Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones!
Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are no strangers to controversy — especially when it comes to the popular show’s female characters.
Back in season 4, they faced backlash when Jaime Lannister rapes his sister and lover Cersai right next to their dead son, Joffrey. Despite Cersai’s vocal resistance to Jaime’s advances, he forces himself on top of her and has sex with her. Audiences were upset with the depiction, especially since the scene was clearly consensual in the books. To many viewers, it felt gratuitous, unnecessary, and inconsistent with the redemptive story arc of Jaime’s character. However, according to the episode’s director, Alex Graves, while the scene was meant to disturb, it was not meant to depict rape. Because the season was already wrapped and edited by the time the controversy emerged, there was no acknowledgment in the story from either character that the rape had taken place. It was as though it never even happened.
In season 5, the showrunners faced further backlash when Sansa Stark is brutally raped by her cruel and sadistic husband, Ramsay Bolton. While the rape did not happen on-camera, the audience experiences it through the eyes, and tears, of Theon Greyjoy, who was essentially raised as Sansa’s brother. Viewers were upset that the rape felt unnecessary, and that Theon’s pain was front and center, rather than Sansa’s.
More generally, the show has received plenty of criticism for its abundance of female nudity and lack of male nudity. The female nudity is received by many viewers as gratuitous; obviously meant to cater to the male gaze. Titillation geared towards female viewers has been much harder to come by. The one time the series showed a male member, it was flaccid and wart-covered — not to mention, it was part of a comedic scene. One of the show’s female stars, Emilia Clarke (who plays Daenerys Targaryen, also known as “Dany”), has even called for nudity equality between female and male stars on the show.
All of these controversies, taken together, suggest that the showrunners — both of which are men — have probably not thought very seriously about a woman’s point of view. They have also often scoffed at criticisms aimed towards them. Upset female viewers are generally urged to acknowledge that these scenes depict reality, which has often been a brutal and unrelenting place for women. As if we aren’t already aware of that.
It’s not as though any of us feminist killjoys expect that nothing bad will ever happen to a woman on the show. We know what awful things have happened to women historically, and we know what still happens to us to this day. We are still sold into marriage, trafficked by police, raped behind dumpsters, and objectified at every possible turn. So depicting the awful, dark underbelly of war is not the problem. The problem is that too often on Game of Thrones, the female characters have been used as mere plot devices to advance the story arcs of men. Female narratives are silenced in favor of more “exciting” characters who wield weapons and stake claims to thrones.
Sansa’s previously mentioned rape at the hands of Ramsay is the perfect example of this failure to consider the female character’s perspective. As a rape survivor myself, I understand why the showrunners opted not to explicitly show the assault. Perhaps they felt it was gratuitous, or too difficult to do tastefully. However, the decision to put Theon’s pain front-and-center was hard for me to swallow. Why should I worry about Theon in such a pivotal moment in Sansa’s life? Her sense of self, and her narrative are dramatically shifting, and yet, we watch Theon. We are pulled away from Sansa’s horrible fate, and forced to reckon with the fact that Theon is heartbroken; that he still cares for Sansa and the Starks. In that crucial moment, we learn more about Theon than Sansa. Her narrative has been taken away on multiple levels — she has no autonomy, not even in her pain.
Interestingly, the criticisms of the show seem to have been taken to heart by its creators. One of the show’s directors, Jeremy Podeswa, told The Telegraph that showrunners Benioff and Weiss “were responsive to the discussion and there were a couple of things that changed as a result.” Podeswa also said that “They did not want to be too overly influenced by that (criticism) but they did absorb and take it in and it did influence them in a way.”
In season 6, the shift in narrative towards the show’s female characters has been clear. We’re finally seeing interesting, multi-faceted depictions of female storylines: Arya Stark defied her keeper, Jaqen H’ghar, and reclaimed her family name. Yara Greyjoy vied for the crown of the Iron Islands, and when she was bested by her traitorous uncle, stole his ships and sailed for Mareen to align with Dany. Dany went from being a prisoner of the Dothraki to becoming their ruler, and is now finally collecting her resources to sail to Westeros. And then there’s Sansa.
Sansa has fought tooth and nail to take back her narrative, and for once, her perspective will not be ignored. In episode 5, “The Door,” she stands up to Littlefinger, who handed her off to her evil husband in the first place. She looks her old friend dead in the eyes, refuses to forgive him, and tells him, “I can still feel it. I don’t mean ‘in my tender heart, it still pains me so.’ I can still feel what he did, in my body, standing here, right now.” It was the most powerful depiction of surviving rape on television I’ve ever seen. I understood exactly what Sansa was expressing in that moment. I felt so much empathy for her character; a woman who has survived against impossible odds. Despite being passed around like an object, Sansa has risen up onto her feet.
On last Sunday’s episode, “Battle of the Bastards,” Sansa finally confronts her rapist. Ramsay is in the dog kennel, tied to a chair, beaten to a bloody pulp. He defiantly tells her, “you can’t kill me. I’m part of you now.” She responds, calmly: “Your words will disappear. Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.” As she releases his own hounds on him, she almost turns away. But she decides to stay, and watch for a moment. As she finally walks away from him, the slightest smile crosses her face. It’s an extremely powerful scene. We are finally seeing the “real” Sansa emerge — a multi-layered, complex woman who has been through an extraordinary amount of pain and suffering in her most formative years. She has been mentored by some of the most cunning people of Westeros: Cersai Lannister, Margaery Tyrell, Tyrion Lannister and Littlefinger. She has suffered abuse at the hands of two of the cruelest and most despicable men her world has to offer. She has watched her family die around her, has been passed around like a piece of chattel, has been raped, beaten and tortured, and has been nearly murdered on several occasions. To think that she would emerge from this coming-of-age as the same naive, wanna-be princess that she was in season 1 would be a grave narrative error. This Sansa is fierce, cold, calculating and even a little bit vengeful. This Sansa is a survivor; a fighter her own right. It’s about time she is acknowledged by the show’s creators as such.
I’m thrilled that the showrunners actually listened to their female audience, and that they are finally on board with the idea that women are full people with their own perspectives, complications and objectives, too.
Author’s Note: This essay was originally published on Hamilton and Griffin on Rights, a site run by Professor Marci Hamilton and Professor Leslie Griffin, which is dedicated to the healthy separation of church and state and the rights of women and children (specifically surrounding childhood sexual abuse). I encourage you to check out the site and the amazing work these women are doing. It is currently the only legal blog that has the majority of content authored by women, and you can find my writing there on the second Tuesday of each month. This post has been republished with permission.