If you ever find yourself living in the Seven Kingdoms, in a time where a battle for the Iron Throne rages, a word of advice: don’t get married. So far nuptials in Westeros have been celebrated with mass murder, poisoning, and now a brutal wedding night rape. Ah Game of Thrones, bringing the shock factor to the fantasy genre, one sexual assault at time.
Game of Tits and Arse, as HBO’s phenomenon is affectionately known in my household, is no stranger to explicit scenes and uncomfortably graphic storylines. Over the course of five seasons, we have seen psychotic King Joffrey use a crossbow to porcupine a prostitute, Theon Greyjoy sadistically tortured and castrated, and Craster make sex slaves of his daughters. None of these moments have made for easy watching. So why did Ramsay Bolton’s rape of Sansa Stark cause such fury among the show’s most ardent fans?
Well, for starters although many people come to the Game of Thrones for the shagging, they stay for the scheming. The show is at its slowest and most grating when it starts gratuitously shoe-horning in a sex scene per episode, which serve no purpose for driving the plot forward or revealing more about its characters. And the rape in Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken was a classic example of a moment which was there for no discernible reason, other than titillation. Episode lagging a bit? Just add rape! Viewers already know that Ramsay is a complete maniac and that Sansa’s wedding night will not be pleasant, having it spelled out in such an unsparingly vicious way was unnecessary, like a form of torture porn.
Over the previous episodes, Sansa has slowly been built into one of the program’s strong but damaged female characters (from Catelyn Stark to Cersei Lannister, the women in Game of Thrones are just as complex and dangerous as their male counterparts; it’s one of the reasons the show is so successful). But leaving aside the total lack of imagination which sees the writers repeatedly resort to rape as their female humiliation tool of choice, the scene didn’t even have Sansa as its focus. Instead after a fleeting pan across her face, we were left looking at Theon’s agonised reaction, with her screams the soundtrack to his pain. Her attack is his story; she is used as a prop to his starring role.
Next week, of course, we may see that this moment was a crucial turning point in Sansa’s story, and that she will now be driven to wreak her vengeance on the Boltons. But after they slaughtered her family, it’s unclear why she also needed to be attacked to really spur her into action.
Clearly, it is worth bearing in mind that we are talking about a work of fiction here, dragons and all. And in the books Ramsay’s wedding night attack is even worse. But the show has already diverged dramatically from the books, with Ramsay even marrying an entirely different female character, so this doesn’t really wash as an excuse.
Depictions of rape on screen can be powerful; shocking, yes, but effective when handled correctly, and television shouldn't shy away from it. But in Game of Thrones women are raped so often it’s almost routine, and the assaults are used as a lazy signal that the Seven Kingdoms are pretty messed up, yeah?
When the rest of the show is so compelling, it's frustrating that this is element is so mishandled. We get it, being a woman in Westeros sucks. Now, can we get back to those dragons?
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