*WARNING… SPOILERS AHEAD!*
That’s it, I’ve had enough. As many people have done online over the past week, I feel I must voice my displeasure with the recent plot developments in the HBO television series Game of Thrones.
Despite never having read the books, I’ve been a fan of Game of Thrones ever since the first episode. From the beheading of lead character Ned Stark towards the end of the first season to the infamous Red Wedding scene, Game of Thrones has become an international success due to its amazing writing, eclectic characters and ability to entertain by providing a level of shock value, including the crippling of a young boy, torture, incest and other taboo topics, that few other television shows have dared to explore. Recently,
however, in the episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” Game of Thrones has seemingly crossed the line and raised furor amongst fans and critics with the rape of Sansa Stark by her sadistic new husband Ramsay Bolton. In the follow-up episode, “The Gift,” it is revealed that Sansa has been imprisoned and raped nightly, having the physical bruises to show for it. Furthermore, she has lost her only allies with the betrayal of Reek/Theon Greyjoy (who tells Sansa, as many abused women have certainly thought to themselves while in abusive relationships, “you’re his wife now… do what he says or he’ll hurt you.”) and the skinning of the old woman who had bravely offered to help her.
I feel for Sansa Stark. Not only has she been forced to witness the beheading of her father, but she has also been forced into or coaxed towards three marriages orchestrated by others for their own political ends. I keep watching every episode hoping to see a turn-around for her… finding some peace and safety in the cruel world that the Game of Thrones story plays out in, but alas her suffering continues. To make matters worse, the latest developments in Sansa Stark’s ongoing story aren’t even in the original novels by George R. R. Martin, but are a creation of the writers of the show. George R. R. Martin isn’t blind to the controversy of such scenes in the book, stating in an interview “My novels are epic fantasy, but they are inspired by and grounded in history. Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day. To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest, and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves.”
I may not be an expert on Game of Thrones, but, as a sex and equality advocate, I feel that I must speak out on what I see as the unnecessary mistreatment of women with impunity in this show for the entertainment of the viewing public. To my recollection, this is the third time a major character has been raped in Game of Thrones; first with Daenerys Targaryen after her arranged marriage to Khal Drogo, then an incestuous rape when Jamie Lannister forces himself upon his sister Queen Cersei (even after an ongoing affair in which they’ve already fathered children together). In these two cases, both of the women seemingly move on with little long-term emotional trauma to themselves and their rapists suffer no ill consequences for their actions. This is typical in the fictional world Game of Thrones has created, one in which the “bad guys” often win and the “good guys” are eternally suffering unimaginable loss.
These aren’t the only instances of sexualized violence by sadistic men portrayed in the show. From King Joffrey pumping prostitute Ros full of arrows while using her as a target for crossbow practice to Ramsay Bolton having a young, naked woman chased down and eaten alive by dogs for his amusement, Game of Thrones pushes the envelope for what is socially acceptable in order to advance the story line fowrard. Men have, to a far lesser degree, also been victimized, as both Master of Whisperers Varys and the Unsullied warriors are all eunuchs. Furthermore, Theon Greyjoy had his penis severed while being emotionally and physically tortured by Ramsay Bolton during his transformation into the inuman slave “Reek.” Clearly, however, the women have had it far worse during the course of Game of Thrones, and their mistreatment has only intensified as the show has progressed.
While I do admire some of the strong female characters, namely the loyal Brienne of Tarth, slavery abolishing Queen Daenerys Targaryen, brave young Arya Stark and even the cold, manipulating Queen Cersei, the question I keep having to ask myself is what is the message that Game of Thrones is sending to both young men and young women alike? While I’m certainly an advocate of free speech, I believe that those in positions of power have to hold themselves accountable for the art that they are disseminating to the public and the message they are sending… when you portray rape over and over again as a plot device as opposed to raising awareness or sending a social message, then you have a serious problem. Are we supposed to believe that rape is so commonplace in the world of Game of Thrones and that our characters are so dehumanized that the physical and emotional scars can simply be swept under the rug after an episode or two? Is it really necessary to have such an aggressive focus on sexuality in a fictional world that is filled with political squabbles, family drama, magic, dragons, slavery and religious ideology?
I can only hope that D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, the collaborative team behind Game of Thrones, take heed of the recent backlash by fans and realize that telling a great storyline doesn’t mean having to use senseless sexualized violence against women over and over again. While the story in Game of Thrones takes place in a fictional world, there are countless victims of sexual violence in the world today who can’t turn off the emotional scars and nightmarish memories by simply changing the channel.