Television

Sansa’s Speech Underlined Game of Thrones’ Uncomfortable Compromise on Rape

The show wants to take trauma seriously while also presenting violence as spectacle.

The Hound and Sansa sit across from each other at a table.
The Hound and Sansa’s conversation seemed to imply that she had come to view her history of being raped and manipulated by men as an integral part of her personal growth.
HBO

On Sunday night, Game of Thrones spurred another round of online uproar over the treatment of its female characters. Some fans were upset by Brienne’s pleading with Jaime to stay by her side after their relationship turned briefly sexual, while others were angered by the “fridging” of Missandei, whose death was particularly disappointing to viewers who’d grown attached to the show’s sole prominent woman of color. But the scene that seemed to draw the most audience ire was the one in which Sansa, during a conversation with the Hound, seemed to imply that she had come to view her history of being raped and manipulated by men as an integral part of her personal growth: “Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would have stayed a little bird all my life.” (Unhelpfully, the Hound characterized her experience as being “broken in rough,” as if her childhood naïveté necessitated a violent domestication.) Recalling the disastrous execution of Sansa’s rape by Ramsay Bolton in Season 5—in which her sexual torture by her new husband was framed as a terrifying lesson for Theon, who was forced to witness the assault—the oldest surviving Stark’s apparent dispassion toward her trauma seemed to be yet another example of the HBO drama’s continued minimization of the consequences of rape, as well as a step backward for a show that in the past few seasons had been increasingly embracing female strength.

Angry fans are certainly justified in their reaction. Game of Thrones seems to subscribe to the trite axiom that everything happens for a reason; in the previous episode, for example, Bran tells the once-venal, now-castrated Theon, “Everything you did brought you to where you are now.” But castration isn’t a silent plague affecting countless survivors today; nor is it a flashpoint in a bitter culture war that accuses one half of the population of being born liars and the other half as complicit in a regime of invisible violence. Castration also isn’t a little-understood, hard-to-talk-about act of violence that’s nonetheless become an overused trope in fiction to propel story developments that many survivors find untrue, if not downright offensive, to their own experiences. And it rankles that Sansa’s line, scripted by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, is unproductively ambiguous. Does “Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest” refer, as in one reading I saw, to specific individuals to whom she’s expressing gratitude for their viciousness toward her or are they metonyms for all the hardships she’s suffered, which also include orphandom, the killings of two brothers, a public beating, two forced marriages, and a long separation from her surviving family during the most difficult times of her life? And did Sansa mean what she said, or did she merely want to appear stoic to a man who cruelly reminded her of her most helpless years while smugly suggesting it could all have been avoided had she done as he told her?

For many, the scene exposed once again the chasm between Game of Thrones’ male-dominated creative team and the more feminist pockets of its fan base. But it also exemplified the irreconcilability of the show’s reliance on shocking hyperviolence (and, especially in its early years, gratuitous displays of female nudity) and its more feminist impulses—or at least the writers’ failure to reconcile the two. In fact, the series’ occasionally discordant attempts to harmonize the brutality of its stylized medieval world with its necessary appeal to contemporary sensibilities are arguably epitomized by its clumsy tackling of gender issues.

This internal incompatibility has afflicted the show from the start, when we saw Daenerys undressed and fondled by her brother Viserys before being sold to Khal Drogo in exchange for an army (ick) while the camera also gave us peekaboo glimpses of Emilia Clarke’s breasts, treating them like forbidden fruit (sigh). Arriving after a decade of princess mania in the larger culture (and the hand-wringing about it), there was something brashly truthful about Season 1’s reminder that royal wombs have historically always been currency and the dehumanization of the women attached to them considered collateral damage, as well as Season 2’s candor-via-Cersei during the Battle of the Blackwater that women’s bodies are considered spoils in wartime—an in-vino-veritas speech delivered in part to Sansa. But Daenerys’ struggle to rise above the lot of most women still involved her eventually falling in love with her rapist. In its inspirational or sympathetic modes for its female characters, Game of Thrones could be powerful storytelling. But sexual assault is a storyline (or spectacle) that the show’s never gotten right—because rape, or the threat thereof, is used as an instrument to get from Point A to Point B, rather than an event deserving its own focal point.

Game of Thrones has depicted or alluded to many instances of rape since, usually accompanied by fan complaints that the show repeats the mistakes of many other genre narratives by failing to do justice to the long aftereffects of sexual assault. It’s a fair complaint, but such protesters also seem to forget that rape, like other kinds of violence, is endemic in this grimdark world, which makes the average Tarantino film look like a child’s birthday party. Moreover, the sexual and bodily events of girls and women, particularly those in the upper classes, seem to be common knowledge. In the pilot, as a teenage Sansa is betrothed to Joffrey, Cersei asks the Stark girl in front of her mother if she has begun menstruating, while Catelyn sits by nonplussed by the queen’s bluntness. When Sansa finally returns to Winterfell, Bran informs her that he “saw” her rape by Ramsay. The Hound notes that he had heard of Sansa’s assault, too, which implies that it’s a piece of news that people pass on with little regard to the victim’s sense of privacy. Did these male characters bring up Sansa’s rape to her face—both on joyful occasions—because they lack social graces, or because sexual assault for women in Westeros seems to be a way of life, maybe even a tragedy to be expected (as Cersei clearly has all her life)? And if the latter is the case, how do women at large understand sexual trauma in a world so structured by misogyny?

It’s not impossible to square the treatment of violence as spectacle with sympathy for its female victims, but the show clearly hasn’t figured out the balance—and, with two episodes left in the series, it never will. A greater understanding of how Westerosi women process and contextualize their sexual trauma would have gone a long way toward that reconciliation, but it’s too late now. It doesn’t entirely make sense to project our modern understandings of rape onto a fictional medieval universe in which dragons fly and trauma leads a character to become a face-swapping assassin. But it’s also understandable, if not inevitable, that viewers will fill in the gaps in Benioff and Weiss’ scripts with their own experiences—and that filling in those gaps will underline the ways in which Game of Thrones has most regularly fallen short.