May 17th’s Game of Thrones episode, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” featured a scene I had been dreading all season— Sansa Stark was raped on her wedding night to the sadistic Ramsay Bolton while her childhood friend and her father’s former ward Reek/Theon was forced to watch. Throughout the course of the show, Sansa has seemingly been in a constant state of suffering. However, her agency had been steadily growing until recently when she was thrown into a situation that features her helpless and victimized again. This rape scene was gratuitous, to say the least. Viewers already know Sansa has suffered and is a survivor. Viewers already know that Ramsay is cruel and abusive. Viewers already know that Theon has been tortured and disturbed. Both Sansa and Theon already have numerous reasons to hate Ramsay. Nothing new was established here. Why do we need to be told these things again? This scene has sparked outrage among fans and many are considering this to be the final straw in a show that has consistently used the sexual abuse of female characters for plot motivation and shock value.
The way the scene was shot is an important contributing factor to the outrage surrounding the scene. While the camera initially focuses on Sansa’s face during the attack, it quickly transitions to Theon’s face as he watches in horror. Although Alfie Allen (who plays Theon) does provide a powerful performance, the decision to make the scene about Theon’s pain rather than Sansa’s belittles the abuse Sansa is suffering. While I by no means wanted to see Sansa being raped, the idea that her rape is ultimately about Theon’s development is also troubling. Why does Sansa’s power need to be decreased in order for Theon to find redemption?
Additionally, the fact that this rape happened to a different, minor character in the book should be noted. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss deliberately changed the plot to ensure that this scene would happen to Sansa and not Jeyne Poole, as it does in the books. Sansa’s circumstances within the show are much different from Jeyne’s in the books. This rape was completely unnecessary to her plot within the show. Also, while some critics have questioned how much viewers would care if it had happened to Jeyne, a minor character, this question is avoiding the real issues at hand. The rape of any character should be treated with careful consideration by the showrunners and often, it is not. Any incident of gratuitous abuse is terrible (and Game of Thrones features no shortage of major and minor characters being gratuitously raped and sexually abused), however, the rape of a major character has added significance to viewers as they regularly see that character on a weekly basis. This is not the first time Benioff and Weiss have changed a scene from the book to include the rape of a major character. Both Danaerys Targaryen in season one and Cersei Lannister in season four were raped in scenes that were written as consensual sexual encounters in the books. In both instances the aftermath of the rape, which is nearly impossible to present properly for a minor character that does not appear often, remained nonexistent for both Danaerys and Cersei, who appear in almost every episode of the series. This decision on the part of the showrunners is incredibly irresponsible. With the limited time allotted to each major character on a show with a large ensemble cast, it would be hard to effectively depict the aftermath of rape if they tried. But the writers do not try. They do not seem to grasp the importance of showing how a victim feels and reacts after being sexually assaulted. To them, the act of rape itself is more important than the impact it has on the victim.
Game of Thrones has a history of using the rape of its female characters to add shock value and force character development when the act should be treated with more careful consideration. Rape is a heavy topic and Benioff and Weiss too often treat it lightly. I predict Sansa will gain strength and power from her rape and come away from it a stronger person. This encounter is also likely to bring her and Theon closer together and give Theon a chance at redemption. However, I believe this same outcome could have been achieved in a different, more creative way. The use of rape as a source of character motivation is, quite frankly, lazy writing, especially when the aftermath of the assault is ignored. While I hope the aftermath of Sansa’s rape will be treated with careful attention, my hopes are not high. If Game of Thrones follows the path they have previously taken, her rape will be summed up mere as shock value and forgotten by next week’s episode. However, fans might find it harder to forget the incident and excuse the show this time.