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.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.