'Game of Thrones': When does sensationalism lose viewers?

Following a controversial rape scene on the newest episode of 'Thrones,' many fans are objecting to the sequence and some are saying they're done with the show for good. This isn't the first time depictions of sexual violence on the show have angered viewers.

Keith Bernstein/HBO
'Game of Thrones' stars Sophie Turner.

The popular HBO series “Game of Thrones” has angered many fans following the airing of a scene that includes a rape. 

The sequence is only the newest in various scenes with sexual violence that have turned off viewers.

In the most recent “Thrones” episode, which aired on Sunday May 17, the character Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) married the sadistic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). Ramsay then raped Sansa on her wedding night. 

Last year, the show also divided fans after an episode included Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) having sex with his sister, Cersei (Lena Headey). The two had previously been romantically involved but many fans felt Headey’s character did not consent during the scene. “Yes, of course that was rape on last night’s ‘Game of Thrones,’” Vulture writer Margaret Lyons wrote at the time. “If there's a point at which we're supposed to believe this is anything other than nonconsensual sex, I don't know what it could be.” 

Some fans were troubled all the way back in season one when the character Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) had sex with her husband that someone believed was not consensual. A.V. Club writer Sonia Saraiya wrote, “The other significant rape scene in the series happens in the pilot, when Daenerys Targaryen is sold in marriage … Much has been made of the fact that Dany falls in love with [her husband] Drogo, despite that initial rape.”

For some, the incident involving Sansa was the last straw. US Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri, for one, tweeted,

And Jill Pantozzi of the website The Mary Sue wrote that “we will no longer be promoting HBO’s Game of Thrones” following the newest episode.

Part of the debate occurred because the incident didn’t occur in the Game of Thrones books (at least not with Sansa – another character is the subject of sexual assault in a similar incident). For some, this was the basis of their objection to the plot development as well as a belief that the incident didn’t need to be in the narrative.

“Rape is not a necessary plot device,” Pantozzi wrote. “In this particular instance, rape is not necessary to Sansa’s character development (she’s already overcome abusive violence at the hands of men); it is not necessary to establish Ramsay as a bad guy (we already know he is); it is not necessary to prove 'how bad things were for women' ('Game of Thrones' exists in a fictional universe, and we already know it’s exceptionally patriarchal)… As far as character growth goes, Sansa has been in this exact narrative place before.” (Sansa was already subject to abuse and humiliation at the hands of the former king of the country, Joffrey.)

Washington Post writer Chris Cillizza agreed. “What does this rape scene tell us about either Ramsay Bolton or Sansa Stark that we don't know already?” Mr. Cillizza wrote.

For her part, Ms. Turner told Entertainment Weekly, “When I read that scene, I kinda loved it… It was all so messed up.” Of fans’ possible objections of “How can they do this to Sansa?,” Turner said, “I completely agree with them!... But I kind of like the fact she doesn’t really know what a psycho he is until that night. She has a sense, but she’s more scared of his father.”

“Thrones” producer Bryan Cogman told EW, “This is ‘Game of Thrones.’ This isn’t a timid little girl walking into a wedding night with Joffrey. This is a hardened woman making a choice and she sees this as the way to get back her homeland. Sansa has a wedding night in the sense she never thought she would with one of the monsters of the show. It’s pretty intense and awful and the character will have to deal with it.” Mr. Cogman later tweeted, 

And some viewers believed the sequence was needed, like Slate writer Laura Bradley, who wrote, “Game of Thrones may have a history of mishandling rape, but this particular scene was necessary. And, unlike some of the others, it was treated with appropriate gravity: as an act of war… Sansa’s rape was, indeed, as predictable as it was painful. But it’s also a pain Sansa must have predicted would happen, and one that she knew she could withstand, in service of her larger goal,” which could be, Ms. Bradley suggested, taking down the family of her new husband.

The question is, when will sexual violence on the show become too much for some viewers? According to Variety, “Thrones” passed “The Sopranos” to claim the title of the most popular HBO show ever back in 2014. But with the depictions of sexual violence piling up, viewers seem to be getting more and more frustrated.

Those behind the scenes at “Thrones” may further address the growing criticisms and weigh more carefully what they’re including in the show, particularly when it strays from the source material. But for some fans, it's too little, too late.

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