Empathy and Anger

I finally caught up with the Game of Thrones series on HBO.  I was accidentally exposed to some spoilers a couple of weeks ago, and I knew that some people were very upset about one specific scene.  Part of me is expecting to be called out as some horrible anti-feminist for saying this, but after watching it, I’m actually surprised people are so upset.  Here’s my take on it, anyway. Hopefully I can express my feelings on it clearly.

Caution:  Spoilers ahead.  They’re mostly about the show and not the books, but some content does overlap.

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

The scene I heard so much about, and I’m sure many people have heard about by now since I’m coming to it a bit late, is the rape of Sansa Stark. I guess after hearing so much about the scene, which has been called gratuitous and considered a horrible use of screen time, I expected something much more graphic.  Instead I watched, to borrow a term from Terry Pratchett, a “boot scene” – his term for the type of sex scene where you only see boots on the floor next to the bed and hear a squeak of the springs, but that’s quite enough to get the idea across. The sounds and the point of this scene were different, but little more was actually shown.  In a series known for its graphic depictions of sex and violence (including sexual violence), this scene was actually pretty tame, visually.  I found myself wondering why people were so upset over it.

Now, that is the part where I feel like I need to really clarify.  Yes, we are watching a world rife with extreme violence, where horrible things happen to people daily and are shown to the audience with some pretty shocking visuals.  However, I am not saying that just because what happened to Sansa happened less graphically, people shouldn’t be upset about it.  The horrible things that happen to other characters, more visible or not, do not negate the horrible things that happen to another character off-screen. People should be upset about a woman being raped, and I’m glad that they are.

What I question is why it’s this particular scene, and really, only this particular scene, that people seem so angry about.  This, after all, is a world where violence is a fact of life, and while it may not be considered acceptable, it’s considered inevitable.  We are talking about a series where people are regularly beheaded, eviscerated, and murdered or maimed in a hundred different ways – and not in something akin to a boot scene where, for example, a beheading is a shot of head bent over a block, an executioner lifting a sword or axe, and then a shot of an onlooker’s face while the audience hears a swish and a thud. We see plenty of gory details. But the people who are upset over the use of the Sansa scene don’t seem to take as much offense to these scenes of violence and death.

For a moment, it seemed possible that people were only objecting to sexual violence, but that idea quickly lost its appeal as an explanation. There has been plenty of sexual violence in the series to this point.  The maiming of Theon Greyjoy was particularly disturbing, for one.  Cersei was raped in a scene that also caused controversy, as some questioned whether that situation counted as rape (hint: she tried to stop it – several times). After the mutiny by the Night’s Watch, the mutineers openly raped Craster’s wives and daughters. Why did these events not receive the same reaction? It’s even a common topic of conversation – women don’t always willingly consent to marriage, but once married the expectation is that the marriage will be consummated regardless of her opinion on the matter.

I suppose I’m making this show sound like a terrible mess of violence, and in some ways it is, but, like all fantasy, it’s really about the humanity of the people in these situations.  I find some of the scenes gratuitous, and sure, part of that is for ratings, but I also see that the violent scenes (if not the sex, but I know an argument could be made) help bring home the magnitude of what these people are going through.  Saying it and hinting at it are one way to describe violence, but showing it presents a different level of emotion. They are not, however, generally glorifications of violence, because the graphic visuals show the horror of the situation.  Likewise, the treatment of Sansa doesn’t glorify rape; it shows how horrible it is for her, and it’s supposed to be disturbing.  If people weren’t disturbed by it, that would be a much greater cause for concern.

Whether or not I personally approve of the show’s overall strategies for portraying violence is immaterial to this discussion, though – we are talking about a specific scene and its effect on a group who is, for the most part, seemingly able to accept the level of graphic representation in the rest of the show, but who found that this one particular scene went too far, and about why this specific scene caused that break. I’m certain they found other violent scenes disturbing, too, but this is the one that upset people enough to make them feel the need to speak out.

Overall, the scene was in keeping with the story arc. Sansa, and her virginity, represented some last beacon of innocence in the show’s world.  That innocence was beginning to hide behind a much stronger exterior, thanks to her treatment at the hands of the Lannisters, but she was still innocent enough to be manipulated by Little Finger.  She just wanted to go home, to be safe, and she thought for a long time that she could – and that hope and belief in sanctuary was taken from her when her innocence was, in so many ways, lost.  For me, this was the point of the scene. It’s a version of the second act of a trilogy, where everything ends badly and we see how horrible things are – the darkness before the dawn.  This is Sansa’s darkness, and just now there is no sign of dawn.

Perhaps the loss of that innocence is the reason this scene is so upsetting.  Sansa is a familiar character, and certainly a sympathetic one.  Cersei is nearly as far from sympathetic as possible, and Theon, at the point of his own torture, wasn’t far behind her. While the things that happened to them were awful and certainly evoked a horrified reaction, it is harder to feel empathy for characters we don’t want to relate to. Craster’s wives were not familiar to the audience, so they didn’t evoke the same empathy, either. But Sansa is the little girl we watched grow up, and we saw everything she went through and maybe even felt protective of her. Despite it all, we still had hope that she could come out of it holding on to some part of the girl she was before her father died.  Being assaulted repeatedly in the place that is supposed to be her sanctuary took her hope from her, and maybe ours, too.

Whatever people are thinking and feeling, I’m glad this scene has ignited a conversation. That’s what literature and theatrical arts are supposed to do, and sexual violence is certainly an area where more understanding and empathy are always welcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s