Friday, May 29, 2015

Rape on Game of Thrones

Yet again the internetz is in a Game of Thrones uproar, and this time it’s about the rape of Sansa. Some question if what happened between Sansa and Ramsay actually constitutes rape because she married him of her volition before he violated her. Reasonable people can agree that these people are living in the past because it is absolutely possible to rape one’s lawfully wedded spouse. Others have suggested that this is only a thing because it was Sansa who was raped and she is a favourite character. To that I must ask when did Sansa become so favoured?  A simple search will reveal that Sansa’s character has been much derided for her genteel performance of ladyhood in the face of danger she faced in King’s Landing.  

Sansa’s rape may have been the most recent catalyst for a discussion about rape in  Game of Thrones but if we are honest, from the very first season, it was apparent that as far as rape goes, how it occurs, who becomes a victim, and whose character growth is meant to benefit, the instances of rape are highly problematic. To be clear, I am not in any way suggesting that there is ever a time when rape is appropriate or justifiable. The writers of Game of Thrones argue that rape is the historical result of war (a contention I don’t disagree with) however, this is not how rape has been employed in the series to date.

The first incident of rape to appear in Game of Thrones occurred in season one, episode one, accurately foreshadowing all of the abuse to come. On Daenerys Targaryen’s wedding night with Khal Drogo, as she wept, it was Drogo who said “no”. Daenerys wasn’t even afforded the opportunity to protest beyond her tears. If we apply the writer’s logic to this instance, it fails miserably. The marriage between Daenerys and Drogo was to cement an alliance and most certainly was not an act of war.  Daenerys was not a citizen of the enemy captured in battle and she was not a slave; the reasons historically where rape and war are associated. The writers were not content with simply having the ever so blond and white Daenerys violated and subjugated by her beast like husband (yes, that is how the show portrays the Dorthraki), they had Daenerys fall in love with her rapist.  For a moment, I blinked, wondering if I was watching Luke and Laura from General Hospital all over again.  Women DO NOT FALL IN LOVE WITH THEIR RAPIST! Moon of my life my ass, more like bane of my existence.

The rape of Daenerys was the last scene of the first episode and would go on to inform the thinking regarding sexual assault regardless of protestations which would occur later in response to fan outrage.

Are we saying that rape should never be depicted in media at all? No - there are certainly powerful moments in media when atrocities can and should be depicted. They need to be treated with the respect and wariness they deserve - we need to acknowledge that these are the traumatic experiences of real people that are being invoked and that should not be done gratuitously or for cheap shock value; there needs to be a reason. And it needs to be a good one.

What is the reason for this, the first rape? Especially since it was (debatably, of course) not depicted in the books? Obviously the excuse of war does not remotely apply - so why is it here? This rape is used to both characterise the animalistic tendencies of the Dorthraki (which, aside from anything else is a supremely racist trope given how the Dorthraki are depicted as POC) and, of course, present the pure innocence of Daenerys at this time - so white and fragile and delicate. Here we have the ongoing themes of Game of Thrones and rape - it is used to either make women look vulnerable, victimised and controlled and owned by their men or to make bad men look so very bad (when the rape even HAS a point, which often it doesn’t, serving more as wallpaper to the setting in the same way as the oft appearing naked sex-workers).

Look at the rape that has caused the recent protest - Sansa was raped by Ramsay primarily to tell us all that Ramsay is bad. It is laughable, ludicrous and redundant in the extreme to need any scene to depict Ramsay as a bad person. We know he’s bad, it’s already clear that he’s a terrible person just like his dad (who also has a story of, yes, rape to tell us he’s a bad man. In case all the flaying people alive was too subtle for us). There is absolutely no need to include one more second of screen time to tell us Ramsay is a bad person.This is established. The secondary role was to depict Sansa as imperiled - here she is surrounded by brutal, sadistic enemies just like she was in King’s Landing with Joffrey - but, again, was there remotely a need for a rape to depict this? She’s surrounded by the men who supplanted her family, killed several members and are allied to the Lannisters of whom Queen Cersei is quite willing to start a whole new war over the death of her son. Her vulnerability is already abundantly clear - rapesposition is not needed.

The fact that both of these major rapes in the series are completely and utterly unnecessary to the plot or characterisation is the very essence of being gratuitous; it’s pure shock value and utterly disrespectful to people who have actually experienced rape.

Just in the two instances we have mentioned it is overwhelmingly obvious that the stated justification does not hold water. In season four, the rape which brought about the most audience outrage was Jamie’s rape of Cersei. Once again, we had another round of denials that what occurred was actually rape and a lot of hand wringing about what did and did not occur in A Song of Ice and Fire. Cersei and Jamie had engaged in incest consensually for years, with Jamie fathering all of Cersei’s children; however, in this scene (trigger warning) Jamie forces himself on Cersei, ripping her dress, as she begs him repeatedly to stop, saying “it’s not right.” Jamie questions how he could fall in love with such a “wicked woman.” It’s clear that Jamie believes that he is justified in raping Cersei for the high crime of wanting Tyrion’s death, in the belief that Tyrion murdered their sadistic son Joffery and for having the temerity to reject him. This scene renders Cersei completely powerless and reminds the viewer that not only did Cersei fail to curtail Joffrey’s heinous actions, she couldn’t protect her child from violence.  She is absolutely impotent and nothing more than pawn in the game played and owned by men.  

The writers however would have us believe that this scene, in which Cersei repeatedly said no, asked Jamie to stop and tried to push him away was indeed consensual.

The consensual part of it was that she wraps her legs around him, and she’s holding on to the table, clearly not to escape but to get some grounding in what’s going on. And also, the other thing that I think is clear before they hit the ground is she starts to make out with him. The big things to us that were so important, and that hopefully were not missed, is that before he rips her undergarment, she’s way into kissing him back. She’s kissing him aplenty.

This logic only works if by no, Cersei really meant yes or by no, she actually meant keep trying to seduce me despite the fact that I am rejecting you repeatedly. Only in a world based in rape culture could this scene be seen as anything other than rape. This is yet another example of the explanations of the writers not holding any weight. Standing next to their dead son should have required a moment of sadness at the very least, and most certainly not rape.

There is, actually, another reason why rape is depicted in Game of Thrones - showing us that a character is good. We saw this with the Dorthraki raping the lamb men, and Daenery’s intervening for the victims because she is a Good Person who saved the poor rape victim. Yes Mirri Maz Duur does have her own revenge eventually and does challenge Daenerys “saving” her - but at this point she is pretty much cast as a villain for her vengeance (and Daenerys is her victim). When Craster’s daughters are imprisoned and raped by the renegade Night’s Watch, it is noble and good Jon Snow who moves the rescue. When Gilly is menaced by men of the Night’s Watch who plan to rape her, it is gentle and good Sam who finds the courage to risk his life to protect her. When Jaime saves Brienne from being raped, ultimately costing his hand, it is to show his nobility and how he has come to care for Brienne. Even the infamous scene with Sansa includes a moment when Sansa remarks how kind Tyrion was because Tyrion did not rape her. Again, this shows how pointless these scenes are- we know Daenerys has a strong (albeit often naive) sense of justice, we know Jon Snow is noble to a fault, we know Sam is gentle and caring, and we know Tyrion is the best of his family. These scenes are clearly unnecessary, making character points that have already been established

These moments not only set an often terribly low bar for being a good person (“not a rapist” is a basic requirement for not being a monster hardly evidence of being a paragon of virtue) but it, again, centres the narrative of rape away from the victim. Craster’s nameless daughters, Mirri Maz Durry, Sansa, Gilly, Brienne (again her scene is a milestone in Jaime’s development and completely forgotten in hers) - none of these are the central figures in their own rape. It’s about their rapists (and how evil they are) or it’s about their saviours/people who declined to rape them in the past. It’s never about the victim - the victim is a tool in someone else’s development.

This another major problem with rape on Game of Thrones and especially obvious in Sansa’s rape where the camera focuses so much on poor Theon because he has to WITNESS the rape. So often the victim of the rape is almost an afterthought or unimportant element of the scene - look at the rape Ellaria Martell who pretty much forms the core motivation for all the Dornish hostility - and therefore involvement - in the series. The victims are brutalised but then further dehumanised by being almost a side point in their own victimisation.

We have mentioned many times through this piece that there have been numerous excuses for each rape - either because of the war (while, as we have pointed out, few of these rapes take place in a military context) or because of history (a show with dragons needs to follow history - and the wall to wall rape isn’t exactly historical either) and, always,that nebulous idea that these rapes are necessary for the story.

We have said repeatedly that no writer is forced to write a scene, act or situation - they choose to do so. And the writers of Game of Thrones could clearly have written these scenes without rape without damaging their stories as we’ve pointed out in how gratuitous they are. But we go further - not only were these scenes unnecessary for the plot but they actively damaged the story

We have Daenerys who was supposed to be utterly devastated by Drogo’s death to a point that she was willing to kill herself over losing him. How much easier would that have been to believe if Drogo hadn’t raped her? Jaime’s rape of Cersei is almost bizarre in how out of place it is - and only more so when we consider the subsequent actions of Jaime trying to redeem himself and show his love for his sister/lover and niece/daughter; how much easier would Jaime’s attempts to win Cersei’s approval have been if he hadn’t raped her?

And Sansa - Sansa who is clumsily being forced back into the same role she occupied in season 1. Sansa who was slowly developing in cunning and political savviness, Sansa who was on her way to becoming a force to be reckoned with - how much BETTER would her storyline have been if she had manipulated the Boltons and her new husband? If she had used their need for a Stark to cement her control and demand their goodwill and fair treatment? How much would that have shown she’s grown - rather than returning her to the same place she was when this show started?

These rapes were not necessary for the plot and they actively damaged it as well as the development of their characters. That is worse than gratuitous - that is just some vile, bizarre need to include rape regardless of whether it fits, advances the plot or is handled even slightly respectfully.