Understanding rape through the Game of Thrones

Published: May 22, 2015

In the scene, Sansa Stark is raped by the sadistic psychopath Ramsey Bolton, while Theon Greyjoy is invited to watch. PHOTO: HBO

Warning: For those of you, who have yet to watch the new season of Game of Thrones, be prepared for spoilers. Or stop reading.  


I’ve been following the controversy about the Game of Thrones rape scene, which troubled a lot of women when it was aired this past Sunday. In the scene, Sansa Stark is raped by the sadistic psychopath Ramsey Bolton, while Theon Greyjoy is invited to watch. You don’t see Sansa or Ramsey, but you hear everything, while the camera focuses on Theon as he weeps. This, women have said, is unacceptable. Rape should not be used as a plot point. It’s gratuitous. What’s the point? Where’s the trigger warning? An American Congresswoman, Claire McCaskill, said that she would no longer watch the show because this scene’s violence was too much for her to take. 

My first reaction was one of scorn. I live in Pakistan, where we see cases of gang rape, child rape, child marriage, forced marriage, and marital rape all the time. There’s horrific abuse, with acid thrown on women’s faces, women beaten and killed for “disobedience,” women punished for honour crimes. Nothing that happens on Game of Thrones could shock me as much as what I’ve seen in real life. The rape of Sansa was, as a friend put it on my Facebook page,

“A hard image for a soft world.”

Not only this, but in many parts of the world I live in, the underdeveloped, poverty-stricken, religious-strife-torn, countries of the Middle East, the subcontinent, and Africa, women who are raped must marry their rapist so that he can avoid jail time.

During the 1980s in Pakistan, if a woman was raped, she was jailed for having committed “adultery”. There was a famous case of a blind woman who was raped and she went to jail because she couldn’t identify her attackers. We had Mukhtar Mai gang-raped as punishment for a so-called affair between her brother and a woman from a rival tribe. Women have been stripped and made to walk down village streets naked as a way of punishing their male relatives.

Still, what about the idea that Game of Thrones promotes gratuitous sexual violence, or that rape scenes should be avoided in television or film?

First of all, in general, I’m not opposed to rape represented in any kind of art, as long as it has artistic merit, doesn’t glorify the act, and presents a realistic view of the trauma it unleashes on the victim and family. Others are dismissive of the show, and the scene in particular, calling it a “waste of time”.

One in four women is raped in this world. If you aren’t a survivor or don’t know one, you’re very lucky that you can afford to have that attitude. Most of us cannot. And for a rape survivor or victim, a sensitive portrayal of rape and its aftermath can bring a lot of healing and relief. Take for example, “The Accused” which was based on a true story; it built solidarity and empathy for rape victims, it showed that what a woman wore or how she behaved didn’t mean she deserved to be raped, and even affected the men who watched the movie (and men also get raped, as the shower scene in American History X shows – another very hard-hitting scene which portrayed the reality of male on male sexual violence in prisons).

But does Game of Thrones really have too much gratuitous sexual violence?

There’s a lot of gratuitous sexual violence in GoT in general: Joffery killing a prostitute with a crossbow, for example; prostitutes getting beaten up when they arrest the Septon in the current season is an another example. In season one, they also rewrote the wedding night scene between Daenerys and Khal Drogo into a marital rape which was gratuitous, as in the book the scene was consensual and sensual (I’ve read all the arguments about canon vs non canon in GoT but I don’t know if I care much about that, I’m not such a purist). Speaking up about the soft-porn quality of these scenes and objecting to them on the grounds that they fetishize or glamourize rape is an argument I can certainly agree with.

However, when the Dothraki sacked various cities and raped the women, that didn’t seem pornographic, just ugly and real. Yet women have always been raped when any city’s been sacked or invaded. And showing Daenerys stopping the rapes seemed a pretty feminist statement to me. As another friend wrote on my Facebook page,

“If people think the rape in GoT is chauvinist, isn’t that the point? Despite the fantasy elements, it is based on medieval European history. A history that is rife with powerful men taking advantage of women and using rape as a tool and instrument of control.”

For many of us around the world who watch Game of Thrones, that isn’t history. That’s real life, happening every day. In Syria, in Nigeria, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, it takes place in the context of war. For the rest of us, it’s woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.

There are allusions to Sansa’s rape as far back as season three, when the Hound rescues her from being raped by common folk at Kings Landing. Also there’s the scene when Brienne is almost raped by her captors and Jaime talks them out of it. In these particular scenes, it’s not the male gaze or chauvinism that’s the issue; it’s the issue of morality in male characters who were previously seen as amoral or uncaring.

Perhaps the real problem in Game of Thrones is that there’s rape that happens to nameless women that we don’t care about, and then there’s rape that happens to characters we do care about. And the difference between the two types of rape is uncomfortable for us, because it reflects how we feel about rape when it happens to people near us or like us (a white, rich lady like Sansa) or people unlike us and far away from us (unnamed prostitutes, village women, women from far away countries and lands that we already think are barbaric).

As for “rape as plot device” well, why not? If murder is a plot device, or marriage, or any other event, rape can be too. I would say the portrayal of rape in Game of Thrones has been quite varied, with some of them more troublesome than others. I just find it odd that Sansa’s rape is the straw that broke the camel’s back, and some of it strikes me as very privileged complaining by people who don’t live in patriarchal, underdeveloped nations where rape is used not as a plot device but as a very real way of subjugating women.

This post originally appeared here.


Bina Shah

Author of A Season For Martyrs. She tweets @BinaShah (twitter.com/BinaShah)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • DEvildirector

    If we have to learn from game of thrones,,,rape then What about the incest…!!Recommend

  • Aisha Khan

    Everything aside that scene left me traumatized. I’m not so sure of the reason because there have been countless such clips. But making someone you loved as family and now clearly loathe, watch you being raped by the man you’ve married and who, not to forget, cut the spectator’s privates is disturbing on quite another level. There’s something just too vile about it. I appreciate the article, nonetheless.Recommend

  • Areeba Mohsen

    I don’t watch GoT, but your article is spot on. I also don’t mind these taboo topics being highlighted in tv shows as long as they are not glamorized and there is no nudity shown.Recommend

  • Nizam Uddin Raiyan

    What is artistic about showing rape in famous series like that of Game of Thrones. Rape is a brutal act need to be discouraged even in fictions.Recommend

  • sparklingwater

    The outrage against the episode is absolutely NOT odd. The way the sansa/ramsay/theon storyline was handled this season is total tripe and redundant television writing. All of this already happend before with Sansa/Joffrey in EVERY OTHER GOT SEASON. that’s one of the reasons people are upset. To be let down by a leading fantasy television because it is literally giving us the same material it gave us every other season, is a really awful thing. If you want to defend bad television writing, by all means, go ahead, but don’t critizise why it’s upsetting to other fans.

    some poeple might say “you should’ve expected this, ramsay has been shown to be a monster, sansa a victim, stop whining” etc.

    But that’s exactly the point. the show is literally the same as it was in the past seasons, nothing is moving forward as far as sansa’s character development, and sansa is just the victim ONCE again, while in the books she is taking charge of her life. Sansa crying and whining and reverting to the victim AGAIN during the theon-ramsay-sansa bedroom scene is just lazy writing. she could’ve taken charge and “won ramsay over,” (like it was hinted at) but no, just more tears. Ramsay could’ve shown us that he does want to take power of the north and be decent to his bride (who could control the north for him), but no. victim sansa and evil ramsay have ALREADY HAPPENED. The Consummation could’ve gone down in a way that at least showed Sansa’s point of view a bit more (even if it was still horrible); it was the filming that was misogynistic and just all around bad. this is just an excuse to add rape-fantasy-shock-value to the show. it’s boring and tedious story writing.

    it is unnecessary and misogynistic to accomplish Sansa’s empowerment through rape.

    Yes Jeyne Poole was raped in the books, but the defense of “Oh it happend in the books and was much worse so it’s okay” is really just stupid because the writers haves already taken plenty of liberties with other storylines, so they could’ve made a little effort to not reproduce the same scene twice (Joffrey commanding kingsguard to tear Sansa’s dress off from the back, abusing her / Ramsay tearing off Sansa’s dress off from the back, abusing her). I can think of countless ways they could’ve handled filming the scene better.

    In the book it happened to a different character, and serves a different story-telling function. In the show it happens to Sansa, victimizes her once again, and doesn’t serve a purpose except to satisfy the audience’s sick need for rape fantasy shock value and move Theon’s story along. Sansa doesn’t need to be victimized again in order to motivate her. She’s already been victimized, she already has countless things to motivate her. The story-telling HBO chose is lazy, redundant, obvious, and tedious to watch. That is why a lot of people are upset.

    Poole was a non-POV character brought back in later books to serve the function of shocking Reek into remembering who he is; the purpose of what happens to her and why it happens is clear. Was it horrible? yes. But was Poole already tortured throughout multiple chapters in every other book and did we have to sit there, reading/watching about it over and over again with nothing changing? No. The Poole storyline was not redundant story telling. Sansa getting tortured yet again is redundant. Can anyone even see the difference at all? I guess you can’t since you’re the one defending rape fantasy. I guess because Poole was raped, Sansa deserved to have another miserable time too, huh? Because that’s so “consistent” with the GOT universe. Please.

    I actually got excited for the merging of Sansa-Ramsay-Theon storyline. I thought, ok, this could be interesting, let’s see. They’re all fabulous actors, who wouldn’t want to see them together! But it really would’ve only worked if they had made Ramsay a bit more complex than in the books, in which he is basically a one-dimensional villain, and I thought HBO was doing this because the showrunners said that “show ramsay” and “book ramsay” are different (in the sense that he is not well-known throughout westeros in the show). Or it could’ve worked if they had had Sansa take charge of her destiny and manipulate Ramsay somehow. I’m saying this because they already had the crying Sansa victim vs. one-dimensional villain angle and that was with Joffrey. It was redundant to do it again, that is what is upsetting. In addition to the fact that the rape fantasy was really unnecessary to prove their plot point; they only did it for shock value. it is BORING TELEVISION. they could’ve done it in a way that was a least not completely predictable.

    All the build-up to Sansa taking charge of her life went nowhere with her whining, crying and not doing a thing to take command of the bedroom scene. Even worse, the entire thing is filmed from Theon’s perspective. This incredible and traumatizing thing is happening to Sansa and we don’t even get to see it from her point-of-view. Because it’s not important to HBO; only the male’s perspective is what matters because it’s rape fantasy. Sansa losing her virginity in a way that is perhaps not ideal is not about Sansa anymore, it is only about moving Theon and Ramsay’s story forward. The GOT story writers have effectively turned Sansa into a minor character. “Sansa Stark: The only main character who now has the depth of a minor character”

    The way the entire scene was orchestrated and filmed was completely misogynistic, no matter how much you huff and puff about how great GOT is, and how rape happens in real life . Fans are upset not necessarily because Sansa was raped, but because it was done in such an uncreative, redundant, tedious, and misogynistic way.Recommend

  • 48 Cambridge

    Wait, this article seems really familiar. Did you just read Bibek Bhattacharya (http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/x9Lqg6KkOyspsXr2PXUEyK/Game-of-Thrones-No-fantasy-this-real.html) and Ishaan Tharoor (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/11/11/why-turkeys-military-wants-to-ban-game-of-thrones/) and decide you’re late to the party?

    Also, you’ve clearly never read Elfriede Jelinek (given your rather presumptuous conclusions about “hard” and “soft” worlds). I dare you to read “Lust” or “The Piano Teacher” by Jelinek. Actually, since it seems like you don’t read much, and would rather spend your time watching movies and TV, take an evening out of your busy schedule and watch Michael Haneke’s adaptation of The Piano Teacher (you can get a copy from Laraib in Boat Basin or watch it on Youtube using a proxy). By the end of the movie (if you get through it) you’ll see how flimsy and one-dimensional your conclusions about rape and feminism are.

    You know nothing Bina Shah.

    (Oh and it’s not “Ramsey” Bolton; it’s “Ramsay” Bolton. Jeez)Recommend

  • aminah

    they got married so the “rape” was kinda expected. also when khal drago “raped” khaliessi no one bat an eye because well there was actual footage of it unlike the sansa scene Recommend

  • talhamid

    All kinds of sick stuff is shown, and simply shouldn’t be shown on TV, esp rape and incest. As for ‘glorification’, how do you define it? The fact that it is being shown on TV as a major plot point is enough glorification. And these things do have an impact on real life.Recommend

  • Samir Ashraf

    ‘My first reaction was one of scorn. I live in Pakistan, where we see cases of gang rape, child rape, child marriage, forced marriage, and marital rape all the time.’

    I also live in Pakistan and what you write is irresponsible. Please do not put fiction into your assessment of a book adaptation. You may be surrounded by rapists but in general Pakistanis live in a very nice nuclear family system which does offer a lot ofor protection to women.Recommend

  • Bina Shah

    I read The Piano Teacher years ago. What’s your point?Recommend

  • Spyrogyra

    Agreed. Yes, Pakistan has its share of problems but the author has portrayed it as if it were a universal truth.Recommend

  • 48 Cambridge

    You clearly need a refresher. Read it again and see how binary, reductive, parochial, and indeed racist your arguments are. See how you’ve casually usurped and exploited the narratives of individuals in “your” part of the world, which, ironically enough, is the act of violation reenacted (since your only “true” claim over any and all of the cited narratives is the “natural accident of birth” argument, which by itself is arbitrary and incidental. Just because you happened to be born in “a certain part of the world” at a certain period in time does not, by default, give you the right to the narratives therein. Presuming so is ingenuous and foolish.)

    Jelinek recognizes how hollow these claims are; how binaries for the sake of polemics merely undermine the argument. Instead, she focuses on something else; something which, if you truly had read and understood her, you wouldn’t be asking me to spell it out for you. So do yourself a favour, dear author, and see how she examines the fetish of rape and misogyny prevalent in “our”culture from the lens of patriarchal fascism enacted through the body. See how the desire for oppression comes from the oppression of desire and the chauvinistic will to power. Her work is more violent and terrifying, more obscene, vulgar, perverse, and ugly than most of what you’ve encountered or will ever explore. “Your” hard world pales in comparison.Recommend

  • anon0912

    People have got too much free time on their hands these days.Must we over analyze everything ? You knew from episode one what you were getting into.Don’t play the “I am so applauded card” now.Don’t like it ? don’t watch it.While we are at it..maybe you should stop watching all the movies as well because they condone violence,drugs and sex.Go watch your Pakistani soap operas,i hope you enjoy them.Recommend

  • 48 Cambridge

    The kind of jingoistic, insular, proto-fascist stance you take; the kind of dangerous “othering” you indulge in, sanctions and indeed validates the prevalent patriarchal structures of domination, oppression, and subjugation (through violence and rape). This is, as Jelinek notes in her work, the dubious, insidious way in which you are coopted by the system of dominant male chauvinism of our times, without even realizing it. This is the irony, dear author, to which you are completely oblivious (despite having read Jelinek? I highly doubt it). Frankly, it’s baffling; baffling and quite disappointing…Recommend

  • cautious

    Nobody is going to defend rape – but it’s a movie based on a book and that book has Stark being raped. This scene was horrific – but so was the one when Theon had his cock cutoff and lets not forget the massacre at the wedding. I don’t blame HBO for following the book.Recommend