We wrote down our feelings before podcasting as to not ramble and to make sure our reasoning was clear. For reference, while Mia agrees with my point, this long, long opinion was written entirely by Liz. So if you have someone to complain to, it’s me. Mia has added her own comments at the end regarding her views on it separately from the Game of Thrones universe, but my opinion is fully formed based upon Game of Thrones solely.
So, let us start off with what happens in the book. In the book, Ramsey married Jeyne Pool, a childhood friend of Sansa who the Boltons are pretending is Arya Stark. During this scene, Ramsey forces Theon upon Jeyne orally before raping her himself. The scene is a lot more graphic in the books. Potential spoilers, Jeyne deals with a lot of torture at the hands of Ramsey. She is essentially Reek 2.0. Jeyne does mostly serve as a character to further Theon and Ramsey’s plots. BUT we have to recognize that these two women are not interchangeable and what happens in the books is no longer a valid excuse, especially as the show has deviated from the book dramatically in this season.
Many people have been arguing that rape is not character development and that is what makes this scene bad. I agree, rape is not a form of character development. There are people, and poor writers, who often use a woman’s rape as the start of her empowerment, including Game of Thrones. Rape is not what is empowering, but it is easy to rationalize it as the catalyst of self-actualization as a consumer. Rape is a reality that a significant amount of the population faces, so on one hand the representation is nice, but it’s also choosing to potentially trigger a significant amount of your audience. For many victims, their rape is one of the many reasons a person is changed, potentially as a stronger or more vengeful person. I say this as a person who fits in that category. That being said, we don’t need rape in our fantasy stories to make a woman strong or a man evil.
Sansa and sexual assault is old hat; it has been a threat in different forms since the first season. In fact, there is not a main female character in Game of Thrones that has not faced the threat of sexual assault. Moreover, Sansa is, by all means, a child bride.
But I’m not fully against this scene, in fact, I think I may appreciate it.
It’s important to note that men are sexually humiliated and tortured in Game of Thrones, as well. While it is different than the sexual violence against all female characters, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. On the other hand, more women can relate to, and therefore react to, the violence against women than male watchers would likely relate with the violence against men. No one spoke out against the sexual violence against the men, which has happened in this same season (the scene with the high septon in “High Sparrow”). You also have the entire, tragic story line of Theon. Game of Thrones has such heavy emphasis in family trees, who gets the throne and why their bloodline is important. Because of this, bastards are such an important part of the story, that to ignore the rape in which they were created would be cruel. Could they just say it in the same way that they mentioned Ramsey being a baby of rape? Or Sansa Stark telling the story of Rhaegar and Lyanna as rape? Possibly.
Game of Thrones is no stranger to controversy regarding sexual assault. Last season, Jaime and Cersei had a similar controversy in which the book to TV show rape translation was sketchy. This scene was also met with tremendous pushback. Many of the characters who have faced assault weren’t as well thought of as Sansa, nor were the assault scenes curated as carefully to evoke emotion. There was knee-jerk reaction to this scene, and I think that it is exactly what they wanted. I think that this is potentially the best rape scene in the show thus far. Alfie Allen, the actor for Theon, said “(the scene) it’s really going to make huge waves, and people aren’t going to be happy about it.” I think that this scene, more than the other rape scenes, was met with great care and consideration by the creators and actors alike.
I truly, truly believe that they thought they did this scene justice. I truly believed they showed Theon instead of Sansa, to protect both the viewer and Sansa’s integrity. I truly believe that Theon was supposed to serve as the reflecting eyes of the viewer. In the book, Ramsay forces Theon to join, which keeping that in would ruin that perspective. If it were to follow the book, you would think this scene would be to only serve a later Theon, but I don’t think that’s the case. Bryan Cogman, producer, stated that the scene was “a shared form of abuse that they have to endure, Sansa and Theon. But it’s not the extreme torture and humiliation that scene in the book is.” The true emotional and visceral reaction, that even I faced, is a testament to the amount of work and thought they put into creating this scene. As well as, an amazing review for Alfie Allen’s acting ability. Cutting it after this scene made it so we had to feel it, we had to think about it, we had to experience it for longer. This, to me, feels like the most respect and thought they’ve put into a rape scene. I truly think they listened, they tried, and perhaps missed the mark.
Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post wrote an article entitled “‘Game of Thrones’ has always been a show about rape” in which she states “this scene felt of a piece with the way I’ve always understood “Game of Thrones” and George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire”: as a story about the consequences of rape and denial of sexual autonomy.” and that “that the omnipresence of sexual violence in the world Martin created is the point, not “illicitness … tossed in as a little something for the ladies,”” She reminds us of many other instances of sexual violence, lack of consent or autonomy that is regularly expressed in both the novels and the show towards both men and women. Her point is an incredible point to be considered and we will link the post in the description.
Making rape an untouchable subject allows us to be silent about a very real societal problem. Yes, a fantasy that is too realistic can take us out of our dream worlds and quickly into reality, but I’m starting to believe that is good. Game of Thrones has managed to create multiple conversations about rape, rape within marriage, and what counts as consent. These conversations get to happen without any one in the real world being hurt. The internet does not unite in this way about real rape, we do not talk about real rape. We discuss fantasy rape on the regular. I would not be at all surprised if Game of Thrones has helped many people understand the boundaries of consent and the horror of rape better.
I think this scene served as a reason for people to jump off the wagon who have hated this season thus far. I am willing to change my mind based off the rest of the season, but as for now, I get what they were trying for. Rape has to be portrayed with ample amounts of consideration of both the audience and the characters. I feel like the consideration and effort was there this time. They may have just missed the mark for many viewers.
Just to add a little more of a broader perspective, I think this scene makes sense in the Game of Thrones universe, it’s in character, it’s almost expected of Ramsay. But I don’t think that the reliance on rape as a plot or character device is a Game of Thrones-only issue and I don’t think we can view it in a vacuum. Rape and sexual assault are important issues that should be able to be discussed and analyzed in media, but I, like many others, am sick of the reliance on those plots. It’s a lazy way to say, “This woman has been insulted or hurt intimately and has something to fight for,” or “This man is evil and inhuman.” It’s an issue about media overall — I am sick of expecting and having to react to sexualized violence in media. While Game of Thrones is known to tell stories in a sexually violent way, we can’t use “It’s Game of Thrones” as an excuse for the wider issue.
Also, It’s annoying to watch this show as a feminist because I feel the need to defend the show’s actions. I think this scene could have easily been done without yet another rape scene — everything the scene was trying to establish has already been established. But as far as rape scenes go, this scene better portrayed the horror of rape than many, especially compared to previous scenes in Game of Thrones. In particular, I’m thinking about Cersei’s rape by Jaime in the last season, which the showrunners did not view as rape and it was presented in a “sexy” way.