5:15 am EDT, May 18, 2015

An incriminating context: Sansa Stark and the ‘Game of Thrones’ rape problem

Major spoilers below.

Game of Thrones fans are reeling from the violence unleashed on Sansa Stark in last night’s episode, but the real problem may go much deeper than one scene.

Having avoided unwanted intimacy with both Joffrey and Tyrion, Sansa found herself helpless when her new husband — the series’s foremost psychopath, Ramsay Bolton — violently forced himself on her. Though the camera turned away from Sansa’s terrified agony, the sounds of ripping cloth, cries of pain, and the image of Theon Greyjoy’s tears made it overwhelmingly clear that Sansa was becoming a victim of rape.

The scene is incredibly difficult to take in, both in its content and its implications. Fans have followed Sansa — and actress Sophie Turner — since she was a child. Viewers have observed with growing pride as Sansa diffused Joffrey’s deadly advances, found goodness in Sandor Clegane’s brutality, and handled her forced marriage to Tyrion with grace. Sansa has suffered immensely over the course of Game of Thrones, but somehow it seemed that the omnipresent specter of rape would never land a real blow on the brave young Lady Stark.

Those hopes are dashed now. Sansa has lost her virginity — brutally, against her will, and to an utter monster. This crucial point of her autonomy has been destroyed, and there is no way that Sansa will ever be the same again.

What went wrong

There is a lot to criticize about this decision, which deviates heavily from the events of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Online fandom, of course, has not held back, expressing rage and disgust at the rape; many fans have decided to stop watching Game of Thrones entirely.

The simplest and most prominent argument against Sansa’s rape boils down to the question of why such a development would be necessary. Executive Producer Bryan Cogman, who wrote “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” insists that the moment will become a point of strength for Sansa.


“This is a hardened woman making a choice and she sees this as the way to get back her homeland,” Cogman told EW. “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.”

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But this begs the question; why should Sansa have to deal with such a thing at all? What character development could be wrung from this tragedy that could not have been created without a violent rape? Why does Game of Thrones — and so much popular entertainment — revert to this horrific crime when they want their female characters to “grow”?

What went right

This question is especially important when considering the context and content of Sansa’s rape scene objectively. To play Ramsay’s Devil’s Advocate, it is worth noting that the intensely controversial scene is not exploitative; Sansa is not dehumanized, or used in any way as a prop. Her personhood is preserved — and was in fact reinforced by an earlier moment of real strength.

And Sophie Turner herself is enthusiastic of Sansa’s straits — though she has no illusions about the tone of the events her character experiences.

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“I love the fact she’s back home reclaiming what’s hers. But at the same time she’s being held prisoner in her own home,” Turner says. “When I got the scripts, it was bit like, dude, I felt so bad for her. But I also felt excited because it was so sick.”

As an actress, Turner admitted, “When I read [the rape] scene, I kinda loved it. I love the way Ramsay had Theon watching. It was all so messed up. It’s also so daunting for me to do it,” she said. “But I secretly loved it.”

So what’s the real problem?

The issue then, is perhaps not necessarily specific to this situation. As colossally upsetting, infuriating, and painful as it is to see Sansa violated in this way (and even to have to write the words “Sansa’s rape,”) the issue itself might not have been as controversial if Game of Thrones did not have such an absurdly poor track record where sexual assault is involved.

All the things which Game of Thrones does “right” for Sansa’s scene, it has done wrong before — and repeatedly. (This is, after all, the show which practically invented “sexposition.”) Game of Thrones regularly uses nude women as set-dressing, and has blatantly used rape as both a prop of violent men and an easy storytelling device.

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Last season, many fans were horrified when Jaime appeared to angrily rape Cersei on the floor of the Great Sept, as she begged him to stop. Though the writers, actors, and director all insisted that the scene had been misconstrued, the incident crystallized the fact that women on Game of Thrones are frequently presented as sexually disposable. Ros the prostitute was brutally murdered by Joffrey in season 3, and even the fur-clad Meera Reed was threatened with rape and murder in season 4.

Yes, Game of Thrones has strong female characters. Yes, they are often treated with care and respect. But the fact of the matter is, Game of Thrones has indicted itself on multiple counts of female exploitation. Even for hard-core fans, even for those who have no intention of quitting the show, the series has plucked that dreadful note of rape one too many times.

There are better ways to sculpt characters than sexual exploitation. There are more productive ways to cause pain than rape. And Game of Thrones has lost the luxury of further indulging in this social blight; it is way past time they do better.

The Sansa Starks of the world are waiting.

Game of Thrones season 5, episode 7, “The Gift,” airs next Sunday at 9:00 p.m. on HBO.

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