Fodder for Power: Has ‘Game of Thrones’ Been Too Brutal of Late?

[SPOILER ALERT to EPISODE 6]

In light of the uproar over Sansa Stark’s rape at the hands of Ramsey Bolton, a commentator complained that the horrible scene severely undermined Sansa’s growth as a character. Since last season, she had been learning to be strong and stand up for herself, only for her to be powerless and raped in the latest episode. Many viewers were disgusted with the scene, saying that it was harsh and unnecessary to propel the narrative, and that it was thrown in just for the hell of it. One critic also complained that the problem with Game of Thrones is that scenes of sexual violence are “swept away” and that perpetrators get no comeuppance whatsoever. 

Rape is never to be condoned, and all rapists deserve their punishment. But when has rape ever been not disgusting, whatever the context and however it is depicted? Is there such a thing as rape that’s not too harsh? If anything, that a scene like Sansa’s rape horrifies us yields the even faintest idea of what rape feels like. It offers a strong reminder why rapists should get the justice they deserve, and highlights how badly we need to help and sympathize with the victims of rape. Most importantly, that portrayal of violence urges us, I hope, to help ensure that something like that never happens in real life, where rape happens all the time, and where the stories of rape victims remain anonymous. Not everyone has the media mileage of a Sansa Stark.

Comments about the scenes undermining female agency and being unnecessary for the story also completely miss the point about Game of Thrones. It is true that rape tramples on human dignity, and Sansa’s fate is all too tragic. But that tragedy underlines precisely one of the themes of the series; in a power struggle between individuals and kingdoms, everybody is fodder for power. In this dog-eat-dog world, Game of Thrones does not play favorites over who gets killed. The struggle for the Iron Throne does not honor gender and class hierarchies: Lords and peasants alike are murdered, as are men and women, masters and servants. It is certainly an abhorrent way of life, but that’s what the series is all about.

Thus, while women should be able to exercise their self-determination, and that it is tragic that they do not, complaining about Sansa is misplaced. By depicting her rape the way it did, the series is simply staying true to its theme. Game of Thrones is not out to champion women’s rights, fairness, and social justice. It is misguided and unfair to expect otherwise. Not everything can be, say, Legally Blonde.

Indeed, the series actually seeks to undermine our traditional moral and literary sensitivity: that good triumphs over evil. Much of the icons of the fantasy genre always has a clearly defined division between good and evil, hero and villain: Aragorn and Sauron, and Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, just to name a few. But Game of Thrones undermines this literary and ethical convention. True to theme and form, George Martin, or the narrator at least, does this cruelly.

Taught to put our faith in the good guys, we readers hunger for the or a protagonist. The series indulges us, setting up Edard Stark as our hero, only to see him beheaded. S/he later has us cheer for Rob’s army, only for his throat to be slit at the wedding, along with that of his mother. We cheer for Oberyn Martell, but just when he is about to finish off the Mountain, his eyes are gouged out, his skull pierced. Good guys there may be, but they do not survive, let alone reach a happy ending.

The series builds up, but constantly frustrates our sense of justice and fairy-tale expectations. The good guys, if they could be called that, do not always win, though it must be said that the bad guys don’t have it all their way either. They too are killed sooner or later. The narrator has Geoffrey poisoned, and arranges a rather lowly death for Tywin Lannister, who gets shot by an arrow while taking a shit.

So, in light of series’ unfairy-tale like approach, it is thus problematic to ask Game of Thrones to go feminist and champion female agency. But this is not to say that people should not be offended by the brutality and injustice done to Sansa. By all means, they can. But they also have to understand that the horrors inflicted in the quest for power are integral to the theme and narrative of the series. It wouldn’t really be Game of Thrones if everyone played nice and by the rules of civility.

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