Sansa Stark Sheds Light on Our Rape Culture Problem

Fair warning here: If you haven’t seen the Game of Thrones episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” yet, you should tune out now. There will be major spoilers in this article, which appears as a companion to the one written by The Sexy Politico’s own Jacqueline Scott. For those of you who have seen it, I am certain that you are aware of how uncomfortable it was. We had the particularly unpleasant experience of watching Sansa Stark–a beloved character who had just recently begun to empower herself–marry to the sadistic Ramsay Bolton and then be subsequently brutally raped while her father’s former ward, Theon Greyjoy, is forced to watch. It left me feeling deeply disturbed, and not just because the assault didn’t happen in the books. That’s another discussion entirely. Rather, it seems the writers of the hit HBO show have a penchant for inserting brutal and violent rape for pure shock value, both where it never appeared in the books and also where it serves no purpose towards forwarding the plot or encouraging character development. Wondering if I was alone in this, I took the opportunity to examine how others felt. Almost overwhelmingly, the response was not good.

Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair, for one, was not pleased. “Horrible” is the least of things she has to say: “Horrible because this rape scene undercuts all the agency that’s been growing in Sansa since the end of last season… I’d never advocate that Game of Thrones (or any work of fiction) shy away from edgy plots out of fear of pushback or controversy. But edgy plots should always accomplish something above pure titillation or shock value and what, exactly, was accomplished here?” She goes on to suggest that perhaps Theon (or “Reek” as he has come to be known) being forced to watch will snap him out of this Stockholm syndrome thing he’s got going on, and voices disgust at the need to violate a strong female character to allow this redemption. I’m right there with you, Ms. Robinson.

Michal Schick of Hypable.com agrees with this, and expands upon it.Game of Thrones regularly uses nude women as set-dressing, and has blatantly used rape as both a prop of violent men and an easy storytelling device,” she explains. “Last season, many fans were horrified when Jaime appeared to angrily rape Cersei on the floor of the Great Sept, as she begged him to stop. Though the writers, actors, and director all insisted that the scene had been misconstrued, the incident crystallized the fact that women on Game of Thrones are frequently presented as sexually disposable.” She’s right in that respect–Jaime’s rape of Cersei next to the body of their freshly-dead, incestuous son was another example of rape invented by the show’s writers. The sex in this moment was coerced sex in the books–still disturbing, still wrong, but a different (though closely related) conversation.

Both of these authors make fantastic points–as I’ve already stated, the repeated violations don’t make any noticeable advancement of the plot. Sure, you can say that it’s meant to show the depravity of these men or the problematic nature of their relationships, but we already knew all that, as Robinson points out. As Schick puts it, what possible character development could come from this that couldn’t be done without violation? It’s as if these were meant for nothing more than pure shock value, which in my personal opinion trivializes the issue of rape. Now, George R. R. Martin himself has spoken out about the sheer volume of rape in his stories, basically saying that to not include it in his fictionalization of the capabilities of the human race for violence would be disingenuous–he may have a point there. Exactly when, how often, and in what manner is it acceptable to depict rape? This brings us to an issue much larger than Game of Thrones itself: the issue of rape culture.

What is rape culture, exactly? Well, strictly speaking, it is an extension of feminist theory, critiquing society’s treatment, consideration, and representation of rape. The website for Women Against Violence Against Women, or WAVAW, has a rather beautiful definition of the term: rape culture “includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as ‘just the way things are.’”

And for all of those rolling your eyes at the word “feminism,” I’d like to take a moment to clarify. Feminism is a philosophy that promotes the equality of all genders–and that’s all there is to it. If you believe that no gender is superior to another, you are a feminist, regardless of what rhetoric or connotations are commonly associated with the term.

Not convinced we live in a rape culture? Let’s look back at that definition we talked about earlier. We’ve already seen that television media helps perpetuate the trivialization of sexual violence against women. Rape jokes are actually pretty common, and I don’t just mean jokes about actually raping someone. Think about how many times we gamers have said “we’re gonna rape that boss!” or “man, we just got raped!” It seems silly, I know, but think about how casually it’s said. Certainly, having uttered it doesn’t mean you intend to go rape somebody. But the fact that the subject is so casually joked about is more than a little disturbing when you really think about it. But the definition also talked about laws–certainly the law always protects against rape, right?

Maybe not. A shocking number of rapists go unprosecuted, maybe because it is estimated that 68% of rapes go unreported in this country. Honestly, I can’t say I’m surprised. There is a disturbing tendency in our society to immediately lay blame for the violation on the victim. “Well, maybe you shouldn’t be dressed like a slut. You were asking for it.” “Why were you so drunk? It’s like you were asking to be raped.” Sound familiar? It gets worse. These things don’t just come from the mouths of the average citizen, but people in positions of authority and notoriety. In 2014, Robert Jennings, president of Lincoln University made a statement to female students on his campus that women lied about rape when things didn’t turn out exactly as they planned. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News insinuated that one specific rape and murder victim got herself killed because she had been drinking. This dangerous way of thinking is deplorably common, and, frankly, is unacceptable. Certainly, false allegations of rape after nights of drinking do happen. But as Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times describes, these make up no more than 2-10% of all reported rape cases. More importantly, however, he reports that a shockingly large number of surveyed men admit to having sex with others who did not want it, some even intentionally getting women drunk in order to take advantage of them sexually. And that’s only scratching the surface.

Even our politicians have truly frightening thoughts on the issue of rape, and it goes far beyond victim blaming. Warde Nichols, a Republican Arizona state representative, for example, advocated against making the punishment for spousal rape as high as for raping anyone else. Rick Santorum insinuated that pregnancies resulting from rape are a gift from God, and it’s just a matter of making the best of a bad situation. Rape culture isn’t just a matter of our television programs, our radio hosts, or drunken frat parties. It extends all the way to the top of our society, to those who hold the power and make the decisions. Think about how frightening that is.

Okay, so we have established that Sansa Stark’s rape scene in the infamous episode of Game of Thrones and, by extension, it’s fixation on violence against women, is potentially problematic. We have established what rape culture is, and that it is alive and well in our every day society. Let’s bring this all together. Taking into account everything that we have discussed, I would like to conclude by offering my own perspective as a male writer, viewer, and citizen of this country. The way I see it, sexual violence is trivialized far too much in our society, such that we are mired in a situation where victims of rape receive more scrutiny than their attackers, where we actually have to have conversations about why you shouldn’t take sexual advantage of somebody. Now granted, I have used violence against women as the basis of this article, but all of this of course extends to male victims of rape as well. We, as a society, need to take a hard look at ourselves, our media, and our governments to make a serious change, and serious change starts with something as small as the question: “was that rape scene really necessary?” Or you know… never forcing ourselves on somebody who is unwilling.

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