Before I had a chance to watch Game of Thrones' Season 5 episode "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken," I began receiving texts from friends warning me about the Sansa scene. For once, I thought I was prepared. As a reader of the Song of Ice and Fire books, I knew what was coming for Sansa the minute I heard the writers were having her marry Ramsay Bolton — in fact, I imagined much worse, given how explicit and sexually violent the wedding night was in the book. However, when I sat down and watched the episode, I was appalled but honestly was not sure why. I knew what was coming even though Sansa was subbed in for a different character, right? It was not until I read Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller's thoughtful interview with Entertainment Weekly on why he does not include rape in Hannibal, a show that is more poetically violent than any other show on TV, that I understood why I was so sickened by Game of Thrones' latest depiction of rape.
"There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience," Fuller told EW. "The reason the rape well is so frequently used is because it’s a horrible thing that is real and that it happens. But because it’s so overexploited, it becomes callous. That’s something I can’t derive entertainment from as an audience member — and I’m the first person in the audience for Hannibal."
There was my moment of epiphany. Over the course of five seasons, Game of Thrones has included three major characters being raped and countless instances of attempted rape, gratuitous threats of sexual assault and minor characters being raped. Not one of these scenes has been about the women; instead, they were all about the horror of the act or the perpetrators. They were the epitome of "low-hanging fruit" — there to shock and nothing more. I had reached my breaking point because I was fed up with Game of Thrones and its use of rape to do nothing more than shock.
I am not easily offended by violence; if I were, then I would not watch shows like Game of Thrones or Hannibal at all. There are different kinds of violence, though, and reasons why I, as an audience member, react differently to sexual violence versus seeing Jaime Lannister lose his hand. Both kinds of violence are difficult to watch, but I am a woman living in the real world, where I am constantly told the threat of rape is ever-present. I know the reality of rape for survivors is that its impact never goes away. It is a very particular kind of violence that can be and should be explored in fiction — if the creators intend to make survivors feel heard and seen (one show that has excelled in this area in recent memory is FX's The Americans).
Like the Game of Thrones showrunners, Fuller is working from an existing text. In Season 3 of Hannibal, he is tackling the Red Dragon storyline, one that is full of assault scenes, but Fuller made a conscious choice not to depict the sexual aspects of the violence. He made the choice because he recognizes there was a choice to be made. "In crafting the story arc of the Red Dragon, it became a challenge on how to keep true to the novel but deemphasize the exploitive qualities of woman being raped," Fuller said. "That was one of the big challenges in terms of how do we keep our promise [to not tell rape stories] to our audience — which is largely female — and also service the novel. It became a tricky matter of deemphasizing women being targeted and making more pronounced the crimes against the victim’s family as a whole."
I recognize Game of Thrones is set in a violent world. So is Hannibal. I have read and loved all five of the books on which the series is based, but the excessive violence against women in particular has added nothing to the television series' narrative. It is a crutch the writers have used again and again (and again) when they want to illustrate the power imbalance within the patriarchal world of Westeros. It makes me angry because it accomplishes nothing beyond making me angry. No one is forcing the showrunners to include excessive amounts of sexual violence, and when they chose to put Sansa in the place of Jeyne Poole, they were certainly not beholden to the text to depict the horrors of the wedding night.
The use of rape as a plot device in TV dramas has been called an epidemic. Game of Thrones is not the only offender; it is simply the most high-profile offender and the series I am most disappointed in as a viewer. Over on Hannibal, Fuller depicts gruesome, shocking acts of violence every week. The level of blood in that series is operatic at times, but he exercises his right as a writer, a man and a human being to not add sexual violence to the list. He understands he is dealing with a largely fantasy world. Yes, there is extreme violence happening every day, but cannibalism is a rarity. It is not something I or anyone reading this will likely encounter in real life.
The beauty of fiction is that the writer is in charge. Writers create the world with every stroke of their pen (or keyboard), and they owe nothing to history or to the texts on which their story is based. Their only job is to tell a good story. Game of Thrones is a high fantasy piece, and every time the writers tell themselves they need to insert a rape scene because it is true to the time period or because the books are sexually violent, they are lying to themselves. They are doing it because they can and because it is an easy way to make the audience gasp. They could learn something from Fuller: unless the showrunners are prepared to deal with the real consequences of rape, there is always another way to tell the story.
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