Like pretty much everyone else in the world, I’ve been a loyal fan of Game of Thrones for years. In many ways, it’s undeniably an incredible show, full of complex characters, political intrigue, and dynamic storytelling. There’s a reason why it’s been hailed as, literally, the best television series of all time.
At the same time, whether we like to think about it or not, the series has also historically been terrible in its treatment of women. As much as I like the show, I’ve never been able to forget many of its deeply problematic aspects.
Back in 2015, during the fifth season, the writers of the show apparently felt the need to include a scene in which Sansa Stark is raped by Ramsay Bolton. As you may remember, the scene drew a lot of internet backlash and criticism, especially because the already troubling scene wasn’t even focused on Sansa herself, but rather, on another man’s (Theon’s) reaction to what was happening. Even more upsetting is that this scene didn’t even happen in the original A Song of Ice and Fire book series that the show is adapted from, but the writers chose to include it anyway.
This wasn’t the first time that the show included an unnecessary rape scene. There’s one in the very first episode right after Daenerys is forced to marry Khal Drogo, a scene that was consensual in the books. Notably, Daenerys goes on to fall in love with Drogo and, as an audience, we’re generally meant to see their relationship as a positive one.
Yeah, it’s bad.
There’s another in Craster’s Keep early in season 4, a truly inexplicable one between Jamie and Cersei after Joffrey’s death. And the list goes on and on.
While it’s incredibly important for us to talk about rape and rape culture, the way that rape has historically been handled on Game of Thrones has been incredibly irresponsible and exploitative. It’s often used as dramatic motivation for male characters and minimizes its impact on the victims.
After Sansa’s rape scene in season 5, I actually quit watching the show for over a year. I couldn’t bring myself to care about finishing the season after having to watch something like that happen yet again. In fact, more than a few female fans stopped watching the show after that and a few feminist publications stopped covering the show altogether.
Eventually, though, I did end up returning to Game of Thrones. Despite knowing that the show is deeply problematic (and don’t even get me started on the way it handles people of color), I still came back to it.
Does this make me a bad feminist? Does this make anyone who’s a fan of problematic media a bad feminist?
While calling someone a bad feminist feels like a bit of stretch, it is important for us to think critically about the kind of media that we like and support. Unfortunately for us, a lot of the media that we consume is problematic. It’s the inevitable side effect of living in a society that is still fundamentally racist and sexist.
And while we do often call out some of the problematic things that we see on television and in movies, let’s face it; a lot of the time, we’re more willing to excuse the problematic aspects of something that we’re already fans of than something that we aren’t. After all, it took 5 seasons of terribly mishandled sexual violence against women before I and many others even contemplated ditching the show.
As fans, we need to be aware of when our favorite TV shows and movies mess up, and we need to talk about it. It’s important to let people and creators know what sorts of things we will and will not support.
After the severe backlash against Game of Thrones in season 5, the writers actually took note. Season 6 saw a dramatic shift in its treatment of female characters and was, arguably, one of the show’s best seasons. Talking about the treatment of women on Game of Thrones not only started an important conversation about media in general but also helped lead to a change in the show itself. And if that doesn’t tell you how important our voices are, then I don’t know what will.
So at the end of the day, while I remain a fan of Game of Thrones, I’ll always do my best to remain a critical fan. Because, if we pretend that the media that we like is perfectly fine, even when it isn’t, the only people that we’re hurting is ourselves.