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Game of Consent
*Author's Note: There are many, many spoilers for Game of Thrones in this article. If you have not seen the show at all, or have not seen the show up to its most recent episode on May 17, 2015, do not read this article, for plot details from all five seasons will be discussed.
Once again, HBO’s wildly popular series Game of Thrones is in the news. Unlike the previous times the series has gotten widespread media attention, this is for less than stellar reasons. People aren’t freaking out over the latest mass slaughter of characters, posting reactions to a shocking single character death, or reacting to news about the sheer amount of pirated versions of the show or leaked episodes to make their way onto the internet. Nope, it’s because the show has once again decided to have one of its main female characters get raped in an attempt to add drama and shock to a series that regularly features brutal violence, foul language, and gratuitous nudity. Super.
The show has had faced criticism plenty of times in the past for how it has depicted rape, mostly because it returns to the trope regularly during the show's run. The very first episode of the series saw an example of marital rape, with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) being raped on her wedding night by her husband, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa). Come Season 4, Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) is raped by her brother, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), after their son was murdered. Last Sunday saw the rape of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) at the hands of her new husband, the sadistic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), once again playing the marital rape card, with the difference this time being that Ramsay’s servant Reek (Alfie Allen), formerly Theon Greyjoy, is punished by being made to watch the scene unfold, adding another layer of unpleasantness to the scene.
This is a regular issue in many current and modern television shows, but is also a general trend for how rape is used in fictional media. Most of these stories that use rape as a story element tend to do so in order to show something terrible happening to a female character, sometimes to break her or to add drama to her life. Some shows, like Veronica Mars, use it as an element of the character but handle it realistically. Other shows, like multiple American Horror Story seasons, use rape as a way for women to get hurt, working under the impression that rape is the most traumatizing thing that can happen to a female character. While rape is terrible, the overuse of it in pop culture as a way to victimize a character by having him/her (mostly her) raped or to demonize another character by having him/her (mostly him) be a rapist.
People are not happy about this new occurrence of rape in Game of Thrones for a variety of reasons. Many long time viewers have declared they will drop the show because of it, including Senator Claire McCaskill. George R.R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire series the show is based on, and Turner have both given responses to why the scene played out as it did. Martin’s response is that show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are trying to create the best television show possible and are making changes to the show based on what they think will make better TV.
“Making better TV” has been the claim many critics have thrown out when the show defends certain aspects of the show, particularly the changes from the novels or the use of certain elements, such as excess violence, torture, and so on. This has been particularly damning because the three main rape scenes were all changed from consensual sex scenes into scenes of rape, and for reasons that are particularly confusing and not very well thought out.
But here’s a thought about how to make better TV or how to respond to the criticisms of the show’s sex scenes: why couldn't they do the reverse with this one? Why couldn’t Sansa’s scene with Ramsay be consensual as opposed to unwarranted?
In the novels, when Daenerys sleeps with Khal Drogo, she spends the entire wedding dreading the moment. However, once they’re alone, she sees that he’s willing to be gentle and intimate with her. This causes her to drop her fears and consent to the sex. The show played the rape off as an error in communication caused by Daenerys and Drogo not speaking the same language, making Drogo’s rape of Daenerys a cultural difference and one where he isn’t even aware what he’s doing would be considered rape. Oddly, this same communication issue was present in the book, but they were still able to voice their consent through non-verbal means.
Once Daenerys and Drogo consummate, their relationship develops in a much healthier fashion. She does become more willing to participate and enjoy sex, while he’s also able to let her be the dominant in certain intimate moments. In the show, this does read a bit strangely since the relationship began with marital rape and doesn’t present a reason for why Daenerys suddenly wants to please Drogo sexually or why she’s suddenly falling for him even after he took her virginity in a rough manner. In the book, it at least can be explained by mutual respect and growing affection, but the show doesn’t have a clear or legitimate reason.
The rape of Cersei by the hands of her brother, however, is a lot clumsier and less excusable. The incestuous relationship of the Lannister twins was something that drove most of the show’s early story lines, with their relationship being the catalyst for every single bad thing that happened in the series. In the novel's version of this scene, Jaime and Cersei are having sex out of grief. Their son has died, their brother is accused of murder, and they’ve been separated for a long time. The scene isn’t played out to be romantic or intimate, but desperate and unnerving. They’re having sex near their son’s displayed corpse, Cersei is menstruating, and the whole sequence is to illustrate the sorrow and twisted affection Cersei and Jaime have for one another.
The show completely failed to make sense of that. In this version, Jaime is a lot more aggressive and forces himself upon Cersei despite her protests. This version of the scene has little support for why it’s playing out this way, and does a major disservice to both characters. Jaime had spent the last season becoming a lot more honorable and forced to confront a lot of the negative aspects of his personality, only to toss that aside to rape his sister. Cersei has been portrayed as being in control of her sexuality, and even though she’s in a moment of weakness, she’s still in control when she has sex with Jaime in the books. The show does away with that to make Jaime rape Cersei, and even worse, doesn’t even try to make it matter. Cersei has just been hurt by her brother at a sensitive time, and Jaime has momentarily lost the morals he supposedly gained from traveling with Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), and this doesn’t even matter in the long run. So why even make the scene play out this way?
The show’s universe has a different way of approaching sex than our modern world. In this world, women are treated much worse than they are here, with most women put in arranged marriages, forced to sell their bodies, or being killed as part of the injustices of the world. In most violent conflicts, women are raped by men as part of the chaos. In this world, most of the nameless, mass men who participate in battles are even described as being pro-rape, where there will almost certainly be rape if they take over a city. It’s something that the characters just accept, and it’s something that the viewers are asked to accept. The show wants to portray this medieval fantasy world as having different morals and ethics from our own, and while we’re made to feel better because we don’t entirely match this world, the presence of rape and sexual violence is something that’s all too familiar for us.
Which brings us back to Sansa Stark and her rape in the closing scene of the last episode. This is purely an invention of the show. In the books, Sansa isn’t anywhere near Ramsay, and Ramsay marries a girl they are pretending is Sansa’s younger sister so his family can claim Sansa’s ancestral home of Winterfell. By moving Sansa to Winterfell and having her marry Ramsay, the show is consolidating a bunch of stories and characters they’ve adapted out and are trying to present something a lot more manageable for television. The issue is that the scene doesn’t work for Sansa’s story, nor does it really say anything new about Ramsay, someone who has almost no dimension beyond his sadism and his daddy issues.
Sansa Stark was originally one of the least liked characters in the show, but has grown to be one of the most sympathetic and relatable characters. The first season had Sansa be a spoiled and privileged rich girl, promised to marry the future king and expecting a life of joy and comfort. After her fiancé beheaded her father, that ideal was shattered, and Sansa finally had to learn the realities of the world she was in. She spent the next few seasons as a political prisoner, being beaten in court, facing threats of sexual violence from the king, and finding it difficult to trust or relate to anyone, especially as all her hopes for escape started to disappear one by one.
Because of her time as a prisoner in King’s Landing, Sansa underwent one of the more subtle but notable character arcs of the show. Sansa’s had many people teach her how to survive in the city, from Queen Cersei, to her arranged husband Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), to her mother's old friend, Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). Each has given her ways to survive through words and feigning passivity. Sansa has learned how to act around all of these people, and she’s learned to say and do whatever it takes for these people to do what she wants or to avoid hurting her.
The reason I think Sansa should have consented to Ramsay is that it would have been a natural progression in her story. For the show’s five seasons, Sansa’s story has had the presence of sex constantly in the fray. She’s thought about having children with Joffrey before his true nature was revealed, had a moment of panic when she got her first period (as she would now be fertile and Joffrey would most likely rape her to try and sire an heir), was nearly raped during a riot, was educated by Cersei her on the power of her femininity and sex as a weapon, has been threatened with rape by Joffrey during her first wedding, and has had to deal with the unwanted advances of Littlefinger, who is using her to replace her mother. The one positive relationship she had was with Tyrion after she married him in Season 3. Tyrion wasn’t willing to sleep with her due to their age difference and the uncomfortable situation of their arranged marriage. He made it clear he wanted her consent before consummating, however long that took. What Tyrion did was considered strange for the setting, but he felt it was adhering to the moral code he followed.
This is a world where most people have to survive by having a flexible moral code, and Sansa has had to grow up very quickly in this world knowing this. Her ideals and hopes have been broken, so why should she expect her first sexual experience to be anything but unpleasant and horrible? This isn’t to say that anyone who has faced sexual harassment should give in or accept when it happens, but in a world where sex can be as powerful as a sword and a bag of gold, that would have been a good chance for Sansa to show how much she’s grown. She’s learned that Littlefinger is attracted to her, and she’s willing to fuel that by wearing sexy dresses and dying her hair so that she can keep him along as an ally and ensure he follows through with his promises. She’s learned to play the game over the course of the show, and giving her some sexual agency in her scene with Ramsay would have shown that she wasn’t completely a victim in this situation.
This would have been as easy as her being the one to insist that Reek stay and watch, not making eye contact with Ramsay, or even faking pleasure during the act. This wouldn’t mean she’d enjoy the sex or start to change her opinion of Ramsay, but it would have shown that she has some understanding of her setting and the people she’s dealing with. The Boltons were responsible for killing her mother and brother, and she’s marrying into their family as part of a larger gambit to have them killed and for her to reclaim Winterfell. To her, her virginity should have been a sacrifice to ensure that the sadistic Bolton family would finally see justice and be punished for their crimes against humanity. At this point, she should know she's not going to have any romantic sexual encounters, but she could at least try to find ways to deal with it and know what it would mean in the long run. Unlike how Daenerys and Cersei were portrayed in their rape scenes, Sansa would have had some control over the setting, knowing it was a given but still finding a way to make it something she could tolerate and use as part of her revenge.
But no, she has to lie helpless while Ramsay has her way with her. Obviously, this is a frightening and emotionally fragile situation for a girl between the ages of 14-16 to handle, but Sansa isn’t a normal girl. She’s a girl who has had to mature to womanhood much quicker and in a much more dangerous environment. The scene could have been a moment where she showed what five seasons of character development has been leading to, or to what it could lead to as the show progresses to a possible battle at Winterfell between the Boltons and Stannis Baratheon's army. Unfortunately, the writers and creators of the show have elected to make this another scene where something bad befalls Sansa and she has to be a victim, asking us to feel sorry for her once again when what the viewer wants is for her to rise above the situations she is thrown into.
People are mad about this scene because it’s a disservice to a great character and it’s also a cheap ploy for drama from a show that, quite honestly, should know better by now. It’s something that adds ugliness to an already ugly setting, but doesn’t do so in a way that helps the story. We already know Ramsay is evil and would resort to rape and sexual aggression, and him raping a character we know and love just reaffirms the negative feelings most viewers have for the character. We know Sansa’s a victim, but we also know she’s so much more than a victim and is actually much stronger than she appears. Having her finally be raped after five seasons of near-rape is a sign that the show is not willing to allow her some agency in her situation or even show her taking a darker turn and learning how she can use sex as a weapon to survive in the game. It’s a really poor decision, and there were so many other ways they could have handled it that could have worked better for the show, the character, and the overall cultural impact.
#Real #GameOfThrones #EpisodeReview #Consent #Rape #Media
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