Critique, Feminism, Gender, Harassment, Masculinity, Opinion, Roundtable, Sexism, Sexuality, TV

Bowed, Bent, and Broken: Responses to THAT Episode of Game of Thrones

Content warning: Discussion of sexual assault.

The Internet has been buzzing since last May 17th’s Game of Thrones episode, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”. What follows contains spoilers from both the book and show, as well as discussion of sexual assault.

Ivy previously wrote about why she quit Game of Thrones (hint: all the rape), and Rachel Eddin wrote about the use of rape in the comic book adaptation last year. Now even The Mary Sue will no longer be doing recaps or covering most news related to it, and Chuck Wendig has an awesome takedown of how Game of Thrones compares to the new Mad Max movie. So, rape and sexual assault are not new things for Game of Thrones, nor is it unusual for their handling of it to be criticized.

game-of-thrones-sophie-turner-sansa-stark-season-5-episode-6-hbo-300x187The specific incident happens at the end of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” when Sansa Stark weds Ramsay Bolton. After a starkly lovely firelight wedding ceremony under the red leaves of a weirwood tree in the falling snow, Theon/Reek escorts the newly wed couple to their room. Ramsay starts out charming, claiming he wants Sansa to be happy, but then begins to question her on her virginity. Sansa explains that Tyrion was kind and never touched her, which Ramsay plainly disbelieves. He talks about the importance of honesty, then kisses her. Ramsay tells Sansa to take off her clothes, and she glances at Theon/Reek, who’s still at the door. He turns to leave. Ramsay stops him. He tells Theon/Reek to watch. There is a long, tense couple of moments as Sansa unties her sleeves and Theon/Reek closes the door. After reminding Theon/Reek to watch, Ramsay rips her dress open from the back, and pushes Sansa forward so she’s bent over the bed. After a long shot of Sansa’s face pressed against the wolf pelts on the bed, the camera cuts to Theon/Reek’s weeping face as Ramsay’s grunts and Sansa’s cries play on the soundtrack.

Some of our responses:

Megan P: This show is so bankrupt.

Ardo: This show is so dumb.

Desiree: I’m done.

Carly: So, I’m probably done with watching Game of Thrones too. *Long sigh*

Angel: Most of the people I know who’ve stuck with the show this season have since given it up. I stopped after season four.

Ardo: I think I’m done.

TheonOn the framing of the scene:

Ardo: Personally, I don’t want to see it and I hate that the emphasis was on Theon’s pain. Boo. Outlander is the superior show.

Megan P: I don’t think the emphasis was on Theon’s pain. Everything Ramsay does now is about torturing Theon and Sansa at the same time. It was important to show his pain here, since Ramsay previously raped Theon and is now making him complicit in Sansa’s rapehe’s re-traumatizing Theon on purpose. But the scene was very much about Sansa’s pain. That said, it was still bullshit.

Lana: All I have to say about it is unless the outcome of Sansa’s rape is that she uses the skills in manipulation that she acquired from King’s Landing to decimate the entire Bolton clan, that was a completely fucked up scene. Theon watching in the corner, the veiled threats about lying (when Ramsay lies all the time), the pain of losing virginity combined with brutal rape, and the bed being covered in wolfskins; the whole thing was so horrible. Unless there is some over-arching vengeance plot for Sansa, they should apologize for even asking us to watch that.

Sansa on bedOn the interview with Sophie Turner’s take on this scene:

Claire: I really do think it’s appalling that Entertainment Weekly asked Sophie Turner to share her opinions about a rape scene she was contractually obligated to film, and that her answers about having “loved it” aren’t contextualised at all. Do better, entertainment journalism, geez.

Wendy: My friend also noted that Sophie just recently turned eighteen…

[Rebecca’s answer below references some changes from the books to the show. In the books, Sansa’s childhood friend Jeyne Poole is passed off as Arya and married to Ramsay. During their wedding night, Theon/Reek is forced to perform oral sex on Jeyne prior to Ramsay raping her. Ramsay’s repeated abuse of Jeyne is a likely catalyst for Theon’s later escape, and he does take Jeyne with him. On the show, Sansa has taken the place of Jeyne.]

Rebecca: I was one of the few who are on the positive side about the scene. I was upset by it, but not necessarily disappointed or shocked because it happened to the character in the books (Jeyne Poole) whose plotline Sansa is in now, and I’d argue that the show is less brutal about it. I think Theon being forced to watch and us watching the scene through him has unfortunate implications, because it’s forcing the audience to view a woman’s suffering through a man’s eyes. On the other hand, I think Theon being forced to pleasure Sansa, like he was to Jeyne, would have been too brutal to watch with either characters.

I think a lot of how I view this scene will depend on how Sansa’s plotline culminates and if she keeps the agency that the showrunners are implying she has (agency Jeyne didn’t have at all). D&D have an issue with trying to give their female characters more depth and then falling down on the execution of this depth, however, like when they gave Shae a more three-dimensional personality, but then didn’t follow through on those facets/muddied her differing motivation with her eventual betrayal of Tyrion Lannister. Furthermore, that they made the Jaime/Cersei sex scene come across as so rapey last season makes me think that they don’t really consider all the implications of what they’ll do. I don’t blame people for not having faith in the showrunnersto a certain extent, I have my doubtsbut I want to withhold my ultimate judgment.

Wendy: I agree with everything you say there, Rebecca. My problem, especially with the Entertainment Weekly interviews, is that the showrunners seem to be patting themselves on the shoulder like, “GUISE, WE GOT RAPE RIGHT THIS TIME RIGHT? YAY US!” But they still don’t get it, and thanks to the precedent they have set, it just makes it worse…

Amanda: Yeah, when I watched the episode over the weekend, I thought, “Oh dear, again?” They got a ton of backlash for the last rape scene, and they don’t seem to have learned. Are they merely courting the backlash because it’s a form of publicity?

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 8.34.31 PMI’m withholding complete judgement until I see how this plays out with Sansa. I’ve never read the books, just followed the TV series. However, I’m on the fence about whether she actually has agency to this point. She’s been a pawn/victim in the power games between houses for the entire series (as I see it). The repercussions she’s endured for any attempt to speak or act out have been hideous, and thus far it’s been other (men) who have saved her from greater horrors. Since Sansa left the Eyrie with Littlefinger, she’s been showing a bit more strength. I’m waiting to see if this is the final act that pushes her into open and unflinching rebellion.

What a hideous mess, though.

Wendy: She had no control in the books, the show gave her that, or at least implied that she might take it. But the books also had Theon rescue Jeyne. This scene implies a damsel in distress potential with Theon using it as his chance for redemption. The only hope is that Brienne will be the one to rescue her. If this does serve as her last straw motivation, there’s still the issue of women needing rape to progress.

Rebecca: Yeah, if they keep the Theon-saving-as-redemption up from the books I’m going to be far more negative about it. That’s why I’m hoping they do better, but I’m suspicious.

Ginnis: The thing about open and unflinching rebellion though is that it gets you killed in the world of GoT. Plus, Arya stands in a sense in that role. Sansa is learning (I think) to navigate rebellion or at least resistance in a different way, and I think that it’s necessary to see her navigate that. But how will she do so by staying alive and not getting beheaded like her father and not entirely sacrificing her integrity?

But like Wendy said, it’s still using rape to advance Sansa’s character development.

Amanda: Agreed, all re: rape as needed for a woman’s character development. Many reviewers have pointed out that it’s just lazy storytelling, and I agree. Makes me shudder and think of all those awful movies where men say to women, “Boy, that’ll teach her,” or something along those lines.

And Sansa’s rape as a Theon redemption arc? That seems altogether too likely, doesn’t it? Gross.

Ginnis: Yes, that’s a really good point!

Bethanny: Ultimately, nothing will justify the scene, not even Sophie Turner coming out in defense of it. Yes, Sansa repeatedly is abused and betrayed. Yes, these instances are meant to make her stronger and learn to play the game, apply the savviness she picked up in King’s Landing. But the use of rape and having a witness to the rape in no way acts as a justifiable means to character development or acts as a thoughtful plot device. I don’t believe we will get an thoughtful apology, and truth be told, I don’t want an apology. I want the all parties involved in the show to recognize there are multiple ways to develop Sansa’s character and establish her marriage to Ramsey as one wrought with anguish, abuse, and sadism. I would like to see show runners acknowledge the problematics of their choices and change the course of action for characters rather than use an action that has directly and indirectly impacted certain GOT viewers.

Sarah: What a hideous mess indeed.

  1. Amanda Vail

    May 27, 2015 at 9:37 pm

    Well, the next episode, “The Gift,” didn’t raise my opinion of the way GoT is going at all. I’m going to avoid spoilers, but seriously: are they trying to tear down most of their female characters while they build up the male characters? For starters, “The Gift” features sex as a reward for rape prevention, among other things. And you know what? That sex-as-a-reward scene didn’t do anything for either the male or female character; it seemed out of place for both of them. What could have been a touching and important moment for them was instead stomach-churning.

    1. Wendy Browne

      May 28, 2015 at 12:48 am

      Correction: what WAS a touching and important moment in the book was turned into rape. That makes at least four emotional moments pointedly turned into rape that completely removes the woman from any kind of power.

      I spent some time explaining to a friend why the Sansa rape was just plain wrong. He felt it was within the context of the characters shown to that point and that, while not new to us, was new to Sansa. Fair enough, but because such a horrible precedent has been set, it really doesn’t matter, and moreover, the writers have just continued to prove how ridiculously uncreative their writing is when it comes to sex and sexual violence against women.

      I am okay with rape as a plot device if written well and with purpose that goes well beyond simply chopping off a woman’s agency/empowering a man. But I expect nothing interesting or subtle from the people who introduced this show with a whole bunch of doggy style tits to the camera sex, and wrote a new character–a whore–for the show, so that they could have more such sex scenes, then kill her violently when they had no further clue what to do with her.

    2. Sarah Richardson

      May 30, 2015 at 12:50 pm

      I wasn’t really impressed with ‘The Gift” either. What exactly did the scenes with Sansa do besides paint her as broken?

      And I totally yelled at the TV during the sex as rape prevention. That made me so mad, and the scene itself felt really cold. Has no one ever heard of foreplay?

      I did like the ending, but I’m a sucker for any and everything Tyrion.

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