Dear HBO: Here’s How You Lost Yourselves a Viewer

When I saw my first episode of Game of Thrones, I was hooked. I blamed E, who introduces me to many of the things I love. The character of Sansa has always been a bit of an afterthought that I didn’t really care for. I felt sorry for her, sure. I always found myself wanting to root for her, but she never gave me much reason to with her back-burner status. The character has grown over five seasons though–she has had to overcome a lot of garbage, and a lot of sexual violence. That threat has been over her continuously, from Joffrey to the rioters, and Tyrion, her first husband. Sansa triumphed, only to get shoved into a marriage with one of the cruelest characters on the show—Ramsey. At the end of this week’s episode, Ramsey forces her down on the bed and brutally rapes her while Theon watches. We don’t see the act itself, but we do hear Sansa scream. The focus is on Theon, not Sansa. While I didn’t need or want to the see the rape itself, this directorial choice sends completely the wrong message to the viewer.

Sansa’s rape seems to be a plot device used to advance Theon’s character. What’s really interesting is that the idea that THIS is what pushed Game of Thrones viewers over the edge. Viewers have put up with an astounding amount of violence against women on the show. Dany fell in LOVE with her rapist in Season 1; Cersei stayed romantically involved with her brother after he raped her in Season 4. Cersei’s rape at the hands of Jaime is an interesting bit of camera work. We never really get a reaction shot from Cersei; the camera keeps a wide frame the entire time. Mostly, we see Jaime, because he’s on top. As viewers, we are watching the act, not the people in it. As many people know, the show writers claimed that the act “became consensual” as it went on. But no. No. The camera is pulled out and not at all intimate; there is no appearance of a consensual act. And back in Season 2, Sophie Turner (who plays Sansa) fully supported the rape scene of her character after being told by the direct that “the scene would be like a ballet and would be beautiful.” She was told something similar regarding this new episode. It’s beautiful? Rape is beautiful? Again, no. Especially not when it is used to deliver the wrong message.

What these things tell me is that the creators of the show are delivering a message that is quite blatant and intentional; men are in control, and strong women will be put in their place. It’s a total trope—rape is used on the show as a device for character advancement. Sansa’s rape does indeed make moderate sense as a plot point; rape was common during the time period. Plus, it’s not really that surprising for a show as violent as Game of Thrones. Yet, it’s the straw that broke the camels back. Suddenly Game of Thrones is under the microscope for promoting rape culture, something it has done all along. Something that we as viewers let happen.

What is rape culture? Rape culture is a lot of things—tv, music, jokes, ads, words, images—anything that makes sexual violence against women seem so normal that rape is the inevitable conclusion. Rape culture stems from the idea that society does not view rape as a problem that can be solved, but rather, as “the way things are.”  So how does Game of Thrones promote it? Apart from the obvious depictions of violence against women, such as this most recent rape of Sansa, many women in Game of Thrones are largely ornamental, existing either as naked in the background or as silent players in a deeply patriarchal version of the happily ever after. Those female characters that don’t fit that mold are continually persecuted and forced to fight in order to hold on to what little power they manage to obtain.

The conversations I’ve been reading today are interesting, especially those that occur in the comments on The New York times and Huffington Post articles regarding the episode:

“Being angry for a show that is somewhat based on Medieval times for depicting rape, incest, castration and beheadings is like being angry at “Roots” for showing slavery. These things happened. These things STILL happen. And kudos to the show for not sparing it’s most innocent character, because in the real world, innocent people aren’t spared atrocities. The scene should outrage us. It was meant to outrage us. Because all of these real life horrors DO occur.”

Truth. These things do occur. And I don’t claim to be knowledgeable in medieval studies, but I’m sure these things most definitely occurred then too. But I wouldn’t say they were any more common then than they are now. Anyone who wasn’t outraged by this scene lacks a heart. And possibly a soul. But there’s a huge problem with it. The writers chose to disregard Sansa’s story from the books and merge her with a minor character from another story, a grotesque disservice to her character. They completely ignored her arc and the five seasons that she has spent struggling to gain herself agency. At the beginning of the episode, Sansa was at the top of her game, ready to claim her power and stake her claim on Winterfell. But by the end, once again, Sansa has found herself in the role of passive victim, with the purpose of developing Theon rather than her own character. Viewers weren’t as bothered by Cersei and Jaime as they are by Sansa’s rape. Sansa’s fight through five seasons to actually gain some agency for herself was abruptly cut off at the pass, and suddenly we scream. Cersei is a powerful woman in her own way, but as viewers, we are used to the rockiness of her relationship with her brother. Sansa, however, we have watched grow and claw her way from the bottom of the patriarchy as a moderately silent participant to a position where she can claim her own authority. But before this could happen, Sansa is delivered to Ramsey. Normal medieval moment? Perhaps. What’s not normal, or what shouldn’t be, is the focus on Theon in the moment over focusing on Sansa. We are forced to watch Theon; we are forced to gather our interpretation of the situation from his reactions. Five seasons of fighting and Sansa once again, still, has no voice except to scream. Her voice comes from Theon. Theon, who had his manhood removed in a previous episode. Theon, who needed a chance to “be a man” again—by watching, he is conforming to the patriarchal system within the show. He is fitting his assigned role.

The problem here isn’t about sparing or not sparing innocent characters. It’s about a society that forgets who the victims are, that continually looks to the male for instruction on how to respond and act. This is about a society that promotes a culture that says rape is okay. Comments about Sansa from behind that culture are the most disturbing:

“It wasn’t rape. It was her husband, and her wedding night. A little messed up as far as virginity stories go, but nonetheless there wasn’t much at all about it that was animalistic.”

Oh, it was rape. It was very clearly rape, and I’m not sure how anyone could interpret it any other way. Ramsey forced Sansa onto the bed and held her down while she screamed and Theon watched. Husband or not, he had no right to do what he did. Four out of five rapes are committed by an assailant known to the victim. 47 percent of rapists are a friend or acquaintance. Sure, it was their wedding night. Yup, Ramsey is her husband. But that doesn’t make rape appropriate OR acceptable. There is a time and place and a way to handle presenting stories of rape. There is an appropriate message to be delivered. What happened to Sansa wasn’t it, precisely because it happened to Sansa–not Theon. 

I’ve read a lot of people today who applaud Game of Thrones for shining awareness on sexual violence, but to me, that’s not the case either. The show isn’t a true story. Yes, violence exists. But this show is not a “call to action.” People watch it to be entertained. As long as people are tuning in, the message will never stop. The culture will go on.

Alana Prochuk, C.A.R.E. About Gender Violence at Vancouver Community College Coordinator writes:

“We need to notice this stuff, get outraged, and share our outrage with others. Staying aware of rape culture is painful work, but we can’t interrupt the culture of violence unless we are willing to see it for what it is.”

There is a difference between portraying something as truth and portraying something as entertainment. There is a greater difference still between taking care with the message that you present and presenting a message that has the greatest amount of shock value possible. Rape a main character, and get ratings and publicity (good or bad, it’s all publicity). Rape a main character, and people will talk about your show. Rape a main female character while a male character watches? Promote a society dominated by rape culture, a society that has clearly defined roles for both men and women. Rape should not exist as a trope; it is not a necessary plot device. It is not something that “just happens.” When we let it go, brush it off, move past it saying nothing, we allow it to continue. The culture wants us to stay silent, because it can continue for as long as we do.

Sure, I’m just one person. But this is me saying “Hey there, HBO. This is not acceptable. And I’m no longer watching.”

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One thought on “Dear HBO: Here’s How You Lost Yourselves a Viewer

  1. adielachaviva says:

    Hi. You are right. I live in Nigeria and we still have that idea of men being dominant to women because of our culture. While rape is generally frowned upon, I have met men who believe a woman has to be shown her place, through verbal admonishments. It is a sad movie world where a woman’s pain is not even properly acknowledged, as you said but taken as a prop to a man’s importance in the plot. You even tried. I stopped watching after season two

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