Why ‘controversy’ over Game of Thrones denies reality

Sansa Stark and Ramsay Bolton Game of Thrones poster

Image via Game of Thrones official Facebook page

Before you watch the next episode of Game of Thrones, can we talk a little bit about last week’s episode?

Or, rather, the outcry over last week’s episode that emerged after the episode went to air?

If you didn’t watch the episode, but you want to, you should probably stop reading now, because there are going to be spoilers and I’d hate to be that person. If you didn’t watch the episode because you have no interest in the series whatsoever, bear with me – because what I’m about to say is important.

Episode recap

Most of the ‘controversy’ has swirled around one particular scene. It’s the final scene of the episode. Sansa, a young orphaned teenager from a noble household, has been married off against her preference, to the young man, Ramsay, that has taken up residence (and ownership of) her family home (read: extravagant fortress).

The young man has a history of sexual violence and pretty stomach-turning ideas about what constitutes as entertainment. Those who watch the show know this. We watched in horror as Sansa had to marry him, dreading what could come next.

As a newly married couple, they retire to their marital bed. Sansa, still a teenager, still a virgin, brought up in a household of honour and (it is implied) excellent morals, isn’t fully aware of all her husband’s transgressions. She fears Ramsay, and is suspicious, but remains naïve of the extent of his depravity.

They’re alone in the room, save for the presence of a servant, and Ramsay conducts a dialogue where he makes it clear he intends to consummate the marriage as is expected of them.

Rather than treating her with gentleness, he states what he wants, forces her to comply, and rapes her offscreen.

*cue outcry over rape being depicted on television*

Outrage over…what exactly?

Now, I must say, I was kinda surprised. After all, while confronting, the scene was reflective of a society and time where women had no agency except that which they manipulated for themselves.

Besides that, it didn’t glorify what Ramsay did in any way.

And besides that, are we forgetting that this actually has and does happen to people?

Guys like Ramsay exist – PEOPLE like Ramsay exist.

What about the women who identified with Sansa? who are trapped in relationships that look like this? That find themselves married to a Ramsay?

It happens. More often than people would think. Humans can wreak incredible evil. We know this, we have seen it time and time again.

Yet still, when presented with it here it’s an outrageous act against females, or against the wider world? Because, heaven forbid, a character would act in such a way that reality looks us in the eye and makes us shudder?

I agree, the scene was distressing. It made me feel physically ill, and I felt sad knowing that it happened to a character that I loved. But more than that, I felt sad knowing that it was not unlike what has been commonplace throughout our history and pervades our culture today.

What about the Sansas of the world who believed they had no choice, who felt trapped, and in a situation where someone would violate them in such a way? Are we to pretend that this doesn’t exist by wiping it from fair representation in our art?

Is calling for the ban of representations of actions we find reprehensible, a disservice to those who experience these situations in their everyday lives?

Representation of rape in art

There has been criticism and ongoing debate over how Game of Thrones depicts violence against women in the series. But those who suggest this scene was placed in the episode for ‘titillation’ or just for the ‘shock value’ clearly did not watch the same scene as I did.

Whatever the argument is, there seems to be a common theme that because the scene was distressing, confronting, and uncomfortable to watch, it should not have been shown.

Well, last time I checked, life was uncomfortable.

It would be so incredibly easy to live in a bubble of ignorance. To my shame, I admit that I do a lot of the time. I know I’m not alone. We all do it – it’s comfortable there.

But art has this amazing way of being able to burst our little comfort bubbles and have us truly empathising with those stories that we would be desensitised to in other contexts, or that we actively avoid.

Art blends our realities and breaks down walls between the familiar and the unfamiliar, allowing us to see things from new perspectives. When things like this happen to characters we care about – when issues this heavy are represented through art – we suddenly care about experiences that we might otherwise never have known.

So, should we lie to ourselves through art, or is it better to be honest?

Even about the things that make us uncomfortable?

Is art supposed to only offer an escape from our darker realities? Or can it be a bridge to necessary understanding?


3 thoughts on “Why ‘controversy’ over Game of Thrones denies reality

  1. Wow, loved everything you wrote here. I’ve tried to write about this looking at the narrative perspective of Sansa’s arc and how the scene (accurately) reflects the world she’s in. But you hit on the more important point- shouldn’t art be able to reflect these uncomfortable truths and experiences? Isn’t it a disservice to demand the exclusion of all scenes this personally traumatic and distressing from the art we consume? Great read, glad I stumbled across it.

    • Thanks so much for the feedback. Yes – I think the most disappointing part about this whole ‘debate’ was that a lot of people seemed to skip over investigating what sort of a function scenes like this have in the art we consume. Indeed the way scenes like this are treated is so important. But in this case, I was genuinely surprised that people took to it with such scathing cynicism. Can we really call for greater representation of different nationalities, genders, sexuality in our art while at the same time calling for a more narrow representation of our experiences?
      I think we expect a lot from our art, and while I think there is cause to always be conscious of the effects it has on our society, I also think that to try too hard to manipulate it (for our comfort) impacts one of its most positive functions.
      Thanks for reading!

  2. I agree with what you wrote here. What makes game of thrones great is every so often it shines a light on a lot of uncomfortable human realities, the teasing of Brianne, rape references of arya, the unhappy marriage of Robert and ceresi, even the toilet gets some book time ( and tv time). Those gritty details make up reality, game of thrones is a book of a human world in a fantasy universe.

    I think people get upset because it gets a little to “real” some times. Well, if they want a fantasy that ignores human sexual depravity, read lord of the rings again.

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