Fans of HBO's Game Of Thrones are throwing up their hands after the rape of beloved character Sansa Stark aired earlier this month. The scene, a departure from the original novels by George R.R. Martin, has been called gratuitous, insensitive, and unnecessary. Feminist bloggers and Democratic senators alike have declared themselves officially done with the popular fantasy series in light of this latest plot development.
However, this isn't the first time the show has added rapes that never existed in the books. In the pilot, producers rounded up innocent Daenerys Targaryen's wedding night to a bona fide rape in which she holds back tears as she is taken from behind; in the books, the future dragon queen gives an unambiguous “yes” to her warlord husband before they consummate their short-lived marriage.
And just last season, the power-hungry queen mother, Cersei, was raped by her brother/lover in a church next to the corpse of their incest baby. And while this seriously twisted sex scene did happen in the original source material, the queen gives clear and explicit, albeit super creepy, consent in the books.
Minor characters have also been victim to the producers' predilections for nonconsent. In the second season, two sex workers faced sadistic King Joffrey's wrath in a scene that never existed in the original source material, and served little purpose in furthering the plot. In Season 4, a teenage character named Meera is sexually intimidated and violently groped by a group of older men — another scene that never occurred in the books.
While there's plenty of brutality and horror in the long-winded fantasy novels that have never made it to the screen, producers of the HBO series seem to think rape is a plot point that can be sprinkled atop a story like MSG to boost ratings. More maddening still is that these additional rapes seem to not affect the trajectory of the characters who participate in them.
As the opening credits suggest, the plot of the series clips along like gears in a clock, each piece clicking together one after the other, and typically the violence in the show somehow informs the characters' next moves. Not so with the added rape scenes.
The young dragon queen still refers to her warlord-cum-rapist-husband as “my sun and stars,” and Cersei still seems as sweet as ever on her twin-brother-turned-rapist-boyfriend, implying that the writers may have a serious misunderstanding about the overall implications of rape in general — a disturbing but not unrealistic prospect.
But we knew that from the first episode. So why is Sansa's wedding night the rape that broke the camel's back?
Therein lies the uncomfortable truth: On May 17, viewers didn't see a blond babe they had just met being raped, as was the case with Daenerys in the pilot episode, and this time the victim wasn't a cruel villainess, or an urchin, or a whore.
This rape happened to a character the audience met when she was just a girl. We've watched her grow and face an exhausting amount of tragedy; we care about her.
That's the difference.
Rape isn't as much of a tragedy when it happens to a stranger, or an enemy, or someone who's easily objectified. But when it happens to a sister, friend, or partner, it's much more difficult to let it slide, as viewers have done when other characters were gifted with a producer-mandated sexual assault in their timeline.
The internet's outrage over Sansa's assault only points to the respectability politics inherent to rape culture.
Apparently, audiences will abide at least four gratuitous rape scenes, provided that they happen to characters who are poor, cruel, or easily perceived as a sex object. But producers pushed the envelope by adding a rape of a beloved character, which for many viewers was a step too far.
Much in the same way we see a disproportionate amount of attention paid to the kidnappings of middle-class white girls, we are seeing a disproportionate amount of uproar about Sansa Stark's rape because she is the character audiences felt closest to, and perhaps she, as opposed to the other victims, really didn't deserve it — as if anyone, in fantasy or reality, ever deserves such a fate.