George R.R. Martin spoke with EW the other day to answer some questions about Game of Thrones in the wake of several weeks of outrage and disappointment over the show’s constant depictions of violence against women.
Most recently, the show has been criticized for orchestrating the rape of Sansa Stark by Ramsay Bolton (in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”) and for the attempted rape of Gilly (in “The Gift”) by members of the Night’s Watch. Both of these scenes are departures from the source material. Although Sansa’s scene is based on events from Theon’s chapters in the books, it means that all of Sansa’s book storyline has been abandoned in favor of sacrificing show!Sansa on the altar of Theon’s development. The attempted rape of Gilly has no analogue in the books at all; in A Feast for Crows Sam and Gilly are finally driven together mostly by their shared grief of Maester Aemon’s death.
The thing is, both the books and the show have always been full of violence, and violence against women in particular. There’s seldom any female character in the books who isn’t raped or under near-constant threat of rape. Although it can be much more viscerally upsetting to see this kind of violence on screen as opposed to reading about it, the show is really not significantly more rape-filled than the books. However, while GRRM makes some mistakes in his handling of gendered violence in ASOIAF, the show manages to do a pretty disastrous job of portraying it responsibly and sensitively on television.
An argument that is constantly trotted out in defense of the show’s (and books’) heavy reliance on gendered violence is that, well, things were just like that back then. You know. Back then. When the Seven Kingdoms were at war and dragons were hatching for the first time in centuries and ice zombies were threatening from north of the Wall.
While GRRM’s EW statement isn’t quite as disingenuous as all that, it’s basically a more sophisticated, slightly better thought out version of it, and he even addresses this particular criticism:
“Now there are people who will say to that, ‘Well, he’s not writing history, he’s writing fantasy—he put in dragons, he should have made an egalitarian society.’ Just because you put in dragons doesn’t mean you can put in anything you want. If pigs could fly, then that’s your book. But that doesn’t mean you also want people walking on their hands instead of their feet. If you’re going to do [a fantasy element], it’s best to only do one of them, or a few. I wanted my books to be strongly grounded in history and to show what medieval society was like, and I was also reacting to a lot of fantasy fiction. Most stories depict what I call the ‘Disneyland Middle Ages’—there are princes and princesses and knights in shining armor, but they didn’t want to show what those societies meant and how they functioned.”
Well, and all this is mostly true. I love ASOIAF, and one of the things I love about it is how real the world is. However, it’s not the violence that makes it feel real.
On rape in particular, GRRM had this to say:
“And then there’s the whole issue of sexual violence, which I’ve been criticized for as well. I’m writing about war, which what almost all epic fantasy is about. But if you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that. Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today. It’s not a strong testament to the human race, but I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Again, true, as far as it goes. But that’s not actually very far. I feel like GRRM is defending himself and his work very well against a straw man here.
Most of the problems people have with Game of Thrones and ASOIAF are not out of some squeamish objection to seeing reality. Most people are not altogether opposed to the portrayal of rape in fiction. What people object to is the show’s history of turning consensual sex scenes in the books into rape on the show (Dany’s wedding night in season one, Cersei and Jaime in the Sept in season four). People object to the addition of nonsensical scenes of not just sexual violence, but disgustingly sexualized sexual violence (Ros’s murder in season three, Craster’s Keep in season four). People object to a beloved major character (Sansa) having her entire story cut from the show so she can be inserted into the place of a minor character (Jeyne Poole) whose suffering is used in the books to further the story of a man (Theon). People object to the use of sexual violence as an aphrodisiac (Sam and Gilly in season five). People especially object to the cavalier and tone deaf responses of the show’s writers, actors, and directors regarding these criticisms, and people object to the show continuing to make the same mistakes over and over and over again.
Right now, I object to GRRM’s failure to own his own authorial decisions. I object to his seeming reluctance to take responsibility for his own work and his apparent inability to even understand the complaints being levied against him. He ends his remarks at EW with this:
“I want to portray struggle. Drama comes out of conflict. If you portray a utopia, then you probably wrote a pretty boring book.”
As if there are only two options here: rape or boredom. Because, goodness knows, writing about rape responsibly, thoughtfully, and with sensitivity is just out of the question.