Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Rape of Sansa Stark and Feminist Outrage

If you believe that HBO Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and Daniel Weiss or A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R.Martin are despicable misogynists who enjoy creating rape scenes then I don't know how to change your mind. I don't find enough evidence to justify the misogynist claim in their televised or written creations. I don't think that Weiss, Benioff or Martin hate women. That's a pretty strong accusation to make. Last week's Game of Thrones scene depicting the rape of Sansa Stark, eldest daughter of Ned Stark and Catelyn Tully and in-universe last publicly known Stark heir to Winterfell, was hard to watch. But rapes should be hard to watch should they not? I don't think that there's a universe of people out there who are eagerly tuning in to HBO each Sunday at 9 PM EST to enjoy watching a woman get raped. And if there are people like that I don't know them. I think some of the outrage over the Sansa rape is understandable (I hated the scene) but is definitely misplaced. I will explain this below but it will inevitably involve some mild spoilers/discussion from the books. So if you can't tolerate one scintilla of book knowledge then you know what to do. And if you have read the books, please don't take this as permission to blab all over the place about what's yet to occur in the story (not least because it may not occur on screen) or discuss or link to other book theories or future events.

Although the amount of published source material yet to be adapted for the show is shrinking ever more rapidly there are still other moderators or commenters on this blog who would strongly prefer to see events play out on screen as they have not read the books and are unlikely to do so before the series completes.

I wrote before that the "controversy" over rape in Game of Thrones seemed ginned up. Rape is horrible but it's not as bad as murder. Death is the worst event because death removes all future possibilities. I don't want to rewrite the previous post but it's very important to remember that numerous people of both genders have been murdered, harmed or mutilated in all sorts of horrific ways. For example, Show!Theon Greyjoy has been threatened with homosexual rape, raped by women, beaten, tortured, mutilated, flayed, starved, forced to live as an animal, enslaved, made to reject his own identity and ultimately castrated. This was all shown in great detail. I don't seem to recall too much twitter outrage over this. Certainly there weren't many (any?) feminists stating that "That's it. I'm boycotting the show!" after Theon was unmanned and later taunted with sausages by Ramsay. Theon's ordeals weren't quite as explicit in the books. There are some textual hints that Ramsay raped Theon. In either medium, book or show, Ramsay is over the top. He's pushed Theon into insanity. Ramsay doesn't care which gender he hurts. Ramsay killed his own soldiers for fun. Ramsay flayed a noble and his wife in front of their son and hung the skinned corpses on the Winterfell walls. So Ramsay is an evil disturbed sick SOB.

Sansa, on the other hand, is a "little dove". She's not a leader like her older brothers Jon and Robb, an action girl who dislikes proscribed gender roles like her younger sister Arya, or a budding magician like her younger brother Bran. Her primary achievement to date has been to survive. That's not something that readily translates as heroic or active but in fact it can be heroic and is indeed a necessary part of human success. Sansa's continued survival could hold the key to the Stark Restoration, if indeed one is to occur.

In the books, Littlefinger is still in The Vale grooming Sansa Stark. Sansa is unaware that Littlefinger betrayed her father Ned Stark and likely suggested to Joffrey that Ned be executed. Sansa doesn't realize that her Aunt Lysa's last words implicated Littlefinger in the murder of Sansa's uncle Jon Arryn. She doesn't know that Littlefinger set up the war which brought about her family's near destruction. She has not revealed herself as "Sansa Stark" to anyone in The Vale, though some may have suspicions. Sansa's current roles include listening dutifully as Littlefinger reveals (or does he?) small portions of his plans, watching over Sweet Robin and not getting creeped out when Littlefinger touches her or speaks inappropriately about her mother Catelyn.

This would not make dramatic television. In both books and show, the Boltons seek legitimacy as Wardens of the North. The traditional way of doing this is to be a Stark. As all the Starks are missing or murdered the Book!Boltons decide to marry a fake Stark. The Boltons force Sansa Stark's friend, Jeyne Poole, to pose as Arya Stark. They make Theon vouch for her identity though he obviously knows she isn't Arya. After the marriage ceremony, Ramsay rapes Jeyne. He also forces Theon to watch and degrade himself by participating. The book scene was FAR worse than the television scene. It made me put the book down for a while. What's worse is the reminder that it was Littlefinger who initially enslaved Jeyne as a child prostitute and later sold or gifted her to the Boltons. So the book and show share common elements. Littlefinger provides a "Stark" to the Boltons. Ramsay marries a "Stark". Ramsay rapes and degrades his wife. Ramsay humiliates and degrades Theon in the process. The showrunners swapped out Jeyne Poole for Sansa Stark. We always care about main characters more than we care about secondary ones even though Jeyne has so far suffered more than Sansa. Her treatment at Ramsay's hands was not the first time Jeyne was raped. This change from book to show greatly raised the dramatic stakes for Sansa. Some people outraged over Sansa's rape are mistaking their emotional investment in Sansa Stark's wellbeing for moral rectitude. It's not. It's just that they like and care about the character, which means the show writers and actress have done their jobs. 

The reason I didn't like the scene was not just because I sympathize with Sansa. I disliked the scene, emotionally powerful though it was, because it was senseless for Sansa to marry willingly into the family whose Lord had murdered her brother and usurped her family home. What's next, Bran Stark reappears and asks Roose for a job as maester? In King's Landing Sansa had no choice. When the opportunity arose to leave King's Landing (with someone she thought was safe) she took it. But Sansa wouldn't want to live with her family's murderers. She's been there and done that already. In order to increase the dramatic stakes and emotional investment that we have in a main character the show runners make Sansa act as if she's learned nothing over the past four seasons. THAT'S the real mistake here. There are people in the North and in the Vale who would be willing to fight and die for Sansa Stark against the Boltons or the Crown. I thought it would have made much more sense for Sansa to ally herself with one of those factions rather than submit to the Boltons, especially as the powers in the Vale know who she is. That would have shown increased political acumen and ability to play the game. The North Remembers. And having Sansa do that also dovetails nicely with another book subplot. There were some people who thought that the scene's shift away from Sansa to the broken Theon crying was somehow sexist because it made Sansa's rape all about the impact on a man. I think that's a silly criticism. There are numerous film graphic scenes in which the director tells us what's happening primarily by the reactions of witnesses because to actually show us is considered to be too horrific.

The ending of Braveheart is the first thing that comes to mind, closely followed by the rape scene in The Messenger, but I'm sure you can think of many other such scenes. If the showrunners had chosen instead to focus on Sansa's face or heaven forbid, body, many of the same people blasting them for cutting to Theon's tears would be harping on the showrunners for reducing Sansa to an voyeuristic object of rape. Guaranteed. Also remember that the showrunners know the ending and the fates of major characters. We don't. For all we know Martin might write a scene where Littlefinger rapes Sansa.

If you are a person who is sensitive to any and all depictions of violence then yes I understand how rape scenes or torture scenes or murder scenes would bother you. You might indeed decide that this show isn't for you. You might even skip over certain segments. I understand and respect those decisions. We've all seen movies or read books where we realized that certain things weren't our cup of tea. But if you were silent when Joffrey had Marillion's tongue ripped out, had nothing to say when Theon hanged the burned bodies of the miller's boys, or yawned when Ramsay cut off Theon's family jewels, feel free to get upset but please don't pretend moral outrage when Sansa Stark is raped. Your outrage is not moral. It's just that your particular emotional redline has been crossed. 
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