Warning: this article contains spoilers and content that can be triggering to survivors of sexual assault
If you’re a Game of Thrones fan or have been on social media sites in the past week, you probably know about the most recent disturbing scene from the show. Just when we thought Winterfell’s most sadistic creepy bastard Ramsay Bolton could not get any worse, he managed to show that he indeed can, by raping fan-favorite Sansa Stark. In this scene, after marrying Sansa, Ramsay flashes a smile and says “I want you to be happy,” and follows by asking why she’s still a virgin. He accuses her of lying about her virginity and asks her to take off her clothes, while demanding Theon, who has been a victim of Ramsay’s sadist ways since the third season, to stay in the room. Sansa cries as Ramsay forcefully rips her wedding dress off; Theon winces as he hears Sansa cry.
Although Game of Thrones features plenty of gruesome murders and disturbing scenes, those pale in comparison to this one. One of the reasons why the scene has been deemed so controversial is the fact that it does not appear in the books. It is the third rape scene that has been added to the series without being present in George R.R. Martin’s novels. The outrage is understandable, considering it is the second time that they have chosen to have a strong female character be raped and tortured. Many question its importance in the plotline and sites such as The Mary Sue have decided to no longer promote Game of Thrones.
However, this instance is different from when the producers of Game of Thrones decided to include a scene in which Cersei is raped by Jamie, her twin brother. The romantic relationship between the siblings is disturbing enough, yet in the books, it is obvious that the attraction is mutual and their relationship is passionate. However, the show presents a scene in which Jamie oversteps boundaries and rapes Cersei, changing the original scene from the book in which she consents to having sex. This scene seemed to be completely unnecessary and changed the way fans viewed Jamie, who had been redeeming himself by showing a sympathetic side in the scenes he shared with Brienne. The scene didn’t add much to the storyline and seemed to be added for no particular reason rather than to explore the powering dynamics between the Lannisters.
Unlike the Jamie and Cersei scene, Sansa’s rape scene is quite different.Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa Stark, has spoken out about the scene and claims that she “loved” the scene, as it shows yet another situation in which Sansa experiences yet another challenge and disturbing situation in her life. In a recent interview with EW, producer Bryan Cogman said, “This is a hardened woman making a choice [to marry] and she sees this as the way to get back her homeland. Sansa has a wedding night in the sense she never thought she would with one of the monsters of the show. It’s pretty intense and awful and the character will have to deal with it.”
While I agree that rape scenes should not be used as a plot device, my views on this vary a bit as someone who is both a fan of the show and a survivor of rape and abusive relationships. As someone who is heavily invested in watching television and finds solace in characters who are similar to myself, it’s very difficult to find characters who I can relate to in this criteria. Sansa is an incredibly emotionally strong character who has dealt with many unfortunate instances in her life. As viewers, we see her transition from naive preteen who wishes to marry Joffrey and live happily ever after, to showing that she is intelligent and willing to do anything in her power in order to survive. While it would have been satisfying for some viewers to see Sansa fend off her rapist and kill him, that’s not typically what happens in real life. Strong people get raped, too. Having Sansa be raped by Ramsay does not make her emotionally weak, nor does it diminish her importance or fetishize her. It is not supposed to be an enjoyable scene.
This is similar to Joan Holloway’s rape scene in Mad Men. In its second season, Joan, who is typically known for also being emotionally strong and assertive, was raped by her fiancé. In the scene, she is not able to fight back or speak out about what happened to her. Experiencing rape does not mean that Joan is weak; it is meant to show that this could happen to anyone. Despite the fact that Mad Men is set in the 1960s, this type of situation is still very common. I re-watched the scene shortly after experiencing sexual assault and was astounded by how realistic and relatable it was. Yes, it is triggering, but it may help survivors of sexual assault realize that they are not alone.
I am not a fan of seeing women on television or films getting abused by men (or abuse in general regardless of gender), however, I do acknowledge that these things happen in real life and are ingrained in our culture. I do not think that it should be censored and ignored in the media. I think one of the main positive aspects of these scenes is that they cause dialogue. If fans can become this outraged over one of their favorite characters being raped, it might help them realize that real people they know have also experienced similar situations as Sansa’s and Joan’s, allowing them to feel the need to react as strongly to those as well.