Trigger Warning : Please be advised that this essay discusses sensitive topics relating to sexual violence in media and may be triggering to survivors.
If you have been on the internet at all in the past couple weeks, or actually watched Game of Thrones, you probably know about the rape of Sansa Stark that occurred in a recent episode of GoT. You may be asking why many people are crazed with debates over this scene, and did GoT really go too far? Many dedicated fans pulled their viewership from the show to display their disgust with the series’ portrayal; and many others came out in support of Bryan Cogman (writer of the episode) and his decisions for the scene.
The Hero’s Journey, by Joseph Campbell, states that a protagonist must overcome the Supreme Ordeal: a series of tests or sets of obstacles to make them stronger. This motif is essential in all forms of story-telling, myths, and modern entertainment: Dorothy’s trials in defeating the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz, Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star and defeating the emperor in Star Wars, etc. And yet, it has become a cliché now for the Hollywood arena to empower women solely through severe trauma and rape. The overall issue goes much deeper and is not unique to GoT: it is so often in film and television that women are displayed as “weak”, then they experience a traumatic event, and THEN they develop agency.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Game of Thrones (mainly Daenerys and her dragon babies) and I have been a dedicated viewer since HBO took on the book series, so I have gotten to a point that nothing surprises me in this show. It just seems like there is either an absurdly graphic murder or a rape in each episode, which can be disturbingly desensitizing after some time.
Many argue that the abundance of rape scenes fit in with the time period of this fictional universe. Sure, it takes place in an equivalent to our Medieval Era where rape was used commonly in many aspects (war tactics, slavery, marriage, etc) with no justice for the victims; I could argue that globally, we face the same issues today. I also understand that there is graphic material in the books that they cannot show on screen because it is too disturbingly violent. With that being said, my first argument is that the rape of Sansa does not actually occur in the books. Nor does the rape of Cersei by her brother Jamie, nor the marital rape of Daenerys by Khal Drogo on their wedding night. Seemingly, HBO’s version of telling the story is that they’re empowering women through severely traumatic events with plans that the women will come out of these experiences stronger; that there will be a reason for them to become stronger. So do I have to watch all my favorite female characters get violently assaulted in order for them to gain ascendancy and empowerment?
Women portrayed in entertainment, Sansa Stark included, already have hardships and obstacles to overcome throughout their journeys. What — Sansa witnessing her father’s death, engagement to the psycho King Jeoffrey, and the entire murder of the Stark family wasn’t enough? Nah, we need to put in a rape scene for her to develop agency. It has gotten to a point where there are so few main women who have not had rape scenes in the GoT series, making it difficult to watch.
I am tired of sitting down to watch a TV show I love, or an exciting new film, and having to sit through (yet another) graphic rape scene in order to see a female character gain importance, all in order to make the victim a more “empathetic” or “powerful” character.
Frankly, reminders that we live in a rape culture are around us all the time. These scenes do not do justice to the victims who have been sexually assaulted or raped; it does not heal real victims. In fact, it can develop into a more triggering situation, especially as so many comments have been made that Sansa was marrying Ramsey, so what did she expect? OR, my favorite: She never said “No”. Right. The usual ignorant comments that solidify the fact that we live in a rape culture. Exploiting these kinds of experiences doesn’t raise awareness, it just turns it into “entertainment.”