Although there's been a lot of disturbing stuff on the Game of Thrones TV series, the ending of last week's episode really irked me, enough that I fired off an angry tweet. Now, after thinking about it and reading other responses, I think I've unpacked what exactly it was that bothered me so much. Spoilers ahead for books and TV series.
1) It was a breaking point/final straw about lazy writing
It's a sad reality that the kneejerk reaction to a woman doing something on the Internet that displeases a certain kind of man is a rape threat. I've been fortunate to have avoided that, probably due to being too obscure an author to get that kind of attention, but I've seen it happen to way too many other female authors. "You should be raped/you deserve to be raped/I ought to come rape you" is used to mean "I disagree with your opinion," "what you said made me feel uncomfortable," "you aren't writing fast enough and I want more books," "you took a character in a direction I didn't like" or "the e-book of your newest release didn't download onto my reader at precisely the stroke of midnight even though I pre-ordered it."
The Game of Thrones TV series is starting to feel the same way. They need to show that it's a dangerous, gritty world? Rape. They need to show that women are vulnerable and aren't safe? Rape. They need to show that a man is a twisted jerk? Rape. They want to shock the audience? Rape. An exposition scene might be boring? Rape of a topless or naked woman.
So, basically a team of supposedly professional writers for a highly praised, award-winning TV series is functioning on the creative level of your average Internet troll. It's lazy writing, prurience masquerading as "grit."
2) "But it's realistic!" "There's rape in the books!"
Yes, women have been raped throughout history. Yes, there's rape in the books. But there was lots of other unsavory stuff going on in those historical eras and in the books. The books depict the terrible aftermath of a war, showing how it's the common people who are suffering even after the nobles have wrapped up their war over which nobles will be in power. There's starvation because crops were destroyed in battle. Homes were destroyed. There's a flood of refugees on the roads. Lawless bands of former soldiers abruptly cut loose at the end of the war are roaming around, terrorizing the population. And, yes, this includes rape. The show mostly boils this down to rape, skimming over the rest. It's the shorthand for "things are tough all over." Also, most of the key rape scenes in the TV series were not rapes in the books or happened to different characters in a different context. They're adding bonus rape to major characters.
3) Did these writers even read the books?
I feel like in the latest scene involving Sansa that the writers were so eager to include a rape of a major character (perhaps not coincidentally played by an actress who recently became "legal") that they entirely missed the point of this segment of the books. The theme of that story line was fakery because there was a lot going on that wasn't what it seemed. While a woman was raped at the corresponding part of the story in similar circumstances (the consummation of an arranged marriage), the point was that the Boltons were trying to cement their hold on the north by marrying Ramsay to "Arya Stark," who was actually an impostor. Which meant this marriage actually did nothing to solidify their hold. Meanwhile, the Lords of the North who were gathered to witness this wedding were actually plotting against them and undermining them. Even the minstrel playing in the hall was actually someone else in disguise. It looked like the ultimate Bolton triumph, but readers could tell that they were actually building a house of sand that was in danger of collapsing completely. Although the events were horrifying, there was an iota of hope that it was all about to turn around. But the TV show replaced the fake Arya with the real Sansa Stark, so this marriage actually does solidify their claim. The lords aren't there. Mance isn't there in his minstrel disguise. So it's a very different event from what happened in the book.
4) It was given a really creepy context that wasn't in the book.
In the book, Ramsay is a monster, all the way through, with no redeeming qualities. There might be a few twisted individuals who identify with him, but that's on them because I don't get the feeling that Martin is in any way trying to make him sympathetic. On TV, this character is played by a handsome actor with a lot of charm and charisma. When we meet him, he's tormenting Theon, a traitor who bears a lot of responsibility for what happened to the Stark family, so although Ramsay is cruel, there's the sense of "the enemy of my enemy." He gets the snarky one-liners and clever quips. We actually see his degradation of Theon instead of it being something that's already happened by the time we catch up with the character again. Show-Ramsay has a bevy of beautiful women at his beck and call to help him with his sadism. When he tortures and castrates Theon, there are naked women on the screen. Ramsay is depicted in a consensual relationship with a beautiful woman who's even jealous of his arranged bride. In short, on the show, he's shown to be kind of a cool dude, and is pretty much the way the Internet trolls would like to see themselves -- they're irresistible to beautiful women, but they also get to force themselves on the women who think they're too good for them. That makes the scene in question feel like it was written to cater to the worst elements of the audience.
5) It actually does make a difference that it happens to a secondary character.
This sequence in the book is mostly about Theon's growth, how the way Ramsay treats his wife is what breaks Theon out of his tortured conditioning and Stockholm Syndrome and makes him help the girl and defy Ramsay -- it's his redemption arc. While it is kind of icky that a woman's rape is used for a man's growth, the woman is a supporting, secondary character, and that's what supporting characters do. They help create and support the plots for the major characters. There are plenty of major female characters in the books, most of whom are not raped and who have their own arcs that aren't about supporting the emotional growth of men. I'll withhold judgment until I see how the aftermath plays out here, but the camera did focus on Theon's face and his reaction, so there's a good chance that this arc will still be largely about his growth. The problem here is that Sansa is a major character in her own right who has her own story and her own arc, so one of the major female characters in the story (who has not been raped at the point where the books leave off so far) may have been demoted into a position of supporting the arc of a male character (who is arguably a less important character than she is in the books), and they're using a rape of her to do so.
So, all this is why my reaction to this episode was "Seriously, guys? Oh, come on." I'm not going to stop watching because I want to see how the story plays out (and goodness knows if we'll ever get to the end of the books), but I did want to raise my voice. I don't know if the outcry will actually make these guys think, but I don't want anyone to have any illusions that no one has noticed what they're doing here. It would be lovely if the freedom offered by HBO weren't just used to make television with all the maturity of a 13-year-old boy. "Mature audiences" really should mean more than "hee hee, boobies!"