Sexual violence as a literary device in A Song of Ice and Fire

As a follow up to my post last week on A Song of Ice and Fire and the issue of rape on television, it turns out that Tumblr user Tafkar did an analysis of all of the rape scenes in the books and the television show. Here’s the quick overview of what they found.

Rape acts in Game of Thrones the TV series (to date): 50
Rape victims in Game of Thrones (to date): 29

Rape acts in ASOIAF the book series (to date): 214
Rape victims in ASOIAF (to date): 117

The books contain over 4 times as much rape as the show (and probably even more; the method of analysis likely underestimates the rape in the books).

You can look in the link above for more detail, but be warned, they included somewhat graphic descriptions of some of the things they were discussing, so maybe cuddle a stuffed animal while you read it or just wait until you are in a strong place before going through the whole thing.

I had two thoughts when I was reading Tafkar’s analysis of the preponderance of rape in the books versus the series.

Thought #1: Wow! It’s not just HBO that has a rape problem, George RR Martin has a rape problem too!
Thought #2: I really didn’t remember half the rapes that happened in the books until this person reminded me…

I still stand by the idea that HBO has a rape problem that needs to be addressed. Titillating viewers with scenes of sexual violence or using said sexual violence to turn women into steel-hearted warriors is problematic in the extreme. But then I’ve said all that before.

My new problem now lies with the fact that I genuinely didn’t remember most of the scenes of rape that were mentioned in the books. I think there are two things happening there. The first thing is that GRRM’s prose is so ponderous and agonizing that I did, at times, skip whole pages of exposition in order to keep from falling asleep. So it is likely that I missed one or two rapes in the process. And the second thing that is happening there is that GRRM uses rape so frequently as a set dressing for other, “more important,” things that I became blind to it as a serious recurring theme.

In a way, this sort of mirrors everyday culture. Rape and the culture surrounding rape are so ubiquitous that most people reacting to it with anything more than a shrug seems a rarity nowadays (see shows like SVU for an example of how little fucks are given about sexual violence on television). Between reading stories of female comics who are regularly sexually harassed and even assaulted by their male colleagues while doing their jobs and hearing horror stories from women who have worked in the sex industry about the exploitation that arises in that kind of work. Shit, even just sitting around and talking with friends so often leads to stories about how regularly they are harassed or groped by men on the street, or how many of them have histories of having endured sexual violence. Being surrounded by it every day is a terrible reality of the lives of so many women that my heart sometimes can’t handle it and I just give up and watch a Disney movie.

With all of that, having rape be included in entertainment as some kind of “fun” or meaningful backdrop for male heroism is just a step too far. Anita Sarkeesian did an excellent analysis of this particular trope in video games (that you should totally watch when you have an hour if you haven’t already), but I think that you can apply what she is talking about in those videos to what we see going on in television and books all the time.

One of the biggest arguments that I get in defense of rape in GRRM’s work (either screen or text) are citing some kind of “historical accuracy.” To that I say this:

First of all, I must have missed the part of history that covered goddamn dragons and white walkers. Which, you know, somebody needs to fill me in on, because I am missing out.

Second of all, if you are defending rape used as a lazy writing trope in order to push men to do stuff or to harden women enough so that they can do stuff, you are barking up the wrong goddamn tree with me. The laziness of your favorite writer is not my problem.

Which brings me to my final point. I know rape has happened throughout history. I have a history degree. I know that rape still happens today. I would have to live in a hole to not know that. But here’s the thing: the writers of any given world get to make the rules for that world. They get to show you the things that are happening within it. They can use any manner of things in order to fan the flames of your loyalty with their characters. In other words, just because rape happened doesn’t mean they have to use it. Using rape is a choice. Using rape frequently and with seeming relish is also a choice. It is a choice writers like GRRM and the writers at HBO continue to make. And it is the wrong choice.

Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to think really hard about why they are working so intently on propping up and defending the use of sexual violence against the protests of so many.

GoT Spoiler Alert: Rape

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I would call it a spoiler alert if we didn’t all know that it was coming. It’s not so much a spoiler alert as it is a given. Which is depressing.

I should preface what follows by saying that I did not watch the recent Game of Thrones episode wherein yet another decent character gets raped. I didn’t watch it for the same reason that I have not watched the show so far: because I have already done enough harm to my psyche by reading the books. Why on earth would I want to watch again the unsatisfying non-conclusion of hours of torture and severing of limbs and heads and moral compasses? At least a book doesn’t let me hear every excruciating detail of what is being described to me.

It was around the time when Reek came on the scene that I had to put down George RR Martin’s endlessly tormented series and never pick it up again. I did this for several reasons. First of all, after reading four books in the series, I was starting to get really irritated by the torture that was going on, both emotional and physical. Second of all, the description of what was happening to that poor man was egregious and overwhelming in so many ways. It was easily the worst thing that I had read in the series. And finally, and most importantly, I knew there wasn’t going to be any pay off.

Now I know what you’re thinking, we don’t always need a Hollywood Ending where the Hero gets revenge on the Dude Who Wronged Him. And I agree with you. And denying the hero that chance is fine. It’s good, even. Challenging the easy outcome in works of fiction is a really good, powerful thing to do. My problem with GRRM is that he has written over 5,000 pages of A Song of Ice and Fire, and the chief theme seems to be that the bad guys are going to just kill and fuck up everything that you like with no discernible consequences. I mean, yea, they might kinda be worse people afterward? But they still have money and power and they still keep using it to destroy everything that you love. And after 5,000 pages, that tactic is draining, disheartening, and honestly makes me never want to read a word written by the man ever again.

Needless to say, the combination of GRRM and rape-happy HBO did not leave me thrilled at the prospect of the television series. I watched the first episode or two because I, like many people, could not resist the lure of the lush fantasy world I had invested so much time in being projected on a screen so that I could really see it. I will also admit to being drawn to garbage television, because that is a very real thing in my life.

Needless to say, I was not surprised in the least when they decided to rape Sansa in the show. I mean, how else were they going to make sure that she suffered? Having her father beheaded in front of her and his head paraded around by her sadistic and insane fiance wasn’t bad enough, clearly. Neither was being publicly beaten and humiliated by that fiance. Or being accused of murdering that same dude (which, to be fair, I totally would have actually done). Or having her uncle creep on her. Or being nearly thrown to her death by her insane aunt. Nope. A real strong female character is made strong by the introduction of a man’s penis forcibly inside her. Nothing more, nothing less.

The problem that I have with rape as a plot device is that it feeds into this idea that women need to suffer a specific type of trauma in order to become heroines. They cannot be considered serious contenders unless they have been broken and dehumanized by other characters first, which is, to me, totally unacceptable.

On top of this entire pile of issues with rape as a plot device, the idea that a woman has to be changed into the best version of herself after being brutally violated by a man lights my blood on fire. Like oh, wait, she can’t have just gone through some serious shit, she needs to have a dick inside her before she really decides to play the game. It all goes hand in hand with the idea that women are somehow fundamentally changed – and by “changed,” I mean “devalued” – when they lose their virginity. Which is, of course, horse shit of the highest order.

And if rape isn’t being used in order to destroy a woman enough so that she can be justified in her role as a cut throat contender for The Big Plot Thing of a given story, it’s being used in order to motivate a male character to kill other men so that he can be a contender for The Big Plot Thing. So women are either raped into being cutthroat contenders, or raped as a plot device to anger men enough into making change happen.

Good. Great. Glad we covered all of that. And you wonder why we need feminism.

TL; DR: Rape as a plot device is lazy, played out, sensationalist, ratings-hungry bullshit.

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