Twenty-odd years ago, my mother performed a great service to the world of women (not to be confused with the great service to the world she performed forty-odd years ago). While serving on a panel entitled Women in Fantasy & Science Fiction (I’m guessing at the title by the way), she picked a fight with George R.R. Martin. Yeah. THE G.R.R.M. The topic was whether or not women can be warriors in speculative fiction. Mr Martin argued that they could not, citing all the usual evidence: women are physically inferior by nature, biology, blah-blah-blah. To this my mother said one word: FICTION.
This word was followed by several more but that was the gist of her retort. What is the point of speculative fiction if not to speculate? Why not envision a world where women can exist on equal level with men? Unicorns, elves, magic, dragons—but not gender equality?
‘Ridiculous,’ snorted my mother to G.R.R.M. ‘Ludicrous and short-sighted,’ she added.
I like to think my mother is the reason for Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth and Maege Mormont. But there is a wider issue at stake here. What is the purpose of fiction—particularly speculative fiction? Should writers of fantasy and science fiction present a world that is recognisable to readers through the haze of magic, time, technology and space? Or do we have a responsibility—indeed a mission—to remake the world as it could or should be?
And what do we do about rape?
This may seem like a sudden change of topic, but bear with me. As a feminist fan of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels and the accompanying Game of Thrones television series, I tread a narrow rope bridge covered in slippery moss and sloppy bird shit stretching over an abyss. He created some amazing female characters who are “strong” but also flawed in the same ways the male characters are. These women struggle to pick a path through the moral morass (or in some cases blaze a destructive trail though it) just as the men do. Some are victims of circumstance, some agents of their own destruction, some heroic—most are all three. That is the beauty of Martin’s world and why we are all so in love with it. The characters try and try again, fail and fail again but do their best to thrive and survive (though, of course, “thriving and surviving” means different things to different characters).
But isn’t it all a bit “rapey”?
I love it when people use that word. As if the actual noun and verb of it can’t be confronted, it has to be adjectived. Rapey. Rape-like. Not actual rape, you understand, just a bit rape-ish. Because of the truth of it is too much. Too much truth.
This morning I read that The Mary Sue, feminist fan website of all things wonderful in the world of speculative arts and sciences, has decided to withdraw its support and promotion of Game of Thrones in light of a scene featured in the most recent episode Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken. A US Senator has called it quits, even Rolling Stone is raising an eyebrow. Another woman was raped on television. I watched the episode from over the edge of my quilt. It was quite possibly the most upsetting thing I’ve seen on the series so far—which is an achievement.
Another woman was raped on television. Enough. The Mary Sue and Senator McCaskill have had enough. I get it. I really do. I would never presume to draw someone else’s line in the sand.
One argument fans of the show have made is that the scene is not in the books. Benioff and Weiss did it again the same way they did with Daenerys’s wedding night and Jaime and Cersei’s graveside reunion. I totally agree with the complaints about Dany and Drogo, Jaime and Cersei. Those moments on screen, so profoundly different from the books, really angered and upset me. Last night upset me too, but not for the same reason.
Last night’s scene between Ramsay and his bride actually is in the books, it’s only the bride that is different. What happened to Sansa Stark should have happened to Jeyne Poole who is masquerading against her will as Arya Stark. The two scenes play out very similarly—almost exactly, but with one crucial change: Sansa for Jeyne/Arya. Does it make a difference that it happened to a major character we love—a high-born character rather than a low-born one we’re not particularly attached to? Hell yeah. It’s far more painful. I was sad for Jeyne in the books; I was devastated for Sansa on the tellly. Benioff and Weiss upped the dramatic ante in a huge way.
Another woman was raped on television. “Rape is not a necessary plot device,” argues The Mary Sue. True. Rape as entertainment should not be tolerated. True. But I defy anyone to describe last night’s scene as “entertaining.” It was horrendous. I have seen rape and sexual violence handled disrespectfully and in a way which makes light of, dismisses or fetishizes the experience. When that happens, I am one of the first to scream out in protest. And it does seem to happen quite a lot in fiction as it does in life. But does this mean that rape and sexual violence have no place in literature, film or television? Should we not attempt to represent it at all? Where should we draw the squiggly, blurry grey line?
What do we do about rape?
This brings me back to my initial question on the purpose of speculative fiction. I could just as easily throw this open and ask: what is the purpose of art itself, but I want to zoom in on speculative art because, to me, fantasy and science fiction are in a unique position to reflect or remake the world. The best speculative art is a balancing act and the best artists mirror back to us truths about the familiar world around us in a way which shows those truths in a new light while also leading us down, or at least pointing the way toward, a different road. Justice, suffering, identity, pluralism, equality, tyranny—speculative art explores these themes in tragic, comic, thought-provoking, life –affirming and world-changing ways.
Rape is a reality in our world. One in three women will experience sexual violence at some point in her life. Not fictional characters, real women and real violence and real rape. For many years, I worked as a rape crisis counsellor, educator and consciousness raiser. Rape is not some amorphous concept to me, I’ve been on the front lines and seen the casualties. For all its faults, Thrones strives to depict a truthful and brutally honest medieval-inspired fictional world which includes violence of all types. If the intention is truth, truth cannot be ignored. To ignore rape would be a disservice to those who have lived it.
But there are ways to creatively, sensitively tell the truth about sexual violence, include it in your narrative without perpetuating rape culture and misogyny and without glamour or titillation. As a feminist and creative artist, I think last night got it right in an emotionally gut wrenching way. The camera showed very little of Ramsay but focused first on Sansa, pulling us into her experience. Then, rather than stay with her which could have been gratuitous, it pulled back to close in on Theon’s reaction as a way to mirror and model our own response. It worked on me. I was right there with him: frozen in tear-streaked horror as a girl I’d seen grow up was violated.
Was it awful to witness? You bet. Was it unnecessary and excessive? Not if the writers want to stay true to the world they have created and to the vicious monster that is Ramsay. Sansa knew what was coming. None of us, the loyal watchers of the show, thought for one second that Mr Bolton was going to be as respectfully kind as Tyrion. The writers practically held our hands as we all walked up those stairs together. Could they have stopped the scene after Ramsay’s line about not lying to one another? Possibly. But this show has never before shied away from its own brutality. Why would it start now?
Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, a very darkly funny title when you think of it (too soon?), was a deal-breaker for many feminist fans. I totally understand why, but I do not agree. I find the casual, background images of violence against women on the show far more upsetting. The tavern scene in Two Swords: while The Hound threatens to eat all the chicken, the poor tavern keeper’s daughter is having a very unpleasant time of it. Oathkeeper: the Night Watch mutineers are putting Craster’s wife-daughters through the mill while Karl drinks wine from Mormont’s skull. I find those casual, background incidents far more insidious than Sansa’s wedding night.
If you’re going to tackle sexual violence in a story, tackle it up front and honestly. Images of sexual violence in art are upsetting and should always be upsetting, but I don’t believe they should be eliminated. Silence is the cloak which hides the truth of what so many real women experience. Do we black it out or do we depict rape with respectful honesty from the victim’s point of view?
Do I think Benioff and Weiss are guilty of gratuitous sex and violence? Totally. But last night I think they hit the right note for me, even if that note was discordant and horrific. Does it turn me off enough for me to tune out? No. Because only half the mission has been fulfilled.
What is the purpose of speculative fiction? Tell the truth and tear the veil off the ugly secrets of humanity. There is violence, suffering and horror. Any fairytale can tell you that. But once the truth is revealed, a good speculative artist should show us another way. Give us dragons, needles, oaths to keep and beautiful wedding nights under the stars— as Dany and Drogo were in the books and should have been in the show. This is more true to G.R.R. Martin’s novels.
I hold out hope Benioff and Weiss will not leave us to wallow in the mud. I also hold out hope that Drogon will swing by Bravos to collect Arya and the two of them will make winter bleed fire all over the Boltons. Here’s hoping.