The 'Game of Thrones' Rape Problem
“Well, We’re Talking About Rape Again,” is the headline of a column at Jezebel, but it has nothing to do with debate over the wording of campus disciplinary codes. The author, Madeleine Davies, is angry about “Game of Thrones.” With a couple of repulsive minutes at the very end of Sunday’s episode, the show everybody hates to admit they love has suddenly been transformed into the show everybody loves to admit they hate.
You needn’t be a fan of the program to be aware of the controversy. Shorn of the trappings of story, what happened is this: Sansa Stark, who has evolved into a popular character, was brutally raped by her husband, Ramsay Bolton, on their wedding night. Ramsay, it should be added, is known to viewers as a psychosexual sadist, whose torture and castration of another character occupied far too much screen time two seasons ago. And the writers have been to this well before. Says Davies: “This is a series with an unfortunate and well explored history of using the rape of its female characters to shock, entertain, and force character development.”
In the past, viewers have complained. This time around, the Twitterverse exploded in fury. Many promised a boycott. U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill tweeted: “Ok, I’m done Game of Thrones. ... Gratuitous rape disgusting and unacceptable.” Nor were the professional critics kind. Andy Greenwald at Grantland offered several theories on why the showrunners might have chosen the direction they did, but finally concluded: “I don’t think there’s really any storytelling acrobatics that can forgive what happened.”
And the choice was bizarre. In the books, the torture is mentioned but not shown. In the books, it isn’t Sansa who’s raped, it’s another woman who pretends to be her sister. Although the writers of the television show chose to combine the two women’s story lines, in the book, we know about the rape, but we don’t “see” it. Here it’s not only shown, but shown from the point of view of Theon Greyjoy, the man who was so brutally tortured.
There’s a counterargument, of course. Here’s Amanda Marcotte in Slate: “It wasn’t played off as rough sex, but as a deliberate act of dominance. For once, rape is being portrayed accurately, as an act of sadism instead of just an overabundance of passion.” Her point is that “Game of Thrones” in the past has taken sexual assault too lightly.
Fair enough. Rape is a horrific reality of life, so it has to happen in fiction. But writers must tread warily. A graphic depiction of rape might sometimes be necessary to advance a story. It should never be reduced to a plot device in order to shock the audience -- particularly on the screen, where the impact is so great. This is where “Game of Thrones,” in its television incarnation, runs into trouble. Sansa’s rape serves no story function. Here’s critic Jeremy Egner writing in the New York Times: “Did we need more evidence that Ramsay is terrible? We did not.” Indeed, as Egner says, Ramsay’s “two-dimensional sadism makes him the least interesting major character on the show.”
Author George R.R. Martin, on his website, has offered a tepid defense of the showrunners’ choices: “There have been differences between the novels and the television show since the first episode of season one. And for just as long, I have been talking about the butterfly effect. Small changes lead to larger changes lead to huge changes. ... Prose and television have different strengths, different weaknesses, different requirements.”
Here Martin is of course precisely right. Fans who criticize the television series for diverging from the books may be passionate, but they are also mistaken. In the act of translation from one medium to another, creative choices have to be made. What works on the page might not work on the screen, particularly when writers must adapt a tale as sprawling and complex as what Martin has created.
But the relevant criticism in this case isn’t that Martin’s books have been changed. The criticism is that too much screen time is being spent on rape and other forms of sexual sadism. The complaint, in other words, isn’t that the writers have made a creative decision. It’s that in returning so often to the well of sexual violence, they’ve made a bad one.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the spate of sexual violence has entirely ruined the show. Nobody doubts that Ramsay will soon get his comeuppance, probably with great brutality. The producers, as Martin says, “are trying to make the best television series that they can.” And the current season, but for that unpardonable deficiency, has been quite good.
I must confess, however, that I feel rather silly for having written just last week that with “Mad Men” over, I will look forward to spending my Sunday nights watching “Game of Thrones” instead. I’m not ready to join McCaskill in boycotting the show. But the writers are treading dangerously. Too much sexual violence might drive away even the most dedicated fans.
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