Tuesday, May 19, 2015

I'm a Feminist, and I Still Watch Game of Thrones

By now, you've probably seen the flurry of posts complaining about last Sunday's Game of Thrones (which I will be writing about, in addition to previous episodes, so spoilers).

In this episode, Sansa marries Ramsay, and their wedding night ends with a horrendous rape scene in which Theon, Sansa's lifelong friend and pseudo-brother, is forced to watch.

I've got my own take on the show's portrayal of sexual violence against women, but I want to first take a look at some of the (smart, meaningful) things others are saying about this episode and the previous displays of rape and sexual assault.

Elizabeth King at Bitch Magazine asks when a guilty pleasure becomes too guilty:
It’s important to acknowledge that most of popular media is riddled with problems and deciding to just not watch a show is not always the best option. Events like this week’s episode of Game of Thrones force us to push this idea further and wonder whether or not making note of repeated, wildly uncomfortable scenes is enough to justify commitment to our favorite media. In some cases, merely discussing the flaws does not feel like enough to forgive the flaws. With Game of Thrones, I no longer feel that noticing the problems is enough—I personally don’t want to look at it anymore.
Jill Pantozzi of The Mary Sue very directly announced that this episode was the breaking point and they would no longer be promoting the show:
In this particular instance, rape is not necessary to Sansa’s character development (she’s already overcome abusive violence at the hands of men); it is not necessary to establish Ramsay as a bad guy (we already know he is); it is not necessary to prove “how bad things were for women” (Game of Thrones exists in a fictional universe, and we already know it’s exceptionally patriarchal). Rape here, like in all instances, is not a necessary story-driving device.
Salon has their own recap of reactions to the episode, and it included some reflections from Alison Herman at Flavorwire:
It’s too soon to judge the effects of her marriage to Ramsay on her overall arc, and it’s possible that Sansa will find a way to exact revenge when Stannis show up. But my immediate feeling after Theon’s face cut to black and the credits started rolling was that, sometime in the last two seasons, Game of Thrones crossed the line between showing what a cold, hard world its women live in and abusing them past the point of being useful to the narrative, or even interesting. 
 Salon also highlighted Nina Shen Rastogi's Vulture post:
It’s cruel to strip Sansa of the agency she’s been accruing so painstakingly, but to do so by literally stripping her is so cheap, such an obvious choice, I felt offended as a fan. And if this means Sansa loses all her momentum, which has brought such a fresh energy to the show’s plot — I’ll be mad as a fan, not just as a feminist.
I've seen many, many people declare that they are done with the show on feminist grounds in the past few days (and many others who used the backlash to remind the world that they'd similarly used a feminist perspective to bow out of viewership some time ago). I only started watching a couple of months ago, and this is the first season I've watched as it aired, so I've missed some of the previous discussions in real time. However, I've since gone back and caught up, and I generally think that I'm more aligned with perspectives like those shared in this earlier post by Alison Herman, this one by Erica Aisha Charves, and especially this one by Vivienne Chen. These writers focus on the way that the show's violence and oppression reflect the violence and oppression of history and contemporary society. If we're uncomfortable, perhaps that's the point. As Chen puts it:
What the show really asks is, “What if white people had committed colonial-level horrors on other white people?” In other words, all the blood and boobs, rape and torture, are not just HBO gratuitousness, but an expression of how European colonizers treated their colonized subjects, masquerading as domestic high-fantasy in Belfast castles.
I'm with them. I think that violence and oppression have a place in our pop culture because I think that pop culture is where we turn to figure out how to process the realities of our past and help shape a better future. A fantastical world that didn't address patriarchal power structures and dominance over marginalized groups of people may have purpose, but I don't think it would hold my interest as I fear I wouldn't find a foothold for framing my lived experiences within it.

But that's not the angle I want to take for explaining to you why I've chosen to keep watching Game of Thrones despite the rapes of several of its major female characters. Instead, I want to look more closely at the reason people are saying that feminists shouldn't watch the show.

First, a disclaimer. You absolutely and unapologetically have the right to not watch anything you don't want to watch. If this show (or any other) makes you uncomfortable or triggered, you shouldn't feel compelled to watch it. I am absolutely not saying that the writers I'm analyzing tonight are wrong to stop watching. They have every right to make that choice and to voice that decision to the world. They even have the right to try to convince you (and me) to follow them in changing the channel. I'm a huge advocate for ethical consumption of media and voting for change in the culture through consumer demands.

Instead, what I want to do is offer an account for why their explanations for their decisions and their attempts (direct and indirect) to persuade me to follow did not work.

Rape and Other Violence in Game of Thrones

First, I've seen many people make a two-pronged argument that rape is portrayed too quickly and too easily in the show. This argument as I've seen it made in many comment sections on these articles has two parts: 1) rape is used more than other forms of violence and 2) rape is the only form of violence used against the female characters.

This just isn't true. There is so much violence in the show against the male and female characters.

First, a look at some of the violence against male characters on the show: The torture of Theon as he is mutilated into Reek is a prime example. The bullying of Sam when he first gets to the Wall is brutal. Tyrion's emotional abuse at the hands of his family was really hard for me to watch. The Hound's burned face as a permanent reminder of his sibling rivalry, Jamie's missing hand, Ned Stark's missing head. Male bodies are also brutalized, beaten, and defeated.

Secondly, there's the charge that rape is the only way that women are brutalized. This is, again, not true. Sansa was forced to watch her father's beheading. Catelyn Stark's throat was slit. Brienne was forced to fight a bear with a wooden sword. In this same episode, Margery is forced into the dungeon for lying to save her brother from bigots. There is no shortage of violence--emotional and physical, sexual and non-sexual--cast upon the women and girls of the show.

Rape is repeatedly (and uniquely) held up as a threat against women. Brienne and Meera both come up against near-rape situations until they are rescued (by men). Rape is also demonstrated to be the tool of power that Craster uses to maintain control over his wives, a point made especially clear when he casts away the sons borne from that rape and keeps daughters for future cycles of abuse. And, of course, there have been previous rape scenes in the show. Dany is raped on her wedding night in a way that is almost identical to Sansa (minus the added humiliation and torture of having someone else forced to watch), and Jamie raped Cersei.

These were all incredibly uncomfortable scenes for me to watch. I took no joy in seeing these women  tortured through rape. I do think, though, that there is a powerful message in seeing rape as a tool of power and oppression wielded by characters that we will go on to feel conflicted about. I sincerely doubt that Ramsay will go on to have a redemption plot line. He has pretty clearly been displayed as an evil villain through and through. But Khal Drogo (who raped Dany) and Jamie (who raped Cersei) both went on to have much more conflicted portrayals of heroism and tenderness. I think this is important.

As an outspoken feminist who grew up in a very rural, conservative community, I have had many, many conversations with male friends who are frustrated with feminism and don't believe in the existence of rape culture. In many of these conversations, they've treated rapists as boogeymen who are rare and decidedly evil creatures. In other words, they don't look at their friends, their brothers, or themselves as potential rapists, and this means that they fail to understand how the culture we live in conditions us to see rape as acceptable. By portraying rape as something committed by characters you actually like and otherwise root for, Game of Thrones complicates the narrative that only evil men rape. And that's a good thing. As Laurie Penny writes in a post on examining assumptions about rape:
As a culture, we still refuse collectively to accept that most rapes are committed by ordinary men, men who have friends and families, men who may even have done great or admirable things with their lives. We refuse to accept that nice guys rape, and they do it often. Part of the reason we haven't accepted it is that it's a painful thing to contemplate – far easier to keep on believing that only evil men rape, only violent, psychotic men lurking in alleyways with pantomime-villain moustaches and knives, than to consider that rape might be something that ordinary men do. Men who might be our friends or colleagues or people we look up to. We don't want that to be the case. Hell, I don't want that to be the case. So, we all pretend it isn't. Justice, see?
Penny goes on to explain the danger of this belief:
it fosters the fantasy that there's only one kind of rape, and it happens in the proverbial alley with the perennial knife and certainly not to anyone you know.
Game of Thrones definitely has no shortage of rape, and it is very difficult to watch. But the show also has no shortage of murder, brutality, assault, emotional torment, and many other kinds of violence. Often, the show juxtaposes a traditional narrative of good vs. evil (like Gregor Clegane's bloodthirsty murders) with a more nuanced and complicated display of a similar violence (like Tyrion's murder of Shae). By demonstrating that so many characters have the potential for violence, the show reminds us that fighting against oppression is everyone's responsibility, and that the enactment of that violence might not always look the way we expect.

Sansa's Victimhood and Declining Viewership

There's something else about this latest wave of outrage that has me frustrated, though, and that's the way the outraged are talking about Sansa. I know that Sansa is not a real person, and I do not necessarily think that fictional characters deserve the same treatment as real ones. However, many of these people are writing on Sansa's behalf, claiming that they are no longer watching because the show took a powerful character they respected and destroyed her through this rape scene. In this way, they are personifying the fictional character beyond the screen. They are making her out to be a metaphorical representation of women in general, and it is on those grounds that they feel disgusted enough by her violation to stop watching the show.

Rastogi's frustration with the show stems from seeing Sansa's carefully and hard-won agency wrested from her: "It’s cruel to strip Sansa of the agency she’s been accruing so painstakingly."

Many others are equally frustrated by this sharp turn in Sansa's trajectory toward strength. Melissa Leon asks:
But when is all this pain and misery going to transform the eldest surviving Stark into anything more than a damsel in distress? She got a Goth makeover, a badass new attitude, and has a network of Winterfell servants willing to come to her aid. Is she ever going to help kill any of these sickos? Or will she take the Jeyne Poole route and just stand by for help, again?
I understand these critics' frustration, but I think there's something troubling in suggesting there's a right way to react to rape. To say that Sansa is merely waiting for help and thus weak or that because she has been raped she cannot reclaim her agency is falling into a trope of dehumanizing victims for the sake of simple narratives. As we explored above, Game of Thrones often distorts traditional narratives of good vs. evil, and I have faith that the show's creators will similarly invert simple narratives of victimhood.

Most importantly for me, though, is that I don't think we should fall into simple tropes of victimhood in the name of feminism. Yes, Sansa's treatment was horrendous. Yes, it was terrible to watch a character who had just recently escaped so much trauma and who appeared to be recovering spirit and strength to be so brutalized. Yes, rape is an abhorrent act.

But real women are raped in real life. Often repeatedly. Often after regaining strength from previous abuse. Often at the hands of people who they depend on. Often. Too often.

To suggest that Sansa as a character is somehow now deficient or that her reaction (which we haven't even seen yet) is somehow insufficient is troubling to me. There is no right way to react to abuse. And abuse does not define victims' entire identities.

Alison Herman's Flavorwire post denouncing the episode also discusses the difference between Sansa's rape and Dany's in terms of their reactions to the violence perpetrated against them:
There’s a world of difference between Dany’s rape at the start of the series, a rock bottom one can and should compare to her next husband literally cowering at her feet, and the casual abuse experienced by Cersei in the fourth season and now Sansa in the fifth. Unlike the encounter between Cersei and Jaime last year, we’re at least meant to perceive Sansa’s experience as rape—but that’s about all that’s improved.
I don't think there is a "world of difference" between Dany's rape and Sansa's rape. The two are nearly identical. They both occur on the women's wedding nights. They both feature men who clearly believe they now own the bodies of the women they've wed. They both feature crying, silent women being bent over and raped in a show of dominance. In both, we don't get to hear the women's voices, only their cries of pain. Just because Dany rises to power after her rape (as Sansa may--we have yet to see her reaction) doesn't mean that her rape was somehow "better." This puts too much pressure on the victims to react a certain way to make them acceptable.

What really drove this home for me was a passage from that The Mary Sue article quoted above.

Here Pantozzi is discussing her frustration with the scene by looking at the way the show compares to the books. Sansa does not marry Ramsay in the books, but her character was combined with a character named Jeyne, who does (and is also raped):
I honestly did have hope Benioff and Weiss wouldn’t go there, especially after the huge and thoughtful discussion by countless journalists and fans surrounding last year’s controversy. But looking at what has taken place this season so far — from Ramsey’s promise to Littlefinger, “I’ll never hurt her. I swear,” to Sansa’s friends at Winterfell, Brienne keeping close watch, and Stannis close to arriving — I assumed Sansa would not go down the same path as Jeyne, especially when you consider Sansa’s own inner strength. As the scene played out, I though she might pull a dagger out of her wedding gown and end Ramsey once and for all. 
She didn’t. What a missed opportunity to do something that would have actually surprised your audience. Rape, on the other hand, is expected.
When I read the line I bolded above I was seriously, deeply offended. I don't think that Pantozzi meant any harm with this analysis, but what she has suggested here is that women with inner strength are not raped. She's suggested that because Sansa didn't pull a knife out of her wedding dress (an act that probably would have led to her own death at the hands of Ramsay's family), she is not a strong woman.

Maybe Sansa did miss an opportunity to surprise (and delight) the audience by giving Ramsay the reaction he so deserved, but does that really make her any less a woman of "inner strength"? Does her rape so weaken her? And if it does, what does this analysis say to all of the real-life rape victims around the world?

I will continue to watch Game of Thrones, and I will continue to root for the characters who are most marginalized and systematically disempowered in the fictitious setting of their universe. Turning away from their reality because they don't react the way I'd like them to or because they become victims of a very real and all-consuming threat of violence around them feels too much like abandoning them.  For me, turning away from the show because a character becomes a victim to sexual violence feels too much like the way that real victims of rape are ignored, silenced, and judged.

I know that Sansa is not a real person, but if critics can use a feminist argument to turn away from the show on her behalf, surely I can use a feminist argument to say that she deserves me to stick around and be on her side.


  1. I greatly enjoyed your article, I've never thought of that post-colonialism angle, it's fascinating.

    I read (I believe in Collider) that people are overlooking the importance of the bath scene where Sansa's black hair is washed off, in a way showing that her perceived empowerment was mostly superficial, do you think there's a valid point in that theory?

  2. I haven't read much commentary about the bath scene and admit I hadn't thought much about it myself, but that's a really good interpretation of it. I, personally, haven't been reading her as very empowered, especially when I keep in mind that she's only 14 (or maybe 15 by this point). It's like she tried on an identity that gave her more agency, but it was a lot like playing dress up. She doesn't really know how to wear that role yet, and it's probably because she is a child.

    It's really interesting thinking about that scene in juxtaposition with Arya's. She's also struggling with letting go of her old self, but she's ready to become someone else through a more deliberate superficial veiling. Perhaps it is the deliberateness (knowing the game she's playing) that gives Arya more options for escape?

  3. I haven't read the books so I'm not familiar with the fake Arya storyline, but putting Sansa in that roll serves as a good contrast to Arya's journey, specially for TV.

    I do believe Arya has more options open because of her choices, Sansa has mostly been "taken" to this place where she could reasonably "enter the game" while Arya has gotten to her position mostly by actions of character.

    Arya became an assassin by judging the Hound, and executing a verdict of "no mercy", "no redemption", she chose to keep her sword, reaffirming she is certain of who she is, and so on, a stark (;D) contrast to her sister's predicaments, Sansa often falls victim, Arya often finds her positions as utilitarian to her journey.