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.