We “Game of Thrones” fans dreaded it was coming ever since Littlefinger brought Sansa Stark back to Winterfell to marry the new heir in the North, Ramsay Bolton. Littlefinger advised her to use her position to avenge her family. She acquiesced. All too soon, the wedding night came.
For those who don’t watch GoT but wonder why fans are furious enough to leave now, after everything else that seems to have happened in the show, a little context: Sansa Stark is the eldest daughter of the ruling family of the North. The Starks were allied with the King of Westeros, but when he died, his wicked and insane son executed Lord Stark.
Sansa’s eldest brother rose up against the new king, Joffrey, and was eventually killed by the king’s ally, Lord Roose Bolton. Bolton took over the North and legitimized his sadistic bastard son, Ramsay, to rule it. The Boltons arrived in Winterfell, but they are not welcome there. Northerners loved Robb Stark, the lord Bolton killed, along with Robb’s pregnant wife and his mother. They do not forget, as the players often tell us.
Enter the slimy character known as Littlefinger. He arrives with the eldest Stark daughter and advises Bolton to marry Sansa to his son and secure the Bolton claim to the North. The Bolton-Stark wedding in “Game of Thrones” is one small piece of Littlefinger’s long play to take over the North himself. Littlefinger will marry Sansa when the Boltons fall, an event he hastened when he informed Cersie, the Queen mother, of the Bolton-Stark wedding and presented it as Bolton’s idea. Cersie wants Sansa’s head for her assumed role in the assassination of her son, King Joffrey, so she is now furious with Bolton for harboring Sansa and is poised to make Littlefinger Warden of the North. He is close to his goal.
‘Game of Thrones’s’ Relation to History
This is not an odd story as noble family power plays go. Look to the time of the Norman Conquest or the War of the Roses, and find that George R.R. Martin lifted Sansa’s story—and most everything else but the dragons and the ice zombies—off the dusty pages of history books. Consolidating power by marriage is commonplace in history, and “Game of Thrones” is basically a crossover between historical fiction and myth.
Those who know history know these family alliances require consummation. These marriages aren’t official until a child is possible. After all, anyone can get up and say a few binding words, but putting your life on the line in war or your womb on the line in marriage risk permanent consequences. It is the acceptance of risk that seals the deal. So, historically, the marriage contract was not complete until sex. Therefore, to be in place to exact revenge upon the Boltons, Sansa would have to play along as the noble wife and lie with Ramsay Bolton.
It was inevitable and, as expected, it was awful, although not particularly violent save for ripping her dress off of her body. The camera cut away. We only heard…and assumed. I’d say the camera “mercifully” cut away, but it seems TV Hollywood has begun to remember that graphic sex and violence desensitize the viewer, while an implication with a little sound off-camera can give us nightmares. I certainly had a restless night on Sunday.
Whether It Was ‘Necessary’ Isn’t the Point
There was nothing remotely entertaining about the rape of Sansa Stark. And that seems to be the objection. As typical for an involved fandom, there is much to see in the reaction to the story. Even though fans should have seen the night coming, many had hoped for some last-minute rescue or some girl-power twist in which an ally slips Sansa a blade so she can kill her new husband and escape into the winter night. These fans hated the scene because the rape of Sansa was “unnecessary”—I saw that word pop up all over the reactions.
The lack of necessity argument came in two forms. First, some claimed that the scene was an unnecessary embellishment from the books, in which Sansa is not raped. This objection is uninformed. To streamline the many and intricate plot lines of the book, the screenplay adapters had TV Sansa absorb two other characters: the ghost of her mother, who visits revenge upon House Bolton for killing her son, his pregnant wife and herself; and Jayne Poole, a Stark servant girl who is forced to pose as Sansa’s younger sister and marry Ramsay to secure the Bolton’s claim to Winterfell. While Sansa isn’t raped in the books, Ramsay does rape Jayne on their wedding night.
Fans complained the directors should be ashamed because the rape was too harsh but, actually, they toned it down considerably. In the book, Ramsay orders Theon, the Stark ward who was raised as a brother to Sansa, to not only stay and watch, but also to cut off the bride’s dress with a knife. Then, he orders her onto the bed, declares her “dry as bones,” and has Theon perform cunnilingus while he disrobes, threatening that he will cut off Theon’s remaining fingers if she isn’t wet by the time he is undressed. The bedding scene on Sunday was terrible, but it was not an embellishment from the books.
The second lack of necessity objection is even more baffling. It basically holds that a rape is only acceptable in a story if it advances the story or character. In this complaint, Sansa’s rape is redundant because we already know she doesn’t have full control of her destiny, so we don’t need the harsh underscore. Furthermore, the rape happened after Sansa finally managed to show a little fortitude. Until this season, vocal fans had complained that Sansa was weak and whiny, unbefitting the strong female character™ feminists demand in their entertainment. This season, the writers gave her some backbone, so fans figured the writers would have found some way for Sansa to escape her plight, as if a tough-girl attitude mandated better treatment.
Her newly expressed strength will certainly help her though her marriage charade and the aftermath, but attitude doesn’t cow sadistic men. It is no use complaining that this is not fair or right. Forgive me for reaching into my bag of mothers’ comebacks, but who ever said life was fair? Sometimes, life must be endured rather than enjoyed.
Some Fantasy Fans Don’t Like the Truth
But so many contemporary fantasy fans do not like stories that do not conform with their worldview, however naive it may be. Think the lack of a rape risk in “The Hunger Games” or Divergent universes, dystopias for everything but sex. Or ponder the insistence on heroines with superpowers rendering them invulnerable to sexual violation or male physical dominance in a fight. Or game an assortment of absolutely ridiculous princess-rescues-herself scenes. (Not all self-rescuing damsel scenarios are ridiculous, but typically the writers assume away limitations that would prove consequential in the real world.)
Shrinking-violet fans want to insulate us all from the idea of unavoidable adversity. And that is my objection. They can keep their illusions as they like. I couldn’t care less if the show loses viewers because some don’t want to watch violence. But I do care if storytellers capitulate to the only-happy-thoughts brute squad. Because if all the stories are happy stories, then society loses one of its best tools to prepare us for the shock of evil and the need to resist.
It is G.K. Chesterton’s sentiment, but another’s phrasing: “Fairy tales are more than true—not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” The take away from Sunday night is not that poor Sansa was raped and we’ve needlessly confirmed what we already knew, that rape is a terrible thing. No, the lesson is that even nights as horrible as that can be endured, and overcome.