After spending over 40 hours of air time in Westeros, viewers who have stuck with Game of Thrones this long shouldn’t be, and aren’t, surprised by the presence of sexual violence. A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin has spoken out about the role of rape in realistic fantasy, the contradictory-sounding genre his books pioneered. Some critics — including me! — have praised the show’s frank depiction of the dangers its female characters face. And yet the final scene of Sunday’s episode, in which noted sadist Ramsay Bolton rapes his new wife, Sansa Stark, has provoked a strong backlash from even devoted fans.
One of the most extreme reactions came from feminist fandom site The Mary Sue, which announced on Monday that it will no longer cover Game of Thrones through recaps or trailers. “Sansa is already a survivor. You’ve put her through another trauma for the sake of another character,” editor-in-chief Jill Pantozzi wrote, referencing the scene’s emphasis on the reaction of Theon Greyjoy, who Ramsay forces to watch. But even critics who don’t cover the show from an explicitly feminist angle found the scene off-putting. Take this recap from Grantland’s Andy Greenwald:
Sansa’s anguished screaming as she was violently assaulted by her new husband was hideous, full stop. But it was almost worse the way Jeremy Podeswa’s camera lingered on Alfie Allen’s tear-filled eyes, as if his violation was somehow equal to Sansa’s; as if this disgusting act was somehow part of Theon’s long and ugly path to redemption, not a brutal and unwarranted violation. Five seasons in, Game of Thrones is long past the point of earning gold stars simply by showing us the worst possible thing. There’s a fine line between exposing the dirty truth of the world and wallowing in it.
My own initial response aligned with Greenwald’s; while reserving final judgement of Sansa’s rape for when its impact on her storyline reveals itself in later episodes, my gut reaction was exasperation. If realistic depiction of rape and its brutality is part of what draws viewers to Game of Thrones, however, why was Sansa’s experience enough to turn some of those viewers against the show entirely — particularly when, unlike last season’s most controversial scene, its status as a nonconsensual violation was entirely clear?
The answer, of course, lies in that year-old controversy. When Jaime Lannister assaulted his twin sister Cersei, it seemed clear to viewers, this one included, that the encounter was a clear-cut instance of rape, and the show’s treatment of both Jaime and Cersei would shift accordingly. Then, in a postgame interview with Alan Sepinwall of Hitfix, “Breaker of Chains” episode director Alex Graves claimed “it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.” Worse, Jaime’s depiction as an antihero turned literal knight in shining armor continued uninterrupted, right up through his attempted rescue of Myrcella in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”
A later scene, in which the rape of several women at Craster’s Keep by Night’s Watch mutineers was relegated to the background and thus rendered almost shockingly casual, only added fuel to the fire. And so, a year later, Game of Thrones viewers are no longer willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt when it comes to showing the impact of, or even acknowledging, sexual violence — and are very much willing to criticize or abandon ship before the show’s creators transition from Sansa’s rape to its fallout.
Game of Thrones has thus become a case study in the need for trust between a television show, which requires time and multiple installments to tell its story in full, and its audience, which requires the patience to stand by as the story develops. Had Cersei’s rape never happened, or if Jaime were ever acknowledged as a rapist, I and others might have pushed aside our legitimate concerns about Sansa’s wedding night (the emphasis on Theon; the use of adding one more trauma and humiliation to Sansa’s already long list of them; the point of emphasizing Sansa’s newfound agency before yanking it away) and given the subplot more room to unfold.
There are already signs that Game of Thrones has learned from its past mistakes. While I’m reluctant to credit the show for doing what any work should do and acknowledging rape as rape, that act alone puts this season ahead of the last. More notable is the reaction of writer and producer Bryan Cogman to fans’ objections, which couldn’t be further from Graves’: after an interview with Entertainment Weekly in which he described Sansa as “making a choice,” Cogman took to Twitter to clarify that he was referring to her marriage, not her encounter with Ramsay. “Not trying to change anyone’s opinion of the scene (negative or otherwise),” he added. In other words, he’s taking responsibility for the bad along with the good, rather than telling fans their interpretation is simply wrong.
There’s a good deal more that has to happen before viewers’ faith in Game of Thrones’ ability to treat rape with the gravity it deserves is restored. Until then, while the initial backlash to Sansa’s assault may be an overreaction, the skepticism it’s rooted in is entirely deserved.