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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era