I’m probably not the only viewer who felt disturbed after this week’s episode. Indeed, Sansa has been somewhat of a neutral character for me, but the episode’s final moments had me cringing and terrified on her behalf. After a few dozen “WTF?!?”s screamed out in my living room and a feverish exchange with the other viewers present, though, I felt that familiar unwillingness to wait a week for the next installment.
As I scanned Facebook for the few days following, though, I began to see the outrage that the rape scene had sparked in fans. Some even threatened to quit the show, saying the “fetishization of violence against women” had gone too far. Many even called the show trash whose only purpose was to show these moments of violence and aggression, a purpose utterly unacceptable in today’s society.
If that were the case, I’d agree. What these commenters fail to really grasp is how much more there is to this show.
This scene makes the third of its kind since the show’s beginning, and all three were (to my knowledge) outside the novels’ canon, yet another reason why many have started crying sexism. But here’s the thing: the realm of Westeros and beyond is an ugly, terrifying place. This is a gruesome, detailed story about said ugly, terrifying place. These are the sorts of things that happen in dangerous places. People are killed; people are hurt; people are raped.
None of these scenes were relished in. Every time, cameras panned away for the act, and the context made it clear that audiences were supposed to feel more uncomfortable than titillated. Especially compared to all the nude/sex scenes that are meant for some sort of enjoyment, this had to have been purposeful. Sometimes, viewers are meant to feel disoriented, unsettled, upset. These scenes served that purpose and, in each case, proved points larger than most could have guessed at the outset:
1. In the premiere when Daenerys weds Kahl Drogo, she cries as they consummate. In that moment, we ache for her and her predicament, married off by a brother who only cares about attaining power to a man who seems far too frightening to love. As the season continues, though, one of the most touching love stories of the show evolves between the two. That initial fear and distrust only underscores the closeness and intimacy of their relationship to come, which helps to emphasize the true pain that Dany feels when Drogo dies. Indeed, we can feel echoes of this pain, of the love Daenarys felt for Drogo, even into season 5.
2. Cersei and Jamie’s incestuous relationship is on display from day one. They bore three children together and, yes, their relationship proves a bit…”oogy,” but it created an interesting dynamic between the two as well as with others as the secret slowly leaks. When Jamie assaults Cersei (in season 3 or 4, I believe), it’s the first time we see Cersei not want him. It’s the first time anyone sees her as a woman who would, if even for a moment, turn down her brother. Afterward, she continues to love her brother…as a brother. While their incest is mentioned from time to time (I mean, how does something like that just disappear?), from what I can remember, they never sleep together again (please feel free to politely correct me in the comments). That moment presented a drastic change in their relationship and showed Cersei as a steady, strong (albeit kind of evil) woman capable of surviving terrible things. I’d argue she thrives.
3. Since season 5 began, we viewers have been dreading what we knew would come: the wedding of Sansa and Ramsay. He’s vile, sadistic and spiteful. She’s been through enough hardship to last a village a lifetime. This is a match made in hell. I won’t say that this scene was necessary to show how truly evil he is (did any of us have any doubt?), and I won’t say I even know what the endgame of this scene is quite yet. Maybe this will help motivate Theon/Reek to revolt; perhaps it will drive Sansa to take back her home; it could even be used as a means to show how little power so many characters have right now, and help underscore how far (I hope) they will come over the rest of the season. But I trust that this scene will, in some form and in the not-too-distant future, come to some meaning.
In addition, if someone were to tally up all the instances of violence, sexual and otherwise, against men and violence against women in this show, I’d guess that the scores would be fairly close. Theon/Reek’s mutilation obviously jumps to the mind (which, by the way, happens over several episodes, which seems far more “fetishizing” than any of the other scenes; Ramsay literally takes joy in continually getting Theon aroused and playing mind games with him before torturing and mutilating him), as does Varys’ pre-story castration as a boy. Several unnamed male characters have been pulled naked through the streets (at least once until they died), including a recent episode of a man arrested by religious fanatics and forced to parade himself through the town, whipped if he tried to cover himself or resist. If this show exclusively portrayed sexual violence against women, these critics may have had a case. As it is, just about everyone can fall victim to sexual violence of some nature.
And how anyone can say this is a show about sexual aggression toward women with some of the strongest male and female characters on television, I don’t know. You have Tyrion, who time and again shows his utter respect for women (saving Sansa from the mob early on, refusing to consummate his brief marriage with her, his attempts to beat some semblance of humanity into Joffrey). You have Ned, one of the most honorable men in fiction; Jon Snow, who takes responsibility and duty more seriously than any other and who understands what true respect of women is (shown not only in his efforts to keep his vows of celibacy, but his treatment of the Wildlings and his stepmother, who refused to return any sort of warmth). And we just can’t forget Sam, the gentlest, sweetest, most respectful and protective man on this show (and maybe all shows).
Batting for the women, there’s Arya, who deals with horrors that reach beyond the limits of what a nine-to-thirteen-year-old should be able to handle. She takes her fate into her hands, fighting for herself and taking an unknown, solitary road to the only hope of true freedom she has. Daenarys brings liberty and kindness to many lands while still able to make the tough decisions necessary to adequately rule. Cersei proves herself to be a superbly cunning, mutinous villain, one of the best and smartest in the show. Brienne absolutely embodies loyalty, bravery, honesty, chivalry and love; she never once wavers in her mission to save Sansa and Arya, wiling to risk her own safety and life in the meantime. Sansa herself started as a primped, spoiled daughter of a lord unable to deal with even the slightest of discomforts much less the real harshness of the world around her. In five years, she’s grown into a strong character who uses her brain to get by, playing on the fact that people see her as weak and dependent.
As far as deviating from the books, many fans (and even the novels’ editor) have been in an uproar since season 5 started, as the writers have taken the most “artistic liberties” here than in the history of the show. The editor tells disgruntled viewers to “read the books if they want to know the story as the author intended it.” Which makes no sense considering author George R. R. Martin is part of the writing team for the show. TV and books are inherently different with varying strengths and weaknesses. To adapt a book exactly as it is for the screen would be a huge disservice to the show. Some characters have to be prioritized, and they are portrayed beautifully, I think (see above). This necessarily means that others will get relegated to secondary – therefore less developed, less important – characters. It’s impossible to get everything from the books into the show. The Big Guy himself even said as much.
No one will ever hear me downplaying the severity of rape for men or women. Rape is, without a doubt, a reprehensible and despicable crime that requires years and years of work and strength to heal from. But fictional scenes of rape do not inherently or necessarily promote or even condone the action itself. The violence makes up the tapestry of the story, horrid as it may be.
I cannot state this enough: as abominable as rape is, the portrayal of rape does not automatically promote it. In the case of Game of Thrones, these scenes were used as plot devices, yes, but for purposes greater than those moments alone. I understand that this show – violence, despair, rape and all – may be too much for some people, and it’s definitely not to everyone’s tastes. But to people who claim this is a show about abusing women: you need to watch a bit closer.