In Game of Thrones, Sansa Stark is trapped in an abusive marriage with a powerful villain.
We all have our guilty pleasures. Some of us like to binge-watch old episodes of Sex and the City, other people indulge in low-budget horror movies or ultra-cheesy musicals. For years, my guilty pleasure has been Game of Thrones.
There are many great parts about Game of Thrones—the actors, the scenery, and the plot are all captivating—but it’s a guilty show for me and many others because of the show’s gratuitous rape scenes, which have been discussed at great length over the show’s five seasons. But after years of wincing at violent plot points, I have to ask: Is it time to walk away from this show?
The trouble with guilty pleasures is that millions of us really genuinely like Game of Thrones and are invested in the story. For a long time, the unnecessary rape and sexual violence outweighed the critical voice in my head that says: “This is messed up.” Every TV show has its flaws and problems, consuming any TV as a feminist means you’ll sometimes find yourself rolling your eyes or tweeting criticisms. But after this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, it feels to many fans like the scales have tipped the other way: The part of me that feels bad while watching the show outweighs the joy I get from it. Game of Thrones feels like it’s no longer worth the trouble.
In this week’s episode, Game of Thrones took us to a violent place, once again—but this time, the sexual violence was even worse. Viewers spent the final moments of the episode, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” listening to Sansa Stark’s scream as she was raped by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton. In another layer of cruelty, her childhood friend and Ramsay’s enslaved servant boy, Theon, is forced to watch from the corner of the room. Viewers could hear the rape but not see it (somewhat of a relief, to be sure) as the camera focused on tears running down Theon’s face. Yesterday, The Mary Sue wrote a piece announcing and explaining that they will no longer be watching or promoting the show. No teasers, no recaps, no reaction essays. A large portion of their essay was dedicated to preempting criticisms of their ban on the basis of “creative freedom.” After expressing my concerns over the episode and my vow to stay away from the shows remaining seasons, some friends told me, “Well what did you expect? It’s Game of Thrones.” There seem to be the two primary reasons for sticking with a problematic show even after its proven themselves to be invested in values that sharply contradict our own. Nasty elements can make for a better plot, and if we’ve already watched so much, why would we back out now?
Last season on Game of Thrones, a scene where Jaime Lannister forces his sister to have sex despite her saying “no” caused outcry among many fans.
Sometimes, the violence in Game of Thrones is used effectively to portray how women and colonized peoples are hurt and exploited in a patriarchal, warring society. At many times, the show does a solid job of creating empathy with characters and showing viewers how violence rends communities apart. The choice of some fans to finally walk away from Game of Thrones is not necessarily a condemnation of the entire project or its viewers. What has happened for many fans of this and other shows, is that the egregious sexual violence has undermined our trust in the show. Instead of helping create empathy and an investment in the characters, several examples of sexual violence in the show have instead felt like a cheap and hurtful way to create drama at the expense of viewers.
Writer Ijeoma Oluo’s recent essay about “problematic faves,” has sparked a lot of excellent discussions about being critical pop culture consumers. It’s important to acknowledge that most of popular media is riddled with problems and deciding to just not watch a show is not always the best option. Events like this week’s episode of Game of Thrones force us to push this idea further and wonder whether or not making note of repeated, wildly uncomfortable scenes is enough to justify commitment to our favorite media. In some cases, merely discussing the flaws does not feel like enough to forgive the flaws. With Game of Thrones, I no longer feel that noticing the problems is enough—I personally don’t want to look at it anymore.
Knowing when to walk away from troublesome shows isn’t always clear-cut, nor is it easy. Some of us can’t stomach Law and Order: SVU but others can genuinely feel okay after reading the rape scenes in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. We don’t need to create universal rules for media consumption, but we do need to start being honest about what we’re willing to tolerate for the sake of entertainment and start to make tough decisions about where we place our support. Mental escapes into pop culture are something we should all enjoy, but not at any cost. In the meantime, I’m on the market for something else to enjoy on Sunday evenings.
Related Reading: Don't Hate on Sansa Stark's Powerful Femininity.
Elizabeth King is a freelance writer and non-profit coordinator living in Chicago, IL. Feel free to say hi on Twitter @ekingc.