On a talk show appearance, George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels (the inspiration for HBO’s Game of Thrones) was once asked where his ability to write interesting women into his novels comes from. Martin famously responded, “You know, I’ve always considered women to be people.”
It’s a funny, simple response to a question that shouldn’t even have to be asked in 2015. We’re still living in a world where interesting female characters with some actual depth in mainstream media are the exception rather than the rule.
Think I’m wrong? Consider the Bechdel Test. For a movie/book/show to pass the test, it must have:
- At least two women
- Who talk to each other
- About something other than a man.
There are many limitations with this test, of course. It isn’t really an indicator of the quality of a piece of entertainment, and there are still many opportunities for a movie/show to be sexist while still passing the test. But when examined for trends rather than individual results, there are an alarming number of movies that fail this simple test.
The point is Martin has long been known for developing interesting female characters without having to resort to cheap storytelling methods or stereotypes.
You can understand the concern of people familiar with Martin’s writing, then, when they analyze the controversial events that occurred at the end of the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
[If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read past this point.]
Season 5 of Game of Thrones is diverging from the novels to an extent not previously seen in the television series. There are no bigger examples of this than the storyline involving Sansa Stark and the Boltons at Winterfell.
Let’s give a bit of a recap of what’s happened in the show so far with Sansa this season.
She and Littlefinger traveled to Winterfell, where Littlefinger revealed his plan to have her wed the evil, torturous Ramsay Bolton. When Stannis inevitably invades Winterfell and takes out the Boltons, she will be rescued and declared Warden of the North.
However, while Ramsay initially plays nice, his true side eventually comes out. At the end of this most recent episode, he consummates his arranged marriage to Sansa by raping her, forcing Theon to stay and watch. The show closed with a closeup on Theon’s shellshocked face.
I’ll get to a closer analysis of this later, but first, let’s take a look at how these events (created by showrunners David Benioff and Daniel Weiss) differ from what’s written by Martin in the novels.
In the novels, Sansa is still in the Vale with Littlefinger, receiving some much-needed practical training on how to be a proactive, intelligent “chess master” figure like Littlefinger himself rather than a passive, vulnerable victim. She has not returned to Winterfell, and there isn’t an indication that such a return is coming in the near future.
Meanwhile, the Boltons rule in Winterfell, and to legitimize themselves as Wardens of the North, they “find” Arya Stark (a fake, actually Sansa’s childhood friend Jeyne Poole) and wed her to Ramsay. After Ramsay and “Arya” wed, Ramsay forces Theon to “prepare” his new bride by performing sexual acts on her first, against his will.
Neither of these situations is exactly pleasant (though anything being pleasant is something you’ll rarely find in A Song of Ice and Fire). But the way the showrunners chose to change the storyline and deal with this situation poses a number of problems.
Most concerning for a number of critics is the fact that this is the third (!) time the showrunners have decided to write in a rape of one of the main female characters that did not actually occur in the novels (Daenerys, Cersei and now Sansa). While the showrunners certainly have the right to take liberties with Martin’s bloated storylines, what could possibly be the reason for deciding to add in so much sexual violence when it is completely unnecessary for these characters?
In this latest case of Sansa Stark, there are only three potential reasons for doing so, none of which are excusable in my eyes.
First, the writers could be using the rape scene as a way to further demonstrate the cruelty and unbridled evil of Ramsay Bolton. However, one has to feel this is pretty well-worn territory at this point with everything he has done to Theon and his other female victims so far.
Second, the writers could using the rape scene to build to Reek/Theon’s eventual breaking point when he lashes out and kills/attempts to kill Ramsay (something that has not yet happened in the books).
The obvious problem with the first two possible reasons is that it makes the rape of Sansa about the men rather than the victim. If the showrunners are really using Sansa’s rape to build the storyline of either Theon or Ramsay, then it’s, at best, insensitive and ignorant on their part. It also delegitimizes the anguish experienced by people who have actually been raped, because the rape is used as a plot device rather than a key character point.
My concern is that they’ve chosen that second option, because of the way the show closed with a close-up on Theon. The acting in that scene by Alfie Allen was fantastic, but the scene never should have been made to be about Theon in the first place. This is a scene in which Sansa is being forced to consummate her marriage with the son of the man responsible for the death of her mother and older brother, and they choose to focus on Theon? Makes zero sense.
The third possible reason for writing in the scene is that the writers are using the rape scene as a way to build on Sansa’s character, creating sympathy for her before she ultimately gains strength and lays the smack down on the Boltons. The problem with this, however, is that it is a huge
step backward in the story arc that has been building for Sansa. She’s already escaped from the violent, abusive Joffrey Baratheon. She went through a physical transformation in season 4 by dying her hair, which was symbolic of a new beginning for her character, a woman who was going to be better able to adapt to her surroundings and make power moves of her own, rather than a girl who was a pawn in the games of powerful men throughout Westeros.
It’s not a coincidence that in the very same episode where Sansa had the dye washed out of her hair, symbolizing a return of the Sansa Stark we knew, her character arc also regressed by about three seasons.
There really is no defending this decision by Benioff and Weiss. There have been enough words written across the internet about the pair’s resorting to rape as a plot device in multiple instances now. There’s a reason why Martin didn’t write these passages into his book — they’re cheap ways to garner sympathy for female characters without having to actually try to make them compelling of their own accord.
But beyond the cheap, shallow nature of the writing here, it shows a significant lack of respect for the female characters of the series in general. A Song of Ice and Fire is regularly praised for the depth of its women, including Margaery and Olenna Tyrell, the Stark women and Cersei Lannister, who I believe to be the best written character of the series.
Decisions like this by Benioff and Weiss almost seem to spit in the face of Martin and what he has accomplished with his writing. Now that the show and the books are diverging more than ever before, their limitations as writers are obvious, and the gaffes with female characters aren’t limited to Sansa. They’ve changed the story of Margaery Tyrell’s imprisonment to be more about her brother’s sexual promiscuity than her own (in the book it’s implied she has engaged in premarital sex with a number of suitors, which is not taken kindly to by the Faith Militant). Do the showrunners think we’ll have more sympathy for her when she’s imprisoned for standing up for her brother than because she dared to show some sexual agency?
Let’s not even get into what Benioff and Weiss have done with the Sand Snakes (now dubbed the “Bland Snakes” for their horribly clichéd television monologues).
The more Game of Thrones ventures into territory yet to be covered by the books, the more flaws like these are exposed. It’s a concerning trend to be sure.
Tim Backes is an editor and founder of NovaCritic.com