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I got into a discussion recently about everyone’s favorite polarizing television series, Game of Thrones. I’ve been a fan of GoT, full disclosure, since reading the books way before the series. And that’s not my attempt at nerd-checking latecomers to the franchise,  not at all. It’s my way of saying I was familiar with the problematic content from way back before HBO put up its panoply of sex scenes and 100% more brothels. I was ready then for the backlash coming when people discovered Martin’s fantasy world was hostile in every way to women, children, and pretty much any minority group.

But, I’ve stuck with the series, both in books and on television. Mostly because I believe you can like something and still criticize it for its startling problems (though man, did you challenge me a lot of the time with some of those egregious choices, HBO). And in my mind, that doggedness with the series has been rewarded ten fold by the choices the writers have made since deviating from Martin’s material. Since the new book has not come out, the writers simply had to expound on their own material to create an ending for the series. And since they deviated, the show has reached a new level of female equality, complicated writing for nuanced women characters, and a marked, nigh 100% drop in violence against women and rape in general (with one exception which highlights the murkiness and problems with anything besides enthusiastic consent).

Still, one has to look back at the past of Game of Thrones and recognize its flaws before this shift, and perhaps consider the reasons for the hackneyed use of violence against women, children, animals, and minority groups as a mainstay of the series. It’s made me think about the way in which people have pointed to media violence over the years and the commentaries made about ‘violence in media is harmful.’ While I don’t believe, as many conservatives did and do, that media is brainwashing people into being less empathetic, violence-driven human beings, I believe it may have had an impact on our storytelling techniques as time goes on.

Simply put: when violence is so prevalent in our media, how does one distinguish the everyday violence from the truly heinous?

How does one hallmark the true faces of evil?

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This is our introduction to the series, to one of our heroes. Decapitating someone. 

I’ll continue to use Game of Thrones as an example, because truly it has some of the best cases to make about gradations of evil in a story. To be frank, Westeros is a place full of monsters. And I’m not talking about the White Walkers. You’ve got people of various degrees of moral degradation, from the everyday soldiers who find rape and mistreatment of women (and generally any peasants, etc) as okay, to the heinous actions of characters like King Joffery. Even gloriously heroic characters like Jon Snow are callously sexist, for example, and Ned Stark opens up the first book by executing a man who has run away from the Night’s Watch on the wall, which is pretty much the worst frozen place to spend your days. (Granted, Stark does show emotional depth for how he treats this killing, which marks him as one of the better characters of the series). There’s gradations of evil and it gets pretty blurry at times what characters you’re supposed to root for, when they do really problematic things. And while that’s part of having complex, flawed characters, a startling trend can be seen in the books of graduating examples of horror used as hallmarks of a villain’s… well, villainy.

When everyone is a murdering, sexist, awful murderer person, how do you know who is the worst murdering sexist murderer? 

The answer, unfortunately, is peppering work with extensive use of the worst kinds of torture, mutilation, sexual violence, and sadism. After all, when everyone is already a murderer, you’ve got to do something to REALLY shock people to prove how one murderer is worse than another.

This isn’t a new issue. I’m a pretty big Shakespeare fan. And frankly, Shakespeare is full of some pretty gross stuff. We’ve got murderers aplenty, with some of the most intense examples of people examining the moral quandaries behind homicide, patricide, regicide, and more in some of history’s most well-known plays. From Hamlet and Macbeth to Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar, there’s deep, intense discussions about the rationalization behind murder, the depravity of the slide towards violence, and the guilt people feel. Those plays are hailed as explorations of violence in deep, character-driven ways.

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The Rape of Lavinia from Titus Andronicus

And yet there are other Shakespeare plays which were criticized for their over-use of violence, such as the exceptionally bloody Titus Andronicus. Titus (famously translated to film by Julie Taymor) is chock full of murder, rape, cannibalism, mutilation, racism, child killing, and more. It goes from one depravity to another, carried on the backdrop of a plot which barely strings together because, frankly, nearly all the main characters are bloody, awful human beings. The main character himself sinks from one depravity to another while enabling awful things to happen around him without much credible reason why.

The play perhaps is attempting to show the escalation of violence and awfulness, but this theme is achieved so much better in other tragedies like Romeo and Juliet, which (while problematic on its own) explores how violence begets violence in a meaningful and better explored way. By comparison, Titus Andronicus feels salacious, sensualizing violence in a way we’re very familiar with today. In Andronicus, violence is so common-place among the characters of Rome that for villainy to truly seem horrific, it must be aggregious. The rape of Lavinia, orchestrated by Tamora and Aaron and undertaken by Tamora’s sons, is a clear example of escalating violence for the sake of showing ‘true depravity’ in a villain. After all, how can you show Tamora as truly awful in a play where the whole thing started OUT with the hero murdering one of his own sons for seemingly no reason? These guys make Caligula look tame, so it’s a giant game of bloody I Can Top That.

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We’re supposed to root for the raping murderer and his love… um…

There’s something deeply disturbing to me, then, by how commonplace murder and extreme violence has become to narratives, not because of any particular moral outrage. The fictions of the world have been strewn with bodies both harmed and robbed of life for as long as there have been stories. But its the callousness by which we treat that violence that I believe lies at the escalation of a lot of stories into torture-porn territory. If media has made murder commonplace and violence as expected as breathing and exposition, then we’ve set the bar already so high in our threshold for the truly awful that a creator must reach further into the bag of horrors to truly distinguish the truly dastardly in their pieces. And it has made, in my mind, for worse storytelling, as characters sink from complicated human beings into almost parodies of the worst humanity has to offer.

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And this is one of our HEROES mind you. Tyrion’s casual misogyny and mistreatment of sex workers marks one of his more problematic traits. 

And really, I think the trope does us no service in providing us with rich characters in fiction too. It strips away a lot of the moral dilemmas we have in aligning ourselves with conflicting characters when they go to the extremes of behavior. Can you really say you can emotionally side with a character who has gone past murder into child killing, animal torture, rape, or worse? I find it truly hard to align with characters who excuse the actions of villains who are so egregious in their actions. Characters like Jaime Lannister in GoT are charming, to be sure, but he pushed a kid out a window. Cersei Lannister as a villain is written very compellingly but it’s nigh impossible to ignore the things she’s done until she almost becomes a parody of evil.

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“I murder innocent puppies! That makes me really evil, right?!”

King Joffery, the evil child king, almost at once stepped over that line on a regular basis, going from a petulant child to a nigh unbelievable cardboard cut-out villain. His truly evil actions were made almost a mockery by how over-the-top they had to make them. He wasn’t evil enough when he was a cruel king, he had to also be a sexual sadist who murders sex workers with crossbows. Because sure, how else are you going to show he’s REALLY bad when everyone around him is just the worst too. You’ve got to make him even hatable by the bad people, so have him murder some innocent women and order the execution of puppies. Sure, why not.

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“I’m one of the heroes! Only I really kill a lot of people too…”

Murder and violence are no longer the standard line in the sand for villainy. And so with the line moved, what comes next? The truly awful and exploitative. And frankly, the accepting of this as the new line in the sand alienates consumers who find that kind of exploitation distasteful and takes away the possibilities for emotional depth and empathetic alignment. There is no more Lady Macbeth, washing off the blood and thinking deeply about what she’s done, not really. Now the line is heroes trying to justify the murder of thousands, or witnessing acts of cruelty and walking on by without a comment, forget an intervention.

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When one ladder climb becomes an act of empathy as well as courage. 

It’s become so commonplace that when a character actually DOES step in and do something (such as when Wonder Woman in the recent film risks her life to cross the No Man’s Land to free a tormented town in WWI) we see it as an act of above and beyond empathy and courage, rather than the basis of what heroic characters used to be. The small kindnesses, the opportunities for empathy, become so few and far between that it robs us of complicated villains too, turning them into cardboard cutouts, almost too heinous to believe. The face of evil then isn’t the relatable, rationalizing villain, but the person in a race to be The Most Racy And Depraved.

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When getting a response of “THAT WAS WRONG” requires a Red Wedding, we might need to talk.

Going forward, I think a challenge for telling better stories in all mediums is to recapture the horror of violence. Not just the horror of murder, but step it back even further. The horror of violence itself is nearly lost. The idea of how monumental it is to pick up a weapon to harm another person has been stripped away by how everyday it has become, how accepted. When TV shows drop dead bodies by the hundreds, it is infrequent for the media in question to highlight that each person in that scene is a person whose life has been snuffed out. “Killing someone changes you” is something often said, but barely ever explored, when in fact the act of taking up arms to do violence is a fundamental shift in the human psyche all but lost in most mediums now. Violence is accepted as a norm, so why explore it further? And so, we lose vital depth to our stories and accept instead new depravities as our rubric for the face of evil.

I’ll admit that as a creator both in fiction and in games, I’m mired in the same cycle of creation which is part of this ever-evolving zeitgeist about the horrors of violence and its relationship to us as human beings. But I’m challenging myself to reconsider a lot of the ways in which the stories I create face violence, and attempt to rethink the casualness by which its included in my work. In a time when criticism about exploitation in media is so high, and rightly so, I think looking at this as a fundamental issue pressing exploitation forward can only help us address this issue and help us perhaps find new ways to tell stories about evil without falling into depths even Caligula wouldn’t easily embrace. Maybe then we might have just a little less rape on television and a little more depth of character.

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.

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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.

Haven't forgotten this so fast yet right?
Haven’t forgotten this so fast yet right?

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?

Cuz this happens. A lot.
Cuz this happens. A lot.

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.

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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.

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Lollys on GoT Season 5 – Treated better on the show than in the books by far.

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

mad-max-trailer-2-inlineThe 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.”

"You cannot own another human being."
“You cannot own another human being.”

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.

One of the hardest scenes to watch in Buffy.
One of the hardest scenes to watch in Buffy.

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 torture of Gina, the captured Cyclon Six model, aboard the Pegasus on Battlestar Galactica.
The torture of Gina, the captured Cyclon Six model, aboard the Pegasus on Battlestar Galactica.

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.