For this feminist 'GoT' fan grappling with her past sexual assault, seeing these female characters violated has been cathartic. But that’s not the only reason the show should keep exploring rape.
I learned about the rape of Sansa Stark the same way I learned about the gang rape of the high-school girl in Steubenville, Ohio, and other real-life sex-crime flashpoints of the past five years. On the morning after the now-infamous Game of Thrones episode, my social-media feeds were full of condemnation. Even Senator Claire McCaskill famously tweeted, “I’m done with Game of Thrones. Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable.” Publications ranging from Vanity Fair to xoJane weighed in immediately, and Game of Thrones series author George R. R. Martin received so many complaints about the scene (which did not appear in any of his books) that he felt the need to address them on his blog.
As the weeks went by, I read article after critical article about the topic. This wasn’t the first time the series had been lambasted for its depictions of sexual violence. But had the most watched in HBO’s history finally gone too far? Even the show runners appeared to wonder. In December, director Jeremy Podeswa said that the creators heard the complaints, and would approach sexual violence differently in season six, which premieres this Sunday, April 24. “They did not want to be too overly influenced by that [criticism], but they did … take it in and it did influence them in a way,” Podeswa explained.
I’m interested to see how that plays out. Might it help for the show to focus more intently on sexual violence, rather than less? As a feminist fan who’s been dealing with my own sexual assault for decades, I’m surprised to find myself answering yes.
Game of Thrones has been on the air during the same span of years in which I’ve been researching and writing a memoir about childhood sexual abuse, and watching the gory series has been cathartic, especially when the female characters are the forceful aggressors.
Usually, narratives featuring a vengeful woman give the sword only to one statuesque young beauty. But Game of Thrones grants violent agency to, among others, the slight tomboy Arya Stark, the massive and physically powerful Brianne of Tarth, and the feminine and regal Daenerys, who fights back not with physical skill or strength but with her command of men and of dragons. In one episode, Daenerys outwits the misogynist slaver Kraznys to gain his army and then has her dragon torch him. Watching that happen was one of the great thrills of my TV-viewing life.
On the other hand, to get this catharsis, I’ve had to sit through what Vulture’s Jada Yuan calls “the rapiest show on TV,” one that adds rapes where the source material had none and fails to humanize the victims even as it eroticizes them.
For example, the rape of Sansa Stark was criticized in part because the cameras lingered longest on the reaction of onlooker Theon Grayjoy, making the scene more important to his character’s arc than Sansa’s. When Daenerys, a dewy princess in exile, is raped on her wedding night by the groom she’s essentially been sold to, the camera pans over her disrobed torso in the style of soft porn. By the next episode, the newlyweds embark on falling madly in love—never mind that their relationship started with violation. For anyone who cares about how sexual violence against women is treated in the media, there’s a lot to put up with.
It doesn’t help that in discussions of controversial scenes in the show, the directors have sometimes appeared ignorant of precepts that anti-rape activists have striven to make basic, such as no means no. In season four, Cersei Lanister Stark, the Queen mother, is raped by her brother and former lover Jamie Lanister next to their son’s open coffin.
“Not here. Stop it,” Cersei says repeatedly. She and Jamie grapple and exchange forceful kisses—or Jamie takes them, depending on your perspective—but her words remain clear. “Stop. It’s not right.”
“I don’t care,” Jamie says, while thrusting into her.
The director of the episode, Alex Graves, argues the coupling was not a rape. “She’s sort of cajoled into it, and it is consensual.”
The feminist internet groaned at his remarks. But there are critics of the critics of Game of Thrones. They question why there’s an uproar over the rape scenes and none whatsoever over other, arguably worse things on the program: e.g., extended torture scenes, grisly murder.
One reason is that it’s exactly the commonplace nature of rape that makes its depiction political and sensitive, likely to affect our real lives and the stories we tell about ourselves. Few viewers are likely to face flaying or castration, for example, but reliable studies estimate that up to one-fifth of all Americans have experienced some kind of sexual violation.
Many women—and some men, I’m sure—see Graves’s claim that Cersei gave tacit consent as reminiscent of how their own assaults were downplayed because didn’t show signs of having physically fought for their lives, or because they’d previously had sex with their attacker. The casual attitude toward consent has likely contributed to the high rates of acquaintance rape, and it has a disturbing echo for me personally, as I recall my childhood self saying no only to have the question put to me again and again until it became clear my answer didn’t matter.
There are many viewers who have a personal stake in how this subject plays out in media. I view it as a mark of progress that they’re—that we’re—willing to push back against portrayals of sexual violence we see as malevolent or blithe, even when we’re told that criticism of these scenes denies the nuance of sexual exchange, and that rape pales in comparison to other forms of violence.
My own reaction to Game of Thrones has nothing to do with what are commonly called “triggers.” Nor is it only dualistic, pitting my desire for entertainment and catharsis against my aversion to watching sexual violence that perpetuates some of the most pernicious myths about it. There’s something else going on for me that’s harder to categorize. During periods in the last five years when I’ve been sifting through Bureau of Justice statistics and paying attention to current rape and child sexual-abuse stories while combing my own history, I’ve actually been bothered that Game of Thrones doesn’t include more reference to sexual abuse of all sorts—against men and children as well as attractive women. For all the bad guys rampaging through the Seven Kingdoms and across the Narrow Sea, the type of bogeymen that my research (and own experience) keep me on the lookout for are seldom seen or even referenced.
To be clear, I am not saying that I want to watch more women and children be violated. If I had to see Arya be put through certain things I just might smash the TV with my own Valyrian steel sword. But I have a hunger for a more profound acknowledgement of sex crimes, not just less rape filmed at different angles. When I consider what my ideal approach might look like, the show’s fantasy genre seems to me limiting in some respects but a source of potential in others.
Some anti-rape advocates say that one way to depict sexual violence responsibly is to show the long-term effects rape has on a victim. In a different kind of show, yes, I can see the merit of that. But Game of Thrones is less about character than about archetypes, with a plot that turns on zombies, dragons, and blood-drenched, centuries-long power struggles. I don’t think it’d be an improvement to develop the idea that the psychopathy shown by the rapist and torturer Ramsay Bolton is an outcome of his being conceived in rape—a detail dropped by his father—or that Sansa’s arc is shaped by her wedding night brutalization in a way fundamentally different from the other horrors she’s lived through. Nor am I convinced that adding public service messages about sexual assault to the opening or closing sequences is what’s called for. They would do nothing to ensure that rape was filmed from a more humanizing perspective, or that issues of consent weren’t ignored, and they’d seem off-key in an over-the-top supernatural fantasy.
Genre is not an excuse for the way Game of Thrones has bungled its handling of rape thus far, but in examining my own responses, I’ve identified the fantasy tropes as a large part of what gets my blood up and makes me crave a greater reckoning. The heart of the show’s appeal to me is that its aesthetic matches the fantasies of my childhood—the nooks and turrets of candlelit castles; the beautiful, sneaky ladies who have long gowns and elaborately styled, to-the-waist hair; the men wearing capes; the barely understood menace that makes any step on the staircase a cause for tension. I loved these kinds of stories when I was little, even though—or maybe because—their gothic touches overlapped with the actual creak of the stairs and midnight turn of the doorknob that brought an unwelcome relative to my bedroom at night. My reading and writing on the topic of child sex abuse and sex crimes in general has been an attempt to make meaning of the dark mysteries of my own past, and when I watch Game of Thrones, I want to wade all the way in. Could the new batch of shows come closer to making the waters not safer, but deeper? Instead of offering rape as a showy display of sometimes titillating brutality the impact of which is usually brushed away by the next episode, could they suggest the personal and societal mutations sexual violence is likely to affect? Maybe the imagery itself can be made to work in service of this, even at subtle levels.
In the world of Games of Thrones, the White Walkers provide me with a metaphor for the pull traumatic memories can continue to exert even as life moves on. These zombie-like creatures have arisen in the walled-off no-man’s-land of the far north. Back in civilization, most people believe them to be long gone if they ever really existed in the first place, but the fact of their existence is the first thing viewers are introduced to in Game of Thrones. Before the episode one title sequence has even rolled, we see a Walker full in the face, from the perspective of the soldier on lonely patrol. The zombie is a little girl, one just slaughtered and more horrible than anything the soldier has ever seen. At pain of death, he deserts his station, escaping south where he tries to warn about what he’s witnessed. Instead of being listened to, he’s beheaded for abandoning his post, as is the custom. Humans continue to plot and murder in lust for the Iron Throne for the next five seasons, oblivious to the growing threat in the north. But the White Walkers can only be ignored for so long. The conflict they promise underlies everything else in the show, even as the civilized world denies them.
Unlike Senator McCaskill, I’m not done with Game of Thrones, despite its flaws. I await the conflict between the White Walkers and the Seven Kingdoms eagerly. In fact, this season I plan to watch each show as it airs so I won’t receive spoilers by Facebook and Twitter. I’ll also continue to follow the critiques of the scenes with sexual violence, and I’ll join the real-time chorus hoping to influence the ship as it moves forward in rough waters.
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