There has been a lot of discussion this week about the end of last Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, titled “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” I have been thinking about it, so why not throw my own two cents into the shark-infested waters? Warning: Long post with spoilers.
Sansa Stark has been convinced to marry Ramsay Bolton, who is basically a monster in human form. The marriage is pushed on Sansa as a way for her to reclaim her family’s home, Winterfell, which is under the command of Ramsay’s father, Roose Bolton.
The final scene takes place in the couple’s bedchamber on their wedding night. Ramsay has previously twisted a metaphorical knife in Sansa’s back by requiring Theon Greyjoy – who grew up with her and betrayed her family, and whom she therefore detests – to give her away at the wedding. In the wedding chamber, Ramsay now insists that Theon – whom he has remade into an abused “pet” he calls Reek – remain in the room and watch the consummation of the marriage. The actual act is performed off-screen, but Ramsay rips open the back of Sansa’s dress and the implication is that he is not in the least gentle. Meanwhile, the camera stays on Theon, who is a broken man to begin with, and who must force himself to watch the goings-on, streaming tears, because Ramsay has him so completely conditioned to obedience.
The problems cited against this scene seem to fall into three main categories: (1) Ramsay raped Sansa, which is at best lazy writing in a show that has courted controversy with rape or sexual assault in the past; (2) Sansa had begun to claim some agency over her life after several seasons of being little more than a pawn for the players of political games around her, and this rape was a reversal of that agency; and (3) by cutting to Theon’s face, the show made the scene about him and his plight, rather than about Sansa. (Another issue seems to be that fans didn’t see it coming, but that’s certainly not unprecedented for this show.) Beyond the Twitterverse expressions of disgust, though, The Mary Sue, a widely-known pop/geek culture site, took a very strong position: they will no longer promote Game of Thrones because of the scene. This is, as they say, kind of a big deal. (At least as much as anything to do with a geek culture TV show can be a big deal.)
Uh Oh, Here He Goes
Are those reactions fair? I honestly don’t know. People feel what they feel, and I’m not about to say they’re wrong, but… I think they may be. First, the status of this scene as “rape” is somewhat questionable. I will undoubtedly catch hell for saying that, but hear me out. I had a brief discussion in another forum today about whether it is wise to label every form of unwanted sexual attention/activity with the word “rape.” Is there a difference between violently forced sex and coerced sex, or sex in which someone feels they are powerless to say “no,” or sex that one person does not want but doesn’t express it effectively? All of them are in the category of “unwanted sex,” but I feel that calling them all “rape” ignores differences that are potentially important. We recognize degrees of homicide from first degree murder to involuntary manslaughter; I have a feeling it might make sense to recognize similar distinctions in degrees of unwanted sex. Doing so doesn’t minimize the fact that rape is a horrendous, heinous act, nor does it justify unwanted sex to other degrees. I think expanding the word “rape” to cover all those other kinds of unwanted sex is an unnecessarily binary way of approaching the topic.
In the current context, Sansa agreed to the wedding. Despite her previous experience – she was married for a time to Tyrion Lannister, but at her request he never touched her – she must be aware that her wedding is going to be consummated. (It’s probable that in order to have a chance to reclaim Winterfell, which has been given to the Boltons, she must consummate the marriage.) So in that sense, she agreed to sex. She didn’t really want to marry Ramsay, so by the transitive property, she didn’t really want to have sex with him, but that’s where the degrees of “unwanted sex” seem to be relevant.
We know that Ramsay is a crazy asshole, so we can assume he doesn’t much care whether she enjoys it or not, and maybe we can infer that he was ungentle from the fact that he ripped the back of her dress and pushed her down to take her from behind. Does the implied physical brutality make it rape? It’s not unreasonable to think so, but then again, I think the extent or degree of brutality is mostly implicit in what the audience knows about Ramsay’s character and Sansa’s (former) frailty.
It is relevant to the question of rape that Theon is forced to watch. It’s very clear that Sansa is uncomfortable with that, so even though she had acquiesced to having sex with Ramsay, it’s absolutely clear that she doesn’t want to have sex with Ramsay while Theon is in the room. So that kicks the whole thing up a notch on the “unwanted” meter. Overall, I think it is not unreasonable to think of the scene as depicting (or implying) a rape, but I also think it’s not unreasonable to consider it some lesser form of unwanted sex.
So Sansa doesn’t want to have sex with Ramsay this way. But does the scene remove or undermine her agency? If I understand what agency means with respect to Sansa, I don’t think so. She is developing as a character from the malleable, manipulated meeple on the playing board into someone who can and does make her own choices. The way she dismissed Brienne’s offer of assistance in the last episode shows that she is trying to be someone who makes her own decisions and directs her own life. But she’s not fully there yet. She agrees to the wedding because she believes it’s her best path to regaining her home… but she has to be convinced of it by Littlefinger. She’s not quite at the point of developing her own plans (at least, not overtly – it’s possible that she is not as heavily influenced by Littlefinger as he thinks she is).
Even in terms of strictly what happens in the scene, Sansa seems to be exercising agency. Ramsay demands Theon stay in the room as a cruel display of his power over both Theon and Sansa. She hesitates, and Ramsay becomes insistent. Ultimately, she seems to give in and begins undressing. So is this giving in to Ramsay’s coercion? Maybe. Some people apparently thought she might stab Ramsay on their wedding night; but while that would be a much clearer expression of agency, it would also be a stupid and self-defeating move.
But maybe she is making a conscious decision to keep her eyes on the prize. She is not shown weeping and humiliated, though that is clearly Ramsay’s goal; instead, she chooses to endure and ignore because she has more important things to focus on. I’m speculating, and perhaps rationalizing, but – and this is a point that none of the complaints seem to remember – this happened at the end of the episode, so we don’t know what she will do in the aftermath of this encounter. I’m not convinced that she was just going along as she had done so often in the past; but that remains to be seen. After all, the production notes for the scene reportedly read “Romance Dies,” which I think may hint that Sansa’s character development is about to take another leap forward. (Which probably raises a separate issue of whether it’s appropriate or not, or trite, to have that kind of character development driven by rape or a rape-like act.)
The final complaint is that by cutting to and focusing on Theon’s face, and his obvious anguish, the scene became “about” Theon and stopped being about Sansa. I think this is true, to some extent, but not a problem. Theon has always been an important character in the show, and his story is significant. Ramsay has made Theon a special cruelty project, and there is a real tension arising from the question of whether Theon will ever actually recover himself and stop being the abject creature Ramsay has made of him. With every added humiliation, we get closer – maybe – to the moment when he snaps and Something Happens. (Maybe that will never happen, and the tension will never be resolved, but it’s more likely that it will be resolved, just in a way we don’t anticipate.)
The focus on his face and reaction as he is forced to watch Ramsay having rough (and unwanted) sex with Sansa – who was a sister to him for many years, and whose family he betrayed – raises that tension. Does it take the story off Sansa? In that moment, yes, but Theon’s story is one that is worth telling too. I think that if it weren’t for Theon’s story, the consummation of the wedding would have been allowed to happen entirely off-screen. I’m sure there are people who would be fine with that, but I can’t fault the producers for wanting to tell more of Theon’s story. Did they have to do it by way of Ramsay’s infliction of unpleasantness – or even rape, if such it is – on Sansa? I think there are valid reasons why they did. Sansa and Theon were like siblings; he betrayed her family and incurred her eternal, passionate hatred; his conversion into Reek compounded her hatred with disgust; and Ramsay, for his own monstrous enjoyment, continues to throw them together in ways that he hopes will intimidate and humiliate Sansa (without being overt about it). Their stories are intertwined, and this scene makes narrative sense. (There is something to be said for the fact that it is similar to scenes in the books, in which Ramsay marries a different girl, and brutalizes her on their wedding night – but in the book, he forces Theon to rape her as well as assaulting her himself. That character, Jeyne Poole, has literally no agency in the books, and her treatment is far more overtly disturbing than Sansa’s in the television show.)
Before I watched the episode, I had heard bits and pieces of the reactions, and they had led me to expect something far more disturbing than the actual scene turned out to be. I am sensitive to the fact that some people were really disturbed by it, and I can see where they are coming from. It’s obviously not just a knee-jerk reaction. I’m not trying to minimize or dismiss their concerns, but I just don’t think it was as horrific and outrageous as all that.
So let the lambasting begin (hopefully respectfully).
As if anybody is going to (a) read this far and (b) bother to comment.