If you've been anywhere near the internet in the past few weeks, you've noticed buzz about the rape of the Game of Thrones character Sansa Stark. It's an opportunity for conversations about storytelling and social responsibility, so let's get to it.
For 20 years, George R.R. Martin, author of the books that spured the series, has been developing an arsenal of exceptionally nuanced characters who move through an unforgiving world. The books include many tenacious women — some calculating and cruel, others plucky and tough, still others stubbornly devoted to justice.
So what's the trouble? Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have in many ways produced a wonderful adaptation of Martin's 4,200 pages (and counting). But rather than take a cue from Martin and write dynamic female characters, they go for shock value: tits, ass and rape around every corner.
Weiss and Benioff love turning otherwise consensual sexual encounters into rapes. The situations are already grim: There's the Targaryen princess Daenerys, raped by her warlord husband on their wedding night. There's the sister raped by her lover/twin brother at the feet of their dead son.
In a recently aired episode, the long-suffering Sansa Stark is raped by a psychopath she never has the pleasure of meeting in Martin's narrative. We hear her cries and his grunts as the camera focuses on the face of another male character, Theon Greyjoy, who is forced to watch. The supposition is that seeing this will spur Theon to action, advancing his narrative.
And this is the thing that frustrates so many people about the series, and what so many "men's rights activists" (oh, the paradox of this phrase) cannot invalidate. It is insulting to survivors of sexual violence when rape is used as a catalyst to spur male characters' actions, growth and emotional development. It cheapens the struggle of sexual assault victims, as well as those who have lost their lives to sexual violence. Even as Sansa is being brutally raped, she is made secondary, a backdrop to Theon's reflection on his own circumstances.
Prior to this episode, I had been fed up with the way the series used rape as a plot device before, but it never brought me to tears or made my own rape story feel so close to my bed. What feels like a lifetime ago, I was raped, and when I do think about it, I consider all the ways it could have been worse. Like most people who have survived trauma, I've tried to assign some purpose to it. But there is no purpose. In real life, sexual assault benefits no one.
You don't have to be raped, however, to see the danger in over-the-top sexploitation and gratuitous sexual violence.
We have been shown again and again that Game of Thrones' writers have an insufficient ability to write narrative arcs for women. Because of their laziness or ineptitude — or perhaps as a result of their hiring women writers on only four episodes in five seasons — they've taken a nosedive into the darkest pit of storytelling: being predictable. When rape is an expected plot device on a show that is watched by 8 million people, it is trivialized and normalized. When women are sexualized and brutalized and viewers defend the showrunners on the grounds of creative expression, we need to take a hard look at what values are reflected in our entertainment.
We must ask for better. What is allowed by the audience and what succeeds during prime time tell us very much about our social and political order. We wouldn't have Fahrenheit 451 without McCarthyism, and we wouldn't have The Biggest Loser without a $20 billion dieting industry. We can demand better of networks and showrunners who use lazy, stereotypical tropes instead of taking on the difficult task of exploring the contradictions and concessions of the human heart in conflict with itself in any society.
I'll answer the question on the lips of men's rights activists everywhere: Why am I OK with five seasons of torture and violence, often enacted upon innocents, but not with these scenes? Exploring the human capacity for cruelty doesn't make bad storytelling. The majority of viewers critical of the show's reliance on sexual violence are not voicing support of censorship, nor are they turning a blind eye to the rainbow of atrocities the series completes, but rather challenging Weiss and Benioff to deliver a compelling narrative for all characters. One that is in turns restrained and explicit — and that treats sexual violence with the complexity and sensitivity that the subject demands.