Last night, Game of Thrones ended its most recent episode with Sansa Stark, oldest surviving child of the Stark family, reinstated in her family home by virtue of her marriage to Ramsey Bolton, the newly legitimized bastard son of Roose Bolton, the man who annihilated her family. Ramsey celebrated his marriage by raping his new wife (as you do), for no other reason than this is how he gets his jollies. He compounds the rape by forcing his manservant Reek to watch. Reek, for those who don't follow the show, is the alias bestowed by Ramsey on Theon Greyjoy, former ward turned traitor of the Stark family, who murders peasant children and passes them off as noble children in his spare time. This is just the latest in torture and mind games that Reek experiences at the hands of Ramsey, who is generally sadistic to all whose unlucky fate it is to cross paths with him.
Problematically, Game of Thrones frames Ramsey's rape of Sansa (tellingly not the most horrific thing Ramsey has done) as further evidence of how far Ramsey's mental assault of Reek extends. Sansa's horrified expression as she experiences assault from the man she was already loathe to marry pans out to a similar countenance of Reek's before the episode fades to black. Apparently the director/writer felt that the viewers would identify more with Reek's horror as he watches his former foster-sister's violation, than we would with Sansa herself, who has survived being a pawn in the political machinations of powerful men and women for her whole adolescence, only to have her agency stripped away again, in the deepest, most personal way. Notably, the writers and director for this episode were all men.
Rape as narrative device is deplorably overused in popular culture. Want to show a female character is strong? Rape her. Want to show she can be vulnerable? Rape her. Want to make sure she's not so above it all? Rape her. Want an innocent girl to take a level in badass? Rape her. What do Olivia Benson, Lisbeth Salander, Lucrezia Borgia and Veronica Mars have in common? Rape. Even self-declared feminist Joss Whedon proposed raping Inara Serra in his iconic space Western Firefly had the show gone beyond one season, as a way to consummate the unresolved sexual tension between her and main character Mal Reynolds.
Far from being a problem in culture as a whole, Game of Thrones is gregariously fond of this trope. The first season showed Daenaerys Targaryen brutally taken on her wedding night by her warlord husband Khal Drogo, and the penultimate season so far shows Cersei Lannister raped by her brother next to the corpse of their murdered son (no, you didn't read that wrong). Even more glaringly, in A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series that serves as the show's source material, both scenes were consensual (although still disgusting, in Cersei's case). Despite being one of the most popular and dynamically written shows on television, it's a sad commentary that as early as the first season, Game of Thrones' writers felt they couldn't maintain compelling drama based off a best-selling fantasy series without resorting to rape.
Even worse, it appears this most recent character rape will not be used to further Sansa's story, but rather the sordid saga of Reek, who, prior to Ramsey's introduction and with the exception of Joffrey, was the most despicable character on a show filled with them. If the writers are going to go back to the dried-up well of rape, it would behoove them to make Sansa's rape actually about Sansa.
The concept of horrible things happening to women in fiction to further the story of male characters is so ubiquitous it's spawned not only a website, but it's own entry on TV Tropes. Mary Jane Watson from the Spiderman franchise exists simply for her misfortunes to carry Peter Parker's story arc. Yet she is somehow less problematic than Sansa's rape informing Reek's narrative. Game of Thrones has featured an array of main and supporting female characters who boast an array of flaws, strengths, quirks, and adventures. Some are loved characters, some are hated, most fall in a spectrum between, leaving room for those one loves to hate. They are as young as nine, as old as 80 plus, butch, femme, smart, stupid, and beautifully diverse (although they are mostly white, but that's a rant for another time). In short, viewers can appreciate in Game of Thrones the same range in female characters that has been default for male characters since the concept of modern storytelling.
Game of Thrones has the potential to be a masterpiece of feminist storytelling, and has come tantalizingly close, so using the ever-lazy conceit of the rape narrative is comparable to Monet nearing the completion of Water Lilies, and deciding to enhance the beauty of the flowers by painting in a dog turd.
Using a woman's rape to further the arc of a male character is the equivalent of painting the turd with actual shit.