On Sunday night in the final scene of HBO's blockbuster hit "Game of Thrones," there was a rape scene that, even for a show that has made its reputation on gasp-inducing horrors, left many people with a very bad taste in their mouth.
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) was one of them.
"Game of Thrones" is no stranger to controversy about how it portrays women. It was widely criticized for gratuitous nudity -- much of the first few seasons seemed to be set in brothels with naked women everywhere -- and a rape scene involving a brother and a sister. (No, the show isn't for the faint of heart -- or stomach.)
At issue -- presumably for McCaskill but definitely for me, my wife and plenty of others -- was the fact that unlike other sexually exploitative or just plain gross scenes from the first four seasons of the show, this rape scene was not included in the books written by George R.R. Martin on which the TV series is based. Though I never read the books, I was aware going into Sunday night that Ramsay Bolton (a bad guy) and Sansa Stark (not a bad guy) -- the two main characters in the scene -- are never married in the books and, therefore, the choice to have him rape her on their wedding night -- while a servant watched -- was one made entirely independent of the original text. (Worth noting: In the books, Bolton rapes another woman -- in graphic terms.)
The question then is: Why? As in, what does this rape scene tell us about either Ramsay Bolton or Sansa Stark that we don't know already? It's been made quite clear through the course of the show that Ramsay is a total psychopath. And, the "Sansa as victim" narrative is also well established -- from the murder of her father in front of her, the deaths of her mother and brother, her previous betrothal King Joffrey (the only person more nuts than Ramsay) and so on and so forth.
It's hard for me to see why the TV writers felt the need to a) include the rape of Sansa in the plot or b) film it the way they did.
The rebuttals to this line of thinking are two-fold: 1) It's a fiction so stop taking it so seriously and/or 2) It will wind up being a critically important moment in the broader plot and since I don't know where things are headed, I -- and McCaskill and others -- should shut up.
On point No. 2, fair enough. I am not in the writer's room of the show. I didn't read the books -- even though, as I note above, the marriage of Sansa and Ramsay never happens in the books. So, it is possible that the rape of Sansa mattered in ways I just don't grasp just yet.
On point No. 1, I can't agree -- particularly given my stated reasons for disliking "House of Cards." In my piece outlining why I hated that show, I wrote this about the D.C. reporter character of Zoe Barnes:
This character, played by Kate Mara, is what ultimately led me to walk away from the show. Let's start with the fact that the way Zoe, a young reporter, begins her source building with [Rep. Frank] Underwood is by going to his house late one night to show him a picture of him looking at her butt on the way into an event. That seems both far-fetched and, frankly, offensive to female reporters everywhere. But, wait, it gets worse. When Underwood is off in South Carolina taking care of a local matter and dries up as a source, Zoe tries to lure him back into giving her information by flirting with him via text. Because, of course, that's how a female reporter would get information from a male politician. That's a remarkably insulting idea.
The simple fact is the way people -- especially women -- are portrayed in movies and TV shows matters to the way we all perceive each other. If people think female reporters lean on their sexuality to do their jobs because that's what Zoe Barnes did, it's that much harder for actual female reporters who, BREAKING NEWS, don't actually do that, to get away from such pernicious stereotypes.
In that same vein, scenes of rape and sexual assault aren't the sort of thing that should be put into a show unless there is significant thought given as to why it's being done and, more importantly, whether it needs to be done.
I'll keep watching "Game of Thrones." And that statement weakens my argument. But, I understand the sentiment McCaskill is expressing. Entertainment has wide license to explore the dark places of humanity. But it also has a responsibility to understand that those explorations -- and how they are handled -- are meaningful in how we see each other. It's in that lack of understanding where I believe "Game of Thrones" came up short.