of Ice and Fire has made a significant portion of its reputation on sending the message that anyone can die, no matter how immune they appear by standard genre conventions.
Now, this isn’t entirely true. There are at least four characters who by this point in the story do seem to have legitimate plot armor (although last season I seriously worried that even one of them didn’t have it and in the past I’ve naively assumed other characters had it who didn’t). These are characters whose deaths before the very last episodes would seem to have made many hours’ worth of the show something of a vain exercise. Martin’s genius is that he in fact doesn’t kill off characters carelessly but that he invests us so much in characters who are not the real main characters necessary for the entire story and gives them rich subplots which could be the entire plots of other novels. He gives the side characters full, memorable, satisfying stories before dispatching with them because the overarching narrative is bigger them and doesn’t require them more than it will benefit from giving them a gutwrenching or satisfying death.
The overarching story that he is telling is ultimately going to be about a relative few out of hundreds of people’s journeys. And perhaps he could have rushed through the ancillary characters, given them just enough spotlight for them to perform their roles in the main characters’ adventures and been much more streamlined about things. Like an ordinary novel. But instead he tells the whole story and gives us the satisfyingly interesting and detailed adventures of numerous characters whose stories can end along the way without at all bringing the master plot to a pointless or premature ending. It’s wonderful. And it creates the sense that there are genuine stakes for every single character. Anything can happen to (almost) anyone. It makes for terrific suspense. And, at the same time, since this epic is plotted with a breathtaking scope and intricacy, in retrospect nothing looks random. Every death makes inherent sense. It flows straight from the characters, from the fundamental overarching plotlines, and, most of all, from the story’s merciless sense of realism and consequence. Sometimes the deaths are so devilishly foreshadowed, that on rich rereads and rewatches it’s like the character’s plot was all one slow motion death march. And characters’ deaths are rarely either premature or pointless, they enhance the side character’s story by giving it its tragic completeness. How and why they die usually adds significance to their story and their role in the larger story, rather than takes either away.
But for some reason, some readers of the book refuse to accept without complaint being surprised by the television show the same way.
Now, it’s inevitable that fans of any story, from any medium, get invested in the details of how a story plays out in the first form they encountered it in. Or, sometimes, in the form it was originally in. There’s a strong impulse to emotionally feel that the original version–either the one first created or the one you first experienced–is the real version of the story. It usually comes to you as a whole, of a piece, as a surprise, as though dropped from the heavens or sprung up as a true story of the true universe itself. And so deviations in adaptations and undesired turns in new sequel episodes are met by fans with a sterner judgment than the original work. We encounter adaptations, sequels, prequels, reboots, etc., with our own ideas of how the story should go or what made it special or what was meaningful about a character or a plot or some other detail. Seeing the creators either reinterpret or extend the story in ways contrary to our sense for the important parts of the story can be frustrating and disappointing.
This is all understandable. As much as it’s healthy to give creative room to an adaptation to deviate from its source material and possibly even improve on it in some ways, I understand getting attached to a certain extent to particularities that are in the novels. For me personally the most important thing is that the basic ending be something clear and defined and the same between the Game of Thrones television show and A Song of Ice and Fire because of I think the ending of something this long and drawn out should be something of specific determinateness that is well worth the wait and, in light of which, the whole journey should be interpreted. But I am comfortable with most variations between the stories beyond that. There is room for healthy debate about any number of other changes, whether they’re for the better, the worse, or the merely alternate good tellings.
What I’m less patient with is when book fans are ostensibly comfortable with any number of shocking character killings or brutalities in the books but get outraged that the show would ever have the gall to think it has the right to shock them too. As though if Martin lets a beloved character be slain, tortured, or raped, this is something that one just accepts as part of the masterful story and its unstoppable necessities. But if the show shocks us with unexpected deaths or other violations it’s a disgraceful prurient gratuitousness because HBO is supposedly a cesspool of amoral, aesthetically compromised titillation, that is pandering to its base viewers who just want to see lots of tits and gore. A charge so incredibly unfair and ungrateful to the channel that began and continues to lead a hitherto unseen golden age of artistically meritorious television shows.
For all the moralistic suspicion of HBO and the dubious insinuations that every time it changes something involving a woman character it’s to degrade her from misogynistic motives, some of HBO’s changes have improved women’s representations in the story. It’s on HBO that Brienne takes down the Hound in a glorious grudge match for the ages and gets to meet Arya and inspire her as a role model. It’s on HBO that an extra prostitute gets a fuller character development and a name (Ros) and a cruel death that sticks with us more deeply because we’re actually invested in her as a person and in the emotionally tense storyline with Baelish that played out over a couple seasons and got her killed. These are just a couple of examples. It’s unfair to complain about the particular indignities suffered by women in this story as though they were part of a normal story where there weren’t so many rich treatments of women. And it’s unfair to act like HBO isn’t representing the women in the story well in countless ways, including ones that the novels distinctly didn’t think to.
But rather than show any respect for HBO or its immense creative talent and give any kind of measured and thoughtful analysis of the merits of the choices to surprisingly kill a character or put them in a more morally repugnant position, the mere deviation from the source material is appealed to as cause to disparage the show and the choices are assumed to be motivated by the worst of all possible motives. People who are otherwise comfortable with no one having “plot armor” suddenly demand they get “book armor”–if they’re not dead or mistreated a certain way in the books they can’t be on HBO or it’s a travesty.
And so we hear about what was “supposed” to happen (or not happen) when something we don’t like has happened. In a representative, widely retweeted, tweet Jamie Tarabay wrote, “Ok this is never meant to happen to Sansa Stark. @GameOfThrones is about to lose me. #TheNorthRemembers#GameofThrones“.
But why wasn’t this supposed to happen to Sansa Stark? Why do people who enjoy books that tell them their characters are not morally protected by a loving creator who won’t befall them with unspeakably undeserved evils turn around and believe that those characters deserve a free pass from horror in the show version of those same books?
I hated watching Sansa endure what she did. But I didn’t use that hatred as a motive to cast about for supposedly aesthetic or moral reasons that it shouldn’t have been chosen as a story development. I accept that this bleak and horrid bit of television is part of the deal. It’s one of the agonizing emotional lows of a show that stares the awfulness of human reality in the face. The harsh realities, true to the times and the characters and the plot’s logic, are part of what makes the experience of the show what it is. And the overall depth to the characters and seriousness of the major themes of the show are what make so little of the gore feel gratuitous rather than truthful, purposeful, and meaningful to encounter. When you feel like despairing because the show delivered a harsh low it’s a bullshit move to evade the question of whether it was justified within the context of the show and instead insist that because A Song of Ice and Fire didn’t depict this particular evil in this particular way it wasn’t supposed to happen. Why not accept that the show can justifiably horrify you and make you uncomfortable even beyond what the books did?
And, to be clear, in this case HBO didn’t amp up the violence. In this case they didn’t fabricate a rape scene from thin air. They didn’t spin a “wheel o’ random rape” and decide to have Sansa violated. They depicted a rape that is already in the books. In the books Ramsay Bolton weds Sansa’s best friend Jeyne Poole, who is erroneously thought to be Arya Stark. In the books he not only rapes her with Theon watching, as happens in the show, but, even worse, he forces Theon to participate (effectively raping an extra person, Theon, in the process). It’s yet to be seen where things will go with Sansa, but in the book Ramsay proceeds to treat Jeyne effectively like a prisoner and a plaything to rape whenever he wants. So this wasn’t a case of “HBO adding a rape gratuitously”. It was a case of HBO deciding that instead of Ramsay marrying and raping a pseudo-Stark daughter he would marry and rape an actual one.
So, it’s bizarre for the Mary Sue website to declare that they’re no longer going to talk about Game of Thrones because the show this week used rape as a “plot point” when this particular “plot point rape” (if it is even fair to consider it merely that) has been a known part of the story since 2011 when A Dance With Dragons came out. So, no, HBO didn’t add a gratuitous rape. In fact, they toned it down (at least for now) and made almost all of the actual violation occur tastefully offscreen. When Sansa was forced by Joffrey to look at her father’s head on a spike we all had to look with her. When Ramsay flayed the flesh off one of Theon’s fingers the camera was unflinching. When Oberyn Martell’s head was crushed in the camera was positively indulgent. The show here was not cavalierly using violence against women for visual titillation as some kneejerk responses would have you believe.
Now, I don’t know where the show will go next or whether by sending Sansa down this road they have unduly made it impossible for her to wind up somewhere really narratively important and terrifically interesting that she will be in the books by the ending. But assuming she can link back up to where Martin has her headed in the end of A Song of Ice and Fire it made a ton of sense to make her Ramsay’s unfortunate bride rather than a pseudo-Stark. We are drastically more invested in her character than we would be in a previously forgettable minor character elevated to narrative prominence only to function as a machination in the Boltons’ plotting. The young woman he marries and rapes in the book is drastically less defined on her own terms. She would be, effectively, “that poor girl that the Boltons conscript into marriage and then rape and torture”. She’d be the kind of character who only existed to be a pawn of misogynists in a misogynistic world. And when she was raped it might at best have been as upsetting but compartmentalizable as when Joffrey had a barely known prostitute violently beaten by Ros with his stag-horned scepter. Making Sansa into Ramsay’s bride and victim increases the emotional stakes of the rape for the viewer. It makes it less of a “mere plot point”. It makes the character less “a woman who only serves the story purpose of being a victim of rape”. This way we have to deal with a full blooded, fully developed young woman we have years of investment in, undergoing the horror of rape. And that’s what real world rape is actually like. It happens to real full blooded, fully developed human beings. If you care about the horrible truths about rape seeing the light of day so that people take them seriously, then it has to happen to the characters we love and know as three dimensional people in our stories so that we can have the faintest inkling of what it is like when it happens to real live three dimensional people in reality.
Exposing vs. Perpetuating Rape Normalization
Some of the feminists complaining about the story choice to have Sansa a victim of rape are arguing two contradictory things. They are emphasizing that rape is a shockingly common phenomenon. It’s not merely the stuff of over-the-top fantasy fiction. It’s a reality that millions and millions of women (not to mention men) cope with their entire lives. And yet they don’t want it depicted unless somehow it’s done according to a byzantine set of ad hoc moral restrictions. But if you think (as I do) that it’s a shockingly common reality that intrudes itself into countless women’s lives with no moral justification, sometimes derailing life stories that aren’t “supposed” to be about that, thenif our fiction does justice to rape survivors’ experiences it should burst into more stories unanticipated.Now I get the concern that it not be trivialized. Rape should not be something that storytellers incorporate as a throwaway bit of stakes escalation in someone else’s story, with no attention to the impact on the victim or no interest in the victim’s own story in their own right. If the frequently true story of rape is going to be fictionalized, it should often be done so in a way that makes clear just how devastating it is. It’s got to be clear that it isn’t a game and not something to be depicted in consequence-free ways. Viewers should be induced to ramp up their visceral appreciation for the extent of the emotional fallout that victims of rape suffer. It shouldn’t be something glossed over so easily that we can be inured to it and think of it as not a big deal.
So, yeah, by that criterion, I could understand an attack on Martin’s original conception of the story of the bride of Ramsay. Jeyne Poole the pseudo-Stark girl does not get developed well before the storyline. And depending on how the final two books go she might not get to do much after it’s over. If she ultimately is just an extra plaything or a plot device to finally revive Theon’s courage so that he revolts against Ramsay on her behalf, then yes, you might charge that it was not really best to have gone in this direction. Maybe it was exploiting our protectiveness towards women in order to use the woman as a passive damsel in distress to be degraded and dispensed with as serves the Important Men’s stories.
But given our investment in Sansa,this is not that. This is a character for whom the rape is part of a deep and complex character and story development. It is one moment in the 39 episodes she’s appeared in so far. And we could expect her, as much as anyone else, to be in a significant portion of the last couple dozen episodes. She is not a character who is diminished. She is not a character who will be brushed aside after she’s raped and has served this particular plot twist. She is a character whose every future action will happen in this shadow. If she continues her general arc of empowerment then it will be even more a story of survival and triumph over brutal misogyny than it already might have been. If she suffers diminished social and political power and attendant consequences because now she’s lost her most crucial bargaining chip, her misogynistically vaunted virginity and with it her marriagability, then we will have a perfect opportunity to expose the evils of sexual politics that women have lived under in another nuance.
The idea that she should have been off-limits to rape because she was supposed to be on the empowered upswing of her character arc was naive and would have made for poor, arbitrarily-constrained, simplistic storytelling. And it troubles me a bit that any number of feminist book readers, including those at The Mary Sue, apparently would have been okay with this bride of Ramsay storyline so long as it wasn’t our important Lady Sansa who suffered it but was some pseudo-Stark whose story was only supposed to primarily revolve around being raped as a political pawn. In fact the real reason that they are leaping to assume that Sansa’s story will ultimately have significance primarily for Theo’s story rather than her own is that they already know the book version of the plot uses rape this way. If they were to get angry, it should have been after reading A Dance With Dragons, not after seeing “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” . But instead of allowing that any woman’s rape be reduced to a mere plot point they’re curiously only boycotting the version of the story where it’s a main character’s plot which does. And even if in the larger context they should clearly see that that character is not only in the story overall for that purpose and her story is more likely to have increased seriousness added to the rape because of her generally more extensive development as a character in the first place. It feels like their assessments were backwards here.
Theon’s Perspective vs. Sansa’s Perspective
Now, one final objection runs like this. The problem is that the scene focused on Theon’s face. In this case the show simply can’t win. If the show creators depicted Sansa being raped in gory visual detail they’d have been accused of degrading Sansa (and maybe even Sophie Turner) as much as Ramsay attempts to. But when they choose to end on the stunningly performed conflict on Theon’s face, the complaint is that we’ve somehow reduced Sansa’s rape to its importance for Theon. In the books the pseudo-Stark girl is in a perspective chapter from Theon, not one from Jeyne. So, this is fundamentally his story and so it’s wrong to transpose Sansa into being a pawn in that story. Now, in my previous paragraph I think I explained why seeing Sansa as a story pawn here is unfair. I think that even if this scene leads to Theon finding his courage again, I don’t think that makes the meaning of the episode to Sansa merely subservient to that storyline and nothing more. Clearly since she will go on in the story it will always remain with the viewers and add texture to every twist that’s even tangentially associated with it from here on out. Since she’s a major character too this is a case of his and her stories intertwining and having meaningful relevance for both of them. This is an effect that happens constantly between the main characters as their seemingly-independent storylines suddenly intersect and creates new synergy and intricacy and puts the wide scope of the show into clearer focuses.
Showcasing Theon’s face wasn’t a way of saying the absurd—Sansa’s rape only matters for its effect on Theon. I’m sure I’m not the only viewer who ended the show in drastically greater despair for Sansa than for Theon. I’m sure I’m not the only one who indulged in a little relish at her rudeness to him just a couple scenes before, even. Instead, focusing on Theon’s face was a way to elicit even more empathy from us as the audience. It was an extraordinarily powerful device. I always remember one of the commentaries to the movie Fight Club that explained that two contrasting fight scenes of comparable objective brutality in terms of footage were taken two completely opposite ways by the audience based on the contrasting ways that the spectators to the fights were depicted. In the one case, the cutaways to the faces of those watching were joyful and the scene ended with the characters embracing and smiling. Viewers (including me) were positively heartwarmed by the scene, taking it as a beautiful depiction of male connection of a kind they themselves longed for. The other scene was one where one man sets out to do serious damage to his fight partner. The way the violence of the intentions and effects was displayed was by cuts to the faces of the onlookers repulsed and recoiling. Viewers (including me) found the scene to be the movie’s single hardest one to watch. The footage in both cases was of brutal physical combat. As social creatures it was enough to cue our interpretations of the fights as either warm and delightful or vicious and upsetting by showing us other people’s feeling response. And Theon, portrayed by Alfie Allen with an astounding intensity of brimming internal conflict ready to burst, told us with his face what we already suspected in our minds—that our hearts should be breaking. And mine did. So I thought it was a powerful choice that made one of the least visually graphic horrors of the series one of the most gutwrenching to discover.
Finally, in this context, let me address the other two major rape controversies related to Game of Thrones. These are cases where sequences of clearly consensual sex in the novels were depicted as rapes in the show. These are the rapes of Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister, respectively.
When Khal Drogo Raped Daenerys Targaryen
Contrary to the book telling, in which Khal Drogo explicitly gains consent from Daenerys Targaryen before having sex with her after their wedding, in the first two episodes of the show he rapes her. I was upset by the rapes but not bothered by the decision of the show to include them. Again, because they were, to my mind, more realistic than the book’s telling and did more justice to the realities of rape that a woman in Dany’s position in history would have been likely to endure.
Again, as with Ramsay, Khal Drogo is a man who can very plausibly be written as coming from a culture where it’s assumed acceptable for a man to take his wife sexually immediately on their wedding night, and with little regard for her feelings if need be. This is a man who leads a warrior people that, without provocation, raids the villages of those they call mere “lamb men” for being weaker than themselves. They commit genocide, take captives into slavery, and systematically rape all the women. He is, unquestionably, a violent rapist any number of hundreds or thousands of times over. It is an amusing bit of childish moral judgment that thinks that the showrunners somehow did something gratuitous in making Khal Drogo the type to rape his arranged bride. They didn’t turn him into a rapist. They were true to this fact at the core not only of his character but his entire culture. They forefronted rather than downplayed the reality that this character who we are induced to like quite a bit is a rapist. That’s the harsh truth about rape cultures that feminists are rightly trying to stress. That even people who we might have affection for can be rapists. That’s how awful and messy and morally complicated reality is.
But what sits poorly with some feminists seems primarily that Dany grows to love Khal Drogo after being raped. She goes on to call him her sun and her stars, to sacrifice for him, and to mourn him bitterly when he’s rendered irrevocably catatonic and virtually dead as a person. So it’s upsetting that the relationship begins with him raping her. They apparently worry that it sends the perverse message rape is not a bad way to start a relationship or perhaps not such a turn off to women after all.
But why is that actually a bad story choice? To me it is, again, a more believable and rape-culture-illuminating way to conceive the story. If we are going to bust myths about rape we need to deal with the ugly realities related to it. The ugly reality is that sometimes women really are raped by men they love. That’s one of the real-life horrors of rape. And arranged marriages have existed for millennia. Marital rape has existed for millennia. Sex has been conceived of as a duty of marriage for millennia. And it’s not only a duty in cases where both people have the fullest enthusiastic consent in their hearts. One can only assume that countless arranged marriages began their sexual dimension in ways that would count as some degree of coerciveness.
Likely a good deal of this coerciveness was baked into the structure of the marriage itself. You didn’t choose this person of a completely unconstrained will (and so your choice is already likely to have an element of compromise in it) and being married to them outright obligated you to consummate it. In some cases, perhaps people were sexually turned on enough right off the bat to want to have sex with their new partner despite barely knowing or choosing them. Maybe other couples waited a while until they both felt ready? But did every couple wait that long? What if they never really wanted it? The institution of marriage demanded they do it anyway. And what do you think is realistic storywise when you transplant this situation to a violent warrior culture like the Dothraki are depicted to be? When you present Dany as a child of privilege sold off to a brutal warrior seemingly twice her age, who speaks a language she doesn’t understand, for the purposes of acquiring his army’s assistance, do you think the most realistic telling is that Dany is going to be raring to go sexually on the night they wed? That she’s going to be, as Martin tells it, eager to guide her new husband’s finger to her wet vagina? That seriously strikes you as the most plausible narrative?
For all the compromised consent built in to the very structure of how marriage was carried out when women were property and marriages were arranged for political and economic reasons rather than love, inevitably sometimes people fell in love. And sometimes they became sexually passionate about one another after all. It’s possible that Dany could have done the same. In Dany’s world, Khal Drogo taking her forcibly with no regard for her wishes on her wedding night was frightful but it didn’t necessarily mark him out as unusual. And that’s precisely the problem with rape cultures. They normalize rape. And so it happens that even victims of the kinds of rapes that have been normalized either don’t see it as a big deal or they blame themselves for it or they similarly have attitudes that don’t sufficiently condemn it as actually being rape. And if Dany is the kind of character who can grow to passionately and romantically embrace her barbarous husband knowing full well that he has raped and killed countless people, I don’t doubt for a second that she was the kind of person who could rationalize his initial brutish treatment of her. In fact, her story carefully develops her process of personal empowerment from Viserys’s pawn of a little sister, who passively submits to being traded to a scary horselord so her brother can get an army, to the magnificent khaleesi we eventually come to know and love. She specifically takes charge of the sexual dynamic between herself and the khal. In doing so, she earns his admiration and adoration. It’s her first major moment of her transformation into an assertive and self-empowering icon. She changes the relationship from one of helpless passivity at the whims of misogynistic forces into one of something approaching greater equality. She has hopes of taming Drogo and reforming the genocidal, enslaving, and rapacious practices of his culture. This arc is made longer and deeper by starting him as even more rapacious and her as more passive, to the point of where he even rapes her at the start, at a point where she is, most plausibly, incapable of asserting herself, being frightened and having not yet gotten her bearings and knowing that he is a violent man who, for all she can tell, might just kill her if she doesn’t do what he wants.
Her rape in the show is more probable and more unflinchingly real than the novel’s story of a 14 year old girl wedded off to a fully-grown and dominant warrior lord of a genocidal people and finding that he is enlightened about consent and gentle in sex and capable of stimulating her to get sexually aroused and verbally agreeing before touching her.
If we care about bringing to light the ugly pervasiveness of rape and rape cultures throughout world history we should be thankful that Game of Thrones the TV showis more honest about the subject than A Game of Thrones the original novel was. While the change wasn’t necessary, it was both fully justifiable and, to my mind, desirable.
When Jaime Lannister Raped Cersei Lannister
Finally, we come to Jaime Lannister’s rape of his sister Cersei next to the corpse of their secretly and incestuously firstborn, the ruthlessly sadistic and tyrannical dead boy king, Joffrey. It’s clear in the novel’s telling that despite temporary hesitations Cersei consents to have sex with Jaime. In the show she briefly initiates but after that pretty consistently says no and insists that it isn’t right. It’s clear to me that this is a rape. It’s disturbing when creatives behind the show tried to insist that it wasn’t a rape and that we should interpret Cersei as having really consented despite hesitations. The charitable interpretation of their statements is that they were so on their heels about being accused of airing a rape scene that they morally shouldn’t have that they overcompensated and claimed it wasn’t even a rape scene. That’s troubling to me. It’s also troubling that other defenders of the show are claiming it wasn’t a rape scene. This clearly indicates we need to talk more about what rape is. I’m not going to debate that here. I’m going to stipulate that feminist critics of the scene are correct that it’s a depiction of rape and I suggest you consider carefully their articles explaining why.
What I want to do is explain why I don’t think the choice to make the scene was morally objectionable. It might not have been necessary to improve the story that they feature this rape. But neither was it morally, narratively, or aesthetically inappropriate that they did so either, for several reasons.
First of all, again, Westeros is a rape culture. It’s one that is centuries behind us in terms of having adequate norms related to sexual consent. Heck, even our own contemporary culture tends to excuse or normalize some kinds of rape. And Jaime Lannister is a murderous person. He kills people in cold blood throughout the show. He’s violent by habit. In our first episode with him he casually pushes a child out of a window. Then he endures a grueling captivity and an excruciating trip home which includes the extraordinary physical and emotional pain of having his sword hand chopped off. He arrives home to find that the woman he loves and has been willing to kill for is cold to him. She spurns him for weeks. He’s rejected, he’s desperate. He’s incredulous at the unfairness that she would punish him for “leaving” her away so long when he spent every minute of that time enduring threats to life and limb—even to the point of literally losing a hand. Now, his child who he was never able to emotionally attach to, lest he endanger the boy’s life, is murdered. The woman he loves, who he has sacrificed for—being a kingsguard and forsaking a wife and legitimate children so he can remain close to her—in a moment of emotional weakness starts to initiate kissing him. She finally wants him again! She however is aware of their surroundings, she is far more emotionally invested in their son despite the boy’s monstrousness because she was not forced to hide her parentage, she doesn’t want to desecrate the scene where his body is displayed by having sex just then and there. His frustrations overspill. He can’t let go of the fact that she was finally initiating intimacy again, he viscerally resents her rejection and refuses it and pushes forward anyway out of a passionate and desperate mixture of hatred and love.
It’s rape. He shouldn’t do that. At all. Let’s not justify it. Let’s not make any excuses for it.
But it’s not random gratuitousness. It’s not a scene with any nudity or particular sexual titillation. HBO didn’t pervert an otherwise wholesome scene. As written in the novel, the scene is inherently one of extreme taboo-breaking. Sex between siblings? Next to a corpse? Next to the corpse of their dead son born of their incestuous union? It’s a scene where the characters are depicted as seemingly compulsive taboo breakers. Each is not only enthralled by lust and love for a sibling but apparently finds breaking a taboo against sex in a holy place, next to the corpse of their son to be at minimum not a hindrance to their carnal expression and, at maximum, an aid to it.
So the scene is clearly about transgressive passion that is outright fueled by transgressiveness itself. So in the television show we twist it where the man rues the fact that he “loves a hateful woman” as he begins to reinitiate sex fueled by that burst of passionate love turned to hatred when she teased him with affection only to pull it away? Martin’s own version of the story is filled with transgression. To erase the consensual aspect and make it a rape is only to further extend the taboo character of the scene, taking it to yet another level. They did not exactly gratuitously introduce darkness to sex that was in the first place affirmable and pure. What they did was something that made sense for both characters. Jamie in his desperation, frustration, alienation, and ambivalence towards Cersei, desperately trying to reconnect with her and Cersei finding that her grief and her attachment to her son and her sense of propriety matter more than the momentary burst of feeling for Jamie that turned her need for consolation momentarily into a temptation for sex when she had forgotten where she was.
The show creatives depicted characters acting out of perfectly intelligible and plausible motivations deeply connected to their emotional place in the story. It’s not a “plot point” they exploited and trivialized rape with as merely a means to solve some sort of plot problem or cheaply raise the stakes of a weak story. The plot could have gone on perfectly without it. It’s a character moment. An authentic one. It’s a moment of weakness for Jaime following a moment of weakness for Cersei that she had quickly recovered from. Even though they never have a discussion about it afterwards, it also has consequences. It not only conveys but actively can be assumed to contribute to the growing alienation between Jaime and Cersei that has endured up through the most recent episodes.
Critics get upset because we were supposed to be seeing a more sympathetic Jaime. His captivity, the loss of his hand, his journeys with Brienne, and the telling of his kingslaying from his point of view all were transformative, both of Jaime’s own mindset and the readers’ perceptions of him. He was in the process of being narratively redeemed—or at least grayed—where he had been initially introduced as an easily hated antagonist, an arrogant and dangerous foil to Ned Stark who was willing to nonchalantly kill a child to keep a secret. Now we were supposed to see both Jaime and our understanding of him growing to the point where we actually identify with him and don’t see him as the doer of a single monstrous deed.
So how could he now turn around and rape Cersei? It’s the new Jaime!
Again. I don’t watch or read these stories to be condescended to. I don’t want phony redemption stories where characters go from “all bad” to “all good” like it’s the WWE and they’ve decided to make the villain wrestler we’re supposed to hate suddenly a good guy we’re supposed to cheer for unqualifiedly. People don’t typicallychange from black to white or white to black. Jaime is still the guy who was murdering people just weeks or months before. He is still a lifelong violent man. He is also a man lashing out at a rejection he feels is incredibly unfair during an emotionally charged moment when he rapes Cersei. That’s not to justify his actions. From a moral standpoint he unequivocally shouldn’t have raped her. In the show version he unequivocally does rape her. My only point is that if we want to be honest about rape and how it happens and how it isn’t only committed by easily spotted villains who look like rapists or by strangers in bushes, but that it can even happen within the context of an existing sexual relationship, committed by a guy who is decent in other ways–maybe even reforming but not fully reformed—then we shouldn’t be upset by the narrative choice when Jaime Lannister the Kingslayer doesn’t embody our highest and most enlightened 21st Century feminist ideals related to consent. At his best, he’s a sometimes likable antihero living in Westeros. He’s never the fully redeemed hero who lives in a morality tale.
Put more simply if even theactor who plays Jaime Lannister can’t recognize that his character committed a rapewhy should we think Jaime Lannister would be any clearer on the point?
Now, critics might retort that since many participants in the show apparently didn’t even know they’d depicted a rape, they can’t be credited with making the points about the actual psychology and normalization of rape that I attribute to the scene. But it ultimately doesn’t matter what the creatives intend, what matters is what’s there on the screen. While it would be ideal that television writers, directors, and actors understood rape better, it’s not necessary that they do so for them to depict a reality well by following their guts in figuring out how a scene should go to make narrative sense. We can still look at what’s objectively there and point out it objectively has meanings that go well beyond what the creators understand. It’s artists’ jobs to make the art. They don’t get a right of infallibility in interpreting its meaning once they’ve let it go.
If we want to take the ugliness of rape normalization and rape cultures seriously then we can’t balk when there’s a rare piece of art that depicts rape as culturally so normalized that even the rapists and the raped don’t always conceive of themselves as having been involved in a rape. That’s how things are. It’s worth shining a light on this ugly truth. Each controversial rape added or altered by Game of Thrones the television show is a step forward in how it uncompromisingly shows what the normalization of rape looks like throughout history and, in some ways, still today.
Vulnerability, Victim Blaming, and The Just World Fallacy
Empowerment Ethics: “How Can Atheists Condemn Rape Without Theistic Moral Absolutism?”
How My Personal Sexual Evolution Makes Me Loathe Slut Shaming and Victim Blaming
In Defense of the Moral Cause of Feminism
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