The internet this week saw a tremendous uproar after this past week’s Game of Thrones episode, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” This is a show that prides itself on its last five minutes being intensely shocking and resulting in furious Monday morning blog posts and fights around the water cooler (or the internet equivalent, message boards and Facebook). Only this week’s fighting has been over something pretty heinous. And this is where the spoilers come in folks, so if you haven’t seen it yet, well, the rest of this article is spoilerific. It will also have discussion of Mad Max in it with some spoilers, so be aware. It will also be pretty triggery for discussions of sexual violence and screen caps from shows that might be triggery, so be warned. Whew, lots of warnings. With that out of the way, here we go.
This week’s episode of GoT ended with the wedding of Sansa Stark, the redheaded young ingenue of Game of Thrones, married to the sadistic Ramsey Bolton. Ramsey, who has been shown to be probably one of the most heinous characters on the show and in the books, takes Sansa to their bed chamber after the wedding and proceeds to strip of her of her wedding gown and rape her. He does this in front of Reek aka Theon Greyjoy, who he has kept as a pet since he tortured and broke him. The last shot of the show is Reek crying his eyes out over the sounds of Sansa’s cries.
This horrifying scene marks yet another deviation the show has taken from the books in terms of plot. In the books, a young servant girl named Jeyne Poole, who was passed off as Arya Stark (Sansa’s sister), was instead married to Ramsey. In the books, Ramsey makes Reek (himself abused into submission by Ramsey) join in as he rapes Jeyne on their wedding night instead of Sansa. The TV show chose to merge Jeyne’s story into Sansa’s to give her the opportunity to reclaim her ancestral home of Winterfell in the north by marrying Ramsey, and therefore giving her a chance to act as a political character on the show alongside her creepy patron Littlefinger. That choice however sent her on a collision course with this wedding night scene and the show’s choice to make it a non-consensual and violent rape.
The response after the show online was immediate and LOUD. Many people have declared that this is the end of their watching Game of Thrones, and websites like The Mary Sue have chosen to discontinue their coverage of the show due to this creative choice by the writers and designers. They make a very good case as to why they’re doing that here. They site the fact that this is a show that has time and again chosen to include more sexual violence against women, has twisted scenes that were different into acts of rape (such as the scenes with incestuous siblings Jaime/Cersei Lannister in Season 4 or Daenerys/Khal Drogo in Season 1). This latest scene has been the straw that broke the camel’s back, it seems, for many viewers who are fed up with the over sexualization of women on the show and the constant return to sexual violence as a plot point for highlighting how evil and bad Westeros and its residents are. I can understand those feelings and concerns one hundred percent, and I am in support of every person who says the show has an issue with overuse of rape and who choose not to watch instead. I am in support of that assessment as well and wish Game of Thrones would stop including countless unnecessary instances of sexual violence against women.
I am, however, surprised at how shocked and shaken so many fans seems to be over this turn of events.
I took to Twitter myself to discuss the situation, but it took a few days for me to unpack my discomfort with some of the reactions that I’ve seen so far. So let’s start with…
Guys: Game of Thrones is full of rape.
The world created by George RR Martin, the world of The Song of Ice and Fire series, is a world in which women are considered at best second class citizens and at worst property. They are constantly under threat of having their agency violated and having sexual violence visited upon them. Even characters who are considered the ‘strong’ ones, like Brienne of Tarth, Arya Stark, Daenerys and Cersei face the threat of sexual violence as a matter of course throughout the series. The only women who escape such fates are those who are rescued by men protecting them (Brienne is rescued by Jaime Lannister, who loses his hand in the process) or who rescue themselves (Arya Stark). They often must accept arranged marriages and come to terms with potentially non-consensual sexual situations so that it won’t BE rape (Daenerys deciding to accept the advances of Khal Drogo who she was forced to marry) but overall, the world of Game of Thrones is a hostile place to women in all ways, but especially sexually. There have been more instances of sexual violence against women on the show and in the books than I can even remember, it is so common place. Yet it is this instance of sexual violence, against Sansa Stark, that has everyone angry and shocked.
And I have to ask: why is everyone so surprised?
Westeros was written as a world in which rape is a commonplace event, used as a shorthand to represent the barbarism of the people and the evil they perpetrate on one another. In a world where slaughtering one another over a throne is just another day of the week, Martin and later the TV series need a way to punch through the casual violence to make particular instances strike home even further. Therefore, women are sexually violated because rape is still a shorthand for evil. As the Dothraki used to say in the book, “It is known.” It’s as much a part of the world building as the fact that Winter is Coming.
And for those who have only watched the show and not read the books, it’s been a staple of the show since season one. The show has not shied away from continuing that tradition of sexual violence being an explicit part of the Westeros world. I am not making excuses for that creative choice on the part of the show or George RR Martin but simply pointing out this was the choice and it is known to fans. With that in mind, and with the set-up for Ramsey Bolton as a character, it’s no surprise that the creators chose to put this scene into the show. Sansa inherited this awful scene along with Jeyne’s story arc. Fans of the book knew there was a chance this would happen, and it did.
So why is this the scene that has everyone so up in arms? If the act of rape against a young girl by Ramsey Bolton was so repellant, why didn’t these same up-in-arms fans throw the books away when it happened to Jeyne Poole? Or when the rapes occurred to any of the other characters in Game of Thrones in the previous seasons? I know plenty of people who have said, “I had to put the series away after _____ incident because I can’t stand the violence against women in the books/show” and I support that choice 100%. But for the fans who have stuck with the show until now, I don’t see how there are any illusions left about the nature of the world of Westeros. Game of Thrones is full of sexual violence.
What then makes this scene so shocking? I have to come back to one element of this scene, and that is Sansa Stark.
Sansa Stark Is Not Special
One of the worst moments reading Game of Thrones for me came during the bread riots in King’s Landing. While the Hound rides to the rescue of Sansa Stark and keeps her from being assaulted, another woman character was not so lucky. Lollys Stokeworth is later found wandering the streets, traumatized and naked, after the riots. She had been reportedly torn from her horse and raped by 50 men. She later becomes pregnant and is forced to have her child and then married off to Tyrion’s sellsword, Bronn, who is using Lollys as his ticket to a comfortable life among nobility.
This horrific gang rape is an ‘off-screen’ throw away, barely discussed in the book, yet marks as a singular moment when I nearly put down the book. Lollys had never been treated kindly by the narrative – fat shamed and put down for not being as intelligent, she is largely considered a throw away character who is the butt of cruel jokes. She’s an example in the narrative of how badly women can be treated if they don’t have something to protect them: a strong family name, relatives that care about them, beauty, title, or strength of arms. Lollys is fat and considered stupid and a second daughter, so she’s no one.
Sansa Stark on the other hand is not. Sansa is a main character and a darling of the fandom. She is the beautiful daughter of Ned Stark and the tragic lady who discovers that her tender heart and dreams of a beautiful, romantic future are just illusions when she is introduced to the cruelty of the real Westeros. Sansa has grown from that little girl character into a young woman traumatized by her surroundings but resilient against them, biding her time until she can take back what is hers. She has all the hallmarks of a character growing with every book or season of the show.
Sansa is the beautiful, sweet, thoughtful protagonist character. She is not a prostitute or a side character. She isn’t one of Craster’s Wives, wildling women raped by their own father north of the wall. She isn’t Lollys. And that is why I believe, in part, the outrage has been so tremendous. Sansa gets more empathy because she is the character you are meant to empathize with as part of the overall narrative – you’ve lived through her experiences, you’ve taken her to your heart and read scenes through her eyes in the books. Yet in the grand scheme of things, sexual violence is abhorrent on every level. And the uneven distribution of outrage as we’re seeing it now shows an uncomfortable bit of privilege coming out. The other characters whose suffering was considered less outrageous were often sex workers, lower class characters, or characters from outside groups like the wildlings. They’re women that are window dressing. They’re Lollys.
Fans of Game of Thrones have been watching sexual violence being enacted on women as part of the world setting and plot since the beginning of the series. Yet only when it happens to characters we are meant to empathize with is the outrage so great that we hear it echoing across the internet.
That uncomfortable fact brings me to my largest point, and it’s this:
Sexual Violence Against Women Is In So Many Fandoms And We Don’t Shout About It Nearly Enough
The very same weekend that this episode of Game of Thrones came out, Mad Max: Fury Road was blasting into cinemas across the country. A glorious symphony of explosions and feminism, Fury Road is an old fashioned popcorn movie that is gorgeous in its execution and progressive in its storyline. There are fantastic women characters, an amazing and uplifting story about the fight to rescue trafficked women from their abuser, all while watching effectively a two hour car chase with flame throwers and armored vehicles. It is, in short, a fantastic movie.
And the storyline is predicated on a backstory of sexual violence.
The women in Fury Road are victims of sex trafficking, sold to a warlord as breeders so they could produce for him healthy babies. When we first see them, they are cutting off chastity belts with heinous teeth openings to keep anyone besides their owner from having sex with them. These women have been the victims of rape as they were captives who escape because, as they say in the film, “We are not things.”
Fury Road, this movie being lauded as one of the most feminist and progressive films, is built in a world full of sexual violence.
Here’s the hard part to swallow: most of our most progressive fandoms have sexual violence against women in them.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer included a scene where Buffy is nearly raped by Spike. Orphan Black featured the unwilling penetration and impregnation of Helena by the Prolethians. Cylons Athena and Six were nearly raped on Battlestar Galactica. Sally Jupiter is raped in Watchmen. Slave Girl is a formerly trafficked underaged sex slave in comic book series Saga. So called ‘historical’ CW shows like Reign included a rape plot for Mary, Queen of Scots. How about we go old school and talk about The Crow? Or Barbara Gordon’s fate in The Killing Joke? Let’s talk about the rape of Mellie Grant on Scandal. Or every forcible impregnation story on shows like Angel or Star Trek ever. American Horror Story. Bates Motel. Downton Abbey. Vikings. Rome. Hellblaizer. The Walking Dead. Heroes. Sons of Anarchy. Mad Men. Oz. Prison Break. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. 24. I really could keep going.
The fact is, sexual violence is laced into so many fandoms. It’s become so common as a theme that I picked up two book series right in a row (Red Rising by Pierce Brown and new fantasy series An Ember In the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir) and both were fantasy worlds where women were raped or had threatened with sexual violence as a shorthand for how evil a male character was. This is the language that threads through our fandoms because when you have people killing one another left and right, a new awful must be created that is worse than death, dismemberment, explosions and slaughter. So you threaten a woman with rape.
The Sansa Stark scene brought to the forefront a very serious problem in our fandoms, in the fantasy worlds that are created. It highlighted the disturbing trend to use rape as a shorthand for villainy, and it made a huge audience face this horrific trope that we aren’t speaking about enough. It brought to the forefront that this issue has been lacing our fandoms for years, and yet we haven’t spoken about it enough as a whole. Some people have been talking about it, sure, and there are lots of blog posts and sites dedicated to speaking out about it. But now the conversation is bigger because it’s in your face with the case of Sansa Stark. Only it isn’t just about Sansa Stark. It’s about the shorthand that pervades our fandoms and the fact that until it until it happens to a character like Sansa, the mainstream of audiences have been taking it in stride. Because it is expected.
Let me repeat that: it is expected that worlds will have sexual violence in them as a matter of course. Even if those worlds are completely made up. It is expected that sexual violence is a norm of life.
We expect that worlds will have rape in it when they are completely made up. Dragons can fly the skies, slayers can destroy vampires, zombies can walk the earth, but we can’t imagine any of those worlds without sexual violence.
And that’s what rape culture looks like.
Rape In Our Media Is A Choice
The fact is, it is not a foregone conclusion that rape WILL happen in a fictional creation. It is not necessary that it is included. It would have been just as easy, for example, for author Sabaa Tahir to say “In my fictional world, where living masks bond to people’s faces and ghuls taunt people from moving shadows, people don’t think women are objects to be raped or threatened with sexual violence.” Instead, the women characters are considered lesser then men, objects to be abused, even when they are supposedly ‘strong’ and ‘important.’ The same goes in so many other fandoms and in the above mentioned Game of Thrones. It is a choice made by the creators, and a choice that we as consumers can criticize and mark as problematic. And it is a choice that often times is made to represent the fact that sexual violence is a real problem in our world, one that can be explored respectfully and with nuanced detail in a fictional work. It is a choice made by a creator. It should not, however, be a default.
But once that expectation is set, it seems disingenuous to me to be surprised when the expectation is there to begin with. If we look around, we can see that the spectre of this issue has chased us all over fandom, and being all shocked and shaken when it happens to the sweet, innocent princess character feels like it ignores the violence done to all the other women in those works. It’s just the worst now because it happened to a favorite and not a prostitute or a villainess in Game of Thrones.
I for one hope that the creators of the Game of Thrones TV series will take to heart the very violent reaction happening in the fandom right now and take a solid look at why and how they’re including sexual violence in their show. I hope they use this event on the show to explore marital rape as a subject and the shared experience of victimization shared by Reek/Theon and Sansa, now both rape survivors at the hands of the same abuser. I await what comes next.
But I think it also behooves fans to take a good, hard look at the fandoms they support and recognize that these subjects have been around and aren’t new, or shocking. It’s been there all along. Each person just has to decide whether their favorite show handled it in a way that is acceptable or not to them.
In my case, I will be watching to see how the show handles the Sansa Stark rape. I hope it ends with Sansa sticking something sharp into Ramsey Bolton. But honestly, a big ol’ shadow could pop up and swallow him whole. Who knows? This is, after all, Westeros.