Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) during her wedding to Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). Photo: HBO
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It’s time to stop defending the rape scenes in Game of Thrones

It’s hard to think of any satisfactory way for Game of Thrones to proceed now, short of Daenerys unleashing her dragons and barbecuing every man in the Seven Kingdoms.

The rape scene that closed out this week’s episode of Game of Thrones is probably only the third worst act of sexual violence against a major female character we’ve seen in the series. The wave of revulsion it’s kicked off is at least in part because Game of Thrones has now unambiguously become the kind of show for which it’s necessary to maintain a critical ranking of acts of sexual violence against major female characters. But it’s not as though we weren’t warned – and by “we”, I mean viewers like me who’ve fastidiously hoarded the benefit of the doubt while the programme recklessly mixed grisly violations with the tits-out titillation that is the USP of cable television.

After all, there’s a rape in the very first episode, and like the one this week, it’s the consummation of an arranged marriage: Daenarys Targaryen is tremulus and unwilling when her warrior husband Khal Drogo takes her to bed, and she’s also only 15. This is a departure from the book, where Daenarys is a consenting partner – but as she’s two years younger in the book, the screenplay is arguably an improvement. It’s tough to square this violence with the affection and devotion Dany develops for Drogo, but given that her only family is the brother who sells her into matrimony, it’s not totally implausible that Drogo shows her the nearest thing to kindness that she has ever experienced.

Harder to explain away is the rape that happens in season four, when Jaime Lannister has his sister Cersei over the body of their dead son. Again, this is a change from the book, where Cersei is initially unwilling but ultimately persuaded by her brother/lover, and it’s a change with no obvious explanation. Cersei is an adult who’s been engaged in a consensual relationship with her brother for the best part of two decades, so there’s little reason to recast her as a victim here. Meanwhile, Jaime’s character has been partially redeemed from his brutishness in season one by his relationship with Brienne of Tarth – a female knight who he protects from rape when they’re captured together. For him to now become a rapist generates a howling narrative dissonance that I’ve only been able to deal with by pretending it didn’t happen. Nope, nothing went down in the sept. Definitely no incest-rape thank you.

The thing is, Westeros is a bad place to be a woman. And given that it’s based on War-of-the-Roses-era England (give or a take a few dragons and a bit of shapeshifting), it entirely makes sense that it would be. One of the things I’ve admired the books for – with a few reservations – is the way George R R Martin has sympathy for his female characters, appointing them central consciousnesses in his shifting narration and exploring the strategies they use to get by in a world that would treat them as chattels at best. There’s Brienne, who chooses to unsex herself and take on the masculine role of the knight; Cersei, who power-plays as viciously as any man, but can’t protect herself from the fundamental misogyny of the world she wants to rule; Sansa, who truly believes in the myths of courtly love and kingship, and is brutally disabused over and over again.

And stories about male violence are worth telling, because male violence is something we need to discuss. TV is a prurient medium and gets it wrong a lot, but not always. Tina Fey’s sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is 13 episodes of evidence that rape jokes can be funny while raining down all their punches on the men who commit the violence. Main character Kimmy has been kept prisoner by a cult leader for fifteen years: “Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker,” she barks at an inquisitor early on, and that’s all you need to know. Of course it happened. The world of Kimmy Schmidt is absurd and hyperreal, but never silly enough to forget that men do terrible, terrible things. Most of the jokes in the series come from the way that the newly-freed Kimmy recognises other women as prisoners too: “Where’s your reverend?” she asks a trophy wife whose facial peel is stopping her leaving the house. The fact that the woman has a husband rather than a reverend doesn’t make Kimmy’s observation any less sharp.

Game of Thrones has given up entirely on making those kinds of observations, though. Because what is obvious after the last episode is that it’s given up on seeing women through our own eyes. There is no way that Sansa’s marriage could have taken place without rape. She is compelled into the wedding, and the man she is wed to is the most exceptionally evil character in a world with no shortage of exceptional evil. At least we’re not supposed to like Ramsay Bolton, unlike Jaime Lannister – or even worse, Tyrion Lannister, who strangled his faithless woman and still gets to maunder on about losing the “woman he loved”. Of course Sansa wouldn’t want to have sex with Ramsay, and of course he wouldn’t listen to her when she says no.

But the programme makers had the choice of whether to make us watch or not, and they put us right there in the room, camera focused lasciviously on her suffering face. Even worse though is that they put Sansa’s stepbrother Theon in the room as a witness, and made his anguish at watching her rape the closing note of the programme. Apparently violence against a woman counts for more if it distresses a man.

It’s hard at this point to think of any satisfactory way for Game of Thrones to proceed, short of Daenerys unleashing her dragons and barbecuing every man in the Seven Kingdoms, and maybe the executives of HBO for good measure. Thrones has stopped being a story about how women survive, if it ever really was that, and become something much more grim and ordinary: just another example of the shit we have to negotiate in a world that’s fundamentally hostile to female humans.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide