GAME OF THRONES (2011-) has frequently been criticised for its highly sexualised portrayal of women and excessive violence towards them. Specific scenes that have come under fire include the rape of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and the constant sexual abuse that Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark) is subjected to. Across the seven fictional kingdoms of Westeros, multiple story lines revolve around misogynistic, highly sexual portrayals of women and include more than 50 depictions of rape to date.
Managing Director of Content at Sky Gary Davey has rejected the idea that the show's female characters are subjected to more violence than their male counterparts and went on to say. “There is also a lot of violence to men”, he noted in 2016 when questioned specifically about the rape of Sansa on her wedding night by her husband Ramsey Bolton (Iwan Rheon). “For anybody who’s watched the show it can be a very violent show”. He continued, “I don’t think the violence against women is particularly heightened. It is just a part of the story. The rape happens, it is a part of the story.” This episode in particularly received an intense backlash across social media with many vowing to stop watching the show altogether.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) placed GAME OF THRONES on its “Dirty Dozen” list for 2016, an annual publication that calls out anything that the group feels contributes to rape culture and violence against women. Dawn Hawkins, NCOSE executive director, explains that the reason GAME OF THRONES is on the list is because the show is “fixated on producing unjustifiable sexually graphic scenes”. The pornographic nature of the series is further confirmed for Hawkins by the fact that X-rated website PornHub has uploaded sex scenes, including rape scenes, from the show. Hawkins continues by saying that films like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (Frank Darabont 1994) and THE COLOR PURPLE (Steven Spielberg 1985) “manage to convey the gravity of rape in a plotline without exploiting it in a way that is salacious or dehumanizing”.
In a moment of extreme self-awareness and fortitude Sansa Stark, very uncharacteristically, explains every detail about her rape to the man who sold her to her husband. She yells for Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) to guess all the abuses that Ramsay Bolton subjected her to, putting the blame on the man who controlled her life and speak aloud the horrendous crimes committed against her. This particular scene has been praised because it is the only instance in the series that a victim of rape is given a voice to speak up about the sexual violence enacted on her. “Ladies aren't supposed to talk about these things,” Sansa acknowledges, highlighting the injustice that while women have to endure sexual misconduct, it is inappropriate for them to discuss it openly.
Unfortunately rape often serves as character development for women or as an explanation for why a female character is brave or vengeful. This can also be seen in series as wide ranging as MAD MEN (AMC 2007-2015), HOUSE OF CARDS (Netflix 2013-) and DOWNTON ABBEY (ITV 2010-2015). Rarely does the storyline continue long enough to truly explore the ramifications of the crime and the aftermath for the victim. Using rape to create a character’s backstory is problematic because it reduces the character to the violent act itself. The implication is that the only reason women become stronger is because a man insinuated it through rape.