Fans of Game of Thrones know to expect the worst each week. Viewers know that no life is truly safe. Circumstances could change at any moment. However, no one could truly prepare for the disturbing nature of the final scenes in this week’s episode, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” where Sansa Stark is brutally raped by her new husband, Ramsey Bolton. In what has been dubbed the “Black Wedding,” fans and critics alike have taken to Twitter and nearly every corner of social media, and news outlets to express their disapproval and disgust at the gruesome scene. Given author George R.R. Martin’s recent acknowledgment of the show’s direction, and actress Sophie Turner’s (Sansa) own take on the scene (both in support of the scene, yet noting that it was traumatic to film), there’s enough “Black Wedding” rage for all of us. Even politicians are chiming in on the topic.
There are a few main show problems that are at the heart of this “Black Wedding” debate.
Taking question with the show’s history of adding seemingly unnecessary sexual content aimed at promoting the objectification of women, critics are outraged that the show would have yet another rape scene after season four’s controversial sept scene between Cersei and Jamie and the wedding night of Daenyers and Kal Drogo in season one. Some GoT fans have even vowed to resign from their promotions or watching of the show because of the “Black Wedding.”
As a reader of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (on which Game of Thrones is adapted), I knew what was coming with this scene. While in the books, Ramsey is married to (and rapes) a side character named Janye Poole (who is posing as Arya Stark,) it is as uncomfortable and blood boiling as the show. In the books, Reek is far more involved in the assault. Still, how the rape was committed or who was involved in the assault is not the primary concern. No rape is excusable. No rape is deserved by anyone at any time.
Another problem protestors raise is whether or not the scene was inappropriately pursued to create interest for Sansa’s character. While Arya is one of my all time favorite fiction characters, I’ve never disliked Sansa. Sure, she may be more in line with the perceived fairytale princess, but I’ve always thought of Sansa as a character to wait and watch (feminist fiction posted a great article in 2012 on why Sansa is important here). I feel her experience as a more “typical” princess gives her an edge that Arya (despite her badass nature) doesn’t possess. Sansa knows how Cersei and other influential Westros women think, what is expected of them, and how to “play the role.” In this season’s early episodes, I was glad to see Sansa learning to put all she has been through to her advantage, gaining some confidence despite all she has endured.
It is this long awaited turn in Sansa’s demeanor that made fans and critics alike so critical of Sansa’s role in the final scenes of this episode. While some excuse the scene in the name of staying with the storyline (or as close as possible without Jeyne involved), others question whether or not Sansa needed to be raped to give the desired effect. While I agree that such a horrific act was a dramatic risk to take for HBO, easily isolating prior die-hard fans, I am not entirely shocked by Ramsey’s actions. Abusing Sansa in another way would be within Ramsey’s arsenal, however I cannot imagine him not wanting to “claim his prize” (as disgusting and vile as that is) on his wedding night. Not only to break her confidence, but to potentially secure his bloodline through pregnancy (again, disgusting).
Creative License or An Excuse?
I found it interesting that Sophie Turner said the scene was both traumatic and that she loves filming such awful scenes. As an artist, is she excited at the opportunity to explore a role that is so dark and twisted, or is she simply disturbed by the scene but doesn’t want to make waves with the show’s muscle? What would happen if Sophie spoke out against the scene?
The shock over this scene is not surprising. Something this graphic and horrible should evoke strong emotions. We should be horrified at the rape of anyone. However, as Amanda Marcotte’s recent article for Slate articulated so well, this rape scene has a different air to it than the first two in the series, and may very well have a significant role in the show’s future. In this scene, Marcottee notes that there is no room for suggestion that the rape was consensual, in no way was Sansa willing to participate. While marriage consummation is standard in the world of Westeros, is it hard to believe that Ramsey would be brutal toward his new wife. This is Ramsey Bolton we are talking about. A completely deranged and horrifying sadist who’s limits know no bounds. Was Sansa’s rape horrible? Yes. Was deflecting to Reek/Theon’s face during the rape scene belittling to Sansa’s rape? Absolutely. Do these things make Sansa’s rape any less horrific? Certainly not. Still, I do not feel this is something that Game of Thrones fans (especially those who have read the novels) should be all that shocked by—this show is all about relationships and power. It is gruesome, war filled, and unforgiving. Ramsey Bolton was true to form in his deranged and brutal treatment of his new wife. While I do take issue with deflecting to Theon’s face and emotions during the scene, Ramsey’s actions were spot on for his character.
If someone stops watching the show because of these scenes, that is fine. If you feel so strongly that Game of Thrones is too willing to bend to the ideals of rape culture, then I encourage taking action to normalize proper representation of women. Social media is a powerful tool to voice one’s opinions and to bring attention to a worthy cause. However, simply declaring one’s disapproval of HBO’s choices will make rape representation issues go away. Ideally, I would hope those that discontinue watching Game of Thrones would use their personal rage to actually help raise awareness and support for rape victims and organizations that support victims of sexual violence. We should always be mindful of how women are portrayed in all realms of the media, but simply wagging a finger in the name of justice doesn’t create solutions. Creative license and public opinion will likely never see completely eye-to-eye, but both have valid points. I feel the creators of Game of Thrones should make the show as good as it can be, though exploring such horrible acts is a delicate line to walk.
As much as I would have loved to see Sansa (or even Theon) rise to the occasion and put Ramsey out of his misery, I think these moments give us an opportunity to explore possibilities while still being respectful of creative license. This episode was loaded with emotion and was uncomfortable on so many levels, though I am still curious to see what will happen in this version of Martin’s world.
To hear what other Game of Thrones viewers here at WOTN had to say about this episode, listen to our weekly Game of Thrones Podcast, It is Known.