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Thanks, ‘Game of Thrones.’ Now We Have to Explain Why Rape and Fantasy Violence Are Not the Same Thing

Thanks, 'Game of Thrones.' Now We Have to Explain Why Rape and Fantasy Violence Are Not the Same Thing

There’s no doubt that “Game of Thrones” is a gorgeously produced, wonderfully acted, incredibly entertaining show. For five seasons now, fans of George R.R. Martin’s novels have gotten the epic series they’ve longed for, and new TV fans have been turned to the book series as well as other fantasy series as a result. There is, however, one area where “Game of Thrones” has been repeatedly problematic, and that is in its use of sexual violence.

READ MORE: Women & ‘Game of Thrones’: How ‘Breaker of Chains’ Broke the Bechdel Test

The show has been called out twice now for altering scenes from the books, depicting them with more of a “rapey” edge than Martin wrote them. First, the series premiere changed Daenerys Targaryen and Kahl Drogo’s wedding night to be more non-consensual than the scene was originally written. Then, in last season’s episode “Breaker of Chains,” a consensual sex scene between Jaime and Cersei Lannister (in the novels) was blocked, shot and presented with much doubt toward its concordant nature, with Jaime forcing himself upon Cersei beneath their child’s funeral bed. The second occurrence stirred up a lot more controversy, as the director of the episode repeatedly denied what he shot was rape, and we’ve still yet to see any consequences of the act. 

The third incident took place during this past Sunday’s episode, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” Throughout Season 5, “Game of Thrones” has been merging the story lines of Sansa and her childhood friend Jeyne Poole, leading it to be Sansa who is wedded to Bolton heir Ramsay Snow in lieu of Jeyne. In the book, Jeyne is indeed brutally raped on her wedding night, with Theon not only watching but ordered to partake in the assault. What happened on Sunday to Sansa wasn’t as brutal, but the greatly disturbing depiction has stirred up a few issues that we here at Indiewire felt it necessary to address. 

Our review of the episode argued including Sansa Stark’s rape was unnecessary: “It’s angering and confusing why the series has chosen to add yet another rape of a major character into the show that does not exist in the books.” It’s a repeated move that is making many question the choices of “Game of Thrones” showrunners, wondering why they’re so keen on including more sexual assault and how the show utilizes rape culture.

Our sister site Criticwire pointed out that the scene — which feels like its purpose is to snap Theon out of his zombie-like servitude — comes off like “fridging,” “where a woman’s agony is cast primarily as a motivating agent for more important male characters. Given that Ramsay’s father, Roose Bolton, murdered her mother and brother, it’s not as if she could hate his family any more.”

The episode didn’t come without consequence. Feminist genre website The Mary Sue announced that they would no longer be covering the show, saying, “There’s only so many times you can be disgusted with something you love before you literally can’t bring yourself to look at it anymore.” Senator Claire McCaskill will also be boycotting the series, calling the scene disgusting and unacceptable on Twitter.

But this is the Internet we’re talking about. For every person who declares they’re through with the show, or chastises it for including such gruesome scenes, there are others who defend it. Every time someone brings up the fact that sexual assault in “Game of Thrones” is hard to watch, commenters and tweeters alike argue the violence should be equally chastised and the rape is accurate to its historical setting. (Really? Are White Walkers accurate to the historical setting, too?) Here are just some of the logic gems Indiewire has received on its review, as well as its Facebook and Twitter accounts:

“If they shouldn’t add more ‘Rape scenes’ cuz its wrong, then they also should stop ‘Violent scenes, and killing scenes’ because those are also wrong.”

“Rape is getting all the attention in a show that plenty of people dying in absolutely horrible ways.”

“Male character gets his head crushed in. No controversy. Male character gets his genitals mutilated. No controversy. Female characters gets raped. OMG THIS SHOW IS DISGUSTING IT PROMOTES RAPE CULTURE I’M SO OFFENDED It makes me want to puke.”

And our personal winner for, “How delusional can you possibly be?”: “I see people are using the term ‘rape’ loosely these days. Where did she say ‘No’ or struggle at all?”

Here’s the difference: While “Game of Thrones” is a fantasy series set in a fantastical location, the violence is no more or less “historically accurate” than the rape. None of this comes from history, but from the mind of a singular writer of novels. He can — by all means — be inspired by periods in history, but he’s ultimately creating his own world. In modern shows that contain more realistic violence, like “Sons of Anarchy” or “Hannibal,” it would be easier to say that violence and sexual assault stand on equally disturbing footing. But they don’t on “Game of Thrones.”

Our TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller pointed out, during a discussion of this episode, that probably the most horrific act of violence on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was none of the human versus vampire carnage, but the one scene where an unhinged guy just ran into someone’s yard and fired a gun. That can happen to you. That is terrifying.

But the violence that occurs on “Game of Thrones” is never going to happen to you. You’re not going to have your eyes crushed by a giant because you agreed to act as someone’s champion in a tournament to the death. You’re not going to be beheaded because you refused to take orders, even if you are in the armed forces. You’re not going to be castrated because you were born into a certain class. You could certainly die in a war, but it’s more likely to be by a bullet than by a sword. The violence of “Game of Thrones” is long removed from the experiences of most of the viewers of the series. Of course, there are places in the world where young people are forced into armies, and where atrocities as violent as the ones on “Game of Thrones” occur. But, on average, a person is incredibly unlikely to experience such things. The likelihood that a woman will be raped is shockingly and disturbingly high. (One in five women, is the current understanding.)

Sexual violence is very, very real. You don’t go about your day expecting to be beheaded, but the reality is that it’s not only possible but likely that a woman will be or has been raped in her lifetime. You don’t expect a White Walker to march through your door and eat your soul, but a woman might very well be dragged into an alley and raped. You don’t expect that you’ll be eaten by a dragon, but a woman’s husband suddenly turning on her in their own bedroom is a very real possibility. Being assaulted or murdered is a constant worry among sex workers, in real life — and on “Game of Thrones.” 

So when it comes to “Game of Thrones,” understand where critics and fans are coming from when they say that the sexual violence has become troublesome. Not only is it because of the questionable use of it as a plot device or its repeated appearance for shock value alone, but because it is inherently more relevant to our world than any of the violent scenes within the show. We’ll keep watching. But we are definitely waiting for a sign that the producers understand all of this. 

READ MORE: Rape Culture Sidetracks Game of Thrones

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