The following article contains rape and sexual abuse triggers.
SPOILERS AHEAD if you haven’t seen episode 6, season 5 of the HBO Game of Thrones series, if you have or you’re not that bothered, by all means continue.
In the episode ‘Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken’, we face the distressing scene of Sansa Stark being raped by Ramsay Bolton on their wedding night while Theon Greyjoy is forced to watch. Many took to their keyboards to complain about it, including a lot of feminists. Why? There are a few reasons that keep cropping up, the core one seems to be that it wasn’t included in the books therefore it’s just being used as shock-impact TV without dutifully respecting the sensitivity of the issue, another was that it ruined the character arc of Sansa. There was also the argument that it was oppressing women by normalising violence and sexual assault towards them. Some feminist websites such as the Mary Sue have said that this scene was the final straw and that they will no longer be doing any coverage of Game of Thrones which is understandable and we must respect the need for safe places on the internet to exist. Today I’m going to tackle the third reason for the uproar over this episode and offer my views as to why rape is okay, if not necessary, to include in Game of Thrones.
So let’s have a quick recap of some of the other horrors we have seen in Game of Thrones so far. There has been the stabbing of a pregnant woman in the abdomen front of her husband and mother-in-law, we have had multiple cases of incest which have often featured the rape of women. There have been many graphic torture scenes and such an abundance of grisly deaths that it has become a running joke. In the very same episode we saw Sansa’s rape, we also saw Arya on the floor being whipped by an older man. Bear in mind that each of these issues will personally upset people to different degrees since everyone has a background of different experiences, fears and sensitivities.
By no means am I saying this trivialises Sansa’s rape scene or trying to place it on some fictional hierarchy of horrific events but what I am saying is that of all these sinister scenes, Sansa’s rape is one of the most commonplace and realistic occurrences in our society. The fact that there has been such a strong reaction to it by those for and against the inclusion of the scene alike just shows how uncomfortable we still are as a society acknowledging that this does happen. To put this in some perspective let’s not forget that marital rape in the United Kingdom was only made illegal in 1994.
It has been long argued that using rape as a creative plot device in fiction is inherently a wrong thing to do but I believe the alternative, acting like it does not happen, is far worse. If the scene makes the viewer uncomfortable then in my opinion, good. Seeing the violation and distress of it in a fictional setting emphasises that this is a very real problem to those that feel unaffected by it. Many will read a headline about rape in the newspaper and pass over it with little thought. If two minutes of intense discomfort watching actors play out a case of marital rape in a fictional TV show results in more people being able to get a greater sense of the seriousness of what rape actually is then I will endure the inclusion of rape scene after rape scene in mainstream TV and fiction so long as it is handled sensitively and with the gravitas it deserves.
That being said, for many, scenes like these bring back the distressing memories of their own experiences, particularly when they’re shown in a very graphic and realistic fashion. The solution to this is not to censor anything that could trigger a person but instead, to ensure that there is adequate forewarning of what may be shown so a person can choose to avoid viewing a harrowing rape scene. Unfortunately, a system of doing this that works effectively and is used universally without giving away plot spoilers is far from being perfected.
To its credit, scenes of rape and sexual assault in Game of Thrones have never (to my knowledge) been glamorised. They have always shown the chilling horror to some extent and, excluding the scene in the sept between Cersei and Jaime (which is a complete exception to this post as that scene WAS unnecessary), they have always been perpetrated by characters we are meant to hate.
The rape of Sansa made people talk about the issue, it forcefully made itself linger in almost every viewer’s mind long after the scene cut to black. How many more people will now pause before making a rape joke or trivialising ‘just some drunk chick crying rape’ and realise the true gravitas of rape just because that scene happened?
For this reason, I am grateful that yet another rape scene was included in Game of Thrones even though it made me want to physically be sick.
It is terrifying and unfortunately, it is very much a real and frequent occurrence in our world. It should not be left solely to the victims to face the realities of what rape is alone.