The Scene That Shook The Iron Throne: The Rape of Sansa Stark
This is one of the more difficult and uncomfortable articles I’ve ever chosen to write about. I struggled for several hours whether or not to even broach this topic because the subject of rape, whether in the real world or on a popular fantasy show, is a brutal and pernicious subject. Compound this with the fact that I’m a male and can’t even begin to comprehend the atrocious violation the act of rape is both physically and emotionally, and you begin to see my trepidation. Yet in the end I felt compelled to write this article if for no other reasons than I felt I had something to say and I wanted to be true to myself.
Let me be very transparent upfront. This article is about addressing a specific fictional instance of rape on a television show. It is NOT a post about rape in general but rather an examination of the controversy and reactions surrounding Sansa Stark’s rape by Ramsay Bolton on last week’s episode of “Game of Thrones.” I don’t claim to be an expert on the criminal and psychological aspects of rape, nor would I ever be so audacious to suggest I am. Not my field of expertise.
But I know “Game of Thrones.”
I’ve read the series A Song of Ice and Fire multiple times, watched the television episodes more times than I can count, read the popular blog sites, and even follow George R.R. Martin on Twitter. I’m well versed in the world he’s created and if you’re a fan of the books, the television show, or both, you probably are too.
To give a brief recap of last week’s notorious scene, Sansa Stark finally marries sadist and all around nutbag Ramsay Bolton. Immediately following she is taken to her wedding chamber where Ramsey tears off Sansa’s dress, bends her over the bed and violently rapes her, all while Theon Greyjoy watches aghast in the corner. It’s important to note that the rape itself takes place off camera. Yet for all that the scene is no less powerful as we hear Sansa’s cries of anguish in the background and see Theon’s look of devastation. It’s one of the hardest and most powerful scenes I’ve ever watched on television. Many others felt the same way I did, some going so far as to quit the show completely. The entertainment website “The Mary Sue” has taken it a step further, deciding to no longer promote the show.
Now what’s got people in an uproar across the social media universe and the blogosphere, is the necessity of this scene. The two main arguments I keep hearing are that there was no reason for the scene because it didn’t advance the story or the development of the character, that it was just done for shock value. As if there haven’t been multiple shock value moments on the show. Red Wedding anyone? (Apparently these same people have no problem with two women getting it on while Littlefinger waxes philosophic about his upbringing. Not sure how that advanced the storyline.) Their contention is that we already knew that Ramsay was an unbelievable bastard (literally and figuratively) so why go the extra mile? The counter argument to that is “Hey this is Game of Thrones! What did you expect?”
People who promote the first argument say that they expected “more” of “Game of Thrones,” that somehow this scene was the line, the scale that broke the dragon’s back. Incest? No problem. Robb’s pregnant wife stabbed to death in the gut? All good. The Red Viper’s eyes gouged out and head crushed by The Mountain? Just another day in King’s Landing. But this. This is the line apparently. I say this argument is a load of auroch manure. I side with the latter side. It IS “Game of Thrones” and this is EXACTLY what I expected. If you’re a fan of the show or the books and you’ve gotten this far, you know that the characters that inhabit this universe do not live in a just world. It’s violent, brutal, nasty, and often the good guys don’t win. There so many shades of gray E.L. James would be jealous. It’s one of the reasons people love the show. It flips the fantasy paradigm on its head.
If Ramsay had not taken Sansa by force it would have been disingenuous and contrary to what we know about him as a character, i.e that he is verifiably bugfuck crazy. Can you imagine if Ramsay would have been sweet and tender when he took Sansa’s virginity? Me neither. No one would have believed it. Or what if the audience found out after the fact that she was raped? Would there have been as much outage? Or what if Sansa had been raped in season two, like she almost was before being saved by the Hound? Would people be saying the same things and swearing off “Game of Thrones” forever? I think not.
And it’s not like rape hasn’t reared it’s head before in “Game of Thrones.” Jamie basically raped Cersei in the sept of Balor in front of their dead son’s coffin for the Crone’s sake! (Although admittedly the scene was a lot less rapey in the novel.) Additionally, I don’t think that there’s any debate that Daenerys was raped by Khal Drogo in the first two episodes of season one. I don’t care if she eventually grew to love him. It was rape pure and simple. How is this different? Where was the outrage then? What’s even more laughable is people saying, “Well Khal Drogo wasn’t evil and a sadist like Ramsay.” What the Hell kind of logic is that? One instance of rape is ok on the show but not another? And the idea that Khal Drogo wasn’t just as much of a psychotic as Ramsay is asinine. Drogo is a character who literally stated he’d invade Westeros, make the men his slaves, and RAPE THEIR WOMEN. But somehow he gets a pass because he’s a more likeable character? Ramsay and Drogo are just different flavors of Ben and Jerry’s whackjob ice cream. To say otherwise is just hypocritical, especially for fans of the books who quit on the show after this last episode. The rape was even worse in the novel although it didn’t happen to Sansa it happened to Sansa’s friend Jeyne Poole masquerading as Arya Stark.
One could also contend that Sansa was raped way before episode six of season five. At least emotionally and mentally. I mean look at the check list–watched her father beheaded in front of her eyes, forced to look at his head on a pike by her sadistic fiancé Joffrey, beaten and terrorized by Joffrey, forced to marry Tyrion Lannister, almost killed by her own Aunt–the list goes on. You might as well have a new bad day scale going from 1 to Sansa Stark. This latest atrocity is just the physical embodiment of what’s been happening to Sansa for the last three seasons. From a purely thematic perspective and Sansa’s character arc, her rape was almost inevitable. (Please don’t misread this last statement. I am NOT condoning rape.)
Speaking of the thematic perspective, I highly doubt that the producers and writers of this show would have included this scene if there wasn’t going to be some type of payoff. Ramsay Bolton’s days are numbered on the show. There’s no way he doesn’t die at the hand of Sansa, Theon, or both. It’s my sincere wish that Sansa puts a knife in both Ramsay and Roose Bolton’s hearts and says, “My brother sends his regards.”
The woman who plays Sansa Stark, Sophie Turner, had this to say about the scene:
“When I read that scene, I kinda loved it. I love the way Ramsay had Theon watching. It was all so messed up. It’s also so daunting for me to do it. I’ve been making [producer Bryan Cogman] feel so bad for writing that scene: “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!” But I secretly loved it. After Joffrey, she’s escaped him and you think she’s going to lose her virginity to a guy who’s really sweet and takes care of her and she’s thrown in with a guy who’s a whole lot worse. But I kind of like the fact she doesn’t really know what a psycho he is until that night. She has a sense, but she’s more scared of his father. And then that night everything gets so f*cked up.
Even Turner, who freely acknowledges that the scene was fucked up, didn’t say that it was “unnecessary” or “didn’t advance the story” as some people argue. And I agree with her sentiments on the scene itself. As hard as it was to watch, it was also an incredibly riveting and well done scene. What made it so impactful was that you don’t even see the rape you just hear it and see it reflected in Theon’s face. This makes the rape somehow worse because it’s left to the viewer’s imagination. And my God the look on Theon’s face, the abject horror, and disgust mixed with pity and sorrow–powerful stuff. In the end the scene had its intended effect, and if you’re going to confront rape it almost needs to be that way. You need to experience what a vile and repulsive act it is. And “Game of Thrones” has never been one to shy away from the tough subjects.
Rape is maybe the toughest subject of them all. It’s the 8000 pound dragon in the room that we ignore because it’s too heinous to talk about. If anything good can be said to come out of this incident it’s that people are talking. There are discussions about rape, the roles of women in film and television, power dynamics, feminism, etc. These are all good things, these are conversations we need to have more often. It also proves the profound impact a simple television show can have on a society. This is the water cooler effect cranked up to eleven.
As I said at the beginning of this article, it was a tough decision for me to even write this post. I reached out to my friend Mike, someone who doesn’t read the books or watch the show, to bounce my ideas off of his head. I think there’s no more fitting way to end this post than with the words he wrote to me:
“It was brutal, but it was supposed to be and if we as a society can gain some enlightenment of an otherwise taboo topic because of it, then it’s a good thing. Because remember ‘Game of Thrones’ is not real, but rape itself is and it’s even more terrible than any show can make it out to be.”
You can follow me on Twitter as Darth Gandalf @cocook1978