George Martin’s novels depict the grimmest of the grim, the most horrendous of the horrendous. It happens across the board from the nobility to the peasantry. He spares no one. And it is good storytelling. I highly approve of some of the necessary changes made to the HBO series, like the intermingling of plots I had wished for in the fourth and fifth books. I do not approve of others, the biggest of which is the unnecessary use of rape the powers that be have decided to implement.
It’s not rape itself. Martin’s world is, as established, a grim one. Rape is a means to power as ancient and effective as any other violent act. Mr. Martin uses it brutally, some may even say he overuses it. Okay, I’ll buy that. But I want to talk about the places he did not use it, for a purpose.
Let’s start with Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo. If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you know the story well enough to be spared a long and drawn out backstory. Dany is given to Drogo in marriage. In the books, she is fourteen; he is in his thirties. HBO made her a little older to lessen the squick-factor there. Okay, fine. In the book, we are expecting Dany’s wedding night to be a brutal affair–not unanticipated, but nonetheless horrific for a fourteen year old girl forced to marry a Dothraki Khal. And yet, with all the rape, murder, blood and gore that started on page one of A Game of Thrones, Drogo doesn’t rape Daenerys on their wedding night. He waits for her to come to him. This is the crux of her absolute love and devotion, and makes believable all that comes after.
Ok, now how about Cersei Lannister? Yes, it’s super-creepy for her and her twin to be having a lifelong affair that results in three children. It’s even creepier when they have sex beside their son’s funeral bier. But that was the point, now, wasn’t it? These two have engaged in this relationship since childhood. Squicky, yes, but again, that’s the point. Their love is absolute. They not only thumb their noses at convention, they hock luggies on it…and then have sex on it. Having consensual sex in the presence of their dead son punctuates this and many character points. Mr. Martin’s good storytelling, however twisted, shines.
Finally–Sansa Stark. In Mr. Martin’s books, Sansa is betrothed to Joffrey. He abuses her. He beheads her father. He does everything humanly possible to humiliate and hurt her–but he doesn’t rape her. And then she’s forced to marry Tyrion, who treats her kindly and–wait for it–does not rape her. Then Littlefinger whisks her away. He steals a kiss, but no rape. In the Eyrie, no rape. Sansa Stark manages to traverse the length and breadth of Westeros without being raped. There is a reason she maintains her status as “Virgin Queen.” It’s good storytelling, dammit.
The writers and producers of the HBO show, however, made some decisions about these three powerful women, and that decision can be wrapped up in one sentence–A woman’s power extends only as far as appeasing a man’s dick allows.
I’m not going to argue that this is not true. Historically, it is. What I’m arguing is that in the world of Martin’s creation, these three women are spared the stripping of their power for a reason, and that reason got taken away. Not only did it get taken away, it is completely counter to story arcs, character arcs, and good storytelling. This decision was bad storytelling at it’s worst, because it took subtle, truly powerful points and turned them upside down. For no apparent reason.
Dany goes from being a woman loved, a woman who believably sacrifices everything for Drogo to the raped-falls-in-love-with-her-rapist trope. (Remember General Hospital? Luke and Laura? No?) Instead of her true power being awakened by her sexuality because of a conscious choice she made–good storytelling!–she is diminished. Later, in the HBO series, Dany “seduces” Drogo, riding him rather than being ridden; but it is at her brother’s demand more than it is Dany’s claiming of her own power.
Cersei is evil, depraved, ruthless. This we know. She gets her comeuppance, but it is not at the hands of her beloved brother. Cersei’s love for Jaime pales beside her love for power. Not so for Jaime. He will do anything for her, for her love. What he would not do is rape her. Why did the HBO powers decide to go that route? Is their relationship not twisted enough? Or was it, again, consciously or not, stripping another powerful woman in the series of her power in this way?
And Sansa, who never even meets Ramsay Bolton in the book, is not only in Winterfell but forced to marry him, and in marrying him, raped on her wedding night with her “foster brother” in attendance. The Virgin Queen has fallen to yet another man’s dick. Why? So Stannis wasn’t riding to Winterfell to save Jayne Poole who was pretending to be Arya and not Sansa at all? (Ok, so he wants Winterfell, too. Stannis isn’t that noble despite his own delusions.) Maybe I’m giving GRRM more credit than I should, but wasn’t at least part of the point of this plotline to show the futility and mindlessness of this war when the White Walkers were on their way? There was no purpose to this straying from the book. It’s bad storytelling, once again, that detracts from both story and character arcs. Condensing the whole Motte Cailin/Theon/Bolton storylines was a good idea. If you’re going to go as far as putting Sansa in Jayne’s role and squeezing the storyline into a new shape, why not have Theon save Sansa before her wedding? Why take from her what I consider a huge chunk of her character?
There is lots of rape in GoT, both in the books and in the series. It’s as common and used as Littlefinger’s smirk, the stink in Flea Bottom and Tyrion’s love of wine. That makes those places Martin spared the women of Westeros stand out, and in standing out, makes a point. Good storytelling is what it is.
David Benioff–you wrote one of my favorite books of all time (City of Thieves) but even I can’t forgive you for this.