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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Seeing Red-ux

This post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for BtVS Season 6, for book 5 of ASOIAF, and for S5, E6 of Game of Thrones.

I chose the post title for the obvious reason that I’m going to discuss the attempted rape scene in the episode Seeing Red and the actual rape of Sansa Stark – she of the red hair – in the GoT episode Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken. The hyphen splits the word "redux" because I can't resist a pun and "ux", in Latin, is a common abbreviation for "uxor", meaning "wife". As I discussed in my post on Seeing Red, that episode was extraordinarily controversial, and the rape of Sansa Stark has generated a similar level of controversy. I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to read the various reactions to Sansa’s rape and to formulate some ideas of my own, but my thoughts here will necessarily be incomplete because the consequences of the rape have yet to play out.

I’ll begin with a point that seems to distract some viewers, namely whether it’s proper to call Sansa’s experience “rape”. The argument against doing so is that the sex took place after her wedding, and the law/culture of the fictional universe (and the actual Middle Ages) would therefore not consider this rape. This strikes me as technically accurate but too narrowly focused. Yes, at that time and until fairly recently, a husband could not legally rape his wife. But the fact that the legal system wouldn’t hear a charge, doesn’t mean people living in those times would have approved any and all abuses by the husbands. Ramsay’s behavior towards Sansa was unusually cruel even by the standards of the show, because he forced Theon to watch and was then very rough to her. Since in my view the people of that fictional world would have disapproved of his actions, though they might not use the word “rape”, I have no trouble calling it that and I’m going to use the term throughout. Bear in mind, though, that the specific term is not crucial to my argument; if it bothers you that much, just mentally substitute the word “abuse”.

The bigger dispute I saw on line was whether the rape was gratuitous. At the point I’m writing this I think that conclusion is premature, though it could be proved true depending on what happens in the remaining episodes. My judgment is that “gratuitous” – which I understand to mean “without purpose except to shock the audience” – will prove to be the wrong term. In the books, the treatment of Jeyne Poole, whose story has become Sansa’s in the show, served to motivate Theon’s attempted redemption (“attempted” because his story isn’t over yet). I think it’s likely that the rape of Sansa will have at least this effect on Theon.

If that turns out to be the only impact of the rape, I’ll be extremely critical. In my view, it’s dubious, to say the least, to use the abuse of a female character as the motivation for a man’s redemption arc. It’s not that this doesn’t happen in the real world – it might very well – but (a) it’s an old trope in literature (see the rape of Lucretia); and (b) it subordinates the female role to that of the male’s. The latter is less of a problem in the books, where Theon is a much more significant character than Jeyne Poole, though I still found it problematic. But switching from Jeyne to Sansa, in turn a much more important character than Theon, changes the dynamics of the situation entirely. While it's hard to justify using the rape of any female character to further a man's arc, there’s no justification at all, in my view, for using the brutal rape of a more important female character for the sole purpose of motivating a less important male one.

This brings me to Seeing Red. Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy was introduced in the episode for the express purpose of motivating his decision to reclaim his soul. If you review my post, I had lots of criticisms of the scene, but not that one. I don’t think Seeing Red deserves that particular criticism because it resolved when Buffy exercised her own determination, agency and strength to stop the assault. So while the attempt did motivate Spike, it also reinforced Buffy’s superior character.

It’s possible, of course, that the rape in UUU will further Sansa’s own arc in an important way. I’m skeptical that the show will pull this off successfully; certainly nothing of what we saw in that scene demonstrated any particular strength by Sansa, not even the strength that sometimes comes from yielding. The trope that “being raped makes you stronger” is both factually dubious and pretty much a cliché at this point. In my view, it’s not much better than a purely gratuitous rape, as long as there was some other way to demonstrate the woman’s character development. I think there was an alternative in this case, which I’ll offer below.

I saw some arguments on line that there had to be a rape because nothing else would have been consistent with Ramsay’s well-established character. Without debating the details of that assumption, it rests on the further assumption of the immediate wedding we saw in the show. As book readers will recall, the wedding of Ramsay and Jeyne Poole (a fake Arya Stark) included the invitation to all the Northern Lords to attend. The book doesn’t explain the reasons why the Boltons would do this, but it’s fairly easy to identify the most important: Fake Arya was supposed to carry the Stark heritage and legitimize the Bolton claim to Winterfell. The Boltons needed witnesses to the validity of the marriage in order to assert that claim. Getting all those Lords to Winterfell takes time.

Now, let’s suppose that instead of the rushed wedding we saw with Sansa, she had convinced the Boltons to postpone the wedding until the Northern Lords could see for themselves that she was voluntarily committing herself to the Bolton cause. Her case for the delay would be much stronger than that for the actual delay we saw in the books: Fake Arya was given to the Boltons by the crown, conforming to Medieval notions of wardship, whereas Sansa came to Winterfell via Littlefinger, who had no right to control her marriage; Sansa had previously married Tyrion, so everyone, including especially the Boltons, would need assurance that her marriage to Ramsay wasn’t bigamous and therefore incapable of conveying the Stark claim; the Boltons have a, um, reputation in the North and the other Lords would need to see that Sansa’s commitment was free and voluntary in order to accept the Boltons as successors to the Starks.

I think this sequence is both more consistent with the books and gives Sansa agency in the whole process. But there are more benefits. Sansa could use the delay to exercise her burgeoning talent and pit Myranda against Ramsay and Ramsay against Roose. She could rally her supporters in the North, including Brienne and perhaps even Stannis. This could probably be written plausibly to make any marriage unnecessary, but if it were, Sansa could agree to it in order to motivate a rebellion against the Boltons.

Well, we all like our own ideas best, but I think my story line grants agency to Sansa, coheres better with the books, and eliminates the problematic aspects of the rape.


  1. I still say a better story for Sansa, that would have had her exercise more agency, would have instead been for Ramsey to "woo" her in his way, by trying to get her into torture and sadism.

    Part of his treatment of Jeyne, comes from how she reinforces his inadequacies, by not being a true Stark, she undermines Ramsay's attempt to no longer view himself as "just a bastard". Now, Sansa, being highborn, can of course reinforce those inadequacies in her own way(another thing that I miss about her book story is how living as a lowborn gives her a new sense of humility), but I would rather have enjoyed a story where Ramsay actually tried to get Sansa to like him.

    It would have been incredible tension, because EVERYONE, book readers or no, would have been nervous as hell waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    Plus, scenes of Ramsay attempting to "seduce" Sansa to sadism, and her trying to manipulate him into killing his father so she can have him tried for patricide, would have been so much better than watching Sophie Turner alternate from tears to ice queen. I'd have liked watching her and Rheon try to charm one another, she did great in her completely OOC scenes with Tyrion.

    1. I'd have no problem with that story line either, though I'm not sure I can see Sansa as Mistress of Pain :). I suspect that there are lots of good potential stories; you've come up with at least 2 so far. The only thing I can say about the actual show is that it hasn't become as bad (yet) as I feared.

  2. I stopped watching Game of Thrones right before this episode because I heard this was going to happen and didn't want to watch. Personally, this event is particularly cringe-worthy because I've been spending years defending Sansa against the book fandom who generally hate her and casually wish rape/murder/abuse on her constantly. I guess those people are feeling satisfied now.

    Honestly, maybe this is harsh, but I think we may be giving the show-runners too much credit thinking up better plots that accomplish whatever it was they were trying to do, as if they had a plausible motivation. They've dropped the ball before, hard, when it comes to rape and gratuitous violence against women. For me, Sansa was the last straw.

    As I've completely abandoned the show, I don't know what happens later. I do know they wrote in Jamie raping Cersei for some reason, and then carried on with their relationship and characterizations as if nothing had happened (which doesn't give me much confidence in their ability to deal with the Sansa mess they've written themselves into). And now Jamie is a flawed (?) hero that I'm supposed to root for in sword fights? And then I'm torn because I love Jamie in the books for his faithfulness and fierce defence of his family, and so do I, like D&D, just pretend the rape didn't happen and turn my brain/gag-reflex off and just enjoy his quippy come-backs?

    Buffy never put me in a position where I felt like I had to do that. I may have criticisms of SR, but the two shows are just on separate playing fields. They don't even compare.

    1. I'm pretty sympathetic to your view, particularly since the Sansa arc ended up playing out just as predicted. I do still watch the show, but I have to compartmentalize aspects of it. In part I can do that because Arya's my favorite character and the kinds of problems you mention don't affect her story. Yet, at least.

      And yeah, Seeing Red has plenty of problems, but neither the tone-deaf writing of the Jaime/Cersei scene nor the purely gratuitous quality of the Sansa arc this past season. It's a shame, really, because GoT has done some great stuff and many of the actors are just terrific. Never as good as Buffy, though. :)