The New Game of Thrones Rape Problem

By  · Published on May 19th, 2015

Spoiler Alert: If you’re not caught up on Season 5 of Game of Thrones through “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” proceed at your own risk.

The problem with life isn’t that it’s nasty, brutish and short; it’s that life is nasty brutish and long. Live long enough in the Game of Thrones universe, and you’ll probably wish you were dead. In a way, Ned took the easy way out.

Following the wince factory of an ending to the most recent episode of the show, The Mary Sue’s Editor In Chief Jill Pantozzi explained that the site would no longer be covering the show.

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. That is where I currently find myself in relation to Game of Thrones. The staff of The Mary Sue feels the same. You may feel differently.

So, from this point forth there will no longer be recaps, photo galleries, trailers, or otherwise promotional items about Game of Thrones on The Mary Sue. The newsworthiness of other items will be discussed by the editorial team on a case by case basis.

The last straw for Pantozzi was the rape of Sansa Stark at the hands of her new husband Ramsay Bolton. Like all marriages, the two connected for life because they’re very much in love and respect each other it’s politically expedient and women are considered handy for siring heirs in Westeros.

The editorial decision is fascinating solely for a number of inside baseball reasons, but consider this: in an age of constant media coverage, a site as large as The Mary Sue not covering a geek-loved show as popular as Game of Thrones is significant. So is the reason.

I’m not here to judge Pantozzi and The Mary Sue’s decision. There are several perfectly logical rebuttals to their position that matter exactly zero to her personal and the site’s professional response. She clearly states in her article that it’s the consistent and unrelenting approach from the showrunners of using rape as a plot device (an often empty one) that’s partially lead to the editorial position, particular following last year’s problematic rape of a main female character.

Plus, Pantozzi’s read of the narrative value of the scene (shared by Joanna Robinson at Vanity Fair as well) is correct. Ramsay raping Sansa tells us nothing new about his character, it tells us nothing new about her character, it actively undercuts her arc, it tells us nothing new about Westeros, and it has only a questionable relationship to Theon/Reek’s arc. Thus, it’s difficult to see it as anything other than poorly thought-out shock and awe.

However, I want to offer at least one worthwhile element to the scene: manipulating the audience. Even though Hitchcock was a big fan of it, manipulating the audience gets a bad shake. It’s the word itself, really. All movies and series manipulate us, but the word connotes that the storytellers have somehow cheated. Yet it’s important to remember that Game of Thrones is built on a handful of things:

  1. Undercutting expectations
  2. Re-proving how despicable their fictional world is
  3. Making the audience feel like shit

Neil makes a good point regarding this in his recap of the episode:

Once again the Game of Thrones audience has been repaid for caring about an individual character. And if you still, for some sick reason, liked Ramsay Snow, this episode should seal his position as the season’s darkest villain. Until his final moments, we can all root for the worst. Whether he’ll get any comeuppance is yet to be seen, but there’s no doubt that he deserves it.

The other lesson here is that our implicit trust in the show’s creative team might be a little misplaced. This episode was by far the most off-book episode to date. And while some of the changes are for the better (Ramsay’s wedding night in the books, though not with Sansa, is far more gruesome), some are not.

So you have a television program that thrives specifically on making us watch fictional people we like being tortured in various ways. For executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, manipulation and rug-pulling are go-to tools in their utility belt. It wasn’t an accident that they presented the rape scene moments after the Fuck Yeah, Sansa empowerment scene. Pissing people off is part of the goal. A big one.

Our usual relationship with a series and its creative team is built on trust, but Game of Thrones can only be trusted to irritate and distress. The idea that the scene achieves exactly what it intends – injuring the very audience that dedicates itself to watching – still isn’t a solid rationalization for continuing to watch the show if it upset viewers enough to quit, though. In fact, Pantozzi (and I’m sure others) quitting the show specifically because it achieved something it strives for, is telling.

There’s a fourth pillar that Game of Thrones exists on: creating heated conversation. I can’t help but wonder if the creative team worried that they didn’t have enough Twitterizable moments this season, one that has been marked by a more confused sense of plot than previous incarnations. Characters in season 5 seem consistently in transit instead of enacting interesting plot shifts.

This may seem petty, but the rape of Sansa felt especially insidious following the absolute, indisputable, worst-looking sequence the show has ever aired.

That fight scene in Dorne was jaw-dropping in how inept it was. Muddied and impossible to follow, it was also a clumsy end note that negated even the brief sequences with the Sand Snakes and Jamie’s journey to Dorne. The combination of this and the shock-value ending made the whole episode feel like the panicked response of a creature that thinks it’s cornered, not the confident prowess of a storyteller who has a firm grip on the crowd.

Now, maybe with a sense of irony, the show really has lost some fans (including a United States Senator). Maybe Benioff and Weiss should consider hiring Eve Ensler like George Miller did for Fury Road.

Related Topics:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.