Some things come around every year. Birthdays. Holidays. Paying your taxes. Uncomfortable rape scenes on Game of Thrones. This most recent rape scene (yes, these are sentences we write now when talking about Game of Thrones) occurred in the 6th episode of season 5, entitled, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”
The victim was the unfortunate and forever-tormented Sansa Stark, whose storyline throughout the show takes her from bad situations to worse ones. The rapist is her new husband, Ramsay Bolton, whose onscreen time has been used to demonstrate how sick, twisted, sadistic, sociopathic, and cruel his character is. The additional uncomfortable element added to this scene is that Theon Greyjoy (also named “Reek,” the man who Ramsay tortured, imprisoned, and psychologically broke) was forced to stand and watch it happen.
I have to say, I was really surprised that this particular rape scene elicited any sort of controversy. What did viewers think was going to happen? That Ramsay—who cut off Theon’s penis, who literally hunts the women in his life down and kills them because they’re boring—would marry Sansa and suddenly be a loving and gentle husband?
Game of Thrones has always been pretty liberal with their rape scenes. The show has been criticized heavily in the past for its gratuitous depictions of sex and women’s bodies, and for its numerous (numerous!) depictions of rape. And in the past I’ve been on board that ship, at the helm, with my arms flung out wide like, “Jack, I’m flying!” with my opinions on the problems with these particular scenes. However, the rape of Sansa Stark made sense narratively; it wasn’t gratuitous, and it had a purpose to the character’s arc and this season’s overall storyline. Did I want to see Sansa raped? No. But it certainly made sense to the narrative. And besides, was there any doubt that’s what would happen upon seeing Ramsay’s “I do” face?
Of course, though, I do have teensy problem. As Sansa is getting brutally raped, the camera zooms in on Theon, who was forced to stand there and watch. We, as the audience, can’t see Sansa’s rape, we can only hear it and interpret it in the horror, anguish, and turmoil on Theon’s face.
I’m down with this scene portrayed as it is but I do take issue with rape being used as the catalyst for a man’s storyline and personal character growth. Because watching that scene, we are to assume that the show is leading Theon toward some kind of redemption story, one in which he takes revenge on Ramsay, or at least tries SOMEWHAT to help Sansa. Either way, the focus of that scene was not on Sansa’s pain, but on Theon’s.
And this is always how it seems to go down when it comes to rape on Game of Thrones. Rape or almost-rape are used on this show in one of two ways: It happens but we all just pretend it didn’t, or it is a catalyst for a male character’s story development. And that really grinds my gears. As if I’m not sick enough of male narratives, they also get to have a better storyline than a woman because she was raped? Games of Thrones has often been criticized for using women’s bodies as props and set dressings, and to use violence against women as a backdrop to a man’s storyline is…ugh, just ugh.
Let’s look at the evidence. In season 1 of Games of Thrones, Daenerys is consistently raped by her husband, Khal Drogo. How does this plot progress? It finds Dany having a pretty girl-on-girl moment with her handmaiden in which she is instructed on the ways to please a man. During the next rape session with Khal Drogo, Dany tells him, “No,” while getting on top of him and taking control of the situation. Drogo then falls in love with her and then it was like, “Hey, she was never raped, Drogo was just doing sex all wrong lol!” Ah, love.
In season 2, Sansa is almost raped during a riot in King’s Landing, but in swoops the Hound to save her. The Hound is mean, and terrifying, and just so complicated, and his rough exterior seems to soften only for the beautiful and innocent Sansa Stark. What will happen with the Hound next? I mean, he saved a girl from getting raped! He has depth!
In season 3, Jamie lies to his captors that Brienne is very wealthy and will fetch a handsome ransom price, so no one should rape her. Brienne is the strongest woman in Westerns, hands down, but she is never given the chance to take control of a situation in which she is victimized, because Jamie is always there to save her. He ensures she does not get raped while they are being held captive, and he also risks his life by jumping in to a bear pit to save her life (though she was probably capable of saving it herself, but I guess we’ll never know). Am I saying I want female characters to be raped? No. Am I saying I don’t want male characters to stop a rape if they can? No. I’m just saying I’d like female characters to be able to command their own storylines for once. Jamie going out of his way to help Brienne is a huge part of his redemption storyline. It’s where we finally see that he is a good person inside, even though he’s done terrible things. Seemingly, in the books, Brienne exists just to propel Jamie’s story forward. (Mercifully, the show is giving her her own independent storyline this season.)
And there was season 4’s rape of Cersei Lannister. This one was the worst rape scene because the showrunners insisted that it wasn’t even rape, c’mon. The problem that I had—well, the BIGGEST problem that I had—with this rape scene was that it was purposeless. It didn’t happen like that in the book. And while the scene we saw on television was exactly the same scene from the book, the exception was that in the show Cersei was raped and in the book it was consensual. To change just this one factor was very jarring and it challenged the integrity of the character of Jamie as a whole, and destroyed all of the character building that we had to have Brienne almost get raped like 12 times to get! And for what? That scene made no sense, and then it was never brought up again.
And just this past week, we had yet ANOTHER attempted rape. Sweet Wildling Gilly was almost raped at the hands of two brothers of the Night’s Watch. But poor, sweet, weak Sam stepped in and saved her (but not before getting the crap beat out of him). As Gilly nurses Sam back to health, she admonishes him for trying to save her and makes him promise that he will just be sure to take care of her baby should anything happen to her (anything being, we can assume, rape followed by death). And then, as a reward for Sam’s bravery and character development, she climbs on top of him and has slow, awkward, fully clothed sex with him. The story here wasn’t about Gilly at all. The story was about Sam showing his strength and courage and how that should be rewarded.
And see, it’s just a damn shame. The females of Game of Thrones have great stories in them. But the show seems determined to have them resigned to the reality that they might get raped, and to exist mostly to drive a man’s story forward.
As I said before, I support the narrative choices the showrunners have made in having Sansa be raped by Ramsay Bolton. I’m just crossing my fingers real hard that the story be Sansa’s to tell, and not Theon’s or anybody else’s.
Check back for next week’s essay: Even More Objectification on Game of Thrones or, Why Did That Sand Snake Take Off Her Clothes? C’mon.