Special Report: Game of Thrones

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As anyone even close to reading this probably knows, Sansa Stark’s rape closed the May 17 episode of Game of Thrones.  I was immediately and viscerally furious at this development.  I didn’t get to watch the episode first run, and had found out about that sequence before I was able to see it.  The episode aired Sunday, and I’m not posting about it until late Tuesday afternoon.  I wanted time to hear multiple sides of the dialogue and really think about what this means.  Sansa is my favorite character, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t having a visceral “BUT SHE’S MY FAVORITE” reaction.  Now that I’ve had time to (unfortunately) re-watch the scene and get as many answers as I can.

One of the big problems I (and many others) have with what has happened here is that Sansa Stark has essentially been shoved in the fridge to catalyze Theon’s journey.  The focus on Theon’s haunted face as Sansa’s little cries become pained, horrifed screams tells us everything we need to know- we’re supposed to be watching Theon break (or become unbroken) instead of thinking about what is happening to Sansa. The reaction by feminist geek blog The Mary Sue comments “What does this do for her story? Nothing. Sansa is already a survivor. You’ve put her through another trauma for the sake of another character.” The Mary Sue has chosen to stop promoting Game of Thrones as an immediate result of this scene.

IndieWire also poked an enormous hole in the argument that the fantasy violence stood on equal footing with the rape: “The violence that occurs on Game of Thrones is never going to happen to you. You’re not going to have your eyes crushed by a giant because you agreed to act as someone’s champion in a tournament to the death. You’re not going to be beheaded because you refused to take orders, even if you are in the armed forces. You’re not going to be castrated because you were born into a certain class. You could certainly die in a war, but it’s more likely to be by a bullet than by a sword. The violence of Game of Thrones is long removed from the experiences of most of the viewers of the series. Of course, there are places in the world where young people are forced into armies, and where atrocities as violent as the ones on Game of Thrones occur. But, on average, a person is incredibly unlikely to experience such things. The likelihood that a woman will be raped is shockingly and disturbingly high. (One in five women, is the current understanding.)”

Entertainment Weekly ran interviews with both the writer of the episode and Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa.  Turner has two quotes that stand out: ” I love the way Ramsay had Theon watching. It was all so messed up. It’s also so daunting for me to do it. I’ve been making [producer Bryan Cogman] feel so bad for writing that scene: “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!” But I secretly loved it.”  and ” I kind of like the fact she doesn’t really know what a psycho he is until that night. She has a sense, but she’s more scared of his father. ”

To contrast, Cogman says “This isn’t a timid little girl walking into a wedding night with Joffrey. This is a hardened woman making a choice and she sees this as the way to get back her homeland. Sansa has a wedding night in the sense she never thought she would with one of the monsters of the show. It’s pretty intense and awful and the character will have to deal with it.”  As soon as the interview went live, Cogman had to tweet:   “The ‘choice’ I was referring to was Sansa’s choice to marry Ramsay and walk into that room. She feels marrying him is a vital step in reclaiming her homeland. Not trying to change anyone’s opinion of the scene (negative or otherwise) but that it what I was … Ok, LAST last word. In NO WAY… NO WAY was that comment an attempt to ‘blame the victim.’ If it seemed that way I’m deeply sorry.”

We have an actor saying Sansa has no idea what she’s walking into and a writer claiming she makes a choice to marry this man, though not victim blaming because Twitter told him it was wrong.  I also cannot help but think that their support of the scene and George R R Martin’s refusal to really comment on the scene is influenced by those artists wanting to continue being paid by HBO.  I’m a little cynical.

Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken was not a good episode by anyone’s book.  It feels like the brutal assault on Sansa was to make something noteworthy happen in the episode.  Sansa Stark was raped for shock value. What’s disturbing is that Game of Thrones has done this before.  Jaime and Cersei’s scene in the sept after Joffrey’s death was never totally pleasant (it’s still incest in front of a corpse) but in the book, it was at least consensual.  This scene doesn’t even make sense.  Jaime has long since morphed into a sympathetic character, and the story doesn’t want us to sympathize with Cersei.  The consequences are never dealt with.  Ros wasn’t in the books, and her death (tied to a bed and shot with a crossbow) has a decided sexual tone. Even Drogo and Daenerys’s wedding night is far less consensual than the books depict.  The horrifying murder of Talisa and her unborn child is not in the books- Jeyne Westerling is not at the Red Wedding and is left alive and not pregnant.  The creators of the television show have a history of creating more sexual ans sexualized violence then is clearly depicted.

Now, the books did talk about Ramsay (and Theon’s) assault of Jeyne Poole.  What happens to Jeyne is actually even more gruesome than what happens to Sansa.  Why are we less upset about that? Well, for starters, Martin didn’t need to derail several characters just to have that scene.  Chessmaster Baelish somehow doesn’t do the research and hands his greatest asset and protege off to a psycho?  Once betrothed and once married, Sansa suddenly comes out of hiding and allows herself to be rushed into a wedding TO THE PEOPLE WHO KILLED HER FAMILY?  D&D had to mess around a lot to shoehorn this in.

Additionally, while what happens to Jeyne is awful, we’re seeing it through Reek/Theon then as well, since he is a POV character and Jeyne is not.  We cannot hear her cries nor see her face.  Book vs television has a way of dulling every kind of horror, since it’s a less immediate medium.  We are presented with Theon’s thoughts and reactions only.  We also, truth be told, don’t know Jeyne the way we know Sansa.  Things are always more affecting when it’s someone you know.  None of these are truly satisfying explanations to me, but they’re how I feel.

As for me, I think I’m going to take a break from Game of Thrones, at least for a little while.  I would love to continue a (civilized) dialogue about this if anyone is interested.

No One Told Me You Were Clever: Alayne Stone in the Winds of Winter

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Yulia Nikolaeva, image from George RR Martin's web site.

Image by Yulia Nikolaeva, image from George RR Martin’s web site.

On Thursday, George R.R. Martin saw fit to bless us with another chapter of the long-awaited The Winds of Winter.  Most recently, we received word of what one Stark daughter was doing when we met a little mummer called Mercy who only shows her wolf colors when murdering the man who had killed her friend Lommy.

Now it’s the elder daughter’s turn, with Sansa- still in hiding as Alayne Stone, bastard daughter of Littlefinger- preparing for a tourney held in the Vale.  In this chapter, she meets her next betrothed- Harry the Heir. Throughout the chapter, we find Sansa doing something she has only started recently- playing the game.  Calmly but firmly refusing Sweetrobin’s awkward pre-adolescent advances toward her, she manages to turn his words around into an insult, providing herself an opportunity for a graceful exit.

Like her sister, Alayne is firmly “Alayne” here, never going by Sansa, and only slipping up occasionally in her thoughts, calling Lord Eddard Stark her father before correcting her own thoughts, and remembering Robb when meeting a man of the same age.  We also find Alayne happy for the first time in ages, able to act the part of her father’s daughter.  We also find out the tourney she is witnessing the preparation for was her own idea. Throughout the chapter, Alayne is many things Sansa has never been- witty, quick, sly, and proactive, to name a few, although she is still watching every word she says.  She has learned to watch her words and conceal her emotions when needed.

We also receive some insight into Alayne as student of Petyr Baelish, as he highlights Harry the Heir’s weaknesses and coaches her on how to use her placement at the feast to her advantage.  Sansa is motherless, and Petyr is teaching her how to deal with men not as someone’s future wife romantically, but as a political seductress.  Sansa understands exactly why Harry the Heir is important to wed, and has less romantic notions than the little girl who once fell in love with Joffrey Baratheon.

But what does all this mean?  It means that the Stark daughters are becoming survivors, in different ways.  Arya works outside the system, but Sansa works from within.  Think Batman vs. Jim Gordon.  Both are fighting for the same goal, but in wildly different ways.  Arya’s other motivation is revenge, while Sansa seems to bear the Lannisters no real ill will.  She calls Joffrey a monster, but remembers Tyrion as being kind.  Sansa’s other goal seems to be getting home to Winterfell, able to rebuild.  Marrying Harry the Heir provides that goal, and she is happy to do it.  She still believes one thing from her childhood: courtesy is a lady’s armor.

The sisters are different even in their similarities.  One is living in the past through her quest for revenge, while the other can only survive by moving forward.  Though Arya is trying to become No One, Sansa really has successfully buried her identity, rising to prominence in the Vale as Baelish’s bastard.  Sansa blends in by standing out, becoming the fallen Princess of another kingdom instead of the mummer/ assassin her sister becomes to survive.

Little Northern Princess Sansa is becoming a woman, and her confidence is apparent throughout the chapter, breaking only in her brief scene with Petyr in the crypts.  The last line shows how self-assured Alayne has become.  After denying Harry the Heir her favor to wear in the tourney, she tells him it’s promised to another, and then thinks: “She was not sure who as yet, but she knew she would find someone.”  She is confident in her beauty, and knows she can use it to manipulate Harry and other knights if need be.  Sansa was a pawn.  Alayne is an emerging player.

Which way will prove successful?  Only George RR Martin knows.  But I’m excited to see what is in store for both sisters when book six arrives (next year?!)