**I want to preface this by saying that the passionate outpouring in response to the rape scene on Sunday’s Game of Thrones is, for all it was spawned from darkness, inspiring. There have been many beautiful think-pieces, from a variety of viewpoints (I’ll reference some of them below). No matter how we read Sansa’s rape, it seems clear that we’d all want a better world and more intelligent art. It is reassuring, in this Golden Glut of television, that so many writers, fans, viewers, and artists, rather than act as passive consumers, are actively engaged with storytelling and art.**
For myself, I’ve had my issues with Game of Thrones and feel that many of the criticisms leveled at it are legitimate. This is a show, after all, that has taken every opportunity to ramp up the sex and violence of a series of books notable for their sex and violence. However, I have a different take on this specific scene, one more in line with the analysis of Alyssa Rosenberg at The Washington Post, or Sean T. Collins (a humane and thoughtful blogger who reviews the show for RollingStone). As the calls for the show to “do better” sound, I find myself in the ironic position of thinking that, Sunday night, the show actually did.
“Game of Thrones” has always been frustrating for me to watch. It overuses sexual violence—and violence in general—as a storytelling device. This is a funny thing to say, considering its source material, but there are differences in how individual artists use violence. The difference between George R.R. Martin’s approach and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s is often the difference between a scalpel and a hammer.
For example, in Martin’s novel A Storm of Swords, one of Craster’s wives is raped during the mutiny of the Night’s Watch.
“Four men in black sat on a bench eating chunks of burned horsemeat while Ollo coupled with a weeping woman on the table.” (A Storm of Swords, p. 378)
That’s it. That’s all–and it is typical of Martin’s technique: he states his horrors briefly and without sensationalizing them. (He doesn’t need to.)
Contrast this with the (NSFW!!) version of the same scene on the show: a prolonged sequence featuring a tertiary character who rambles obscenely while at least three women are raped in the background. What is written as a horrifying glimpse in Martin’s book turns into a full-on production number on television. Worse, the women are used as set dressing–incidentals to the exploration of another villainous man. We already know he’s bad, however: he just killed Jeor Mormont and…hey haven’t we seen sadistic psychos on this show before?
This is the most disappointing thing about Benioff and Weiss’s interpretation: their need to ramp up things that were sufficiently depraved. It isn’t enough that Joffrey have Sansa beaten, for instance, he must also torture naked prostitutes with suggestive, antlered scepters.
As we already know Joffrey is an asshole, it’s questionable that we need this extra emphasis. We watch the show, after all, not because of the violence, but because we want to find out if the characters will escape or subvert it.
This is a distinction Benioff and Weiss’s adapatation seems to miss. In a show meant to comment on violence and misogyny, they often find themselves participating in it. Their default move seems to be to pose naked actresses around the fringes of the action whether or not it makes any sort of sense for them to be there. ( In Season Two, they even get Osha naked, though it makes no sense that she would have to sleep with Theon in order to rescue Bran and Rickon from Winterfell.)
Titillation (and tits) are a joy when used artfully, but time and again the show seems to use them cheaply, as set dressing. At its worst, the show combines titillating nudity with violence, usually in scenes—like Joffrey’s torture of Ros and her companion—that do nothing to advance the plot.
Ros is a great example of Throne’s unthinking misogyny: in her last character shot, she is posed naked and bleeding for the camera. It’s a gut punch image—but not because it’s powerful. Because it’s so clearly a one dimensional idea.
Ros has never been a full fledged character. She has only ever been a device. She has been used in countless sexposition scenes where male characters talk to her and she listens. She has no bearing on the plot other than to let us know how they feel. Now she dies off-camera and is prettily posed. We aren’t supposed to think about her too much. We aren’t allowed to hear her beg. We’re supposed to look at her and see a pretty dead woman—and further unneeded evidence that Joffrey is a shit. Littlfinger’s voiceover in this scene talks about daring—but this isn’t daring. This is as common as you get.
That’s a shame. Martin’s work doesn’t view women as objects—but the artistic choices of the showrunners frequently support an interpretation of their work as, well, pretty close to this. (Warning: Hilarious.)
So. The show has some artistic problems in how it attempts to address Martin’s themes. And yet, when it comes to Sunday night’s episode, I think they may actually have learned from their mistakes.
(NOTE: At this point I’ve been working on this essay for two days–yes, sad, I know. I have some artistic problems!)
For one thing, Sunday’s episode doesn’t distance us from Sansa. We are with her, in her point of view right until the last few seconds of the episode. We have spent virtually zero time with Theon–which makes it hard for me to agree (even with authors I worship) that this is another exploitative “male gaze” fueled fiasco.
Here is how Alyssa Rosenberg read the scene and I think that she is spot on:
“…if this scene had to exist, the show’s version of it, written by Bryan Cogman, and shot sensitively and with intelligence by Jeremy Podeswa, managed to maintain a fine balance, employing a dignity and care for the experiences of victims that “Game of Thrones” has not always demonstrated…Other than a shot of Ramsay ripping Sansa’s dress open, we don’t see her body during the rape: just her face, and then Theon’s contracting in agony and fear and horrible sympathy. What Ramsay is doing to Sansa doesn’t matter in the slightest. What she and Theon–and yes, there are two victims, though of very different crimes, in this scene–feel about what’s happening is what’s important. The camera refuses to join in her victimization, forcing us to focus instead on the impact of Ramsay’s latest despicable predations.”
This may be getting to the heart of why “Game of Thrones” often feels like it is violating us. Again, we, the audience, unless we’re really sick people, aren’t watching this for the extravagant violence. If we read the books, we already know we can be moved and challenged even when the violence doesn’t go to 11. What we want is not extravagance, but intelligent artistic choices that deepen our understand of the art. It’s both a tragedy and an artistic failing that, just when the show needs our buy in, it’s dependence on Shocking Moments™ proves to have eroded our goodwill.
It’s quite possible that, if we hadn’t had to suffer the Theon torture-plot (for the record: everything the show ever did wrong–and then some), the “accidental” Cersei rape scene (??!!!), and what Sean T. Collin’s dubbed “the rape camp at the end of the world,” we’d have been more accepting of Sunday’s scene because we would have known ourselves to be in the hands of artists capable of restraint. We might have noticed the care Rosenberg speaks of, or agreed with Mr. Collins that, in order to argue for an exploitative male gaze “you have to ignore the excruciating closeup on Sansa’s face and all the buildup thereto, which is inimical to keeping the focus on the real victim.”
But because the show misstepped so many times, we saw instead with our traumatized hearts. After continually abusing women, (also Theon!!) and us, the show lost us just when it might have claimed true power.