All (hopefully) of the bad arguments about rape on Game of Thrones debunked
One way you can tell that people are starting from a conclusion and arguing backwards is when they bust out the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink strategy: Trying a bunch of different arguments in hopes that one “sticks” and justifies a conclusion you’ve already arrived at and are trying to rationalize. That strategy was out in spades with the critics of the Ramsay Bolton/Sansa Stark rape on Game of Thrones. I’ve defended the scene, and I will note that my argument remains unchanged: It comported with the way the series exists, above all other things, to subvert common fantasy and adventure tropes that glamorize war by twisting certain cliches that we’ve become accustomed to, including the cliche that sexual violence is always thwarted at the last minute by a brave act of heroism.
But the arguments against it are classic moving goalposts: If not this, then this. Or this. Or this. Anything to justify the pre-existing conclusion that because this scene made viewers uncomfortable, it shouldn’t have been shown. Anyway, not to pick on anyone specific, but Jen Trolio of Vox manages to accumulate so many of the bad arguments in one piece that I figured I’d use her as a starting point for this debunking.
It doesn’t tell us anything new. “We were already quite familiar with Ramsay’s sadistic tendencies, because of his season-long torture of Theon and, as Myranda the kennel master’s daughter reminded us while trying to intimidate — or perhaps warn? — Sansa during bath time, his habit of hunting his former lovers for sport,” Trolio writes. So? It did answer a question that was legitimately vexing a lot of people—including the critics, as you will soon see—which was whether or not Ramsay was going to be able to hold back once he got Sansa alone. Answer: no. So yes, that is new information.
In addition, plot points have value other than revealing new things about characters. For instance, the relationship between Theon and Sansa, which was ice cold for understandable reasons, just got completely altered. They have been through some shit together now. The one person in the world who actually knows and gives a shit about her is someone she hates. If you don’t think that’s going to matter, you might not be very good at reading narrative texts. Which is all the more reason to keep watching and see how this plays out.
More to the point, this criticism is incoherent. If we already know that Ramsay is a sadist, then wouldn’t it have been terrible writing to have him suddenly and without cause start acting of character by not raping Sansa?
Why didn’t Theon hulk out? “And so, one of my first thoughts while watching that scene was, Is this where Theon finally snaps? In that moment, I thought he might attack, and maybe even kill, Ramsay,” Trolio writes. Yep, I think a lot of us were wondering that, too. Certainly, we have been conditioned by most narrative fiction, particularly adventure and genre stories, to believe that this is the moment where our hero finally overcomes and, in one last act of will, saves the day. That’s the cliche that we see over and over again.
But that’s what Game of Thrones does: It takes those cliches and expectations of the audiences and turns them on their head. The fact that we’re surprised every single time—every time a Ned Stark or Oberyn Martell dies—shows how much we are trained into certain rhythms of storytelling, including the daring last minute rescue. There’s nothing wrong with those cliches. But if those cliches are all there is or is allowed to be in storytelling, then that’s going to be stale. Game of Thrones is so addictive precisely because they resist your expectations about how these kinds of stories go. Because you expect the princess to be rescued in a last minute escape is exactly why you’re not getting that story.
Why didn’t Sansa hulk out? “There’s also the question of Sansa’s agency, which until recently had been increasing by the day. Urged on by Littlefinger (which, ugh — more on him in a second), Sansa willingly agreed to marry Ramsay to avenge her family, only to revert to a more passive stance and ultimately pay a terrible price. It was awesome to see Sansa stand her ground against Myranda, but what a step backward for her to then be raped offscreen as we ‘watched’ through Theon’s eyes.”
I have to say this argument is the one that personally hurts me the most, because it relies on the ugly and sexist belief that being a victim of sexual assault means you are weak or lack agency. The notion that Sansa is weak or somehow failed herself by getting raped is victim-blaming, flat out. As Laura Bradley at Slate noted, it’s arguable that this whole storyline shows how strong Sansa is, because she went into this with open eyes and a will to survive—and to try to take Winterfell back.
More to the point, this line of argumentation assumes that responsibility for rape belongs to the victim, for not fighting back hard enough. Nope nope and nope. This plot actually laid out how rape is a structural and cultural issue. Sansa cannot get out of this by running or fighting, because there are guards and an entire society around her that believes she is Ramsay’s property and will return her to him if she runs. The notion that she’s somehow weak or lacking agency because she can’t hulk out and destroy millennia of tradition or even just a couple dozen guards is just wrong. I enjoy a fantasy of a woman whipping ass and taking names as much as anyone else. But this is a different story, a story of a woman showing strength and agency by working within the system. Which is also an interesting story and no less a story of strength and agency.
Sansa Stark is strong. Unlike her brother and father and mother, she has learned to pick her battles and survive. Surviving is a strength. Not everything is about karate kicking your way out of danger.
They made it about Theon. “Not that I wanted to see it, of course, but I think the scene could’ve had more of an impact if it’d ended with a close-up on Sansa’s face, not Theon’s. That close-up left viewers with the impression that her rape was ultimately about him.” Wrong again. Yes, his was the last face we saw—as we are hearing her scream and cry. I don’t see why the visual information automatically trumps the audio information. (Ironically, the flip of this argument was all over the sexism charge levied against Age of Ultron. In that case, visual information—suggestions that Black Widow was forced to kill innocents—was ignored in favor of only paying attention to audio information about her forced sterilization.) We also saw her face, before we saw Theon’s. So both experiences were well-represented. But done so in a way that minimized seeing Sansa actually get fucked. Which was clearly done so that the scene was not titillating. If the focus had been on her head bobbing around, I guarantee the “titillating” charge would be the argument.
But there were other scenes in the past that got rape wrong. “This isn’t the first time Game of Thrones has come under fire for its depiction of rape; most recently, a season-four scene between Jaime and Cersei in the crypt that held Joffrey’s dead body drew widespread outcry, especially because it was written as more consensual in the books than it was in the show.” So, because someone did something wrong in the past, they aren’t allowed to get it right in the future? What’s the point of criticizing and engaging, if we refuse to allow people to grow and change? They screwed up in the past. I think they made up for it by listening and giving us a rape scene that actually hits all the marks.
This matters a lot, because, as Alyssa Rosenberg notes, sexual violence is an important and ongoing theme of A Song of Ice and Fire. It would be ludicrous to do a series that investigates the consequences of a patriarchal, semi-feudal society where women are used as objects to be sold and swapped in the game of thrones and then pretend that somehow rape isn’t a part of that process. That’s the kind of romanticizing—sure, we treat women like objects, but it’s not like we treat them like objects—that this series was written to criticize. In adapting the series for TV, they have to deal with this fact that rape is a part of this kind of society. It would be cowardly to suggest that you can somehow organize a society that disempowers women to such a degree without sexual violence being the immediate and predictable result of that.
“Either way, I hope the series won’t dishonor Sansa by reducing her to a pawn.” Just quoted directly. The series is not reducing Sansa to a pawn. The men around her are doing that. Watch with a more critical eye and you can see that the series is not siding with Ramsay and Littlefinger when it comes to using Sansa as a pawn. It’s asking us to see the world through her eyes, as well as the eyes of the one man in the mix, Theon, who has begun to realize how wrong all this is. (As an aside, I’ve seen the whole “but Theon did bad stuff and so I don’t care about him” reaction. Eh, this series is about rejecting that kind of dichotomous thinking and asking if people can have layers, or if they can grow and change. Theon did bad stuff. Theon regrets it. He’s not a mustache-twirling villain or a hero. He’s a person, which is more interesting, I think.)
Like I said, I don’t want to pick on Trolio, who, like us all, is caught up in the hot take needs of the internet. But she was far from the only one. So here’s a few more bad arguments I’ve seen around.
Ok, I’m done Game of Thrones.Water Garden, stupid.Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable.It was a rocky ride that just ended.
— Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) May 19, 2015
For the love of language, people, stop using “gratuitous” to mean “stuff that made me uncomfortable”. “Gratuitous” means “unwarranted”. I’m already uneasy with it as an argument, because it assumes that nothing can ever be put there just to elicit an emotional reaction or to look cool, but okay, when the subject makes people uncomfortable, it does require a little more work to justify it.
But this was not unwarranted. The rape was justified from a plot perspective, a thematic perspective, and a character perspective. Thematically, it’s important to understand the ugly consequences of a patriarchal society that treats women like pawns in the political games that men play to control power and wealth. Plot-wise, the rape was a straight up linchpin. The entire question of whether the Boltons control the North depends on how well they establish political legitimacy. Nothing matters more for that purpose than containing, ideally through marriage, the person who has the greatest historical claim to Winterfell, which happens to be Sansa Stark. And once that’s true, then the rape is just part of it. And again, it matters for character: For Ramsay, Sansa, and Theon to maintain consistent characterization, there is literally no other way this could have gone down.
A few other arguments I’ve seen around.
There doesn’t have to be any rape in the series! This is fantasy fiction, not history, and you can just choose to never have any rape in it. Mary Sue’s wretched freak-out over this epitomizes this argument, saying bluntly, “rape is not a necessary plot device.” Well, no. Nothing is a necessary plot device. In fact, you don’t have to tell stories at all. Or only tell stories about some things and not others.
And that’s fine, if that’s your taste. There are lots and lots of fantasy stories that don’t have rape. I recommend Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, which are both interesting and narratively complex and totally rape-free. Rape is not necessary to the stories they are telling, which are more traditional fantasy stories where the good guys always win, evil is always defeated, and the existing social systems are more or less just and correct.
That isn’t, however, the story that Game of Thrones is telling. Game of Thrones is telling a different story, one that explores the way that patriarchal systems that are often romanticized in fantasy would play out if they were more realistic. It’s one that is critical of the social systems in its world, holding them out as unjust and violent. And, like murder and war and poverty, rape is one of the consequences of that world.
I totally get not wanting to spend your time in a narrative that has a critical edge like that. A lot of the time, I am stressed out and just want to pour a glass of wine and watch The Flash, a show that has a black-and-white morality and takes an uncritical view of the social systems of its world. But I don’t want every show to be The Flash. There’s room for shows that ask harder questions.
They could have just made Ramsey not rape her. I’m unclear how people think that would work. Brain transplant? Broken foot? He drank too much at the wedding? Of course he’s going to rape her. He’s a sexual sadist in a world that tacitly permits—hell, basically expects, if she’s resistant—you to rape your wife on her wedding night. It would have been bad writing to have him suddenly become a different person.
Well, they could have faded to black as they went into the room. This assumes rape is less awful if you don’t have to see it. More to the point, the episode was working some themes about bearing witness and accepting truths. That would make it feel especially like the audience was abandoning Sansa to her fate. Believe me, I was made profoundly uncomfortable by all this. The cat got a lot of hugs! But I think that is what I should have felt. Which leads me to another argument I’ve seen a lot.
We don’t need to see rape to know it’s terrible. Technically, we don’t need stories that make us feel feelings at all to intellectually understand what feelings are. I don’t need happy stories to know, intellectually, that happiness is good. I don’t need tragic stories to know that sadness is bad. I don’t need stories of death to know that death sucks. I could go on forever.
Art isn’t about appealing to your intellectual knowledge of things. It’s about reaching you on a deeper, more emotional level. And the fact that a lot of people still expect things like the last minute daring rescue—or assume that being raped makes a character weak—shows that while they may intellectually know that rape is wrong, they haven’t really haven’t grappled with what rape is, what it does to people, and what is so wrong about it. Art, even art that makes you profoundly uncomfortable—hell, especially art that makes you profoundly uncomfortable—can drive those arguments home.
They could have made it like the books, where it’s some rando named Jeyne Pool instead of our beloved Sansa Stark. That assumes rape is less horrible if we don’t know the victim as well. Morally indefensible.
Look, watch or don’t watch Game of Thrones. This isn’t about making you like what I like. I fully accept that my appetite for stuff that can get really dark and violent might be vaster than a lot of people’s. That’s not the issue here.
The issue here is bad arguments and why feminists need to avoid them. Feminism is supposed to be a movement against reactionary politics, so this kind of reactive, rationalizing behavior—the kind we see so often from conservatives—is a bad look. I spend a lot of my time trying to debunk conservatives whose entire worldview is built around coughing up bullshit rationales to justify their thoughtless reactions, from “abortion is icky” to “sexual women are gross” to “hip-hop doesn’t sound like the music of my youth so it must be wrong”. Being challenged or upset by stuff is not a reason to be against it. It often means you need to slow your roll and think about things harder. Plus, bad arguments makes it easier for anti-feminists to paint feminists as a bunch of overly emotional, thoughtless and censorious creatures. Don’t give them that.