This is the second part of my editorial about the recent rape. This part of the article is posted separately from the first part, in which I discuss the pain many of us feel when we see rape on television. It is with a little trepidation and mixed feelings that I write this article. On one hand, I’m extremely sympathetic to people who do not want to see violence against women portrayed on television. On the other hand, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about rape in Game of Thrones, what the showrunners are trying to accomplish, and whether TV should depict violence against women. Admittedly, these are complex issues and I don’t have full clarity of thought about them yet. Here is what I think for what it is worth.
In the “Kill the Boy” episode of Game of Thrones, Brienne sends a message to Sansa telling her that if she ever needs to be rescued she should place a lantern in the broken tower’s window. We haven’t seen the lantern yet — and for anyone familiar with Chekhov’s gun, that’s cause for alarm. By the Checkhov’s gun principle, we wouldn’t have been told about the lantern if it wasn’t going to be used. Is Sansa’s rape over yet?
In their final Game of Thrones critique, The Mary Sue writes, “it is not necessary to prove “how bad things were for women” (Game of Thrones exists in a fictional universe, and we already know it’s exceptionally patriarchal).”
Game of Thrones exists in a medieval-esque universe that is a more historically accurate than a lot of historical fiction. While we may understand that the Game of Thrones universe is patriarchal, if today’s history books are any indication, we certainly haven’t gotten the message about the brutality of life for medieval women (or peasants) — not to mention their counterparts in developing nations today.
Rape was an endemic problem throughout the Middle Ages and antiquity – particularly wartime sexual violence. And, in many parts of the developing world, arranged child marriage and rape remain issues even today.
Myths about chivalry and knights-in-shining armor, Disney princesses, fairy tales, and biography-driven popular histories have unwittingly whitewashed the pillage-and-rape, warfare-driven, patriarchal elitist reality of the Middle Ages out of our collective consciousness.
Sansa’s rape could “further the conversation” if people used the outrage to raise awareness of child rape, forced consummation, and marital rape as historical and modern-day issues.
A World Set in a Medieval War Will Have Rape
The A Song of Ice and Fire series is ultimately a grand meditation on war, penned by a pacifist. Game of Thrones has never purported to depict the kinder, gentler Middle Ages. George RR Martin objects to the “Disney Middle Ages” and strives to ground his fantasy in real history. He recreates the war-driven medieval world in a three-dimensional hyper-realistic manner complete with sigils, sex, food, and even privies.
In the real Middle Ages, women and children were diplomatic bargaining chips. The powerful cared primarily about amassing land (often to get bigger armies). Women were chattel. And, the elite rarely considered poor peasants who died from their scorched-earth war tactics, which often included rape.
For thousands of years, rape and war have marched hand in hand. There’s a reason why “rape and pillage” have become a catchphrase – and it’s pretty terrible. The Ancient Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Mongols, and many others all raped women (and men) as part of their warfare, after defeating their opponents on the field or by siege. During the first Crusade, knights marching to Constantinople raped women.
Soldiers regularly used rape, pillage, and plunder as weapons to demoralize civilians. In the Hundred Years War, fifteenth-century French soldiers raped English women. During Joan of Arc’s imprisonment, she feared rape so much that she reverted to wearing men’s clothing, despite promising the Church she would not — and was executed as a result. When starving armies resorted to pillaging villages, it could unleash a floodgate of horrible behavior including rape, as was the case in the Thirty Years’ War ((The Readers Companion to Military History by Robert Cowley Geoffrey Parker p. 270)) .
Women and rape were also a form of booty for victorious armies. Historically, war leaders incented soldiers with the promise of booty, especially when they didn’t have enough money to pay them.
Incidentally, this wartime sexual violence isn’t a largely irrelevant aspect of a by-done era of warfare. War rapes continue in the modern world. After the Russian’s Red Army invaded Berlin in 1945, they gang raped girls as young as eight and women as old as eighty. In 1968, during the American war with Vietnam, American servicemen gang raped Vietnamese women and mutilated their bodies in an event known as the My Lai Massacre. In Bosnia, during the 1990s, Serbian “White Eagle” gunmen raped Muslim women “day and night.”
Violence Against Women and Peasants Downplayed in Many History Books
If we are surprised by the violence of the Game of Thrones world, it may be because so much medieval violence never makes it into the pages of today’s popular histories and the previous generations of historians referred to it in misleading or oblique ways.
When I’ve tried to find information about the brutality of specific late medieval wars, I’ve had to dig down deep into academic histories, niche histories, or worse. In the case of the Hundred Years War, initially, I had to order books from France. Biography’s lens has distorted far too much history as biographers fall in love with their subjects.
Try searching, for example, for the word “peasant” in the offensively entitled The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III Father of the English Nation. I believe it shows up twice. (Edward III is the fourteenth-century English king who initiated the Hundred Years’ War and waged it by attacking French civilians (aka peasants).)
Although I’m sure The Perfect King is brilliantly written, after reading the title and overleaf, I could not stomach reading Mortimer’s entire book. In the portions I read, Ian Mortimer completely divorces Edward III’s scorched-earth raids from their tragic consequences for the French people he claimed to want to rule. The three million who died in the Hundred Years War are a footnote in the story of this “family man,” to borrow a phrase from the back cover. This style of decontextualized analysis is morally objectionable on every single level.
Although I’m singling Mortimer out due to his book’s title, he is far from alone. I found book after book on the Hundred Years’ War written almost exclusively from the perspective of either the English or the nobility, or both.
Historians shy away from writing about the visceral horror of historical violence. In his book A Brief History of Britain 1066-1485, historian Nicholas Vincent writes of how previous historians have downplayed rape during the Norman Conquest. (Rape was such an extensive problem in early Norman England that the nunneries overflowed with Anglo-Saxon women seeking refuge from Norman knights.) “This great flight to religion has generally been presented as an attempt by Anglo-Saxon women to escape forced marriages. In fact we now know enough about the practices of victorious armies in Berlin in 1945 or Bosnia in the 1990s, to appreciate that it was not so much marriage as rape that was feared1 .”
The unintentional effect of using genteel euphemisms is a whitewashing of history. And when we can’t face the horror of events long since passed, what does that say about how we engage with atrocities against women in the present? Do we just try to blot it out of consciousness?
By all appearances, George RR Martin’s work, and that of the showrunners, is a conscious attempt to create a realistic three-dimensional world set in a war-torn medieval period. Ultimately, we can’t understand war, if we don’t feel its blades. And, we can’t deconstruct the princess myth, if we don’t see the potential brutality of the princes they married.
Disney distorts our perception of medieval princesses
The Disney Princess myth does a hatchet job on our perception of medieval women. Real medieval princesses and noblewomen were often child brides.
The reality for many medieval princesses and noblewomen was living away from their families with relatively limited protection. They were vulnerable to the whims of their betrotheds and husbands. Being a medieval princess was not thwarting wicked witches, dancing at balls, living in dwarf cottages, or singing with the birds. And, as any of Henry VIII’s wives could tell us, it was not falling in love with heroic, kind-hearted handsome princes.
Sansa’s journey as a character is a deliberate attempt to deconstruct the princess myth. She moves from a girl who daydreams about marrying princes to a vulnerable orphan whose prince fiancé beats her to the raped wife of a violent sadist. Sansa’s story is the opposite of the happily ever-after lives of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
In Sansa’s tale, we can find threads from the lives of real-life medieval princesses (and noblewomen) like the oft-betrothed Elizabeth of York and Anne Neville; Catherine of Aragon (who was left in a vulnerable limbo at the English court after her marriage to Prince Arthur ended); and Elizabeth I (who was vulnerable to the advances of her sort of step-stepfather/guardian Thomas Seymour).
George RR Martin himself has indirectly alluded to the problems with Disney’s depiction of the Middle Ages in his 2011 Time magazine interview:
“…the contrast between [historical fiction] and a lot of the fantasy [when he began writing ASOIAF] was dramatic because a lot of the fantasy of Tolkien imitators has a quasi-medieval setting, but it’s like the Disneyland Middle Ages. You know, they’ve got tassels and they’ve got lords and stuff like that, but they don’t really seem to grasp what it was like in the Middle Ages.”
Fairy tales alter our perception of the Middle Ages. Many academics have decried the “Disney-fication” of the Middle Ages and how Disney’s hodge-podge of architectural and clothing styles have distorted our perception of our own past. They have created a neo-Middle Ages. A study by Smithsonian curator Paul Sturtevant reveals that children who watch Disney’s fare have trouble learning medieval history because its incongruous with their existing ideas about the (Disney) Middle Ages2 .
Rape to consummate marriages
Medieval kings abandoned their little girls in foreign lands to cement peace treaties. Many child brides never saw their parents again. This system pushed grooms to consummate marriages quickly and tacitly sanctioned what we would consider to be wedding-night rape.
One problem was that impregnating the bride cemented the match.
Consider the case of Margaret Beaufort (the English king Henry VII’s mother).
Edmund Tudor married Margaret shortly after she turned twelve. If he could impregnate Margaret, he would share in her estates for life. By mid-1456, Edmund succeeded: Margaret was thirteen-years old and pregnant.
While the record is silent as to whether Edmund Tudor raped Margaret Beaufort, it seems unlikely that this little girl would have welcomed sex with her twenty-six year old husband. When she gave birth, she was so tiny the delivery nearly killed her. Years later, she would fret in the margin of a religious text over whether it was a sin to find sex repugnant.
Although her experience might have been extreme, Margaret Beaufort was not alone in marrying so young. Lucrezia Borgia and Eleanor of Castille married at 13, and Marie Antoinette at 14. The Church and contemporaries urged grooms to wait until at least a girl reaches puberty before consummating the marriage.
This year, on the show, Sansa is roughly 17 so technically she is still a child bride.
Medieval princesses weren’t the only women who were raped on their wedding nights. It seems more than plausible that many child brides were raped on their wedding nights – and child marriage dates back to at least Ancient Greece and Rome. In fact, it is only within the last twenty-five years that marital rape has become illegal across all of the United States.
Where’s the lantern for child brides today?
Raping a woman on her wedding night wasn’t even considered a crime in America until the 1970s or, in some states, 1993. In South Carolina, marital rape isn’t a crime without aggravated violence or the threat of violence with a weapon. Over 700 million women alive today were married as children.
Were all of these women raped? It depends on how you define rape, the age of consent, the ability to consent, etc. But, violent rape seems likely when twelve-year old girls are married to men five times their age.
Five years ago, a thirteen-year old Yemeni girl died after being raped on her wedding night due to severe genital bleeding. A 2009 Yemeni law that raised the marital age to 17 was reversed after lawmakers deemed it “un-Islamic.”
Yemen is not alone. In Niger, 76% of women marry before 18. India has over 10 million women who were married under 15. Child marriage occurs dozens of countries, including Chad, Bangladesh, Mexico, South America, Africa, and even some Gypsy communities.
How cruel it is to think of the terror little child brides must feel as they imagine their wedding nights. This 35-year old woman’s frightening recollection of her marriage at eleven will make your hair curl.
Today poverty, security, and honor-based cultures are integral factors in why parents decide to marry off their daughters at desperately young ages. The fundamental issue, like in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages, is ultimately women’s lack of economic power.
By 2030, 15.4 million girls will marry as children – that’s an entire country of child brides. The total number of women married as children will grow to 1.2 billion in 2050. And, yet at least in America, to the best of my knowledge, we never attempt to use our muscle as a superpower to stop these practices.
If only senators like Claire McCaskill tweeted their outrage over child marriage and other human right’s abuses, instead of Game of Thrones.
Changing the conversation
Rather than talk about whether or not HBO should have included the rape scene, it would be better to talk about why it bothers us so much. It would be better to acknowledge the truth past and present underlying the scene – and raise awareness of modern-day child marriages.
And, perhaps almost as importantly, we should think about how we present history – in popular histories and animated fare. When we whitewash ugliness out of history, what effect does that have on how we see ourselves and how we see the present?
Given the three-dimensional nature of Game of Thrones, if George RR Martin and HBO had omitted forced consummations from their narratives they would have done medieval women a disservice. Does glossing over this historical ugliness help today’s child brides? Would it help the eight-year old Yemeni girl who died from severe internal bleeding on her wedding night — after her 40-year old groom forcibly consummated the marriage? This happened only a year and a half ago.
The issue with the rape scene isn’t the intensity of the violence. It’s that as women we hate seeing women raped on television. And, rightly so. But, do something with that anger.
Use scenes like Sansa’s rape as a graphic, visceral reminder of our collective history and on-going subjugation today. While we are still outraged, change the conversation. Redirect your rage towards the marital rape and child-bride practices that continue today.
As much as you may hate that rape scene, it is the history and modern-day reality underlying it that is truly disgusting.
- N. Vincent p. 138 Kindle edition [↩]
- As cited in http://www.academia.edu/6653466/George_R.R._Martins_Quest_for_Realism_in_A_Song_of_Ice_and_Fire [↩]