[Warning: discussion of rape, and–clearly–Game of Thrones spoilers]
If you’re into pop culture and/or social media, then you have been inundated with commentary about what went down on the last episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” Specifically, producers decided to add a rape scene. Another one. It was the rape of Sansa Stark.
First the internet blew up with people who were outraged. Then the internet blew up with people who felt this outcry was unfounded because—for once—Game of Thrones handled a rape scene with gravity and respect. This is high praise for a show that’s known for salacious, body-bearing scenes of sexual violence. Rather than actually watching Sansa be raped, we watch Theon Greyjoy as he’s forced to witness the rape of a person akin to his little sister. As I’ve discussed before, this is the better way for media producers to portray scenes of sexual violence against women.
I certainly agree that this rape scene could have been—and has been in the past—handled much worse by HBO. So maybe HBO deserves a cookie. Or maybe it doesn’t.
Internet blow up around Game of Thrones is not new. The murder of Ned Stark. The Red Wedding. Joffrey’s demise. These scenes elicited scores of blogs, posts, and articles. But unlike the scenes I’ve just listed, the Sansa rape didn’t happen in George R.R. Martin’s books. Not with Sansa Stark. Rather, it was Sansa’s childhood friend, Jeyne Poole. Poole is a minor character who—after the murder of Ned Stark—is taken and trained as a sex worker, then passed off as Arya Stark and married to Ramsay Bolton. And yes, the consummation scene is scary and upsetting, largely because of how Theon Greyjoy is forced to play a role in it.
Know how I know all this? I’ve read all the Song of Ice and Fire books that Game of Thrones is based on. Yes, all of them. All the way through. And a lot of fucked up shit happens in these books. Rapes. A lot of rapes. I would guestimate hundreds of rapes. This is a conservative guestimate. Last year I was talking to a female friend who had also read the books and I mentioned how I was haunted by some of the rapes and frequently recalled horrific details. And my friend quickly said, “me too, me too.” This is first to highlight the lingering affect rape and sexual violence scenes can have on women. Second, to point out that there are an almost infinite number of rape scenes that Game of Thrones could have chosen from. But this is now the third—yes third—time producers have created a rape of a major female character in addition to those offered by the books.
So rather than debating how HBO handled the scene, I’d like to consider why the scene was added. As of yet, the Sansa in Martin’s books has not been raped. I find this significant because Martin’s not afraid of writing a rape scene and Sansa’s under constant threat of sexual violence. Yet she has—so far—been able to play the game of thrones in such a way so as to avoid this. HBO’s Game of Thrones took that away. Why? Well, one could argue that it was for coherence and consolidation. The Jeyne-Poole-as-Arya plotline is another piece to add to an already complicated puzzle. Or we could join the ranks of Amanda Marcotte and The Happy Feminist and argue that that it shows the “grotesque realities” of power and war. Or we could side with George R.R. Martin himself, who explains that no one was actually raped because Sansa is a fictional character.
But I think these positions miss an important point. When Martin writes rapes into his books, they bother me. A lot. But when HBO adds more of them, they aren’t being true to the books, and I don’t believe they’re trying to be true to the story or the realities of war and power. I think they’re trying to shock and titillate. They’re trying to get us to watch more.
HBO is not Schindler’s List. Don’t get me wrong, many HBO shows are fantastically complex. But HBO is widely known for attracting viewers with the type of sexualized, gritty, violent content that other networks can’t offer. That’s why on Game of Thrones, Littlefinger tells his diabolically complex and evil stories while prostitutes have sex in the background.
When HBO shows scenes of human degradation and sexual abuse, its not so we will realize how horrific this all is, and work to change or prevent it in our own culture. These scenes are marketing tools; interesting and beautiful plotlines laced with titillation, violence, horror, and pleasure. And that’s what Sansa’s rape was. HBO took a beloved (at least by me) young female character and did something horrible to her, for ratings. I agree with “Race for the Iron Throne” super expert Steven Attewell that this scene had no larger purpose because it “did nothing to reveal character, or advance the plot, or critique anything about Westerosi society or about our own conceptions of medieval society that hasn’t already been critiqued.” It was done for ratings.
And I get this media game. Because we’re all talking about it, aren’t we? HBO for the win. But rather than creating more of these horror-rape scenes, HBO producers might as well as have just chosen from the litany of rape scenes already built into the story. And if they don’t—if they make new ones—then I have a hard time saying that this is simply fiction, or simply the reality of war, or simply a proper handling of a rape. It’s a way to get audiences to keep coming back. By offering them new and fresh sexual violence against women.