***Trigger warnings for discussion of sexual assault. Major Game of Thrones spoiler warnings. Also note that I haven’t seen the majority of season 5 yet so most of this article is based on events through season 4 and much reading about a particular episode in season 5***
The current backlash over the most recent rape scene on Game of Thrones has taught me one thing. Rape only matters if it happens to someone we care about. Sure there was some tsking when Cerise was raped by her brother right next to their dead son but no one quit the show over it, because really this is Cerise, no one likes her. There were some quips when Daenerys is raped in season 1 back before she was the Khaleesi white savior we’ve all grown to love but the only real complaint was it wasn’t rape in the book (true). But where were the complaints about the scene where the Mutineer Crows rape at least 3 of Craster’s Wives in the background of one scene? We don’t even know those girls names all they are is tits and tears to us. I also haven’t seen anyone discuss the sexual aspects of Theon’s torture except to say it went a bit too far. After all Theon was kind of a jerk most of the time. But the rape of Sansa is apparently the tipping point.
Let me take a step back, breath, this is complicated. It’s not a simple as saying rape shouldn’t be shown because I believe it should. Pretending rape isn’t a reality in a world like GOT is frankly idiotic. Of course rape would be rampant, it’s rampant in the real world. I don’t want characters to be raped in the same way I don’t want them beheaded but that’s the world GOT has created. So while I don’t think we should ban rapes scenes I do think the writers of GOT need to use much more care in how they use rape.
If GOT is anything more than rapey it’s violent. This is probably the most violent tv show I’ve ever seen but the violence isn’t used the same way rape is. With the exception of battle scenes violence is never the background noise the way rape is. We don’t have scenes where people are just randomly being killed in the background the way Crasters Wives are being raped. With the exception of Cersei welcoming the Mountain to the capitol but even in that scene the focus is on him being murder machine. The deaths of characters generally has a point beyond showing the viewer these are the bad guys. Violence has actual consequences, rape doesn’t seem to. Daenerys shakes off her honeymoon rape and learned to be a dominating minx in the sack as though it never happened. Cersei? Honestly can you see any difference in her after the rape? Granted so much shit has happened to her it’s hard to tell but she does still fling herself at Jamie like there’s no bad blood between them after her give no fucks speech to Tywin. Craster’s Wives trot off never to be seen again with the exception of Gilly who doesn’t seem at all scarred by her years of incest. Her lack of sexual interests in Sam is chalked up to “she just had a baby” rather than she’s probably so traumatized that sex with any one probably isn’t a safe space for her. So I guess in another way GOT is a little realistic because we expect rape victims to just carry on with their lives as though it never happened.
So with all the rape going on why is Sansa the girl to far? Does it help that we watched her grow from a naive kind of annoying little girl into a teenager who plays politics like her life depends on it? Of course. Does it help that she’s really pretty? You bet. Does the fact that we’ve seen what the Bastard Bolton is capable of make it worse? Yes. But what does all this say about us as the viewer? The fact that we will accept the gruesome death of beloved character after beloved character, the rapes and torture of less beloved characters but the almost inevitable rape of a pretty young girl is to much? I’m not sure I have an answer. I’m not sure I want an answer.
One of the arguments I’ve seen for why this particular rape scene is the one that goes to far is because Sansa had so much agency before and the assumption seems to be that this is the thing that will crush her. I hope it doesn’t play out that way. I hope the writers of the show understand Sansa’s strength the way we do and I hope they allow her to keep her strength because it would honestly be refreshing to see a character actually deal with the emotional fall out of rape in a way this isn’t either ignoring it or crumbling from it. You can be strong and still acknowledge that rape affected you negatively. In fiction rape is to often used as a tool to destroy female characters. They may still be alive afterwards but you’d never know it from how they act. This is just as damaging to women as portraying rape as something they just spring back from. Dealing with rape is complicated but on television it’s very simple, you either ignore it or let it destroy you. Even if you survive your attack (many SVU characters don’t) you don’t really live afterwards.
The other problem many have pointed out is that the rape of Sansa isn’t a used as a plot point in her storyline it’s a plot point in Theons. Raping Sansa is used as just another way to torture Theon. The fact that we still have to explain to writers why raping women as a way to hurt male characters is a problem is exhausting. I’m so over telling men that women matter. Our stories matter and I guessed I was tricked in to thinking maybe GOT understood that on some level. Sansa, after all, is a reason I watch that show, she’s a compelling character. Theon never was so why is the focus on him and not her?
It’s also just so cheap. After everything that’s happened to Theon do we really think that watching a childhood friend get raped is going to break him any more than he’s already literally been broken? Do we as the viewer really believe there’s anything left of Theon in that broken psyche of his? Lazy writing is generally annoying but when it’s on a show that’s as good at character development as GOT is it’s an extra let down. The fact that they consistently fail in this area and the fact that it took a failure of this nature for people to finally say enough I’m done, that says a lot about what we expect and accept from our media and maybe at the end of the day that’s really what we need to change.
Maybe what angers me the most about the rape plots in GOT and most shows is that they are women’s stories told ineffectively through a man’s lens. As most visual media is written and directed by men how can we expect them to understand the nuance of this aspect of the female experience especially as so few of us talk about it. Its not a coincidence that GOT got rapier when its entire female writing staff was cut.
Every woman I know has a story about being sexually harassed or assaulted but so few of us tell the men we know and if we have the courage to tell it we aren’t believed or we’re told some polite version of I’m sorry that happened but I don’t want details. So in the media our stories become about how our violation effects the men in our lives. It’s about them being powerless to protect us rather than about what it’s like for your body to be a cage. How merely to exist in public is to be endangered. I don’t expect the writers of GOT to know what it’s like to be seventeen telling a man you will slit his throat if he touches you again and mean it because going to jail for murder is a better option then being pinned under him again. I don’t want the writers of GOT to know what that feels like. But if they want to write a show that portrays rape so readily then they need to understand the fires they are starting in their characters lives because those fires burn inside of most of their female viewers.
This is not to say men can’t write about rape but I am saying stop co-opting our stories to tell your own. If a woman is raped in your story make the plot about her, the spotlight has been on men long enough. Don’t weaken Sansa now because she’s been raped, make her fight harder in the gently manipulative way she always has. Maybe the real reason we all feel so betrayed is that every woman has talked themselves out of a situation with a man that seemed like it was going to end badly. That’s what Sansa was really good at. But this time not only could she not avoid her fate her fate was not even hers. I used to tell my co-viewer that GOT likes taking away everything I found good in the show. Maybe Sansa was the last good thing for many people. The last bit of hope that the weakest of us can survive mostly scarred. Dudes of the GOT writing staff you have fucked up now fix it or hire some women and let us for once tell our own stories.