Game of Thrones season five, episode six: “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” If you watch the show you know that this is the controversial episode, in which Sansa Stark is unwillingly married off to the sadistic bastard, Ramsay Bolton, and thereafter brutally raped by him while her longtime family ward, turned (somewhat) enemy eunuch watches. This is not the first time that the show, which is an adaptation of the acclaimed book series A Song of Ice and Fire has deviated from the books’ content. In the book series, Sansa is not even in Winterfell, her childhood home and the location of her rape, nor does she marry Ramsay. The showrunners actually transplanted Sansa’s character into this plotline by cutting out another character by the name of Jeyne Poole. The change had apparently been planned since season two, though their rationality for doing so is a bit problematic.
The girl already watched her father be decapitated, and she believes that all of her siblings and mother have died in one way or another. She has been sexually objectified and abused by the late king, and she is being carted around by a creep that tells her to call him her uncle while simultaneously kissing her. Her life is already pretty terrible but the writers belabor the point that she is in an unfortunate juncture in her life. Sansa could very well, and likely will, come out of this empowered, but was the rape necessary as a plot device?
In Game of Thrones this is not the first time that rape has been added and sensationalized in the book series adaptation. Nearly every female character in the show has been raped, or it has been attempted. In season four, Cersei was raped by her twin brother (and lover) Jaime, which was again an addition from the books. Later in that same season a Northern shack, taken by mutinied rangers, are seen enslaving and brutally raping women (again an addition from the books). The list goes on, some of them including rapes that were in the book, but frankly that does not matter.
What matters is that rape, a very real threat to people, is being used as a plot device to enhance female storylines through sensationalized sexual assault scenes. What’s worse is that viewers are internalizing this as normative. If nearly every woman in Game of Thrones has been raped, that is a normative of rape, and regardless of whether or not that is accurate to a medieval society, this show is watched by millions of people who are becoming desensitized to this type of violence. Game of Thrones teaches viewers that consent is unnecessary if you are having sex with your partner, this is particularly noticeable in the scene from season four with Cersei and Jaime because the two have a long romantic and sexual relationship. Perhaps more frightening is that when rape becomes normalized, we begin cultivating it through our own internalization, which could manifest in the form of sexual aggression.
I am not claiming that every form of media needs to omit rape, that would be a falsehood. Rape is real. However, we need real stories in the media that work to deconstruct rape culture rather than build it up. By allowing the stories we read, hear, and see to perpetuate bad narratives about rape—in which survivors receive no justice and they experience rape for shock value—we allow ourselves to be permeated by this ideology. To resist rape culture, we first need to be able to identify it whether that be through television, smartphone, or even a friend that downplays rape by saying that it was the survivor’s fault. By ignoring rape culture, we omit our ability to stop it.