I’ve taken too long to comment on Sunday night’s episode because frankly it is a difficult subject and I’ve rewritten many drafts of this article as I try to figure out how I feel. This is the first half of my editorial. My apologies for the delay.
Sansa’s rape has offended and outraged fans, journalists, and even American senators. Websites like The Mary Sue have announced they will no longer cover Game of Thrones due to its repeated portrayal of rape. The Washington Post characterized Game of Thrones as always being “a show about rape.” And, others have called for a boycott of the show. Is this outrage warranted? As one reader of this website pointed out, few viewers have personally experienced Game of Thrones’ other forms of violence, such as murder at a wedding or flaying. Many people in our society, however, have lived through rape.
I believe that, as women, we particularly hate seeing rape on television. (I personally hate seeing any extreme violence against women. I worry extreme violence gives psychos new and creative ideas.) When television depicts rape, it can remind rape victims of their trauma and even create a flashback to the event.
I believe the disgust with Sunday’s rape scene isn’t so much with the artistic nuances: that’s just window dressing, a distraction from the real issue. (Critics have written that Sansa’s rape robs her of agency, it sets back her character growth. They were disgusted the scene ended with a shot of Theon.) The issue is that we simply don’t want to see a character we’ve come to know get raped. And, we probably don’t want to see rape on television. Period.
The reason there wasn’t the same outrage when Khal Drogo raped Daenerys during the first episode raped was because we didn’t know Dany yet.
When a powerful main character like Cersei is raped, it’s too close to home. When a character like Sansa with whom we’ve begun to self-identify gets raped, it’s personal. Especially for girls and young women who identify with her ups and downs as she moves towards self-actualization, her rape assaults us. We are virtually accosted while she is being raped. We feel equally powerless – and it hurts.
Should rape be portrayed on television?
The fundamental question may be, do we want to see rape on television in anything other than a documentary? I would argue that emotionally many viewers do not. If rape is going to be shown at all, it probably needs to be depicted in a way that furthers the conversation.
A few weeks ago, I caught part of some derivative crime show in which an older female character is raped in an underground parking garage to foreshadow the rape of a younger female character. The only true dramatic purpose this scene had was to create a threat. Frankly, my knee-jerk reaction was disgust at the lazy, low-caliber writing.
But, I wouldn’t have been half so critical if the show hadn’t been relying on “fem-jep” (female in jeopardy) for its thrills. I have a special hateful place in my heart for that clichéd genre. It nests there with crime shows about stalkers and serial killers that target women. And, I despise all of these genres even more when they cavalierly include vicious rapes, which I fear unwittingly cultivates an atmosphere of violence towards women.
Do such shows add to the conversation? I don’t think so. Not anymore.
I don’t think Sansa’s rape falls in that category though. Her rape can further the conversation if we look at history and what goes on with child marriages in the world today.
HBO substituted the Sansa in the book’s disgusting Jeyne-Poole rape scene. I hated that scene in the books, although in fairness to George, Book Ramsay’s wedding night had to include violence. Once you marry Ramsay off, rape on his wedding night is inevitable.
To their credit, HBO mercifully tried to soften the Jeyne Poole scene, which would have been way too intense for TV. The rape itself isn’t graphic. Technically, it’s akin to the shower scene in Psycho in which violence is suggested but not depicted. We never see Ramsay (ugh) penetrating Sansa. We don’t see nudity. We see Sansa’s face. We hear her screams. We see Theon’s tears.
This doesn’t necessarily make it better.
Here is what producer Bryan Cogman told Entertainment Weekly when asked if the scene would be as brutal as the one in the novels:
““No!” he said. “Lord no. No-no-no-no-no. No. It’s still a shared form of abuse that they have to endure, Sansa and Theon. But it’s not the extreme torture and humiliation that scene in the book is.””
In his blog post yesterday, George RR Martin talks about the butterfly effect of changing small parts of the book in the show. What he is indirectly saying, I believe, is that once you marry Ramsay to Sansa instead of Jeyne Poole, you (consciously or unconsciously) end up altering the dramatic effect of the rape scene.
We didn’t know Jeyne Poole that well in the books. She is not a point of view character. Substituting a point-of-view character like Sansa (for better or for worse) in the Jeyne-Poole rape scene is like dropping in a nuclear bomb.
And, like I said, if we feel like we are raped in the scene, regardless of how we try to rationalize it by discussing artistic merits, that’s why we are going to hate it.
To be continued…