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.