‘Game of Thrones’ Under Fire for Rape Scenes — Should It Be?

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(Photo: Courtesy of HBO)

Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones ended with a wedding. And as fans of the show have come to expect, with a wedding comes shocking acts of violence.

And yet Sunday night’s show has been met with a kind of critical outrage that the series’ Red Wedding episode (by all accounts, a fan favorite for the way in which it shocked its audience with a bloody massacre that saw a good majority of main characters and undeserving extras alike brutally slaughtered) did not face. The most recent episode concluded with the marriage of Sansa Stark – and her subsequent forcible rape by her new husband, Ramsay, while he makes his prisoner Theon watch.

A growing number of critics and fans are expressing their outrage at the treatment of Sansa’s character, body, and narrative arc. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) took to Twitter to announce that she was “done” with the show as a result of this development. New York Magazine’s Nina Shen Rastogi wrote in her recap of the episode that the scene felt “hateful on a narrative level,” adding that it’s “cruel to strip Sansa of the agency she’s been accruing.” Online, Vanity Fair summarized their opinion with the headline: “Game of Thrones Absolutely Did Not Need to Go There with Sansa Stark.”

The website the Mary Sue declared “We Will No Longer Be Promoting HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’”.  And fans took to Twitter to berate the show’s writers from deviating from the plot line in the books on which the series is based (Sansa is never raped in the original story). 

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To many, the storyline crossed a line because rape, critics believe, is not and is never meant to be consumed as entertainment. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sarah Mesle notes that it is “disappointing that the show would, yet again, see rape as it’s most effective plot device.”

And yet, perhaps it can also be argued that to not show rape, ever, on television or on film, or even in novels, is to ignore the aggressive reality of its presence, not only in American pop culture, but in American life. 

Related: Nearly 19% of Female College Freshmen Will Be Victims of Rape or Attempted Rape

Rape is a violating act in which the perpetrator seeks to dehumanize the person they’ve assaulted. Sunday night’s Game of Thrones, graphic and disturbing as it may be, accomplished exactly that in the rape of Sansa stark on both a narrative and structural level. If rape should never be shown on screen, can the same also be said of murder, as happens with great regularity on Game of Thrones, or torture, which is a common plot line in hit shows like Homeland and was a key element of the Academy Award-nominated film Zero Dark Thirty.

Furthermore, the episode could also be read as an iteration of French anthropologist and theorist Claude Levi-Strauss’s alliance theory, one of the key elements of which is the way in which women’s bodies are objectified and commodified through marriage. A woman is given from one man to another – she is property for her respective male “owner” to do with as he likes. This, certainly, can be said of the marriage of Sansa Stark. The feminist theorist Andrea Dworkin is famous for her claim that heterosexual intercourse is in and of itself always a form of “occupation,” wherein a woman’s agency is  sacrificed. While Dworkin is also known for her critique of the way that the sexual sublimination of women has been fetishized and exploited culturally, perhaps it could be argued that Game of Thrones – rather than being yet another device that offers up an eroticized version of raw exploitation – in fact forces its viewers to confront the realities of these kinds of cultural representations and their meanings. 

Related: What’s Really Behind College Rape Culture?

That is, the rape of Sansa Stark isn’t just pure pornography, but rather a narrative construct meant to call attention to the problems with the ways in which rape is made palatable through pop culture.

For Mesle, though, it is more complex than this. She explains what she finds to be problematic about the episode, saying:

“The dangerous trick here goes like this: someone fantasizes about a world in which rape frequently occurs and consistently goes unpunished; to explore this emotional fantasy, they set it in a premodern narrative fantasy world where they can displace their own desire onto “history.” The dark impulse or desire isn’t theirs, then; it’s the world’s. It’s history’s. And once a dark personal fantasy becomes “realism,” gazing upon this dark thought or idea isn’t a kind of humiliating or dangerous self-reflection, it’s laudable: it’s an honest engagement with truth.”

This season of Game of Thrones is not over yet, nor is the series as a whole. It remains to be seen, then, not only whether viewers will abandon the show because of the way in which it depicts rape and women’s sexuality, but also whether the show has a long game in mind to subvert the male gaze, castrating the patriarchy instead of celebrating rape as entertainment.     

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