(This article contains references to graphic scenes of violence, sexual assault and rape.)
Spoilers ahead for 'A Song of Ice and Fire' book series.
I love Game of Thrones. L-O-V-E it. The drama, the intrigue, the dragons. But there are times when I find myself feeling just a little bit f*cked up for loving it so much. Like in Season 1, when Khal Drogo rapes Daenerys (who winds up falling in love with him), and in Season 4, when Jaime rapes Cersei next to their dead son (but then she's somehow kind of into it?), and in Season 5, when Ramsay rapes Sansa Stark.
Over the weekend, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Gary Davey, an executive from Sky TV (the company that distributes Game of Thrones in the UK) threw in his two cents about the violence against women that has been a recurring theme on the show.
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When someone brought up the criticism against the way the show portrays violence against women — specifically the scene in which Ramsay rapes Sansa on their wedding night — the balding executive responded with the following:
“I think that’s nonsense. There is also a lot of violence to men. For anybody who’s watched the show it can be a very violent show. I don’t think the violence against women is particularly highlighted. It is just part of the story. The rape happens, it’s part of the story, it was in the books.”
Mr. Davey clearly did not understand the question. The question is not criticizing the fact that GoT shows violence toward women. If it were, he would be right. The show does also show violence toward men — much, much more, in fact. The problem is how the show chooses to represent violence toward women, and why that's a big problem.
First, there is the factual mistake in Davey's statement. The scene in question — in which Ramsay rapes Sansa on their wedding night and forces Theon to watch — is not in the books (if it were, it would not have been a good scene there, either). Nor was the rape scene between Daenerys and Khal Drogo, and the scene between Jaime and Cersei was considerably different. But those are topics for another article...
The book rape scene that Davey might have been referring to happens when Ramsay rapes Jeyne Poole, a low-born girl and Sansa's best friend, who is posing as Arya Stark (on Littlefinger's instructions) and marries Ramsay.
Some have argued that Benioff and Weiss have merely merged Jeyne and Sansa's storylines into one for the sake of saving time. However, of the many things that happen while Jeyne is at Winterfell — a feast, a snow storm, a murder mystery, and many, many more instances of abuse — the only one that Benioff and Weiss felt "relevant" enough to keep in was the rape.
In the books, the scene in which Yara comes to rescue Theon and he refuses to leave actually happens to Jeyne. But Jeyne is lowborn, and no one in Westeros cares that she is suffering these traumas, except, eventually, Theon. MadameAce summed it up in her article "What We Can Learn from Jeyne Poole, Theon Greyjoy, and Ramsay Bolton: Part 2" when she wrote:
By replacing Jeyne with Sansa, a girl who “matters”, and neglecting Theon’s internal identity conflict, the rescue [of Sansa from Winterfell] became about Theon regaining his masculinity after being completely emasculated seasons earlier. And the show wanted us to cheer him on for that reason. ASoIaF, on the other hand, didn’t care about Theon’s masculinity. Jeyne’s rescue by him wasn’t about that. It was about doing the right thing when no one else would and getting both her and himself as far away as possible, even if that meant death. Jeyne’s rescue by someone as horrible and socially ostracized as Theon and not by the supposedly honorable lords around her only goes to enforce this.
But the show is different from the books, right? They didn't have time to add in separate Jeyne Poole and Sansa storylines, so they did the best they could. Right?
No. There's something particularly annoying about the way Davey says that "violence toward women isn't particularly highlighted." It's not highlighted per say. But that might be part of the problem.
For one thing, the camera chooses to focus on how watching the rape becomes a humanizing experience for Theon (note that in the show he is only forced to watch, while in the books he is forced to participate, becoming victimized by Ramsay himself). From the moment the rape actually begins, we no longer see Sansa at all, but simply hear her cries and watch the impact that they have on Theon's face. Her cries themselves are even somewhat muted, so that we are sure to hear Ramsay's grunting and Theon's whimpering just as clearly. It is disturbing and tragic, to be sure, but it's about Theon more than anyone else, and his struggle to become himself again. Sansa's character is having a whole, horrendous experience of her own, yet it has suddenly become merely a backdrop for Theon's inner conflict. Why is her experience (that of actually being raped) secondary to Theon's experience of watching?
When Ramsay tortured and mutilated Theon, we were completely present with Theon. No one tried to pull our sympathy away from him. It was disturbing and gruesome but it was good story-telling. It set further events into motion, and established a rich — albeit painful — arc for Theon's character to follow. By failing to include any of these elements in Sansa's rape scene, Benioff and Weiss are catering to the notion that violence against women is simply part of life, something to be suffered through and accepted, rather than condemned and actively fought against.
In Season 6, Sansa shows great agency. She brings the Knights of the Vale to win the Battle of the Bastards, and she finally feeds Ramsay to his hounds. Let's hope that this is a trend that continues into the final seasons of Game of Thrones — not just in her moments of triumph, but in her moments of suffering, too.
Want more Game of Thrones? Check out this behind-the-scenes look at the making of "The Battle of the Bastards":