by Alexander Quaresma | @WombatBites
Examining the outrage behind one of the most controversial scenes ever to play out on television, why it was wrong, and what it means.
Of all the horrific crimes a human being is capable of committing against another fellow human being there are some that simply stand out against the rest, comparatively speaking. While I do not intend to engage in a fruitless listing and ranking of what crimes are more horrible when you compare them to other crimes, I do think that pretty much anyone of sound mind would agree that rape is about as bad it gets. A convincing argument can even be made on logical grounds that it is in fact more horrific a crime than murder. I don't know if I'd be inclined to agree with that argument necessarily, but I am saying that I’d be open to hear how someone might argue it. I could be convinced.
Those who have been guilty of committing the crime of rape have come in all ages, shapes, sizes, occupations, holders of office, ethnicities, both of the sexes (albeit, a crime which males are predominantly guilty of committing), and so on. Adding to that, there is no justification where rape of any kind should, or could, ever be deemed as a facet of human behavior that is accepted anywhere by anyone. So in short, cultural relativism can be thrown out of the window when it comes to rape. It is a crime against humanity. Whether it is the wholesale mass rapes which are carried out by soldiers in war, an older family member taking advantage of a younger family member, a priest preying upon his flock, or a gang of assholes who assault a barfly on a pinball machine... it's the same horrific crime against humanity.
I'm not breaking any new ground by making these claims. Everyone already knows these things. But due to the sensitive nature of what it is I shall be discussing, and also knowing how people like to make gross assumptions based on very little information, I want to make it clear that in defending "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" I am not a defending rape or rapists.
Bill Cosby, the Steubenville High School football team, Daniel Holtzclaw, every Catholic priest that ever preyed upon a child in his care, etc.; these are real monsters and deserve whatever wrath and fury the Internet and society sees fit to throw their way; and yes, there is a "patriarchy" of sorts at play which shields or even mitigates the severity of these crimes. I am as against that as anyone. I am also, however, a defender of art and the freedom to express whatever an artist would be inclined to express in her or his art regardless of the medium.
While I'm at it, though I know this will ultimately mean little in the long run - but I'm going to state it anyway: though I may critique certain feminist publications and would-be feminists on social-media in this piece, I am not an anti-feminist. As a child who was predominantly brought up by single women (mother, aunts, both grandmothers), I recognize a need for there to be people championing the feminist cause. There are social-sexual disparities and injustices in many aspects of the "patriarchy," to borrow their term, and there should be voices out there shedding light on these matters. I would simply argue that the rape of Sansa Stark on "Game of Thrones" is not one of them.
The "act," "action," or "crime" of rape is one of those abstract proverbial demons which has afflicted humanity since before the dawn of recorded time. If we opt to view our natural history in the way Thomas Hobbes might be inclined to describe, we'd probably even be justified in assuming that rape has been a part of who we are since before we were even human to begin with. Incidentally, George R.R. Martin's novels and their accompanying television show, "Game of Thrones," is rather Hobbesian of sorts. I wouldn't go so far as to necessarily describe it as a Hobbesian tale, as there certainly seems to be a lot more going on in the series underneath the surface. However one may wish to describe the series, one thing anyone who has studied any history at all will know for sure is, just as we know fucked up things are going to happen in history, we know fucked up things are going to go down in "Game of Thrones."
There is yet another form of rape that is as equally ghoulish as any other that I previously mentioned. It's the rape of children sold or bartered off into marriage. And it was precisely under this sort of circumstance that led to the biggest American television controversy of 2015.
"Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken"
On May 17, 2015 the "Game of Thrones" episode "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" aired on the HBO network in the US. Over six million people watched with glassy eyes of unabated horror as lovely Sansa Stark, already a victim of four-and-a-half seasons of abuse and heartache, was wedded off to the verily villainous Ramsey Bolton-Snow. If that wasn't bad enough, while everyone was feeling depressed (again) over the unfolding passion play that is the "Game of Thrones" series, the episode was punctuated with one final scene from the wedding chamber.
As we all know this scene depicted the rape of Sansa by Ramsey. It was a very evil sequence instigated by the actions of a very evil character. It was the kind of scene that sent young babes to their beds that night crying to the twinkling indifferent stars above while they vented their anger and disgust on social media. The scene was made all the more evil by having Ramsey's emasculated slave, and former foster brother to his new wife, "Reek," stand and watch in an eerie teary silence. It was a monstrous scene; it was a brutal scene; but above all, it was a brilliant scene.
After the airing of "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" the many of the show's fans, a lot of them too young (or immature) to really be watching a show like "Game of Thrones" to begin with were distraught! "How dare HBO and the show’s writers depict Sansa getting raped! She doesn't even get raped in the books!" It was a loose equivalent to professional wrestling fans jumping up and down like monkeys and flinging their feces across the room because their favorite wrestler wasn't scripted to win the big battle royal that night. There was very little difference. Very little at all.
Many of the angered and impassioned critics of "Game of Thrones" post-Sansa Stark's rape seemed to have very specific gripes not centered on the silly notion that someone really had been raped. There were two main complaints. One was based on the fact that Sansa's rape was the third of a main character in the series, and as such it constituted a proverbial straw which had broken the camel's back as far as they were concerned anyway. The other was that the narrative of the television series had strayed too far from the source novels of George R.R. Martin.
Television writer Justine Gillmer sent out the following tweet the day after the episode's airing which kind of embodied both complaints in one short critique.
These complaints, of which Gillmer lends voice to, are somewhat semi-valid criticisms by unhappy fans; the "one rape too many" criticism being the most substantive of the two. Though I understand where the unhappiness comes from, I do not share the opinion of Gillmer nor those she was essentially speaking for.
Gillmer's criticism is actually quite interesting in that she is an accomplished television writer herself. The first thing that came to mind after seeing her tweet in Buzzfeed's article on the episode was to simply wonder if she'd have felt better if it was the Jeyne Poole character that had been raped. That at least would have adhered more to the storyline as George R.R. Martin had conceived it in the books.
According to her imdb bio Gillmer has written for a television show that airs on AMC. Therefore, she of all people should realize that you can't always stick to the story as it is given in the source material. There are numerous reasons why that can't be done. Maybe it's an issue with the budget? Perhaps it is an issue with the production company? Or perhaps it is sometimes done for the sake of attempting to make the show more compelling, i.e. improving, or consolidating the story as it is given in the source material. It's also something that's been done since the beginning of the re-telling of narratives.
Outside of Gus Van Zant's disastrous 1998 attempt at re-creating the film Psycho scene-for-scene there has not been a movie or television adaptation yet that didn't stray from the source material. Myths, fairy tales, legends, sword and sorcery novels- they all get altered in a re-telling. No doubt Martin's series will be re-told sometime in the future after we're all long gone. You can bet that it will be told differently. It's just what we do.
AMC's most popular show, "The Walking Dead" (which Gillmer does not write for), is a perfect example of what I'm talking about in the modern sense. Sometimes the writers swing and they knock it out of the park. Sometimes they swing and they miss horribly. It's all part of a creative process.
As for the accumulated total of sexual assaults that's taken place on the show, there is a very simple response to be made against that charge. It's irrelevant what the number is. The reason why it's irrelevant is because the entire show has been brilliantly written. If it works for the story being told than the accumulative total is meaningless. What works works.
Another troubling component to this point of contention with the writers, that Gillmer lent voice too, is that it was another main character made to suffer a rape. Would this mean that the wholesale implied raping by Craster of his wife-daughters is okay? Was the show more palatable when it was only peripheral background characters getting raped?
Okay, perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps Gillmer doesn't care so much that the television narrative strays from that of the novels. Perhaps she was simply disgusted by the idea of rape being depicted in the series at all. That's fair. Nobody can blame her for that, it's not an easy subject matter. All that I'd then want to ask anyone who is of this opinion that has been watching "Game of Thrones" since the beginning is simply "What kind of show did you think you were watching?" That's a question I will be asking again and again.
I'm rather sure Gillmer, or anyone else for that matter, would say "Of course it doesn't mean the wholesale rape of Craster's wife-daughters is okay! How dare you even imply such a thing." But were these people complaining then? I'm sure they weren't happy about it, but it comes off as extremely disingenuous that such critics went into attack mode when pretty Sansa got raped, but didn’t seem to care so much before when it was icky inbred farm people.
If anyone was so averse to rapes being depicted in visual narratives, why would they have continued to watch the show past the first episode? Why wait until the forty-sixth episode to go on the attack? It’s because the writing has been brilliant from day one, and in spite of what themarysue.com had to say on the matter (I’ll get to them in a bit), yes, rape, and all other forms of cruelty to humans can be plot devices to form extremely compelling narratives. Gillmer and everyone else simply got sucked in. To cherry pick outrage at that point in the show's lifetime, 46 episodes and four-and-half seasons in, seems more than a little petty. It’s “Game of Thrones.” Bad shit happens.
But it gets worse ...
Buzzfeed found some more choice tweets by the mad as hell after the airing of the episode in question. While the complaints of Sansa’s rape being "one rape too many" or "straying too far from the books" are ultimately baseless, they are at least easily understood as fair critiques before you get into why such criticisms are baseless. But those weren't the only complaints.
Writer and comedian Gabby Dunn leveled one of the more unfair criticisms at the writers with this tweet.
Writers David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and Bryan Cogman do not, nor have they attempted to, make female characters more interesting by having them suffer a rape. To essentially make the claim that the serious matter of rape is simply used as a plot device by the writers to "spice up" the show as a common practice is ridiculous. And while I don’t begrudge someone to have an opinion, even if it’s wrong, or even to voice it, for someone to make such a claim is simply as unfair as it is so incredibly inaccurate.
It is true that the rape of a character may lead to a character arc, such as in the case of Danaerys. Or it might just have the little to no effect of a pebble being dropped into the evil, soulless, empty black hole of a personality such as Cersei's. Both Danaerys and Cersei were already interesting characters before their rapes. That's a remarkable claim considering that Danaerys went through the same thing that Sansa did in the very first episode. Yet we were all enchanted by the Danaerys character in those first five or so scenes she was in. A testament to the great Emilia Clarke.
Sansa Stark, on the other hand, let's be honest- not the most interesting character in the story. However, interest in her character has slowly been building thanks to the source narrative, the television writing, and the performance by Sophie Turner. How Sansa negotiated her way through her heartbreaking and treacherous stay at King’s Landing was compelling. Having her have to deal with an insane aunt was fascinating. This is why it is all the more fascinating that the writers would now marry her off to the worst (human) embodiment of evil on the show and made to suffer horribly at his hands. It’s not an ideal situation. It’s a harsh existence in Westeros. It’s a place where bad people do bad things. And as unfortunate as it is, bad people are going to take advantage of pretty people with less physical prowess. But sort of as Lee Strasberg tells Al Pacino, “This is the show we’ve chosen, Gabby.”
As for Gabby's point that "the same isn't said for male characters," I'm not sure I understand what she means. I will say, however, that as interesting as Theon Greyjoy's character was before his castration, that character in the storyline has grown to be ten times more interesting since. Castration is yet another theme that is very common in the show. I guess Gabby forgot about that. Earlier I said that there aren't many crimes as bad as rape, well, to be castrated as part of one's torture comes pretty damn close; and perhaps maybe even more so. Then there's also all the other horrible things that happen to men on the show, but- meh, why get into that?
As I stated earlier, there are other shows on the television to watch if watching television is what a Gabby Dunn likes to do on a Sunday night. Almost all of them have no rape. Those shows might be more of Gabby's cup of tea. I shall again refer to “Finding Bigfoot” on Animal Planet. That fucking thing is always on and it's hilarious.
Character development and trauma
Twitter user Tyger Huckabeatz had an interesting take in so far as his criticism of the episode went.
Let's analyze these three characters he’s making reference to in terms of their character arcs up to this point in the series timeline.
1 | Danaerys | Little Danaerys was raped time and time again by her hulking husband Drogo. But Danaerys is also one of the most intelligent and resourceful characters in the story. In fact, she is probably the most intelligent character in the story - all due respect to Tyrion. If we were to apply archetype embodiments to each character, Danaerys could very well be said to embody higher forms of wisdom. Danaerys dealt with the rapes long ago. Perhaps the power of her character caused some of the fans to forget that. Rather than continue to be his victim she turned the tables on Drogo and took charge. After which, and rather ironically, she wound up falling in love with him. That doesn't typically happen in real life, but then again “Game of Thrones" is a story, or a fairy tale, if you will. In fact, the wedding of Danaerys and Drogo, and how their entire relationship began and ended could be said to represent deeper philosophical themes related to the archetypes, but that’s another matter. As far as the surface narrative is concerned, Danaerys also did everything in her power to keep the Dothraki from raping the females of villages they’d plunder. Tyger has no reason to complain.
Danaerys has been coping with all the indignities perpetrated against her from the beginning. After all she’s been through, she's now a queen who – in case you didn’t notice – doesn't put up with a lot of bullshit. I suppose Tyger’s point is that the character Danaerys should have a sex life that no longer includes a desire for men? Well, yes, in real life that could likely be the case. But remember, she loved Drogo - even after all the times he essentially raped her. And after his death she hasn’t necessarily been sleeping around. She has had one sexual encounter with someone since; with Daario. He just so happened to be the guy who brought her the heads of the two men who were pretty open with what they intended to do to her after defeating her army in battle. So she might be somewhat sweet on the guy. So what is Tyger complaining about?
2 | Cersei | Cersei is one of the more despicable characters of the entire “Game of Thrones” universe. As she has been written by Martin, HBO's writers, as well as performed by Lena Heady, she has gone on to become one of the great villains in the history of western literature. Villain though she may be, Cersei did suffer a rape at the hands of her scorned lover-brother beside their dead son's corpse. Though she did suffer that vile crime, Cersei is a character who is dead inside. Outside of anything having to do with herself or her children she simply doesn’t much care about anything or anyone. She has no conscience. It's what makes her one of the great villains. This doesn’t justify her being taken advantage of, however, it could explain why she’s not exactly suffering any noticeable outward symptoms of PTSD as a result, which I guess is something Tyger would prefer. Cersei is not a character who would allow one sexual assault to change her behavior, particularly if it came at the hands of Jamie. That rape would have been nothing compared to the lifetime of sexual advances against her wishes her husband Robert would have been guilty of while they were married.
Cersei, perhaps more than anyone else in the show, would have understood the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes quite well. And let us not forget, as Prince Oberyn informed us, Cersei was also fond of taking out her self-loathing by molesting her baby brother, Tyrion. Who knows what other horrible crimes she’s committed to help contribute to the human wasteland that Cersei is inside. There is no story arc to be had with her, no redemption, except perhaps at the end, whatever that turns out to be. That in itself is tragedy enough- and in fact, is probably the depressing residual side effect of being a sexual pawn in her father’s schemes as well as being the long time victim and the perpetrator of deviant sexual behavior.
3 | Sansa | The series isn't over yet. That is all. They're not done telling her story. There's a few more seasons left to go. If the series doesn't go on to address all of the trauma Sansa was subjected to, and just passes it off as something that doesn't affect or motivate her character in anyway by the conclusion, then sure, it makes her rape in the narrative all the more gratuitous and unnecessary. But there's still some twenty to thirty episodes left in the series. Can we wait and see what happens before we attack how her character arc plays out?
"Game of Thrones" has always remained true to the environment it is set in and the characters in which it presents us. There has also never before been a show, or motion picture for that matter, so set in the orbit of fantasy fiction that has ever emanated as much realism as “Game of Thrones” has. In spite of what, and how, things happened with the Danaerys character, Sansa is still essentially a child who grew up coddled. We can't expect her to find inner strength as of yet. She's still looking for people around her to help her. However, that said, we've also seen how she's picked up (from Cersei) how to lie and be manipulative when it suits her or gives her pleasure. I would expect that as the series winds down some more interesting character developments are going to take place with Sansa Stark. Did anyone notice how she has a talent for pricking Ramsey with some needles of her own when she reminded him that he's not the rightful heir to his father's newfound glory?
In short, the premise of Tyger Huckabeatz's criticism is worthless as it has no legs to stand on. Everything we see about Danaerys and Cersei's characters are shaped around the fact that they've been traumatized via objectification and brutalization.
At one point in the fourth season Cersei Lannister tells Prince Oberyn: "Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls." Not only do they hurt little girls everywhere, but they hurt little boys, too. But even I, a non-practicing feminist, can see and understand that, yeah- girls do have it harder. But basically, if you're a human being living in the "Game of Thrones" universe you are subject to a lot of horrific shit; especially the girls. Cersei's words in season four are poignantly stark. An episode as brilliantly written, directed, and performed like "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" exists to serve the ethic that the show has been founded on masterfully and spoken of by Cersei when she said those very words. “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.” I’m sure feminists everywhere agreed and perhaps even applauded “Game of Thrones” for writing such masterful dialogue. I was applauding with them. It was a great line. But pardon the writers then for depicting a little bit of what Cersei was referring to.
The "Game of Thrones" universe is classically Hobbesian in the way that we see most of its human characters behave. There are a few exceptions of course. There was Ned Stark, for example. He seemed to hold to another way of life, an older way, where selfishness and material desires weren't what animated his actions. Though we lament the passing of that way of life, we have to understand that in a universe subject to observations Thomas Hobbes elucidated manifesting themselves -I shall repeat it again- bad things are going to happen. It's no wonder that "Game of Thrones" very much mirrors are own plight in our own universe. "Game of Thrones" is not exploiting female characters, it's using them just as much as it uses everyone else in the narrative to inform us on something about the environment within which this incredible story taking place is unfolding in.
The odor of hypocrisy
If having a show with strong female characters fighting the conventions of "patriarchy" is the only thing that matters to someone when making the choice of what kind of show they want to watch, "Game of Thrones" has been second to none when it comes to such socio-political narrative storytelling.
From the beginning "Game of Thrones" has created a voluminous number of strong powerful female characters that are intricately intertwined into the story. They're not all rape toys as some of the critics want to believe after having viewed "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken."
Melisandre had Stannis Baratheon wrapped around her finger. Incidentally, was anyone crying for Gendry when she took advantage of him sexually? Catelyn Tully-Stark was a powerful domineering woman who got things done. Yara Greyjoy was a match for even Ramsey Bolton-Snow himself, and she would have succeeded in her mission to rescue her brother had Theon's mind not been utterly obliterated by the torture he himself suffered through. Let us not forget that Brienne of Tarth stood toe-to-toe with a god damn bear without any proper weapon and defeated the Hound in one-on-one battle. Margaery Tyrell is a match for anyone when it comes to wit and politics, just like her grandmother Olenna. By the way, how about how Sansa's sister Arya has handled herself? And between you and me, I wouldn't want to get into any kind of a tussle with the "Sand Snakes."
Each of one these characters that I have I just mentioned are extremely well written and incredibly interesting. To pretend that they aren't simply because something bad happened to one of the favorites is very weak. Best of all, neither of these characters suffered a sexual assault in the narrative! In spite of this, somehow or another the controversy over "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" seemed to be a rallying cry for well-intentioned feminists to take a hostile stance against the show.
themarysue.com & Saladin Ahmed
As a result of "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" the feminist website themarysue.com came out and announced it would no longer be promoting the HBO series. Here was themarysue.com's reasoning:
In the middle of all this, I suppose in an effort by Jill Pantozzi to provide reason and justification for the statement in her article for themarysue.com, that "rape is not a necessary plot device," she posted an insanely irrelevant tweet from a very shocking source. Science fiction author Saladin Ahmed, an individual that I often find myself in agreement with on a great many things, tweeted this stunningly silly tweet:
I understand where themarysue.com is coming from. I do not begrudge a website like The Mary Sue to openly take a socio-political stance on an issue, even if their reasoning is so horribly wrong it's painful to read. It's their right to do so and it serves their purpose to come out against the depicted rape. My problem, however, is the logic they use embodied by the baffling tweet that another writer of fiction (of all people) would throw out there like fuel onto a fire.
To compare Mad Max Fury Road to "Game of Thrones" is as arbitrary a comparison as me saying:
"Nightmare on Elm Street is a R-rated movie w/ a sexual deviant villain yet Craven & co. didn't feel the need to include a rape scene."
"Basic Instinct is a R-rated movie w/ a nympho as a villain yet Verhoeven & co. didn't feel the need to include a rape scene."
"Debbie Does Dallas is an X-rated movie w/ people fucking each other everywhere yet David Buckley and co. didn't feel the need to include a rape scene."
I could do this all day. There are an infinite number of permutations this line of direct comparative analysis could yield and each one would be as irrelevant as Saladin Ahmed's comparison of "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" to Mad Max Fury Road.
Contrary to the incorrect assumption that Jill Pantozzi takes, that of "rape is not a necessary plot device," the reason why Mad Max Fury Road didn't have any rape in it is because the story George Miller was telling didn't necessitate any rape to be depicted. It was however, implied. Incidentally, perhaps Ahmed Saladin, Jill Pantozzi, and everyone at themarysue.com she was speaking for, should watch George Miller's previous film in the Mad Max series, the superior The Road Warrior (1981). There is a fairly graphic rape scene depicted in that film.
Though I'm not going to spend much effort criticizing themarysue.com, as I've said, they have a political agenda - one that I'm not even averse to, either. I can't say I agree with every single feminist rant I come across, I understand that, for lack of a better term, "feminist causes" need to be voiced. If that means that there are websites devoted to feminist causes that may take the wrong approach in matters such as this, so be it. My problem is with Saladin Ahmed, who for all intents and purposes, as an author/artist, should know better.
As a writer of some notoriety, Ahmed should understand that artists, writers included, should be allowed to depict any and all forms of human experience in order to tell a story; even the bad things - even rape. The entire basis of western civilization (Jill Pantozzi should take note of this part, by the way) was Homer's literary masterpiece The Iliad. Everything that happens in The Iliad is centered on the fact that there is a disagreement between Achilles and Agamemnon. What's the disagreement? Well, essentially, it boils down to who it is that has the right to rape the war prize, Briseis, whom Achilles had abducted after killing her family. Rape would go on to be a dark theme used and explored by artists to tell compelling narratives ever since.
Shockingly (to me, anyway), Saladin Ahmed's criticism was completely out of line and entirely out of touch on multiple fronts. It is unfortunate that themarysue.com opted to use it as a part of its announcement that they'd "no longer be promoting 'Game of Thrones.'" If they didn't like the episode, they didn't like the episode; that's fine. But tailoring their reasons why they wanted to stop promoting the show using Ahmed's tweet only made them look just as silly as Saladin.
The "Vanity Fair" piece
A well-written, passionate, but yet- again, ultimately irrelevant article criticizing the show ran in "Vanity Fair" later the same night the episode had aired titled "Game of Thrones Absolutely Did Not Need to Go There with Sansa Stark." The article's point delved into yet another issue many angry critics of the episode were voicing. This criticism seemed to go something like "It's not cool to have Sansa raped by Ramsey now because Sansa's character is starting to grow into a powerful woman, and to have her suffer the indignity of being raped now is- it's just not cool, man. Not cool at all."
And this brings us to an existential issue everyone following the show might have to consider. Perhaps Sansa's fate in the story was never meant to grow into a powerful woman? Perhaps her character was always meant to be a tragic one?
The show is overflowing with strong and powerful female characters, off the top of my head I was able to name near a dozen without really even trying too hard. So it's not as if the show is lacking on that front. After all, not everyone can be Danaerys. That's why we all love her character. So perhaps Sansa Stark has always been meant to be a sad case of a female who was never meant to, or given a chance by the "patriarchy," to flower into the strong independent woman above being tarnished by the disgusting vices of deviant males so many want to see. That's what makes great drama.
What you saw and what you didn't
While many outraged fans of "Game of Thrones" stewed in their anger over Sansa Stark's rape by Ramsey, there is one more piece that everyone seemed to leave out of the equation when they lobbed criticisms against HBO and the show's writers. In fact, in spite of all of the knocks the episode received as being subpar - here is yet another silly one ...
... in reality it speaks to how great of an episode it was and how masterfully it was produced and directed. What I'm speaking of is this, though Sansa Stark is raped, it is never actually shown on screen.
We see Sansa bend over the bed. We even see Ramsey violently tear Sansa's clothes. What we don't see, however, is the violent assault itself. The rape is not shown on-screen. Oh, we know it's happening. We know that because of what we hear and what we do see, Reek’s horrified teary-eyed face. But visually, nothing gratuitous was shown at all. Now if the critics’ problem is that just implied rape is still enough to justify such outrage, well, again, I have to ask, what show did you think you were watching?
I have to bring up Craster and his daughter-wives again. Where was this scorn when we met them? We never saw them get raped either back when we met them in seasons two and three in 2012 and 2013. But as sure as a racist is going to support Donald Trump for president in 2016, we know for sure that all kinds of rape was going on in that little homestead of the damned. There was very little activist-inspired outrage, if any at all. Oh, but wait- actually we did see some of Craster’s daughter-wives being raped.
After Karl Tanner and the Men of the Watch mutineers took the homestead over in season four in 2014 they were busy raping the daughter-wives in between drinks of wine from the skulls of their murdered former comrades. Anyway, back again to my point, where was the outrage for Craster’s daughter-wives? Were those characters simply too old, too ugly, too inbred, too peripheral for anyone to care about? What happened at Craster’s was, in my opinion anyway, by far some of the most outrageous scenes depicted in the narrative of the “Game of Thrones” story up to this point. Nothing has come close, not even Sansa’s rape. But I rolled with it, because it’s a great story regardless. Did Saladin Ahmed take the show to task in 2014 like he did in 2015? Did themarysue.com feel it was in their interests to stop promoting the show at that point? Clearly they did not.
“Game of Thrones” hasn’t often restrained itself from depicting horrible things on camera. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so popular. But in the instance of Sansa being raped, they were. The power and brilliance of that scene, even sans-simulated rape, worked so well that everyone lost their grasp on ration and reason and behaved as if they had just seen something worse than the rape Monica Bellucci’s character suffers in Gaspar Noe’s Irréversible (2002). And for the record, no rape scene is western cinema or television is worse than Monica Bellucci’s in Irréversible.
Everything that happens in Sansa’s wedding chamber scene of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” is implied. Nothing is physically shown. That’s not insignificant.
We live in a western culture that sees:
1. Language increasingly becoming caught up in the production of power relations between social groups (i.e., the rise of all forms of –isms, activists, anti-activist activists, etc.).
2. The urban sprawl spreads just as fast as it is decays, separating humans from the natural world while also re-orienting this mass globalized collective around productive throughput systems so all-encompassing, where everything is a metric or broken down into information that can be analyzed in a spreadsheet, that it results in alienation (i.e., the retreat of individuals into technology, the rise of absurdist inauthentic self-imposed problems, and the notions behind “first-world problem” memes).
3. Multi-national capitalism separating and sorting produced goods from the plants, minerals, and even the processes - including the people and the cultural context used to produce them - into increasingly specialized sectors of the economy (i.e., the fact that everyone is essentially relying on mass-produced junk they could never produce on their own to keep them happy, while the economy itself banks on people consuming all of said mass-produced junk commodities which are not required to live an authentic - or even happy - life in the global marketplace).
4. The exchange value of a commodity is based on the arbitrary value of a centralized, controlled, denominated fiat currency that is predicated on outside manipulation rather than the actual usefulness (of which there is none) of the currency being exchanged (i.e., the obliteration forever of coming to a common understanding to agree to an exchange via language and interpersonal interaction).
And most of all:
5. Contemporary media including television, film, print, and most assuredly, the Internet, blurring the line between products that are needed and products for which ad media creates a need in order to live (i.e., the whole sale duping of anyone subjected to such media, and the rise of the schizophrenic class as a result of all that god damn blurring).
In 1981 Jean Baudrillard wrote Simulacra and Simulation. In his treatise Baudrillard specifically referred to these five points as being the phenomena which causes people difficulty in distinguishing simulacra from authenticity; or perhaps to be more specific, reality. Since “winter is coming,” a perfect example I can use to help illustrate this point would be as follows:
There are people who love to get to the gym and work out on artificial machines in an artificial environment doing activity that simulates work, but who get very irritated, or even pissed off, when they have to shovel out their driveway after it snows.
It should also be noted that Baudrillard distinguishes simulacra from simulations- a simulacra being a fabrication, or copy, depicting something that has no basis in reality to begin with; i.e. working out at a gym, going to Disneyland to worship all the imposed idols from our childhood, or, dare I say, making up faux issues to get mad about just to get mad and find other people that then share their anger. That last point is increasingly becoming the case more and more thanks to language, social media, and the Internet. Identifying faux issues and creating problems where there are none has become a form of exosomatic symbolism in so far as the individual's Internet presence is concerned. Every tweet twatted exists as a symbolic representation of who we are. On the other hand, a simulation is simply an imitation of a real-world process.
As I noted earlier, Sansa Stark’s rape in the episode was a simulation, but now, because of the Internet, mass media, hyper global capitalism, that actual simulated event exists as a simulacrum as well (as far as Baudrillard is concerned). The point being that the segment in which Sansa is raped is contextually situated as part of an episode which is part of a whole story being told over the course of the better part of a decade. Now, however, anyone can look up the scene on the Internet and watch it, divorced from its original context. Rape fetishists, of which there are many, male and female, would have otherwise had the ability to run a search for the scene, click on it, and have fun with themselves as they watched. Never before in recorded human history has this process been so readily available to anyone who wanted it. It began with the VCR and recording Cinemax movies, now, in an instant, you can see virtually any gratuitous scene ever filmed thanks to the wonders of mass produced technology. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a user and a consumer of mass media doing this, it does put the artist/performer, i.e. Sophie Turner, out on a limb if they had opted to graphically depict the rape in the same way as they did with Emilia Clarke’s character.
In spite of this new technological allowance, even that doesn't mean that artists should have to censor their art accordingly. This is simply the new reality we're presented with. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau would tell us, "There's no going back." Performance artists, actors and actresses in particular, simply have to be aware of these factors in so far as roles they are willing to accept go.
Other artists, those who are in charge of the scene, how the story got there and how it will play out, the directors and the writers more specifically, they will have to weigh such situations in their heads when they opt to deal with sensitive thematic material such as this. Sometimes they might feel a horrific rape might add to the story they’re telling and want to simulate it graphically; as they did with Danaerys. Other times, however, they might feel a restrained approach is more appropriate; as they did with Sansa.
Those in charge of the scene in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” seemed to very much take these considerations seriously. It was a hard scene to watch, and I’m sure it was a challenge to pull off. But they did it. Laura Bradley of slate.com wrote the best article the day after, as she seemed to be one of the few who had a firm grasp on what the scene was trying to do rather than try to turn it into something it was not. Not that she was the only one, but just the only one I'm aware of, who seemed to understand that what happened to Sansa in that episode was simply part of a greater unfolding story. And that's the only defense the show needs.
I also like how Bradley points out Sen. Claire McCaskill’s unfortunate response to the episode via her twitter.
One thing that goes without question is that it is very problematic and quite troubling in this day and age, to see a person of authority claiming a work of fiction to be "unacceptable."
I’ve been asking the question this entire time, but I’ll do it again, what show did the senator think she was watching? This is assuming, of course, that Sen. McCaskill was a regular viewer of the show and not just trying to grandstand; because of course an elected official in American politics would never do that.
While politicians scoffed, and apologetic males gushed guilt, and feminists vented in one big collective bubble of disassociated anger, real issues concerning rape continue to plague us. That people have grown so emotionally attached to a fictional fantasy fictions, is a sign that we’re moving further and further away from authenticity and in danger of slowly sinking into an abyss of alienation predicated on the awful side-effects of simulacra immersion. Stories regarding real rape are relegated by the entire consuming Internet corpus as click bait or depressing stories from the news most people don’t want to deal with in any substantive way.
Bill Cosby was a beloved part of the simulacrum in the era Baudrillard was writing his treatise in. So his crimes get plenty of attention, as they should. But we now live in an environment where the Anonymous hacker who exposed the Steubenville high school football team's rape of a classmate, as well as the insidious cover-up by the town of Steubenville, Ohio itself, is facing harsher penalties than those guilty of committing the crimes he exposed. That's what is unacceptable, not what writers in a television show chose to depict. But this is where we're at now in the world.
Recently a wealthy Saudi millionaire, Ehsan Abdulaziz, accused of rape in the UK was exonerated. His defense: He claims he tripped and fell and his penis accidentally penetrated the young woman’s vagina as she slept on a couch. Where is the mass outrage? There has been very little about this case mentioned much of anywhere on social media. There’s two reasons for that, one, not that many people even know, or care to know, about this case (for reasons already mentioned), and, two, people aren’t emotionally connected to it. Yes, there are those who do keep tabs on these things, including feminists and feminist websites, and it’s a good thing that they do. But where is the raw collective emotion from everyone else? It’s absent. It doesn’t exist. But people sure got emotional and outraged over Sansa Stark getting raped, a fictional make-believe character in a make believe story.
Everyone criticizing the show for its choice to have a make-believe character get raped, yes, again, probably would have been better off taking the opportunity to say something along the lines of:
“Game of Thrones once again reminds us how horrible rape is. Let us not allow what happened to Sansa to happen to any of our children in the real world.”
That’s not what we got though. Instead we got people going after the writers almost as if they had been guilty of committing a crime themselves.
This brings to light the most troubling aspect to come out of Sansa Stark’s rape. It is the fact that we now have a vocal fringe element in society seeking to impose fabricated injustices upon themselves and do so in an effort to police art via the powerful force of social media. While I’m all for voicing opinions, and social media has been the great leveler in terms of having other voices heard, it’s unfortunate that more thought and perspective doesn’t go into some of these opinions being voiced. It's equally as disheartening that artists themselves also find themselves tailoring their art to these artificial mass collectives manifesting on social media when their metrics or analytics reach a certain size.
Rape is a real problem. As you're reading this right now someone somewhere is being raped. “So why so serious, over a television show everyone?” Particularly one that generally seems intent on depicting rape as the serious, evil, and demonic act is is. Why so serious? Well, Baudrillard tells us why. And with that, I need a god damn drink.