Monday, May 18, 2015

So, about that rape scene

We’ve been here before , of course, since I wrote one of these last season after the Cersei/Jaime rather awkward moments next to the corpse of their son that no one is supposed to know is their son (Can you imagine the Thanksgivings? “So, what have you two been doing lately...?”) But we’re back here again because of the most obvious scene that everyone in the world knew was coming: Sansa’s wedding night to Ramsay Bolton.

Now, I say everyone knew it was coming because unless you just started watching the show this year, you know that neither George R. R. Martin nor David Benioff and Dan Weiss shy away from the brutality that is often the existence of women in Westeros. Even moreso, no one who wasn’t just introduced to the show can be ignorant of the activities and predilections of one Ramsay Bolton, heir to the Dreadfort and Winterfell. Furthermore, it’d be really hard to have missed all of the times where Sansa’s virtue might have been besmirched but which she just narrowly escaped, thanks to Joffrey being distracted or the Hound not willing to see one more crime of the system (known in the books as the “Little Bird” storyline) or Tyrion deciding that he’s not going to play the game that his father has set before him. In all honesty, if Reek had decided to become Theon again and bashed Ramsay’s head in and saved Sansa, I would have felt kind of cheated. That would have been way too Hollywood for the story as it’s been built over the last 20 years, which has been anything but. (This is putting aside the fact that Reek returning to being Theon would not exactly be the best thing for most women in a compromised position, ifyaknowwhatImean.)

“Mind if I help you with your saltwife, landlubber?!”
So, no. There was never going to be a Hollywood moment. Sansa was doomed to this treatment from the moment she agreed to Petyr’s plan. You knew it. I knew it. Everyone with any sense of the story knew it.

All of that said, there’s no denying that the scene was both powerful and disturbing. First off, it was rape. Secondly, it was the rape of a character who has become a byword for virtue and gentleness in a world largely devoid of both. Thirdly, it was used for dramatic effect not just to show the audience what Sansa had signed up for, but also to further pave Theon’s road to hell. As I said yesterday, Alfie Allen’s performance has been remarkable and watching him twist in the wind while a girl he had grown up with was being violated right in front of him was a profoundly dramatic thing, which is precisely the point. The counter-argument, of course, is that it feeds the idea of objectification of women not just in the story, but in a deeper dramatic sense, since the point of that last close-up was to use Sansa’s pain and anguish as a tool to develop Reek’s character. Not Sansa, but Reek. She was off-screen. The impact that was focused on was to him, even though the actual assault was happening to her. So the questions become: 1. Was it gratuitous and, thus, unnecessary? and 2. Would it have been better to show the assault, rather than view it through the eyes of a male witness?

On #1: I don’t think so. No one has suggested that D&D do anything just for zazz. Even the fabled sexposition tended to serve a dual purpose: both to show conversation and to display the fact that, uh, sex happens in life; something that GRRM has been fully in favor of because it’s true and a lot of sex does happen in the books, as well. So anyone suggesting that D&D are engaging in gratuitous brutality is someone who hasn’t really paid attention. Now, no one needs to be reminded on a regular basis that rape also happens, but in a show where the Stark role has essentially been to be ground to a nub (if they survive), endure, and come through the other size without the deus ex machina of the prince riding in on his white horse, this scene was perfectly in line with what has come before.

On #2: I do think that they dropped the ball somewhat by allowing that focus to move to Reek, rather than keeping it on Sansa. Speculating on a motive leaves me thinking that their intent may have been to soften the blow, in that people knew (or should have known) she was going to be assaulted and, in an effort to temper a scene that was going to be awful for most of the audience, they decided to move it off-camera. That, of course, only made it worse for a number of people who feel that it’s not bad enough that Sansa was raped, but that her reaction to the violation wasn’t even good enough to be shown and, instead, we got Theon. There can be no 'right' way to show rape, so it was going to be questioned and complained about, regardless.

It was mentioned on the board that at least one person has given up on the show, in part because of that scene but also because she was frustrated that Ramsay has continued on his merry way with essentially no repercussions. Putting aside the fact that that kind of thing happens all the time in Westeros and in our own world (Goldman Sachs, anyone? How about a little national service?), there typically aren’t dramatic stories without some kind of karmic payback for characters like Ramsay. In that sense, the whole scene could be a little bit of the long con, as it were. In other words, Sansa knows that this is what was going to happen and has prepared herself for it in order to lay the groundwork for the re-taking of Winterfell and the North. The fact that she has to endure it is just another day in life as a Stark.

That being said, there's also nothing that says that fans (or former fans) of the show need to watch what's no longer entertaining to them. However, I'm willing to bet that most of them know that Ramsay will likely get his at some point ("The North remembers.") But I think the more important topic is whether it's important for the writers/showrunners/directors to be true to their vision of the story, regardless of how offensive it might be to the audience.

I wrote a story for a class when I was at Michigan that was, shall we say, highly racially charged. I wanted the lead character to be a racist and be easily recognized as such. I wanted to make him despicable in that respect to see if it was possible to make him seem redeemable by the end of it. That point, of course, was lost in the chorus of dismay from most of my classmates who objected to the theme of the story to begin with. They didn't even stop to consider why this character might be worthwhile if he was able to pierce the veneer of that racism or whether that was such an essential part of his being that he wasn't worth the effort. The overt language of the story was enough to put most of them past the point of even trying to finish it. The TA asked if I wanted to reconsider and I said "No.", because that was my story and I felt it was worth consideration, not just for the writing, but for the idea that I thought was important to assess.

This is where D&D are now with Sansa. Clearly, the assault was important to the ideas and plot that they're trying to convey to the audience. There's plenty that's already fairly shocking about Game of Thrones, such that tossing this extra log on the fire would be gratuitous if that was their intent. But I feel pretty safe in assuming that it's not and the point that they're trying to get across with that scene is not shock value or the role of women in Westeros or the fact that Ramsay is P for 'psycho'. Instead, I think there's something integral to Sansa's experience and future that that scene is establishing, even if it's something as simple as finally giving her the taste of fire that she's narrowly escaped so many times before that will finally forge her into the steel that's needed to retake the North. If people are repelled by it, well, good. They should be. But it doesn't mean that the scene was unnecessary or casually dismissive about the act and its ramifications. On the contrary, it just might be essential to bring that wing of the story home, as much as people (especially the professional offense-takers) may not want to see it.

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