SPOILER WARNING: this article assumes you’ve watched the latest episode of Game of Thrones, season five, titled Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken. I’ll also be chatting about events in the very latest Game of Thrones book, which includes things that are different to the TV show and events that have not yet happened in the show. You have been warned.
Well, here’s a subject I never imagine writing about; rape. Specifically the raping of one Sansa Stark in the closing moments of this week’s Game of Thrones episode, a harrowing scene that has become a source of frankly engineered controversy over the past few days. Literally dozens upon dozens of articles have sprang forth keyboards around the globe as writers yell and scream about the final moments. It’s interesting that in a show where we’ve seen children killed, a brother sort of rape a sister,- a Horselord rape a future Queen of Dragons, a penis being cut off, numerous limbs hacked off, torture and who knows what else, it’s this one scene in particuilar that the journalistic community has chosen to draw the imaginary line in the sand. Why this one? What makes it different? By the often devestating standards of Game of Thrones it was almost timid.
According to the articles the problem appears to be that Sansa has been slowly become more self-empowered, and that the rape scene was utterly pointless, failing to advance the plot or do much of anything else. Furthermore they claim it was only there to really showcase Theon and Ramsay as the closing shot wasn’t of Sansa, but of Theon’s face, and that this somehow sidelined the horror of her rape in favor of focusing on a man.
Now, I do see some of the points. If you’ve read the books you’ll be aware that Sansa Stark isn’t actually even in Winterfell in those hallowed pages, and instead it is her best friend Jeyne Poole posing as Sansa that ends up getting raped at the hands of Ramsay Bolton, dickhead extraordinary. Furthermore Ramsay has Theon take part in the rape, too, plus there’s some extra brutality involved. Sansa’s friend has simply been bumped out so that the writers could actually have Sansa put in place instead, and I think that’s a good move. In the books she’s still not doing very much, and frankly I can’t muster up much enthusiasm her chapters. By placing her in Winterfell it gives Sansa a lot more to do. The dynamic between her and Theon and Ramsay is darkly fascinating. I mean, Theon had a pretty big hand in the destruction of the Stark family, and to Sansa’s knowledge was directly responsible for the death of her two youngest brothers, though obviously as we know he actually killed some other innocent children instead…Jesus, this show really is messed up. And we’re still drawing the line here, right? Right.
So, let’s tackle the subject heading on, starting with Sansa’s empowerment, or really her lack of. To be honest I’m struggling to see where this idea has come from; Sansa has always been and remains almost entirely powerless and at the mercy of those around her, sadly bandied about by people using her as nothing more than a pawn in a game she is only just now managing to understand. She’s had some great moments, for sure, and there’s a good one in this very episode where she scares off Ramsay’s current lover, even while she’s stark naked in a bathtub. But even then once the woman has left Sansa melts a little. She may be home, but she has no friends around her, Ramsay doesn’t truly love her, and she has no power to influence anything. Moreover, given what she has learned since arriving in Winterfell it seems likely that she knows her wedding night won’t be memorable for the right reasons. Last season, of course, we had the brilliant moment where Sansa opted to reveal herself, calmly walking down the stairs in a black dress. It was a pretty kickass moment, especially for people like me who were struggling to get behind her character in the books where that event never took place. But since then what little decisions she could make have been…well, questionable. She still has no power, and has been manipulated purely by Littlefinger to further his interests. Indeed, if we sit down and examine the story thus far Sansa has had an illusion of agency carefully crafted by Littlefinger. She had the illusion of choice to go to Winterfell, but we the viewer knew and understood that there really wasn’t a choice. Littlefinger had expertly steered her towards the objective, and in the process made Sansa feel like she was taking charge of her own fate.The only true bit of control she has had was to walk into the marriage with her head held high, and then step into that room knowing what it probably mean. And no, to quell the rumours, that doesn’t make the sex consensual, although do keep in mind that in the Game of Thrones world there’s no such thing as rape between a man and a wife, and that having somebody watch is also a thing because it proves consummation. Does that make it less bitter? Nope.
Thus we reach the topic of character and plot. To those arguing that the scene really wasn’t necessary because we already know that Ramsay is the Devil incarnate and therefore the rape sequence offered absolutely no new information, I would put forth a simple argument; for Ramsay not to rape or otherwise do some truly horrible to Sansa on their wedding night would have been completely out of character, thus equalling some rather bad writing. The stories of Ramsay feeding previous lovers to dogs via sadistic hunts was there to remind us that Ramsay doesn’t exactly treat women nicely, or men, for that matter. Yes, we didn’t actually need any more evidence that Ramsay was a prick since he chopped of Theon’s…er, prick, but that’s also exactly why a horrific scene had to happen. If you’re going to have a character who is essentially the perfect embodiment of evil, you have to make sure he can do the most evil things imaginable whenever he gets the chance, and what was more evil that raping Sansa? What was more evil than an attempt to strip away whatever control she felt she was finally managing to get? To shatter the illusion? What could be more evil than making Theon watch, thereby successfully torturing not just Sansa but Theon too while Ramsay got his perverse pleasure? And yes, it even serves the plot, because if it does indeed follow the books, and I’ll issue a spoiler warning for this too, then Sansa will eventually be escaping with the help of Theon. Through a now mutual loathing of Ramsay a strange relationship can now be born of the two people, with Theon presumably having to come clean about the younger Stark brothers. Yes, this could have been born of a less harrowing event, but again Ramsay is evil, and he did the most evil thing I could imagine in that scenario. Well, almost. The book’s treatment of fake Sansa at the hands of Ramsay was considerably worse, and we were surprisingly spared that. We must also consider that to our knowledge the marriage had to be consummated, otherwise it would be null and void, so one way or another this scene, even if it was a romantic love scene, had to happen.
So why place the camera on Theon? I’ve read that some people feel this takes the focus away from where it should be, namely on Sansa and the sickening experience she is going through. This is a tougher issue to tackle. Not only did focusing on Theon’s face mean that the young actress playing Sansa didn’t actually have to try to film a rape scene, which I can only imagine would be a lot to try to take in, but I found the brilliant performance by Theon and the chilling noises to be just as effective, if not more. I found the sequence to be brutal and horrible. It lingered with me was I turned off the TV and went to settle into bed. Finally the focus on Theon’s face is to help build him and the audience toward’s his eventual betrayal of Ramsay. Theon has taken a lot of shit at the hands of Bolton’s bastard son, but it’s this scene that shows him reaching snapping point, building towards the finale of that part of the story. Likewise as horrible as it is the scene builds Sansa toward finally achieving real agency within the world. Her true moment of power is still to come, as confirmed by the actress and show runners themselves.
It does brook comparison to season one where Daenarys was raped; the directors were brave enough to keep the camera on her face, to show her anguish. My main assumption is that the scene was shot this way to save the actress from filming a sex scene, which she has mentioned before as having no interest in doing. I’d also argue that not having the camera on Sansa during the scene doesn’t somehow magically take the focus away from her, which many have; she can still be clearly heard, and that creates a mental image arguably worse than what would have be shown. With the camera on Theon but the audio firmly on Sansa both characters are allowed have an important moment that slowly builds toward the culmination of their stories, and claims that this scene was set up to be entirely about a man’s pain, ignoring the rape itself, are stupid. You heard me, stupid. This wasn’t somehow a glorification of rape, either, yet another stupid comment I’ve seen. Indeed, consider it this way; the use of sound and the fact that the camera lingered on Theon’s tortured face was a startling reflection of how I can only imagine rape victims must often feel – dishonored, humiliated, alone, faceless, helpless, unknown to others.
But I do get the anger. Sansa has been pretty abused throughout the series, and by switching her for the fake Sansa the writers have seemingly just thrown her into even more abuse. Yet this is Game of Thrones, and character are constantly battered around, not just Sansa. And I do see where its building too, I think, and it could be the ultimate payoff, really. Again, we’re venturing into book territory and things here, so consider if you want to keep reading. Assuming we keep going on this path Theon and Sansa will escape before stumbling into the camp of Stannis, who is going to attempt to retake Winterfell. This opens the door for Sansa potentially taking her true place in Winterfell, possibly then leading into Littlefinger attempting to weasel his way back onto the scene because he has thus far managed to set up a scenario where he believes himself incapable of losing. Either he’ll take Winterfell for Cersei and thereby achieve Warden of the North, or Stannis will do the job and he’ll have Sansa as a friend, unless of course he arrives to find Sansa has been reborn as a genuine force within Westeros. It’d even possible Sansa will get to kill Ramsay. And that’s ultimately the thing; everybody is doing a lot of yelling and shouting, but I think I’d rather just wait and episode or two and see where they are actually going with this. I’ve learned over the years that a story should never be judged until its finished.
Having some patience brings us to another point. Rape is one of the most effective physical and psychological tortures in the toolbox of the sadistic for either men or women, and one of the complaints I’ve seen floating around is that by watching Theon’s reaction we never saw the anguish it was causing to Sansa, the victim, and thereby according to this train of logic Game of Thrones is attempting to invalidate the horror of rape in favor of focusing on a man. However, this is jumping the gun a little as Sansa’s scene was used to close the episode, so it seems likely we’ll see the ramifications of Sansa’s horrendous experience in the next episode. Exactly how she’ll handle it is an interesting question point; she’s been showing signs of wanting to fight back against her own lack of agency, and facing such horror at the hands of a man she must now call husband could be the spark she needs, as we just discussed. It seems odd to dismiss the rape scene as pointless without having any knowledge of what the culmination is intended to be. Yes, Sansa has gone through something horrific, something that has actually been coming for a long time since she was spared Joffrey, but now she can rise from the ashes, so to speak. I can foresee the writers perhaps reversing the book slightly so that it’s Sansa who takes the initiative and persuades Theon that escape is possible.
One of the most common threads I’ve seen floating around articles, comments and forums is that Game of Thrones is trying to normalize rape. Amazingly, it is, just not in the way people seem to think. Game of Thrones is normalizing rape within Game of Thrones, because in the Game of Thrones world rape is pretty damn common. It’s a harsh world, and need I remind you that it isn’t ours. It doesn’t have our laws or our morality. Seriously, we’re five seasons in now and rape has been talked about a lot, and shown several times. In the very first season we see Dany get taken unwillingly by Khal Drogo, which oddly enough actually turns into a romance fans loved, and still pine for. That, honestly, is actually more fucked up than the Sansa scene. Considering Daenerys became the woman she is now because of that rape, maybe we should just wait and see what the writers are planning before leaping to conclusions? At least hold on one episode.
Speaking of the Mother of Dragons, that brings me back to my earlier point of why now? Why this rape in particular? I mean, Daenerys got raped in the first damn season and there was minimal outcry over that. Theon got his manhood lobbed off, which I’m going to say right here would be right up there physically and mentally with rape, yet nobody seemed that fazed. And that makes me wonder rather cynically if the problem isn’t rape, but rather that Sansa is a woman, and feminism is currently a bandwagon topic. Whoah, whoah, take a second, I’m not dismissing the fight for equality or female rights or how women are often portrayed in various forms of media. How could I when I’ve supported it for so long? But I will always fight against the topic being brought up merely for the sake of it, because that damages the message, it doesn’t support it. Is the real problem here simply that Sansa is a girl? Imagine this: what if Ramsay had raped Theon? Theon suffered an extended season of torture and abuse, and arguably at this point has undergone as much horror as Sansa, in different ways, of course. Now, if the problem really was just a case of fans hating to see a rape scene simply for the sake of it and to avoid seeing a character who has already been put through so much get tortured in such a manner then surely Theon being raped would spark an outrage too? Maybe not quite as large since Sansa is probably viewed as the more sympathetic character, despite how many people disliked her in the first few seasons, but an outrage nonetheless. But I’m willing to bet that if it had been Theon there wouldn’t be a problem. Sure, it might have been shocking, but nobody would be too bothered. But because it’s a woman…Now, don’t get me wrong, had Sansa’s rape come out of absolutely nowhere and just been chucked in for seemingly no reason I would have been pretty pissed off, because at that point it would have indeed been a pointless and exploitive moment that didn’t need to exist. But that’s not what I’m seeing; I’m seeing a a scene which was written because that’s who Ramsay Bolton is, and a scene that could be used to send both Sansa and Theon into the next stage of their now joined story.
There’s another possibility: five seasons in the outrage isn’t because it’s rape or horrific, but because it’s a character people have finally grown to like. Had the person Ramsay abused been Jeyne Poole, as it was in the books, would people have cared so much? I don’t know. I think maybe not. The fact that it was Sansa coupled with the hot topic of feminism is really what caused the controversy, not really the rape itself, and that makes the conversation almost useless. We’re not having a reasonable debate, we’re just seeing a lot of websites running articles moaning without really offering much reason and a lot of people loudly declaring that they are done with Game of Thrones, not because there’s something actually worth talking about, but because it was a fan-favorite character who, because she had one badass moment last season, is now supposed to be exempt from the usual hardships Game of Thrones likes to throw around. But they’ll watch the next episode.
That’s the point, really. Game of Thrones has sparked a lot of moments were people loudly declared they were done with the shown. And then it all died away, and the series continue on its march to become the biggest thing in TV ever. No doubt there’ll be quite a few more such moments to come. But for now Sansa’s scene, at least to me, was important to the overall story and very well executed. It was brutally effective, sets up the coming story, furthers Ramsay as a nightmare and served as a chilling cliffhanger. There’s been a lot worse shown on the show, so let’s all just calm down and stop drawing imaginary lines in daft places.
Categories: Opinion Piece