[Warning: Spoilers follow] Sunday's episode of Game of Thrones featured the rape of a prominent character, Sansa Stark. The controversial scene has triggered something of a backlash; speaking for many on the traditional left, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) declared that she was done watching the show.
"Ok, I'm done Game of Thrones," she tweeted. "Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable. It was a rocky ride that just ended."
Feminist website The Mary Sue agreed, and announced that it would no longer promote the show, according to The New York Times.
On the other side of the spectrum, The Washington Post's Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out that the rape was well in keeping with the show's previous faithfulness to medieval violence. Perhaps The Washington Free Beacon's Sonny Bunch put it best: "BREAKING: Westeros Is a Terrible Place, Video at 9 PM on Sunday."
Many of the people who are up in arms about Sansa's rapes were silent (or at least quieter) for the myriad scenes of graphic violence throughout the previous 45 episodes of Game of Thrones, but because rape is a politicized subject, it calls to arms certain combatants in the culture wars (not unlike bannermen in Game of Thrones).
I find this implication—that rape is bad, and therefore, should not be depicted—troubling, to say the least. Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin created a rich fantasy world partly based upon our own history—a history brimming with sexual violence. It's far better to educate ourselves by participating in art that enlightens us. Should we eschew World War II movies because Nazism is evil, or boycott Civil War-era novels to show symbolic support for the position that slavery is evil?
So I'm with Rosenberg, Bunch, et al on the general point that sexual violence is fundamentally important to the world of Game of Thrones and shouldn't be downplayed because of modern sensibility.
All that said, I absolutely loathed the rape of Sansa Stark, and sincerely wish the showrunners had not gone in that direction.
I am a proud book-purist; I wish the show would stick closer to the story as told by Martin. Even so, I've supported many of the changes up until now—alterations to Arya's storyline at Harrenhal in season 2 were particularly brilliant—but this season is really coming undone at the seams due to the sheer volume of differences. Chief among them is the rape of Sansa, which does not happen in the book, and for good reason.
Sansa, in both the book and the show, is a mistreated and emotionally abused character who suffers just about every possible punishment except rape. In both the third book and the third season, she is forced to marry into the family of her father's killer, but her husband—the kind dwarf, Tyrion—refuses to take her virginity without her consent. It's one of the only reprieves Sansa ever gets.
Which is why it's so frustrating for the show to invent a new storyline for Sansa where she is again married into an enemy family against her will—but this time, she is indeed raped. The fact that book-Sansa has not been forced to surrender her virginity to a monster is one small bright light in a world of darkness. For show-Sansa, it's all darkness. Relentlessly bleak storytelling can be as boring and lazy as low-stakes, everything-always-works-out storytelling, and Game of Thrones is veering into that territory. It's hard to care what happens to anyone, when we know the showrunners will bend over backwards to make sure that what happens will be even more horrifying than the already horrifying books.
Add in the fact that the plot developments necessary to get Sansa in bed with her rapist make little sense in either book-context or show-context, and I just can't say I was impressed. More intriguing, I think, would have been Sansa cleverly avoiding the rape.