Halloran: The sexual violence problem in ‘Game of Thrones’

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Halloran: The sexual violence problem in ‘Game of Thrones’

Sara Halloran, Columnist

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Warning: If you’re a “Game of Thrones” viewer and you haven’t seen last Sunday’s episode, you might want to stop reading now.

Last year, after five books and four seasons, I decided to end my relationship with “Game of Thrones.” For no particular reason, the showrunners had once again subjected a powerful female character to sexual violence she did not experienced in the books.

Cersei Lannister’s loving, if not creepy, relationship with her brother Jaime, previously a powerful bond that humanized two of the most ruthless characters on the show, had suddenly and pointlessly taken a terrible turn. Before Cersei it was Dany, kick-ass queen of dragons, whose victimization at the hands of her husband on her wedding night departed from the books’ depiction of a gentle and consensual encounter. Therefore I wasn’t particularly surprised, though I was deeply disappointed, when I heard that Sansa, a young yet incredibly strong character, had been raped. With this scene came the backlash I had expected after the Dany or Cersei incidents. Many viewers denounced the show, horrified by the needless degradation of the girl they had virtually seen grow up on screen. Yet others defended the scene, calling it necessary to the plot and predictable of the show.

Let’s get this straight: No character ever needs to be raped. We don’t need to see “Game of Thrones’” strongest female characters cut down in a way that makes them completely powerless, especially because they’ve already navigated through so much adversity. We didn’t need to see rape to know that Sansa’s assaulter and new husband, Ramsay, was a terrible person — show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss made his evil nature perfectly clear in earlier episodes. George R.R. Martin, the author of the books, never shied from gratuitous sex and even rape scenes. The sex wasn’t always necessary, but the sexual violence was written more as a horrible truth of the sometimes savage “Game of Thrones” universe than as a lazy way to take up pages. Benioff and Weiss simply went with this scene because they could, which seems like a waste of their limited airtime. Besides, reading a few lines about a character’s rape, while upsetting, is nothing compared to watching it play out on screen.

The reasonings of Benioff and Weiss’ defenders have repeatedly fallen flat. It’s true that Ramsay brutalized his wife in the same way in the books. However, this show is Benioff and Weiss’ creation, and they’ve steered away from the books pretty dramatically already this season, including their pairing of Ramsay with Sansa. It’s pretty clear by the camera’s focus on Theon, Sansa’s “foster” brother who was forced to watch during the scene, that the scene’s main focus was male pain. This is a well-known trope and, again, extremely lazy.

We probably should have seen this coming. There has been over-the-top female nudity, and, of course, the raping of other main characters. There’s Arya and Brienne, two of the most fiercely independent, impressive characters, who never shy away from their womanhood in the books, and are angered at the injustice of how women are treated in their universe. The show transforms them into casual misogynists: Arya informs another character that “most women are stupid” at one point, while Brienne freely uses “woman” as an insult. It’s incredible how Benioff and Weiss took female characters who had persevered in a world of violent misogyny and have twisted or traumatized them in any way possible. They couldn’t make it any clearer that they don’t care about their female viewers.

The media is saturated with sexual violence. It’s in pornography, it’s in popular blockbusters and it’s in our favorite television shows. Even when painted in a negative light, graphic depictions of rape not only normalize such encounters to potential abusers, but also alienate and re-traumatize, or “trigger,” sexual assault survivors. It’s worrisome and discouraging to me how many college-aged men, even ones who would consider themselves socially progressive, go to great lengths to defend this scene. Overall, this scene is typical of a harmful and upsetting trend endemic to media, and although I don’t judge anyone who’s stuck with the show this far, I’m glad I gave up “Game of Thrones” when I did.

Sara Halloran is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at sarahalloran2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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