Words by Carly Gillingham
Season 5 of HBO’s Game of Thrones had a number of hard-to-watch scenes, including the young Shireen Baratheon being burned to death while screaming for help and Cersei Lannister walking through King’s Landing naked while waste is thrown at her. But the most controversial scene was the violent rape of Sansa Stark on her wedding night by Ramsay Bolton as Theon Greyjoy was forced to watch. Following this episode’s premiere, several fans declared that they were “done” with the show due to its sexism and constant onscreen objectification of women. The usage of rape as gratuitous background noise was, for many, the last straw.
Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys Targaryen, recently spoke against these claims to Entertainment Weekly:
“There are women depicted as sexual tools, women who have zero rights, women who are queens but only to a man, and then there are women who are literally unstoppable and as powerful as you can possibly imagine. So it pains me to hear people taking Thrones out of context with an anti-feminist spin — because you can’t do that about this show. It shows the range that happens to women, and ultimately shows women are not only equal, but have a lot of strength.”
George R.R. Martin, who authored the books on which the show is based, has also countered the controversy surrounding rape in the show. He stated that rape has been part of our world’s major wars throughout history and it is simply more realistic to include it.
To be clear, rape should not be taken lightly, and I do think that Martin’s response is weak, and lacks real justification for its depiction in the show. The Khaleesi herself, however, makes a point that I have found difficult to articulate until now.
Writing a series with only conventionally strong female characters lacks depth and reality. Having interesting female characters comes from writing ones who show a range of women – ones who want to stay at home, who willingly depend on a man, who cry a lot, who lack sexuality, or who are vastly unlucky and do not have the means to change their situation. The strength of a female character does not come from her ability to stand up for herself or to fight like a man; not every female character has to be Brienne of Tarth in order to be strong.
It is a mistake for writers to strive to write what they consider a “strong” female character. Writers should just write human female characters. This is where the Mother of Dragons is correct. Game of Thrones shows a great range of women going through an equally great range of hardships in the pseudo-medieval world of chaos and misogyny in which they live. While the world of Thrones is largely fantastical, featuring dragons and magical abilities, it is not unrealistic in its depictions of women in a corrupt society. This is where feminist writing comes from – writing real women with real-world problems.
Daenerys and Cersei, for example, are two queens who are very conventionally strong, ruling their respective kingdoms either with or without a sense of humanity. Daenerys is fiercely devoted to human rights, while Cersei is focused on regaining her family’s power along with her brother. They have not always been depicted this way. Daenerys began the show submissive to her manipulative brother, and was subject to rape on her wedding night by the violent warrior Khal Drogo. Cersei ended the last season by humiliating herself in a “walk of atonement” through King’s Landing, stripped naked with her hair cut off while the very people she has ruled throw human waste at her, until she loses her composure and falls to the ground in complete vulnerability. The performance by Lena Headey has been widely acclaimed for her extraordinary acting, but viewers were understandably disturbed after watching a six-minute long scene of a strong female character being continuously violated and humiliated in the most vulnerable way possible.
On the other hand, Sansa Stark, who is the main subject of fans’ frustration over female objectification, has been largely stagnant throughout the series. She has been subjected to the rule of different male characters throughout the series; first it was Joffrey, then Tyrion, then Littlefinger, and most recently Ramsay Bolton. This came to a head towards the end of the last season when Bolton violently raped Sansa. This was not the first time that the show depicted rape; since Season 1 with the marriage of Khal Drogo to Daenerys, viewers have been subject to scenes like this before.
This was highly unpleasant to watch for all viewers. No one wants to see a rape scene, and no viewer has become desensitized to this content. It is doubtful that anyone was particularly excited about the scene while watching it, unlike when watching things like battle scenes between Wildlings and Stannis’s army. The problem is that it is greatly important to depict the real hardships that women go through, and yet, largely because of the nature of these hardships, it is difficult to show them in a way that simultaneously is honest and doesn’t turn away any viewers. Rape in an arranged marriage is something experienced by women today, and the show does not present it as thrilling and fun. Aside from arranged marriages and times of war, rape is a significant threat among real-world girls of Sansa’s same age. On college campuses and within cities, it is a constant fear in the minds of young women, who carry pepper spray and then breathe a sigh of relief when they make it home without being assaulted. After all, a whopping 80% of rape and sexual assault victims are under 30 years of age. Plus, the use of sexual violence in the show is by no means lazy; the composition of the scene between Bolton and Sansa is carefully constructed and suspenseful, as well as very well acted. The horror on Theon Greyjoy’s face as he is forced to watch makes it one of the classic and disturbing scenes in Thrones, rivaled by others like when Stannis Baratheon watches his young daughter get burned to death, or the aforementioned Cersei “walk of atonement” scene, as well as the introduction of Meryn Trant’s pedophiliac tendencies in Season 5. These are not lazy and gratuitous scenes, though they are understandably controversial and undeniably disturbing.
To me, the problem of lazy and gratuitous scenes actually takes form in the excessive amount of nude scenes in the brothels, which steal away valuable time that could be utilized for character development. Displaying female characters suffering greatly unfortunate hardship and objectification is utilizing screen time for character development, rather than for thrilling violence or sexualization. It does not weaken the female characters, but humanizes them and generates sympathy for them. Sansa Stark should not be compared to Brienne of Tarth in terms of who the stronger woman is; just like Emilia Clarke says, they are equally human. If every character was a fiercely independent warrior, then that would be lazy.
George R.R. Martin himself put it quite concisely in an interview on the subject of “interesting women.”When asked, “One thing really interesting about your books is that you write women really well, you write them really different … Where does that come from?”
He responded, “You know, I’ve always considered women to be people.”