By Karthik Shankar:
This week fans were taken aback as Game of Thrones unveiled another of its infamous shock moments. After Sansa Stark marries Ramsay Bolton, the psychopathic son of Roose Bolton, in a hauntingly beautiful wedding, he takes her up to their chambers and then forces himself on her all while forcing Theon Greyjoy/Reek, his tortured prisoner, to watch. The scene was the final straw for some fans. The Mary Sue, a popular female oriented pop culture site announced that they would no longer be recapping the shows. Author of the book series George R.R Martin distanced himself from the controversy on his personal blog saying that the book and TV show were different entities. Even a U.S Senator Claire McCaskill weighed in, saying she would no longer watch the show.
So what is it about the scene that made so many fans angry? It’s the show’s repeated use of rape as a plot device. Sansa’s rape is the third on the show so far, after Daenerys’ rape by her husband on their wedding night and Cersei’s rape by her brother/lover Jamie Lannister. Even more notable, both those scenes are written as consensual sex scenes in the books. The latter scene which happened in season 4 further drew the ire of the fans because the creators insisted that the scene was consensual, even though nothing of the way it was filmed spoke otherwise.
Now it’s a given that Game of Thrones is set in a misogynistic world. Just because a movie or piece of work is set in a world of gender inequality doesn’t mean that the piece of fiction has to be misogynistic itself. Look at the recently released Mad Max which has a bevy of ass-kicking females in a world where sexual violence is common.
Yet, there are many problems with the latest episode’s rape scene, and they are not just related to matters of prurience. The first is that this move makes no sense for Sansa’s character. A more horrific version of the scene does take place in the book but with another character, Jeyne Poole. Jeyne, who was Sansa’s companion in Winterfell, is married off to Ramsay after posing as Arya. She is raped, whipped and also assaulted by Theon on Ramsay’s orders. It is also heavily implied that Ramsay has her copulate with his hounds.
Comparatively, the scene in the show was tastefully shot. We just see Ramsay tear Sansa’s dress from behind and then the camera pans away to Theon, tears streaming down his face, while we hear her screaming. No one can call the scene gratuitous. However, the book doesn’t dwell on the sexual violence the way the show does. Jeyne’s torture is mentioned in passing only. There’s a clearly a world of difference between the written word and audio visual media.
But in the show’s insistence for shock scenes, it interchanges two very different female characters. Sansa is not Jeyne Poole. The former is a character who increasingly gains agency through the books and the show. Sansa’s story in Game of Thrones has been a tragedy so far. Brought up with tales of brave knights and princesses, she wears femininity much more comfortably than her sister, Arya. All that changes, after her father’s execution, when she becomes the plaything of cruel monarch, Joffrey Baratheon. After Joffrey’s murder, she then became the pawn of the scheming Master of Coins, Peytr Baelish.
The relentless passivity and victimisation of Sansa is in stark contrast to her younger sister’s agency. But the show began to show that things were changing. Sansa learns to play the game of charade by revealing her true identity to the Lords of the Vale and surprising Peytr. She also refuses Brienne of Tarth’s help when on her way to Winterfell with Lord Baelish. By the time they arrive there it seemed like Sansa was a newer, more self-aware person. Even her earlier scene in the same episode where she rebukes Myranda, the paramour of Ramsay, she displays a quiet strength we rarely see from her. Which is why it is all the more distressing that she seems to have no say in her wedding night (especially when it is mentioned that Ramsay is infatuated with her). Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the show allowed Sansa to use her sexuality with the smitten Ramsay? It would be a character evolution rather than regression at least.
The scene is also repugnant for the way it is shot. Rather than make the scene about the indignity that is taking place with Sansa, the camera focuses on Theon’s face as his façade finally begins to break. This is a man whose identity was beaten out of him, who was flayed and even castrated by Ramsay. However, this scene is what breaks him. It plays into patriarchal ideas of rape once again. Men must protect our women. Why is this scene even about Theon? Wouldn’t it have been braver if the camera focused on Sansa’s face?
Now some might say that all this will become a recurring part of the plot. There have been TV shows that dealt with rape commendably, such as Veronica Mars. Possibly Sansa’s rape will have repercussions in her arc rather than leading to her being rescued than someone. That being said, I no longer trust the show’s writers to deal with this empathetically. In an interview, the episode’s writer Bryan Cogman remarked, “This isn’t a timid little girl walking into a wedding night with Joffrey. This is a hardened woman making a choice and she sees this as the way to get back her homeland. Sansa has a wedding night in the sense she never thought she would with one of the monsters of the show. It’s pretty intense and awful and the character will have to deal with it.”
In other words, Sansa’s rape was a ‘choice’ made by her. If anyone wants to drown out the screaming voices from their head, they can watch the amazing Peter Dinklage instead.