This post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones.
When something is upsetting in a work of art, two kinds of responses are these: one is an expression of the private experience of unease, pain, or disgust; the other is an argument in the public sphere of ethics that the work isn’t just shocking to our sensibilities, but harmful. Everyone has a right to their private emotional reaction, which by its nature isn’t going to be very amenable to change through argument, though that doesn’t mean it’s not worth examining. And every work of art is subject to critique about how and what it teaches us. We learn how to think about the world in part from fiction, and art has ethical responsibilities that are worth considering and debating.
There are any number of reasons why a viewer might have found the last episode of Game of Thrones too intense to take. But the ethical complaints that I have read are totally incoherent, if we are to understand those ethical complaints as uniquely, or at least particularly, relevant to Sansa’s rape by Ramsay Bolton, as contrasted with every other thing that ever has happened on Game of Thrones. GoT is orgiastically violent. Much of the time, it treats its violence pretty gleefully. The camera lingers lovingly as a man sticks his thumbs into another man’s eye sockets and crushes his skull into the ground. There is a point in the season-long torture of Theon by Ramsay when we cut to Ramsay eating a sausage, making the viewer believe for a moment that the sausage is Theon’s severed penis. I distinctly remember my gorge rising. Anyone who watches this program knows this list could go on and on. It is bizarre to single out either Sansa’s rape, or violence against women more generally, as marking Game of Thrones as exploitative of its characters, more so than the rest of the plot.
What can it possibly mean to say that “rape is not a necessary plot device,” as Jill Pantozzi at The Mary Sue thinks we should understand? Sansa’s presence at Winterfell and engagement to Ramsay are arguably insufficiently motivated, but if we grant that these plot points make sense, Sansa’s rape is an inevitability. It’s unclear how, absent some last-minute rescue, it could even be written around. The Mary Sue piece seems to think that fiction is bound by some economy of suffering rule — nothing bad should happen in excess of what’s necessary for character development. And they’d have a case for that rule, but it certainly hasn’t been the rule Game of Thrones has been operating with. I don’t think it makes for good or ethical art when characters are tortured far in excess of the value of any point the creators are making, and GoT has a sadistic relationship with its audience. But there is no reason why sexual violence (though apparently not against men, since there was no storm of outrage when Theon lost his penis!) should be elevated as uniquely horrible, above every other form of violence GoT portrays. Somehow we have looped around from “rape is violence, and is just as serious as other forms of violence” to “rape is the worst form of violence.” All this does is feed the ideology of women’s fragility, and of the locus of their worth in their unspoiled genitalia.
Pantozzi suggests that the story would be better if Sansa had killed Ramsay before this scene, making it an attempted rape. If we are to ask for plot consistent with characters’ established motivations, rather than clumsy devices, it seems likely that Sansa would be executed by Roose Bolton shortly after. Her rape is the consequence of her situation, and more broadly, of the logic of the GoT universe. Sansa’s improbable escape by dagger, permitted only for her because we identify with her and want her to win, would instead make her a Mary Sue!
One likely reason the attempted rape trope is so popular is that TV writers believe that the audience wouldn’t be able to tolerate the victims afterward, wouldn’t look them in the eye. But here in the real world, rape is both serious and common, one among many ways to suffer at the hand of another person. It is something everyone faces, as an element of their own history or of the history of someone they care about — whether they know it or not. And it’s something both women and men can heal from. (Sansa herself understands this; she must know she’s in danger by the time of her talk with Myranda, but she doesn’t light a candle in the window to request rescue; she is playing a longer game.) If you are going to write a television show all about how man is wolf to man, it does not make sense to shy away from rape as a plot element, and that shyness would only promote the attitude that rape, compared to every other form of victimization, is too shameful and degrading to confront.
In a very intelligent critical review, Sarah Mesle captures some of what might be especially painful about watching Sansa suffer. We know her; we saw her grow up. The scene might feel more relatable and personal than seeing, say, boy kings sport-executing prostitutes by crossbow or psychopaths releasing the hounds on their ex-girlfriends. Part of what distinguishes Mesle’s essay from the rest of the internetical rage is that she does not attempt to elevate rape as a somehow privileged evil, compared to war, slavery, execution, assassination, torture, and everything else that moves the plot in Game of Thrones, but instead broadens the conversation to consider the show’s ethics more generally. There are good arguments to be made against it: it portrays brutality and suffering as inevitable, and it makes a point to serve up violence to its audience as pornographically as possible, while, as Mesle rightly argues, inviting us to fantasize that we are bravely facing some grim reality (I have an acquaintance who loves how “Game of Thrones shows us how things really were back then,” in, um, historical Westeros). But it would not make the show more ethical to preserve a single virgin fair-skinned noble, while letting the prostitutes be strangled by their ex-lovers (who get to remain sympathetic characters!), or making the common forest folk bear their father’s children and abandon every baby boy. The show in fact treats Sansa relatively gently in this scene, respectfully cutting away from her body, compared to its approach to men, non-virgin women, dark-skinned people, or poor people. And even though Senator McCaskill and anyone else is absolutely entitled to their visceral responses to one rape scene, if it’s okay to see so many other lives and bodies treated so cheaply, if it feels on some level satisfying to see the the naked, arrow-pierced bodies of two dead prostitutes draped over a bedframe, but the fade-to-black groans of one young woman you care for are too horrifying to face, then Game of Thrones is holding up a mirror to the world by holding it to its audience, and is perhaps not failing you in quite the way you think.