Why U mad, tho? Another treatise on Sexual Violence in HBO’s Game of Thrones

It’s been a little over a year since Lucy (formerly Peachy) wrote her article discussing the now infamous incestuous rape scene in the third episode of Game of Thrones’ season four. History has a funny way of repeating itself, doesn’t it? If you’re a fan of GOT, be warned that there’ll be spoilers from here on in. Those of you not riding that particular roller coaster are still encouraged to read on, because what I have to say doesn’t only apply to the seven kingdoms. At the end of episode 6, Sansa Stark (played by Sophie Turner), was married to Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), in what she was made to believe to be a power move by a political puppet master Petyr Baelish, whose relationship with her revolves around her serving as both a political pawn and a romantic proxy for her dead mother, upon whom he long had designs. That disturbing little tidbit is not even what I want to talk about right now. What I do want to talk about is the general and critical reaction to the very final scene, in which she is raped off-screen by her new husband (long established as a sadist), with her former foster-brother watching on. I’m not here to have the “but was it rape?” argument, I’m here to have the “why does fictional rape garner the outrage non-fictional rape evades?” discussion. Some fucked up stuff happens on Game of Thrones. Some fucked up stuff happens in real life. In real life, though, we can cloak these things in an ambiguity and reason that’s difficult to foster when it’s presented to us by an omniscient narrative eye. So long as there’s room for doubt, you can rationalise it away or pretend it didn’t happen, at least “not like that”.  But when it’s right in front of you, like it was in this episode and in last year’s, there’s no “he said, she said”, no evidence to gather, no allegations to discount and no witnesses to find or discredit. You saw a fucked up thing happen. You are a witness. You can’t hide from it anymore, like you could when if happened to a friend of a friend’s cousin. You have to confront a very real and fucked up thing that happens to women and men all over the world under a range of fucked up circumstances, and it makes you uncomfortable. Which is fine, by the way, you should be uncomfortable. Only rapists are okay with rape (in addition to an alarming number of politicians, religious and academic institutions, etc.) But are you as upset by a 30 second headline on the six o’clock news about a real, violent, sexual crime perpetrated by and upon real, living people as you are by something simulated by actors in a safe and controlled environment? Are you going to jump online and write about how it should never have been allowed to happen? Are you going to demand that it never be allowed to happen again? What is arguing with a stranger going to achieve? Sex is still a pretty significantly taboo topic in contemporary society, especially when it comes to issues of consent. The way it’s dealt with on our tv and movie screens reminds me of repeats I’ve seen of shows from the ’60s where married adults slept in twin single beds. For centuries, polite society – historically, the part of society that makes and enforces the rules – refused to allow the open acknowledgement that consensual sex, within the boundaries of a loving relationship, was something that occurred in a fictional universe, let alone in a real one. Sure, we’ve moved on, sex is everywhere in contemporary media, for better and worse. There are dozens of crime shows that thrive on twistedly empowering narratives of rape – the perpetrator is convicted, or served poetic justice, the victim is avenged. Our fiction feeds us rhetoric about survival and the power of the system, when nothing is more systemic, on a global scale, than sexual abuse. In attempting to depict narratives of sexual violence that conform to resolution-driven, episodic formats, contemporary fiction is unknowingly and implicitly reinforcing the tendency to hide from the inconvenient truth of reality. There is nothing more damaging or pervasive than willful or enforced ignorance. You can’t hope to change or fix something you don’t know how to talk about. I am by no means advocating for more rape scenes on my television. What I would like though, is for the people watching and talking about them to think seriously about why it makes them feel the way they do without becoming the proverbial ostrich, blocking out the inconvenient or uncomfortable. Come on, other humans, do me this one solid.

Shon

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