First published by The Debrief, 19th May 2015
I’m going to start this piece with a disclaimer: if you haven’t seen the latest episode of Game Of Thrones, then there are spoilers ahead. And I LOVE Game of Thrones. I wear my GoT t-shirt to bed, and I watch the show religiously every week. I love the nuanced characters, figures that you can’t completely love or hate. I love the brave, expansive storylines. I love the opulent costumes and the show’s compulsive watchability.
I don’t love how the show presents sexual violence.
After Sansa Stark’s rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton in last night’s episode, I’m even more convinced that Game of Thrones isn’t on the side of women than I was already, and that it will continue to use sexual violence as a plot device to generate cheap thrills for its audience. Sansa has already suffered a humiliating, abusive engagement and marriage to everyone’s favourite little king, Joffrey. Do we really need to see her degraded by Ramsay Bolton too?
The TV show has once again deviated from the books, in which Sansa did not marry Ramsay, instead remaining with Littlefinger to hone her powers and learn more about the manipulation necessary to survive the brutal world in which the show is set. Ramsay took a local girl pretending to be Arya Stark as his wife, and proceeded to torture and abuse her. Replacing this local girl with Sansa is not just a way to bunch together overly-complex storyline – it has created another harrowing scene of unnecessary sexual violence, and stripped Sansa of the new-found power she was able to build with Littlefinger during her time in the Vale.
As a survivor of sexual violence, I find Game of Thrones very difficult to watch, at times. This is not because sexual violence occurs in the programme, but has more to do with how rape and sexual assault are presented; I don’t think rape should never be shown on TV or film or in fiction, but I wish that rape was not trivialised by the writers in a bid to make their show more ‘shocking’ and boost ratings.
If we look back at previous episodes, it is clear that sexual violence is employed in Game of Thrones as no more cheap titillation, with the devastating consequences neatly glossed over in favour of another battle or a raunchy sex scene. The effect that rape has on survivors is never shown.
In Season 4, Cersei is raped purely for entertainment, by her lover and brother Jamie Lanister. Cersei and Jamie have sex in that particular scene in the book, but it’s consensual sex. The rape of Cersei was added by HBO for no other reason than to pack more ‘punch’ into the episode. The effect of the assault on Cersei is not explored, and why would it be? That’s not the interesting part, right?
When Prince Oberyn Martell and his mistress are choosing sex workers in a brothel, one of the selected women clearly isn’t excited about the prospect of a threesome. Oberyn pulls off her tunic anyway, baring a naked body, shaking with terror. The woman isn’t forced into sex, as Oberyn’s mistress remarks that ‘timid bores her’, but who was the full-frontal shot of the frightened woman for? We can only assume that it was for viewers, who are meant to enjoy the nudity and the scene, flavoured with the threat of sexual violence.
There’s the moment when Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane enter a tavern to see the proprieter’s daughter assaulted, and no one does anything to help her. She’s never seen again. Her pain and humiliation are just a quick way of showing the audience that the king’s soldiers are dangerous. Don’t forget Joffrey’s sexualized killing of Ros and the two prostitutes that he forces to torture one another, the rape of Craster’s daughters at the hands of mutinous Night Watchmen, or the rape of Danerys by her husband Khal Drogo.
The fact that many of these scenes of sexual violence (Cersei, Sansa, and Ros) were manufactured solely for the television show, really does suggest that they are being used cynically to make the programme more ‘gritty’ and ‘adult’. Unfortunately, this means that Game of Thrones is guilty of trivializing rape, in a world that already trivializes rape to a disgraceful extent. As uncomfortable as it might feel to address this, we live in a rape culture, where victims are routinely not believed, shamed by others, blamed for their own assault, subjected to ‘edgy’ jokes about rape, and told that some rapes are more valid or serious than others. There are thousands of women who have experienced sexual assault sitting and watching Game of Thrones, and it does them the disservice of reducing their nightmare into cheap television. The gratuitous nature of sexual violence on the show makes it commonplace, expected. It encourages people to debate at work in the morning whether one rape ‘really was rape’ or whether it was ‘as bad as’ another rape on the show.
In April last year, Danielle Henderson wrote in an article for The Guardian that she was giving up Game of Thrones because she was “exhausted by the triumph of men at the expense of women as a narrative device”. I feel her frustration. Sansa had already been through terrible trauma with Joffrey, the continuation of this trauma in Winterfell with Ramsay serves only to paint him as a more terrible character. Sansa’s violated body is just a vehicle for this.
Moreover, anyone crying ‘historical accuracy’ needs to take a long look at themselves and the show. Game of Thrones is in no way historically accurate. It’s fantasy. It has dragons, white walkers, children who can possess men and animals, magical green ‘wildfire’, and ghosts that kill people. If it was historically accurate, most of the characters would have already died from gout or dysentery.
Reek may have been forced to watch Sansa’s rape last night, but none of us tuning in for the latest episode were under pressure to do so. We watched because we wanted to, and it’s more than a little disturbing that the show’s writers seem to be offering up scenes that trivialize sexual violence because they think that’s what viewers want to see.