My recap for the latest episode of Game of Thrones, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” is up, as always, at Slant Magazine. Sorry for the delay in reposting the link here, but I’ve been working on deadline to write something up for The Witcher III, a game whose length I would otherwise be celebrating.
But I thought I’d briefly touch on something that I didn’t really get into in my recap, so here’s the spoiler alert, and only click on if you’ve seen the episode.
In the final scene, Sansa Stark is raped by Ramsay Bolton. I had debated with some friends, at first, whether or not this was simply a sexual assault–awful enough in its own right–or if it was actually a rape. After all, Sansa consents to the marriage, despite Myranda’s warnings about Ramsay’s animalistic predilections, and she chooses to go to Winterfell in the first place, even though she’s given alternatives in the form of Brienne of Tarth, or to simply remain guarded by Littlefinger, which is apparently what happens to her in the book version. But then again, even if Sansa’s doing all of this simply to seize power or somehow manipulate Ramsay as his wife, even if the consummation of marriage is all but required under Westerosian law, the scene itself, devoid of any passion–Ramsay simply orders her around and, when she doesn’t move quickly enough, rips her clothes off and mounts her from behind–is very clearly one of rape.
There’s an interesting discussion to be had there, about a woman’s role in Westeros, given that Daenerys’s rise to power also came from rape (Khal Drogo, even if she came to love him) and rebirth (in the flames with the dragon eggs), or about the fact that Cersei lay with a man she did not love (Robert) even while illicitly sleeping with her brother (Jamie) and cousin (Lancel)–crimes that she’s almost certainly going to face punishment for, now that she’s released religious zealots upon King’s Landing. I mean, does Margaery really want to sleep with Tommen? Does Roose want to bed Wanda? Or do they just want the power and alliances that confer? The children–potential heirs–that sex can conjure up? Actual love is rare, and is generally taboo when it occurs, whether it’s Ser Loras and Renly Baratheon, Jamie and Cersei, Tyrion and Shay, or the doomed Romeo & Juliet business currently going on in Dorne between Myrcella and Trystane.
But none of this got asked. Instead, the conversation shut down entirely, thanks to sites like The Mary Sue, who simply cannot abide by a show that continuously depicts awful things happening to women, regardless of the contextual accuracy of so doing. Nor, based on terse discussions I’ve since had with fans, was it merely a matter of the scene being partially shown (more accurately, heard): it’s that this happened at all. Female characters, it seems, must always have agency, and nothing bad must ever happen to them–now, if that’s not a fantasy, I don’t know what is.
Look, I don’t know how to break this to viewers, but Westeros is a bleak place. Men and women are murdered and tortured for the sake of a *game* on a regular basis. I’ve lost track of the number of times in which Tyrion has been captured and “damseled,” or in which the elder Starks have been routinely fridged so as to raise the stakes for their children. But this one moment with Sansa, never mind that it fits the natural progression of power in this world, somehow transcends the rest of those awful things. Even if her rape ends up being used on television as nothing more than a dramatic device to get Theon back (as opposed to his whimpering Reek-self), it’s still an important event within the world, in which it’s not simply a device. Ramsay jokes as he says it, but this is the moment in which we say goodbye to Sansa the girl and hello to Sansa the woman, even if it’s in the worst possible way. Whereas people may have enjoyed Sansa’s Maleficient moment back in “The Mountain and the Viper,” she’s now actually taking control, not just a girl dressing up (in service of a man like Littlefinger), but a woman being stripped to her essential, revenge-driven core. Could this scene really have simply been omitted? Might it not have been even more offensive to simply leave all that ugliness implied–the very thing that people have shouted at the Cosby victims for doing?
Simply giving up on discussion, without even waiting for the next episode? Proclaiming that Sansa’s been fridged, that her agency has been removed, without actually checking to see if that’s true? It’s one thing to say that you were unhappy at having to witness, however tastefully done, another rape scene; it’s another to assert what that rape scene means to Sansa. If anything, that is the viewer taking away the character’s agency. I understand that there’s a rush to pass judgment in the Internet age, to show passion and offense. But especially for those who spend their time writing about the show and claim to be cultural critics . . . wouldn’t it be more useful to just wait and see? I mean, the episode is literally called “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” Thematically, it’s entirely about assuming new identities. This seems like more than just a gratuitous sequence.
Time will tell which of us was correct. But I’m gambling on Sansa: after all, it’s not as if Game of Thrones hasn’t surprised us all before.