This piece contains spoilers for the Game Of Thrones episode “The Last of the Starks.” It also discusses rape and sexual violence.
Game of Thrones has never been good at writing women. In “The Last of the Starks,” creators Benioff and Weiss delivered yet another tone-deaf spectacular, as well as an unintentional seminar on the necessity of inclusive writing rooms and creative teams. In fact, in one fleeting exchange between Sansa (Sophie Turner) and The Hound (Rory McCann), the show managed to revisit their highly critiqued penchant for rape and sexual violence, somehow making it worse.
According to RAINN, “1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.” I’m not American, but I have been raped. And while rape is something so abjectly awful that happens to so many people, it’s also one of the most overused and mishandled tropes in pop culture. Game of Thrones has often fallen into the trap of using rape as a punishment for women or as a way to show that a man is really, really evil. It’s never been nuanced or thoughtful, and because of that Game of Thrones’ use of sexual violence has always been exploitative at worst and completely unnecessary at best.
During season five of the Emmy-winning show, Sansa was raped by Ramsay Bolton. The chance to explore the dynamics of marital rape and the insidious nature of sexual abuse was ignored. Instead, we got one gratuitous scene used to highlight Ramsay’s evil and how much the act devastated Sansa’s old friend, Theon, whose face was the focus of the shot for most of the scene. Not centering abuse victims in our own stories is always a recipe for questionable and inauthentic storytelling that struggles to land, and it’s something Thrones has fallen foul to time and time again.
Audiences love a story about a survivor, and due to much of Western media tethering to a male worldview, one of the best fknown survival archetypes is that of the raped woman. It’s a cliche of epidemic proportions, from Sally Jupiter in Watchmen and Sue Dibny in Identity Crisis to the rape-revenge trend of films like I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left. There are many examples of women characters whose strength is said to have originated from sexual assault. During “The Last of the Starks,” Game of Thrones added that to their laundry list of questionable writing choices featuring women, as Sansa gave her abusers the credit for her strength.
In an exchange with the Hound, who expresses regret for not having taken Sansa from King’s Landing to save her from being “broken in rough” (massive eye roll), “the smartest woman” in the Seven Kingdoms revealed that she was grateful she hadn’t gone with him. She says that without the abusive men in her life, she would never have become the strong woman that she is today.
Not only is it desperately lazy writing that comes straight from The Student Filmmaker Who Loves Quentin Tarantino Guidebook, but it’s also a slap in the face to survivors. We are strong before we are raped; we are strong after we are raped. The reason that we can survive rape at all is because of our own strength. We are strong in spite of the things that happen to us, not because of them. Sansa’s apparent gratitude to her captors, abusers, and former partners is not just ignorant, it’s dangerous. It feeds the idea that men are actually doing us a favor by raping us because, of course, in the long run, it makes us stronger.
The trope of traumatized women being the only ones who are strong is not only boring, it’s patently offensive, and in the case of Sansa it’s also just narratively wrong. Over the seven and a half seasons of Game of Thrones, Sansa has gone from a little girl who was intentionally written as unlikeable and petty to one of the strongest minds in the Seven Kingdoms. That transformation has been one of the most engaging on the show, as the young woman has learned how to play the titular game by observing the players, biding her time, and ultimately making smart choices.
To now explain that character development away by claiming it never would have come to be if she hadn’t been tortured by men is ridiculous. Ramsay taught her nothing, except likely how pleasant vengeance can feel. She also easily beat Little Finger at his own game and escaped Joffrey, outliving all three of the men who tried to break and own her. As with so many of this season’s problems, this was another throwaway moment that actually had massive ramifications on a beloved character; it changed the shape of Sansa and her journey in under a minute.
Game of Thrones has always had a problem with representing women and sex, both consensual and rape, and this episode peaked with Sansa’s retcon and the strange inclusion of Brienne of Tarth’s virginity. Even in a long-awaited moment of intimacy with Jaime, she couldn’t be an equal partner or part of the situation, with the societal myth of virginity suddenly a proverbial albatross around her neck. At least there, though, Brienne has some agency. For Sansa, sex has only been something done to her, and even as she embarks on the final steps of her journey she isn’t allowed to separate her success from the men who have hurt her.