Two Sundays ago, Game of Thrones aired an episode titled “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” In contrast to its title, however, it concluded with a scene that, even by HBO’s standards, pushed the limits of decency. The episode ended with the newly wed Sansa Stark being raped by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton, while his tortured lackey Theon Greyjoy was forced to watch.
Unsurprisingly, the scene drew a firestorm of criticism from commenters across the political spectrums. Their reasoning varied: Some took issue with the fact that the rape diverges from the book's plotline, but most seemed to think that it was simply gratuitous. As Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair wrote, “Edgy plots should always accomplish something above pure titillation or shock value, and what, exactly, was accomplished here?”
I’m inclined to agree. When it comes down to it, the scene did not feel like a carefully considered moment of character or plot development but rather the exploitation of a horrific act for the sake of views and ratings. It was less like a skillful treatment of rape and more like its pornification—the goal being an adrenaline rush of excitement about this ever-so-unpredictable show.
That said, I found it curious that the reaction to this particular scene was so strong, so pointed, and so angry, while many of the same Game of Thrones’ viewers are so passively accepting, even approving, of the other gratuitously sexual and violent parts of the show.
After all, what objection can be levied against the scene in question that cannot also be levied against any number of other moments in any number of other episodes? That rape is morally reprehensible? By that logic, the entire Game of Thrones series should have never been filmed. That the scene was unnecessary? But what of the countless other unwarranted sexually explicit moments in the show? Game of Thrones constantly uses sex and nudity to arouse and enthrall its viewers. Why are some incidents of sex and violence acceptable but this particular act of violent sex is not?
Everyone involved in the scene is a consenting adult, right? No one is actually being physically harmed. No one was forced to shoot the scene. You don’t have to watch it. And while you may not like it, someone else might.
I stand alongside those who found the rape scene unnecessary and egregious. That anyone would derive pleasure or entertainment from watching such a horrible act is disturbing. But how can a society that embraces the gratuitous, uncensored depiction of sex, whether in other Game of Thrones episodes or in the abundance of pornography on the Internet, insist that it was wrong to shoot the scene? How can a society that encourages sexual objectification tell viewers they are wrong to enjoy it?
ALL’S FAIR IN LOVE & WAR
The standard pro-pornography argument is that all is fair in the realm of one’s fantasy. There is nothing wrong with making someone the object of your imaginary conquest as long as you don’t act on it in real life—as long as fantasies remain fantasies. Indeed, the use of women (and men) in magazines and videos as characters in one’s personal sexual imaginings is considered by many to be a healthy and normal part of sexual development.
On the other side of the screen, the argument goes, porn stars are consenting, freely participating adults. They can film, shoot, and pose as they like; no one is forced to watch what they film, and thus no objection to it can be raised.
These arguments seem all well and good. But if we follow this logic to its natural end, we find that this reasoning does not merely justify “innocent” fantasies or pornography featuring consensual sex. It also justifies pornography that glorifies rape.
If it is my prerogative to shoot and distribute pornography as I like, why is it not also my prerogative to make rape a part of the plot? If it is my prerogative to make someone the object of my personal sexual fantasy, why is it not also my prerogative to dictate the story line as I desire?
This is where the porn-positive movement reveals itself to be inconsistent. We insist that what other people choose to fantasize about is beyond our judgement, but we shrink back when we find that people’s fantasies include behavior we find repugnant. We insist that the scenes directors choose to film and the pictures actors choose to pose for are their concerns, but we are disgusted to find that those films and pictures include content we don’t like.
A MODEST PROPOSAL
The fact is that once we define sex as a self-centered, pleasure-driven pursuit and say that it is acceptable to employ other people and ourselves as objects in our sexual fantasies as long as they remain fantasies, it is impossible to say where and when those fantasies become inappropriate. Is it only OK to fantasize about having sex with people as long as the sex looks consensual and everyone is smiling? As long as it is nonviolent? We know that “no means no” in the real, physical world. But does it have to in our fantasies? Should porn plotlines only involve morally upright behavior? Why should we draw the line at rape?
Maybe, just maybe, we ought not to be objectifying people in the first place.
When faced with all this, a selfless and reciprocal understanding of sex suddenly becomes more attractive. When we see just how warped and distorted a self-centered and strictly pleasure-driven approach to sex can become, it becomes less absurd to think that sex ought to be a unifying, mutual act. Suddenly, it is not so novel an idea that sex and love are better off going together. And, suddenly, scenes like those in Game of Thrones become unwatchable.
As a student of literature and lover of film, I am the last to suggest that there are subject matters off-limits to literary or cinematic exploration. But our treatment of those topics must be worthy of the topics themselves. And if that’s true of difficult and disturbing things like rape, then it must be true of other issues as well. If we are going to oppose the exploitation of rape in shows such as Game of Thrones, we ought to oppose the exploitation of human sexuality and other forms of violence. We, as a culture, ought to hold the literature and television of our day to a higher standard across the board, not selectively apply the standard where we like.