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Sansa and Ramsay (image via HBO)

Sunday night’s episode of the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” featured a disturbing rape scene that has already prompted widespread outrage. The tableau in question is indeed distressing: Sansa, long-suffering daughter of the late Eddard Stark, is brutalized by her sadistic and sociopathic husband Ramsay Bolton on their wedding night, all while a demoralized Theon is forced to look on. Like Theon, we bear unwilling witness to a crime that disgusts us, unable to stomach what we see but unable to avert our gaze.

Most of the ensuing criticism has focused on the scene’s gratuity: it establishes nothing about Ramsey’s sociopathic character that we didn’t already know, argued Jen Trolio in Vox; “was it really necessary?” Tom Ley asked in Deadspin; “rape here, like in all instances, is not a necessary story-driving device,” wrote Jill Pantozzi in Mary Sue. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri tweeted that she’s done with the show, citing the “gratuitous rape scene,” which she found “disgusting and unacceptable.” And this isn’t the first time Game of Thrones has come under fire for its graphic depictions of sexual violence: last spring, an episode in which Jaime rapes his sister and lover Cersei precipitated a similar controversy.

In that instance, critics targeted the director of the troubling episode, who claimed that Jaime and Cersei’s sex became “consensual by the end.” There is no justification for such a comment — and no justification for the implicit assumption that a sex act with coercive origins can ever be redeemed. I think, however, that there is ample justification for the disturbing scene in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”

As Trolio, Ley, and Pantozzi point out, we already know that the world of Game of Thrones is untenably patriarchal. But a cursory acknowledgement isn’t enough. To admit to the existence of the patriarchy is one thing. To confront it at every turn — to experience the lived reality of ubiquitous misogyny and life under constant threat of sexual violence — is something else entirely. For women in the Middle Ages and for many women now, the horrors don’t let up after a particularly traumatic episode has “established” that sexual violence is a problem. The biggest horror of all is that gendered brutality is ongoing, relentless, and unremitting. Game of Thrones is right to expose us not only to the barbarity of a single act of rape but also to the intransigence of rape culture as a whole.

Moreover, to depict rape is not necessarily to endorse it. Narrative TV cannot effectively condemn an act unless it can also portray it. The scene in question represents a viscerally compelling critique of Ramsay’s behavior, and it goes on to advance a nuanced theoretical objection to the systems that all to often enable sexual violence, prompting us to contemplate our own complicity therein. Theon’s passive spectatorship in the face of sexual exploitation is disquietingly reminiscent of our own.

Finally, to require that everything included within a narrative constitute a “necessary story-driving device” is to set the bar somewhat inanely. Nothing in a fictional narrative is, strictly speaking, “necessary:” everything can be omitted at the expense of internal consistency or the richness of the imagined world. Sure, we already know that Ramsay is a sociopath, but including additional details enriches our understanding of his character and adds a layer of believability to the Game of Thrones universe.

Rape is — and should be — difficult to watch, and it’s reasonable for Game of Thrones viewers to feel too disgusted by it to go on with the series. That’s their prerogative. Rape victims and survivors are entitled to dismiss graphic images if doing so aids in their healing process, and no one is obligated to watch or enjoy a scene like the one in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”

But sexual violence is also an unfortunate fact of life — one that meaningful television might do well to grapple with. The best shows aren’t merely entertaining: they make an effort to engage and enthrall us, but they also do their best to work social critique somewhere into all the flashy intrigue. And any effective critique of rape culture will disgust and upset us, as it must and should.

Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...

8 replies on “Sunday Night’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Episode Doesn’t Endorse Rape”

  1. My problem with the scene is that the showrunners have been talking about this scene since Sophie Turner was a minor and how they would need to wait until she’s 18 to film it. The fact that they’ve been discussing the “need” for this rape scene for almost five years doesn’t sit well with me. I also have a problem with the fact that they’ve taken so many scenes of consensual sex from the books and turned them into rape scenes in the show. Why was it necessary to turn the beginning of Dany/Drogo’s marriage into rape? Why was it necessary to turn Jamie/Cersei’s consensual sex at the death of their son into rape? The Sansa rape scene has to be taken in context with the rest of the showrunners’ poor decision making in regards to the depiction of rape in the series.

  2. “But a cursory acknowledgement isn’t enough. To admit to the existence of the patriarchy is one thing. To confront it at every turn — to experience the lived reality of ubiquitous misogyny and life under constant threat of sexual violence — is something else entirely.”

    Let’s get real: GoT has not provided a “cursory acknowledgement” of misogynist violence. To date, we have:

    -the wedding-night rape of Daenerys
    -references to marital rape of Cersei by Robert
    -the sexualized murder of Ros
    -violent abuse of Sansa by Joffrey
    -the endless objectification of prostitutes’ bodies
    -incestuous rape and abuse by Craster of his daughters
    -the rape of Cersei by Jaime
    -the hunting and murder of Tansy
    -literally countless threats of rape and assault against women in dialogue
    -and on and on and on

    And now, the rape of Sansa Stark. The showrunners are not subtly or thoughtfully “working social critique” of rape into their storytelling: they are drowning us in a torrent of sexual violence. They have refused to acknowledge the rape of Cersei AS rape (calling the “power struggle” a “turn-on” http://blogs.indiewire.com/womenandhollywood/rape-culture-sidetracks-game-of-thrones), and in doing so revealed their own lack of understanding of the sensitive and damaging material they’ve chosen to use and re-use for the sake of shock value. When you ascribe a conscious critique of rape culture to their scenes, you give them undeserved credit, but you also shield their exploitation of rape culture for their own personal gain.They are not critiquing rape: they are NORMALIZING IT, numbing their audience in a flood of close-up brutalities. Showing sexual assault on TV is not the same as unpacking or interrogating it, otherwise DVDs of Law & Order: SVU would be shelved in Gender Studies.

    You say “sexual violence is an unfortunate fact of life.” So is irritable bowel syndrome, toe fungus. Childhood drowning accidents. Long battles with cancer. But only one of those things is an increasingly familiar sight in the cable television landscape- and it happens to be the one that involves the beaten, humiliated, objectified and sexualized bodies of women. Game of Thrones’ obsessive focus on misogynist violence is not natural or coincidental: it is intentional, and its intention is not to “open dialogue” on rape culture. Its intention is to sell sex and violence to as many subscribers as possible, under the flag of “gritty,” “shocking,” “sexy” television. They are not the first program to do so, and although I wish it, they won’t be the last. Don’t give them excuses to hide behind.

    And to your point that we, in a way, become Theon: you’re right. We are continuing to watch something brutal. But this brutality does not necessarily stop at the screen: more than one writer has commented on the “disposability” of women’s bodies not only in the narrative, but in the show’s production (http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/2012/05/women-and-horses.html). As Abigail Nussbaum notes, Sophie Turner was fifteen years old, a minor child, in scenes where she’s acting out a beating and near-rape at the hands of grown men. The show’s stars have spoken out against the almost-continual nudity required of its female characters (http://www.themarysue.com/game-of-thrones-no-nudity/). Emily Nussbaum’s essay in the NYT (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/05/07/the-aristocrats?currentPage=all) also reminds us that GoT’s infamous “sexposition” scenes are facilitated by the use of “unknown actresses who must strip, front and back, then mimic graphic sex and sexual torture.” So perhaps we are more like Theon than we’d previously imagined.

    Unlike Theon, however, all we have to do to make this particular tableau of graphic violence end, is to stop watching.

    1. What I’m having trouble with is why is this is a bridge too far? This is exactly the show people have been watching. As a man, Theon’s castration was very difficult to watch but that’s sort of the point of the show and the reality they’re depicting. Your implication that Theon is a stand in for own vouyerism is only partially true. He was forced to watch because as a sadist, Ramsay wanted to force him to relive his own loss of sexual agency. Furthermore, regardless of the show runner’s motivation the episode is in fact creating a dialogue about rape culture all over the Internet including what we’re all typing right here. If it’s too upsetting for some people that’s fine, they don’t have to watch. But depiction of rape is not nessecarily endorsement. It’s as fine a line to walk as the making of a war film. Does The Thin Red Line or Platoon endorse war? I don’t really think so. But in a free and open society we have the right to choose and artists have a near absolute right to freedom of expression. Let’s not endorse the mindset of far left Maoists or far right creationists because they are basically the same kind of absolutists.

      1. I agree with your first point right out of the gate, “this is exactly the show people have been watching.” (Some of us have had problems with it since the beginning.) The show has never had restraint when it comes to misogyny and violence, but now I think the bodies and the evidence have piled up so hard it’s impossible for most people to ignore it.

        And certainly, castration would be hard to watch. But college campuses do not have to hold “stop castration” rallies or distribute flyers with tips to help prevent getting castrated if you have too many drinks at a party. You are probably not at risk for getting castrated by a significant other. And so on. I’m sure you get my point. Rape is a real-world crime, and a horrifically common one. GoT could be “creating a dialogue” about rape, if it used it sparingly and seriously, and dealt thoughtfully with the aftermath and impact on the characters. But GoT uses rape and sexualized violence about as casually as a cough, which in the wider context of our toxic, objectifying culture is unforgivable, at least to me.

        The idea that internet feminists like myself are akin to “far left Maoists” presumes that we (average people) have the power to censor or oppress the makers of a show like GoT (run by a massive multi-million-dollar media empire). The showrunners and media conglomerates responsible for GoT are artists in one sense, but they are also manufacturers of a mainstream consumer good. Their vision is shaped not only by artistic expression, but commercial support, network executives, and on and on. Making a tv show is a process that involves hundreds of people at many levels, often working by committee. Critiquing a television show is not exactly the same as trying to censor a painter, considering the structures their disparate arts are made within. Anyway, I’m not advocating for them to be yanked from the airwaves with a giant hook- I’m advocating for people voting with their dollars and their attention. If we ignore it, and refuse to feed it with money, it’ll go away. That’s entirely in line with the values of a free society.

        1. To your first point, is the show demonstrating hatred of women specifically, or just trading on the brutality of humanity altogether? And again, is this meant to be exploitative or saying something about our history, our present, and the human condition? You apply cynical motivations to the show runners and network because they make money from it. But does art have an obligation to show a utopian vision that we might hope to live in, or to be a mirror for what we actually are, or is it just selling us our most base desires and fears? As an artist I feel that whatever I make is a reflection of myself and our society and that’s the extent of my obligation or responsibility to my audience. However it effects others is their responsibility to which you correctly point out that they can vote with their dollars if they don’t like it. And they can also create volumes of internet criticism such as this that I believe is creating a dialogue even if the show itself doesn’t have that as its primary agenda. I’ve learned a lot from reading the varying opinions about this episode of television, including your own response.

          As to your point about college campuses, it is no doubt a major problem. I’m just not convinced that it’s separate from a whole host of other problems of anti-social behavior in our country, namely that huge swaths of the population have barely been parented and lack basic empathy and communication skills. The reason why this is such a big issue on college campuses is multi-factoral, but a large part of it is just that kids are inexperienced, impulsive, thoughtless, and hormonal. Although I also agree with you that a toxic culture with lots of harmful messages about masculinity, social acceptance, etc. also factor in. I would only argue that because of my parenting and formative experiences, no amount of toxic culture could make me a rapist. By the time most people get to adulthood they’ve figured most of this stuff out. Sadly a certain amount of pain and suffering is a prerequisite to growing up. Which isn’t to say that the anti-rape activism on college campuses is unnecessary, but like the BDS movement and animal rights and whatever else, it sometimes takes on an incredibly authoritarian and cultish like facade that is not only not winning the mainstream over, but also prey’s on the minds of young people who lack the experience, skepticism, critical thinking skills, and political acumen to hold a more nuanced view of an issue.

  3. Just portraying rape isn’t a criticism either. Before Sansa, the writers chose to turn two consensual sex scenes from the books into rape scenes (Dany/Khal Drogo and Cersei/Jamie). The problem isn’t necessarily that they added more rape to the story, but they did it so poorly. In both of those instances, there was little to no emotional consequence and the women went on (or continued) to have loving, consensual sexual relationships with their rapists. And it certainly didn’t change the plots of the male characters who were suddenly rapists, Jamie’s redemption arc continued without pause.

    Of course, I do not think Sansa is going to fall in love with Ramsay, and he is certainly not being redeemed. But even if they do show the emotional consequences of Sansa’s rape it’s almost as a punishment for her reclaiming her agency and starting to play the game. It is clear from how they shot the scene (and the plotline from the books they have inserted Sansa into) that this is not going to be a story of Sansa finally getting her revenge on those who have abused her. No, this is about furthering Theon’s storyline and giving him the motivation to stand up to Ramsay.

    They chose to rape one of the main female characters (just as she was starting to gain some strength) in order to further the story of a minor male character. Not to show how terrible the world is, or how evil Ramsay is. To further Theon’s story. That’s it.

    Now, if Sansa quickly reclaims her power and murders the fuck out of Ramsay, then perhaps this change will not have been terrible. Otherwise, I am very disappointed.

  4. are you FUCKING SERIOUS hyperallergic. this article is trash.

    1) depictions of rape for popular consumption of a frequently sexist show that caters to the male gaze is PROBLEMATIC

    2) depicting rape without critique of rape culture perpetuates rape culture. it becomes fodder.

    3) NO ONE “ENDORSES” rape. rape is excused, forgiven, hidden, as victims are silenced & blamed. rape culture is insidious. no shit GoT doesn’t “endorse” rape, but they repeatedly decide to change the story to sexually assault the characters.

    4) Ramsay Bolton is a cartoonish villain who tortures for fun. this depiction of “rapist” perpetuates rape culture because, guess what, most rapists are not serial torturers. they are often “good guys” who are protected from punishment by comparison to the misconception of “true rape” as violent torture. “good guys” like, say, Jaime Lannister.

    5) the scene focuses on Theon’s experience instead of Sansa’s. do I even need to explain that one?

    6) this article isn’t even offensive, it’s just another dumb one defending a huge television show that continually perpetuates rape culture. take it down.

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