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The debate about women, violence on ‘Game of Thrones’

A scene from season 5 of "Game of Thrones." (Courtesy HBO)

A scene from season 5 of “Game of Thrones.” (Courtesy HBO)

Okay, dear readers, I realize you probably aren’t looking for another source of “Game of Thrones” information.

The build-up to the recent season six premiere of the HBO show inspired by the books of Santa Fe homeboy George R.R. Martin has produced a new frenzy of news articles and commentary.

It’s a global sensation that somehow just seems to beg people from all strata of the media – news, pulp, trash, celebrity, high-brow – to keep up with it and to have opinions about it, and to feel obliged to share how they feel about it.

You can break down the “Game of Thrones” treatises into various recurring categories: Did the show follow Martin’s books faithfully enough? Is the show as good since its storyline went beyond the books in season five?

Is the fantasy show “realistic” enough in depicting medieval ways? Did you know there are pretty good arguments that “Game of Thrones” is all about climate change? Are there too many naked people, particularly women, too much sex and too much violence?

George R.R. Martin at the Game of Thrones season 5 premiere in Santa Fe at the Jean Cocteau Cinema on March 28, 2015. (Morgan Petroski/Albuquerque Journal)

George R.R. Martin at the Game of Thrones season 5 premiere in Santa Fe at the Jean Cocteau Cinema on March 28, 2015. (Morgan Petroski/Albuquerque Journal)

But, since Santa Fe, thanks to our local hero Martin, is where all this started, I thought it would be appropriate to take up the most interesting and serious “Game of Thrones” discussion, concerning the show’s penchant for combining the sex and the violence.

Although scenes of sexual violence against women have been pretty frequent throughout the series, commentary exploded after a season five episode last year depicted the brutal rape of one of the show’s few remaining sympathetic characters by her sadistic husband on her wedding night.

In one of the better efforts on this subject, a lengthy article from The Atlantic magazine compiled a detailed list of instances and perpetrators of sexual violence in “Game of Thrones.”

Writer Christopher Orr notes that Martin has said that one of his intentions in the book series was to convey how the powerful preyed on the powerless, including men preying on women, in the medieval world.

But Orr said the television producers “have gone out of their way, time and time again, to ramp up the sexual violence well beyond their source material” from the books.

Orr concluded that he believes the motives of the TV show’s makers combine a search for ratings, and being “just careless and blasé when it comes to the subject” of sexual violence, rather than trying to add “moral heft” by “rendering Martin’s material even more extreme.”

“But whatever the case, it’s a pattern so ingrained that it seems unlikely to change. Given this history, viewers should brace themselves for the worst in season six,” Orr concluded.

A few days before the new season’s April 24 premiere, USA Today took up the subject, with dueling commentaries from reporters. Kelly Lawler, in “Why I’m Still Watching ‘Game of Thrones,'” acknowledges she found the continuing depiction of rape scenes exhausting.

“If we have to have them (and, hey, we really don’t have to have them) at least we are talking about why they are upsetting and offensive,” she wrote. “The tone of that conversation can verge into dangerous territory, but we are at the very least talking.”

Lawler’s piece concludes: “It’s not just the rape scenes but the show’s entire relationship with its female characters that can be problematic – like burning young girls at the stake, for instance. Even its actors would like things like the on-screen nudity to be more equal between men and women. “Game of Thrones” is by no means a feminist show, but it is a show that allows us to talk about feminism and sexism.

“And if we get some dragons and White Walkers (editor’s note: these are sort of arctic zombies) along the way, isn’t it worth it? I continue to hold out hope that it is.”

The opposing “Why I Quit ‘Game of Thrones'” by Hoai-Tran Bui says the rape of Sansa Stark last season was “part of ‘Game of Thrones” reputation for titillating and shocking the audience” without a narrative purpose and was “just the last straw for me.”

“Despite all the schemings, betrayals and brutality, ‘Game of Thrones’ is still a fantasy show,” she says. “I came to the show for its subversion of classic fantasy tropes like the standard knight, maiden romance. And while the violence and deceit was part of that, the show’s constant insistence that senseless violence against women is part of it was not.”

Welsh actor Iwan Rheon, who plays Ramsay Bolton, the evil perpetrator of that horrible post-wedding assault last year, recently defended the Sansa rape scene in an interview with the British newspaper The Telegraph.

“I think if more people put their effort into the charities that help women in the world today deal with the horror of rape, and less effort in social media about a fantasy show, then maybe things would change,” he said.

Upset fans ‘shrinking violets’?

Rheon said he believes the uproar resulted from the audience’s affection for the Sansa character.

“If it had been someone else, there would have been no mention of it. There are so many rapes on the show. A lot of people do get raped and nobody bats an eyelid.” He added, in a comment that could only be made about “Game of Thrones,” “There’s much less talk about burning children, for instance.”

In The Federalist conservative web magazine, Leslie Loftis also defended the show’s inclusion and the specific details of the Sansa Stark rape.

She wrote that the rape was actually “toned down considerably” from Ramsay’s assault as Martin had portrayed it on the page, and that the scene in fact did legitimately advance the plot.

“Shrinking-violet fans want to insulate us all from the idea of unavoidable adversity. And that is my objection,” Loftis wrote. “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.”

Despite the warning from The Atlantic to expect more of the same from “Game of Thrones,” there may be something of a reprieve in the new season six.

The Telegraph, a prime source for all things “Game of Thrones,” reported in December that director Jeremy Podsewa says the show’s creators, David Benioff and DB Weiss, have reacted to the criticism and made a couple of changes.

“The show depicts a brutal world where horrible things happen,” he said. “They did not want to be too overly influenced by that (criticism) but they did absorb and take it in and it did influence them in a way.”

There was no sexual violence in the season premiere, only the threat of it. Several bad guys and their ferocious dogs were offed in a rousing sword fight (with the show’s mighty female knight doing most of the damage), and, during a female-led coup-by-assassination, a spear thrust into the back of one character’s skull exited through his face (the spear-wielder was a woman).

In last Sunday’s episode two, still no rapes. Ramsay’s latest atrocities did include a particularly gruesome (but off-camera) infanticide. The murdered child this time was a boy.

In context, maybe these developments count as progress.

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