HBO Decides That What We Really Need is Yet More Rape

from an editor: this opinion piece, co-written by two new AGR authors Dylan Fox and C.A. Hawksmoor, contains spoilers for both the Game of Thrones HBO series and the A Song of Ice and Fire books by George R. R. Martin as well as discussion of sexual violence.

Dylan Fox

So, let’s talk about rape.

What do we learn about Ramsey? That he’s not a nice person? I kinda already had that impression, what with spending an entire season torturing Theon and flaying people alive.

But first, lets talk about Sansa Stark. Sansa’s always been my least-favourite Stark. She’s introduced as the typical “medieval” girl, aspiring to be a wife and mother to beautiful blonde babies. When her betrothed betrays and kills her father, her oldest brother declares himself King and his lands independent and starts a civil war. Her younger brother supercrips his way up to the Wall and beyond in an epic quest to become a mystical tree. Her younger sister travels Westeros with a variety of protectors and captors, becoming one of the hardest and most heartless killers in the series. And Sansa spends three seasons being Joffrey and Cersei’s chew toy, displaying all the backbone, cunning, and agency of a piece of wet tissue.

Sansa wouldn’t be the first woman to be trapped in an abusive relationship, turning away any chance to escape. But I never got the impression of any kind of internal fight, any build up of fear or hidden rage. Just her flopping from one tear-stained crisis to the next, acting as a pissing post for Joffrey and a foil to show how sadistic and evil he is.

I think the reason I’ve disliked her so much is that I secretly suspect that, if I lived in Westeros, I’d be Sansa. I like to think I’d be Tywin Lannister or Robb Stark or even Arya, but I’d be too worried about upsetting anyone or doing the wrong thing to do anything brave or bold or even stupid. And it’s not something I really like about myself, which is probably why I spent four seasons hating on her.

Now, about Sansa’s wedding night.

In the rulebook for the Song of Ice and Fire roleplaying game, Sansa is given as an example of the “Schemer” archetype, along with Littlefinger. At the end of Season 4, we finally see something of that. Sansa stands before the Lords of the Vale and twists her aunt’s actions to make them pity her and do exactly what she wants. She then strides out with Robin like a puppeteer with a new puppet. Fucking finally! I thought. And in this episode, she tells Ramsey’s sadistic sidekick “I am a Stark of Winterfell. This is my home. And you can’t scare me.”

For the first time in five seasons, Sansa has some agency.

And then Ramsey comes along and destroys all that. Rips the agency away from her like he rips her dress off her body.

Fucking why? What do we learn about Ramsey? That he’s not a nice person? I kinda already had that impression, what with spending an entire season torturing Theon and flaying people alive. He doesn’t like women? I would never have guessed by the way he hunts a former lover down and lets the dogs tear her apart.

But it gets worse. As Ramsey is literally violating her up in Winterfell, Littlefinger is figuratively violating her down in King’s Landing. Just when we thought he was on her side, he sits down with Cersei and quite nonchalantly appears to be selling her out. Her wedding night would have been the perfect time for Sansa to display her recent cunning to outwit Ramsey and slide the balance of power over to her. She would cement her place as no-longer-a-victim and show us she has the potential to beat Littlefinger at his own game. But no, instead we see just the opposite.

And did it have to be rape? This is the third non-canonical rape in the show so far. Yes, Westeros is a violent place. People die all the time. But I have the luxury of not living in a violent world. I don’t have to worry about being stabbed, shot, or poisoned. But rape isn’t an escapist fantasy, it’s a real threat hanging over the lives of people I care about.

The focus of the scene isn’t even on Sansa, it’s on Theon. Having been established as The (only remaining) Man of House Stark, he’s emasculated by Ramsey violating Sansa, who he presumably now has an honour-bound duty to protect. Ramsey commits the ultimate violation of Sansa, robbing her of all innocence and virtue, something Joffrey never quite managed. Because cutting his dick off wasn’t quite enough to emasculate Theon. Again, Sansa’s nothing more than a foil for someone else’s cruelty, a prop for someone else’s story. And the rape is nothing more than a cheap plot device.

C.A. Hawksmoor

My feelings about the whole thing are kind of mixed. For starters, let’s get one thing out of the way: the books really aren’t perfect from a “not being horribly misogynist, racist, and homophobic” perspective. It’s much easier, for example, for me to fall in love with Brienne of Tarth in the TV series, because I’m not subjected to the horrific misogynistic bile dripping off of Jaime’s narrative every time he thinks about her. And if anything, the gay characters in the series get a far better treatment than GRRM gives them — where they’re mostly rendered invisible aside from ridiculous nudge-nudge-wink-wink allusions like the fact that Renly Baratheon calls his Kingsguard the Rainbow Guard. Seriously? Because how else would we know he was gay if he wasn’t literally flying the rainbow flag. It’s patronising.

That said, one area where the books are consistently less full of cringe-making fail than HBO’s effort is when it comes to sex and rape. For the most part, GRRM places the majority of this off screen. The books are less totally saturated with rape (which, as Dylan points out, is a real danger for at least half of the audience of both iterations in a way that almost comically grotesque violence isn’t). Of the three non-cannonical rape scenes that have been wedged into the series so far, two are depicted as consensual sex in the books. On their wedding night, Danaerys is surprised by how gentle Drogo is, and how respectful of her boundaries. And when Cersei meets Jaime in the Sept over her dead son’s body, she consents absolutely and enthusiastically. That’s unsettling in itself, but I’ve always found I had a sort of understanding for Cersei in it — desperately reaching out for some kind of human contact after losing almost everything. In the show, Jaime just comes across as a monster, raping his sister beside their dead son’s corpse. Which brings us to Sansa Stark, who isn’t even present on her wedding night to Ramsey because Sansa and Littlefinger are elsewhere while one of Sansa’s childhood friends is disguised as her and married off to Ramsey in her stead. Needless to say that Ramsey isn’t kind to his new wife, but all of that happens off screen and we move on.

The writers and directors of HBO’s show are far more comfortable showing us numerous graphic and distressing rape scenes than they are depicting consensual sex.

All of which brings us to a rather uncomfortable realisation: the writers and directors of HBO’s show are far more comfortable showing us numerous graphic and distressing rape scenes than they are depicting consensual sex. Think about that for a moment, then go away and watch back over the last four seasons of the show. You’ll see exactly what I mean. On numerous occasions, HBO have had the opportunity to show consensual sex, and have cut away instead. Danaerys’s relationship with Dario, Robb Stark and Talisa, Cersei with Jaime or Lancel… almost every time the subject of consensual sex turns up, HBO have either cut away or switched it up to rape instead. That is… a really fucking creepy thing to realise.

Which brings me back to GRRM, who, despite considering himself a feminist and espousing the radical belief that women are human beings, has time and again has come out to defend the latest HBO-Game-of-Thrones-rape-scandal. Why? I couldn’t tell you, but it’s made me more cautious to gush about how much I love his work. I have a lot of friends who won’t have anything to do with any iteration of A Song of Ice and Fire exactly because of issues like this, and when I look at how HBO have consistently decided that women deriving pleasure and enjoyment from sex is too controversial to put on screen, and GRRM’s constant defence of HBO while they strip the agency, dignity, and clothes off of his carefully-crafted female characters, I can’t say that I blame anyone for giving up.

Having said that, I know that there are other feminists out there who believe that HBO are actually doing a good job with all that rape, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that point of view as well. Having spent the first thirty-or-so years of my life identifying as female, you kind of build up a callous on your soul where gratuitous rape scenes are meant to distress you. Most often, these scenes are used as titillation, and frequently also as a way to get a female character’s clothes off. That’s something profoundly disturbing about that. About how, as a culture, we tend to use rape to excite and entice. It’s grotesque. And the one thing you can say about HBO’s treatment of rape in Game of Thrones so far is that it absolutely does not do that. Every time they throw yet another rape scene at us, you can be sure that it isn’t going to be about passion, and it certainly isn’t going to be sexy. It’s going to be horrible, it’s going to be disturbing, it’s going to be about subjugation… it’s basically going to be something approximating what rape is actually like.

So yeah, I find it stomach-turning. It gets a very visceral and unpleasant emotional reaction out of me every time they do it. But actually? I’m at the point now where I’d still kinda rather it was depicted as something stomach-churningly horrible than as an excuse for more female objectification.

I mean, I’d really rather have a Game of Thrones that didn’t resort to rape as an attempt to shock us, and was cool with depicting women enjoying sex. I’d rather have a Song of Ice and Fire by an author who’ll show some fucking spine when his characters are stripped both literally and figuratively. But I’ve also mostly accepted that’s not going to happen at this point. It’s not a nice thing to have to admit, but it’s true.

2 thoughts on “HBO Decides That What We Really Need is Yet More Rape”

  1. Good comments, thanks.

    I’m cautious though of assuming that extreme violence, being stabbed or shot, isn’t a real part of the lives of “us”, the audience. Having just lived in Baltimore through the uprising, I have a hightened awareness for remembering that many of my neighbors in fact live lives of quite a bit of violence, and a hightened criticality of assuming the collective “us” without being explicit. Daily violence is a “real danger” not an escapist fantasy for many of “us” too, depending on who is “us”.

    Now, the residents of, say, Sandtown may or may not be the audience of the TV show. The critical eye toward “us” is useful here, we can suggest that with their casualness toward rape, the writers of the TV show aren’t considering women to be their audience (or at least aren’t _considering_ them).

    I don’t think the ultimate conclusion is necessarily that you can’t depict anything in a work of fiction that is a “real danger” for significant numbers of people (in the country? on the planet?). I’m not sure what it is.

    1. Yeah, the fact that violence is a real danger for a lot of people in the world, even a lot of people in the West, was something that I think was in the background of both of our minds while we were writing it. Ultimately this is a piece written from our personal experience, which has been exceptionally charmed and privileged. Since writing it I personally (Hawksmoor) have been thinking an awful lot about how I might feel about this show if violence was something I faced when I got up every morning. About how I’d feel about it if I lived in Tottenham during the London Riots, or Ferguson, or Baltimore. If I wasn’t white, and couldn’t mostly trust the authorities to take my side in things.

      I’m not sure I have any answers, and I’m not sure that I SHOULD have any answers. But I can say that as a survivor of sexual assault the rape scenes in GoT are increasingly unsettling for me . As someone who grew up in a physically violent environment, I don’t engage with the violence in the same way. It’s so over-the-top that it may as well be a cartoon in places, and I find it ridiculous (and vaguely gross) more than distressing. Other people with other lived experiences may feel differently. And I would be really interested to hear thoughts about the violence levels from someone who watches and for whom violence is a part of their reality.

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