Media - TV - Game of Thrones (2011 - 2018)
A Look at Traumatizing Media: Rape & Game of Thrones
TW: This conversation will deal largely with the topic of rape and its controversial depiction in HBO's Game of Thrones.
No one can say that Game of Thrones handled the subject of rape with consistency. In line with George R. R. Martin's books, multitudes of women are raped, both on screen and implicitly, and the show deserves its reputation of using female bodies on screen for the purposes of shock value - both through nudity and sexual violence.
Of all the episodes that Game of Thrones has produced, perhaps the one that sparked the most controversy is Season 5 episode 6, Unbowed, Unbent & Unbroken. The scene depicts Sansa Stark on her wedding night, facing down with her sadistic husband Bolton Ramsey. Also in the room, forced to watch Sansa's rape is Theon Greyjoy. As the marital rape begins, the camera moves from Sansa's face to ostensible bystander, Theon. He becomes the focus of her trauma.
Most articles, written the week after the episode originally aired, point to this key camera movement as the biggest sin made by the directors: taking a woman's rape and making it about a bystander's suffering. Melissa Leone in her Daily Beast article, The Rape of Sansa Stark, holds no bars calling this on screen rape nothing short of "extraneous bullshit." She blames the show-runners for specifically making the on screen action all about Theon, saying that "No story-bound justification for depicting the rape of an underage girl, then making it all about a male supporting character’s feelings, exists here."
Except in this case, it is justified.
This is not a stance I want to be taking. No one wants to come out and be the person to defend Sansa Stark's rape as a part of the overall narrative of Game of Thrones. However, I think many of the people writing about this episode rightly saw trends in how Game of Thrones handles it shock value rape scenes (consider the out of character rape of Cersei Lannister by her brother Jaime, or Daenerys Targaryen's rape by Drogo, who quickly became a romance people emulated around the world). They saw how Game of Thrones had handled rape in the past, as a subset of Laura Mulvey's male gaze intent on introducing us to the broken down status of women in Martin's world, and assumed that this rape too would move along the same track.
So why do I say this scene, which moves the focus from Sansa to Theon is justified? In every article I read, I noticed a disturbing trend. Despite most articles acknowledging that Ramsey had spent time torturing Theon, even going so far as to cut off his genitalia, not one of the writers referred to Theon's trauma as sexual assault. Each one calls out Theon as a bystander.
Ramsey Bolton has raped him too.
Rape is not about sex. It is about power. And ultimately, leading up to Sansa's rape in season 5, Theon Greyjoy has suffered from about two season's worth of psychological, sexual torture. Theon is broken down by Ramsey, starting with physical torture, but that is not where it stays. In season 3 episode 7, Ramsey has his two female assistants arouse Theon, in spite of his protests. This scene lasts for significantly longer than Sansa's scene does, as the two women strip and grind up against him as he asks them to stop and help him escape. He becomes aroused, but never quite consents to what is going on, and it is revealed that the whole event has been staged by Ramsey in order to make his castration that much crueler. If Theon were female coded, I do not think there would be any ambiguity if this was a rape scene.
To my astonishment, I could not find a single article that defined this act of sexual violence as rape or even rape-like. There were also no articles listing this plot-line as a controversial depiction of rape, and the biggest issue The AV-Club's David Sims had with it was that it was "boring and confusing to watch." I want to know why there is no clamor for Theon Greyjoy as there was for Sansa Stark. While there is a lack of penetrative sex on screen, the resulting changes in demeanor depict Theon as a man going deep into a spiraling trauma response. He forgets his name, displays the visage of someone who has forgotten his own person. He shakes constantly, obeys for fear of punishment, and the only times he displays any of his former emotion are ones during immanent threat.
Sansa for her part, is desperate to have Theon help her. She recognizes in him that Ramsey has done something to him, and she implores him to help her from being tortured too. In my reading of the scene, the infamous camera shot that moves from Sansa to Theon's face during her rape is not about using her rape as a tool to further his character development, but a way to visually connect the two together. They are both sexual assault victims of Ramsey Bolton. This connection is denoting something bigger between them down the line. When Theon finally is able to shed his protective personality of Reek, it is because Ramsey's twisted accomplice is threatening Sansa with genital mutilation. He flies into a trauma response, throwing the accomplice off of the wall and to her death before escaping with Sansa. This moment appears to be the first time he feels alive, echoing the ways that a traumatized veteran will return to a combat zone comfortably after suffering at home in a safer environment. They flee to the woods together, and he returns to something of himself again. They do this only after both parties understand the ways they have both been traumatized by the same man. There is some forgiveness there, and there is lingering shame as well. It is only after the duo are rescued by their narrative foils - a genuinely good and loyal servant, Podrick, who woos women the way Theon once believed he could, and Brienne, the lady knight.
Sansa cannot open up to Brienne about what she experienced in Ramsey's household, yet she can to Theon. As he departs, their connection to each other's narratives is intrinsic in how they respond to their future plotlines. Their connection was the crux of their ability to get out of their torturous situation, and how they handle their later trauma. The point, in this specific case, was not to make Sansa's suffering about Theon, it was about establishing the connection between those characters as survivors, and recognizing that men can be raped. They have become parallel characters for a social issue most choose to ignore.
We need to ask ourselves why we are so outraged over Sansa's rape scene, but not Theon's.
For more on Game of Thrones and rape, please see the following articles: