Wednesday, June 17, 2015

On Game of Thrones and Rape Culture

I haven't been able to stop thinking about the way in which the women in this particular season of Game of Thrones have been treated, and I started writing this post several weeks back. I waited (with equal doses of curiosity and dread) to see where things would go, and now that the season finale has aired and I've had a few days to mull things over a bit more, I'm happy to share my thoughts-in-progress on Sansa's now-infamous wedding night (as well a few other moments from the season). Like many, I responded to Sansa's rape in Episode 6 of the current Game of Thrones season with outrage:

For the record, I remain unconvinced by the arguments that Martin's story is simply grittier and more realistic than other high fantasy works and that the fetishistic brutalization of women is therefore necessary in some way. I also stand by my initial argument that this particular scene should not have focused so squarely on Theon's trauma over Sansa's. However, in the past week, and especially after watching the remaining episodes, I've come to reconsider my initial position that this scene is wholly unnecessary. My initial response stemmed from a burgeoning frustration with the show's tendency (which many have already noted) either to invent women solely for the purpose of brutalizing them and/or driving the plots of male characters (i.e. Ros or, to a certain extent, Karsi -- the wildling woman in episode 8) or to turn consensual sex into rape. Sansa's rape marks at least the third major instance of invented rape in the adapted show, and at the time it felt like simple fetishization. I realize that different mediums call for different approaches — that what works on the page does not necessarily translate to the screen. But one of the things I will give Martin credit for is his tendency -- though his world is deeply unkind to its women -- to avoid fetishizing their brutal treatment by leaving at least the majority of the rapes offscreen. This does not minimize their significance but rather, at least from my vantage point, gives them even more impact. These moments and others (I'm thinking in particular of the "discovery" of Reek's identity in the books and how we learn in passing of all he endured before we encounter him) work in a way quite similar to the film Children of Men. As Slavoj Zizek observed of it,
For me, Children of Men, I would say that the true focus ofthe film is there in the background, and it's crucial to leave it as a background. Here comes the true art, Cuaron's. It's the paradox of what I would call this anamorphosis. If you look at the thing too directly at the oppressive social dimension, you don't see it. You can see it in an oblique way only if it remains in the background.
What he's referring to is the film's masterful ability to keep viewers from becoming inured to the horrors of the world the protagonists inhabit. Unlike V for Vendetta, another dystopian film roughly contemporary to Children of Men, the nihilism and absurdity of the world is rarely foregrounded. As a result, it leaves a much deeper, lasting impression. I see Martin doing something similar in his books, and I know for a fact (again, using Children of Men and, hell, even Mad Max: Fury Road as examples) that film can successfully deploy/encourage similar forms of anamorphosis. The Game of Thrones franchise, however, regularly fails to do so.

Nevertheless, the more I've thought about Sansa's Rape and -- more recently -- the Braavos whore house, and the more thoughtful op-eds I've read (especially the one by Amanda Marcott) the more I started to reconsider and question my outrage.

As I interrogating my own reactions to Sansa's rape, it occurred to me that her story arc in the show directly parallels that of Daenerys' in Season 1. Granted, there are notable differences between Khal Drogo and Ramsey Snow, but when you boil the stories down to their essentials, the arcs are all but identical: a young (underage?) woman, subject to the ambitions of the powerful men around her, is forced into marrying a terrifying man she does not love. She is then raped on her wedding night, and is subject to nightly rapes and brutalizations thereafter. She must find ways of reacquiring agency, but she has to do so within the confines of an abusive relationship with wildly uneven power dynamics. Episode 8 made the parallels even clearer, with emphasis placed on Sansa's bruised and battered body and on her entrapment and powerlessness. This runs parallel to the scenes with Daenerys that follow her wedding night, where we bear witness to Khal Drogo forcing himself on her each night, and where Dany's only escape lies in her ability to change him. Let's just pause for a moment to consider how wildly problematic THAT line of thinking is when played out in the real world.

The thing is, while some did voice outrage over Daenerys' rape when the first season aired, that outrage pales in comparison to what we witnessed in reaction to Sansa's rape. And what is more, the scenes with Dany are far more graphic: we actually see more than one post-wedding night rape in that first season, whereas all of Sansa's rapes occur off-screen (at least so far). Added to which, the abusive dynamic is heavily romanticized. We are encouraged – especially since Khal Drogo and Daenery’s “relationship” morphs into a romance as the season continues – to ignore the horrors of Daenery’s marriage as we are in Sansa’s. I think there's also much to be said about the racial/racist implications at play here as well (Khal Drogo might be a rapist, but he and his fellow Dothraki are overtly depicted as simple barbarians who "just don't know better" -- but that's a post for another day).

The same sort of thing happened after both episode nine and ten aired. Most of those commenting about Episode 9, for instance, focused on Shireen's death (and not without reason), but I saw little to no commentary on Meryn Trant as serial pedophile (and child-murderer?). While I found Shireen's death traumatizing to watch, my stomach turned all the more once I realized where Meryn Trant's and Arya's story arc was headed. To recap: he asks the madam in (thinly) veiled terms for an underage girl. She does not have one, but dashes out of the room and enters with a hastily rouged and clearly confused young girl. The girl is roughly the same age and size as Arya, who we are made to fear for given her proximity to Trant and the unfolding scene. Trant roughly escorts the girl out of the room, but not before demanding that the woman have a "fresh" one for him the next day. We are made here to wonder whether he simply wants another virgin to brutalize or whether he plans to kill each child he rapes. 

What is simultaneously horrifying and effective about this scene is how it plays on audiences emotional responses and draws our empathetic limitations into sharp relief. We are encouraged here to pity the girl being led away by Trant but to feel relief that Arya's avoided that same fate. In other words, we are ultimately encouraged, I think, to question (even chide ourselves) for our ability to care for one more than the other. 

There's reason to think that the showrunners are thinking along these lines. Consider the following from James Hibbard's interview with David Weiss:
When I asked Weiss the question that fans surely have tonight: “How could you do that to Shireen?” Weiss philosophically noted you could “flip that question” into a larger debate about how we’re all highly selective about which characters deserve our empathy. Stannis has been burning people alive for seemingly trivial reasons since season 2, yet we’ve still tended to regard him as a great leader—at least, by Westeros standards. 
“It’s like a two-tiered system,” he noted. “If a superhero knocks over a building and there are 5,000 people in the building that we can presume are now dead, does it matter? Because they’re not people we know. But if one dog we like gets run over by a car, it’s the worst thing we’ve we’ve ever seen. I totally understand where that visceral reaction comes from. I have that same reaction. There’s also something shitty about that. So instead of saying, ‘How could you do this to somebody you know and care about?’ maybe when it’s happening to somebody we don’t know so well, maybe then it should hit us all a bit harder.”
Given all of this, our tendency towards disproportionate outrage for some characters over others should give us pause. Why were we (and I include myself here) so much more outraged by Sansa's rape over Daenerys’? Why did we care about Shireen more than the others burned by Stannis and Melisandre? Why Arya over the unnamed girls brutalized by Meryn Trant? The answer, I think, lies in the dynamics of contemporary rape culture. When Dany is raped in Season 1, we had barely gotten to know her. It occurs in Episode 1. We never hear more than the screams of the others sacrificed to the Red God. And the child gifted to Meryn Trant is only onscreen for a minute or two. We have journeyed far longer with Sansa, Shireen, and Arya however, and have born witness to their many traumas. We know them. We know their history, and we know it well. And because of this, we care more.

This should disturb us, because by allowing ourselves to be more outraged on their behalf, we're essentially reinacting a version of the problematic "wives, daughters, mothers" rhetoric that abounds at the moment -- that even our President espouses.  When we allow some rapes and brutalizations to upset us more than others, we're caving into the idea that we only need to care about women insofar as we know them, insofar as they are relevant to us.

What the disproportionate reactions reveal, then, is that we don't need to look further back than the past few weeks for examples of rape culture being perpetuated most palpably by the very people (again, including myself here) who are trying to decry it. As Kathleen Kennedy observes (and if you haven't already, read her fantastic post on Cersei, too):
Consent mattered in medieval culture just as it does in modern culture. Yet modern rape statistics demand that we recognize that it still happens with alarming frequency. The debate on whether Sansa Stark's rape was worth showing hides both how modern medieval culture was and how medieval our own culture still is. As Sarah Mesle in the Los Angeles Review of Books wrote, "This episode of Game of Thrones does to viewers what the world so often does to women: It mistakes presence for consent." The sexual reality of Game of Thrones  is, in fact, our own.
The Game of Thrones franchise might have a lot to answer for in terms of how it treats its women, in other words, but so do we.

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