Game of Thrones showrunners address show’s controversial use of sexual violence

Helen Sloan/HBO

Game of Thrones isn’t a stranger to criticism over the way its female characters are portrayed.

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the past six seasons of Game of Thrones.]

Showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have come under fire from critics for their use of sexual violence against women on the show. In the first season, Daenerys was sexually assaulted by her new husband, Khal Drogo, even though in the books it was a consensual moment. Later on in the fifth season, Sansa Stark was sexually assaulted by Ramsay Bolton as Theon Greyjoy watched. Many critics called the scene unnecessary as it also wasn’t in the series, while others, including Benioff and Weiss, argued that it played into the show’s brutal world they had created.

In a new interview with Time, Benioff and Weiss said that it felt inauthentic to write the scene any other way.

“It’s still the same basic power dynamic between men and women in this medieval world,” Benioff said. “This is what we believed was going to happen.”

Weiss added that they wanted to remain true to the world they created, but admit they tried to explore other options before making the decision.

“We talked about, is there any other way she could possibly avoid this fate that doesn’t seem fake, where she uses her pluck to save herself at the last?,” Weiss added. “There was no version of that that didn’t seem completely horrible.”

Despite their sentiments, Game of Thrones has changed in recent years. Director Jeremy Podeswa, who directed the controversial episode from the fifth season, told Fox Studios Australia (as reported by Slash Film) that reaction to the episode and discussions that sprung up as a result of the scene made the showrunners question some of the direction in the sixth season.

“[Benioff and Weiss] were responsive to the discussion and there were a couple of things that changed as a result,” Podeswa said. “It is important that [the producers] not self-censor. The show depicts a brutal world where horrible things happen. 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.”

Sophie Turner, the actress who plays Sansa Stark, said it was an eye-opening moment. While the criticism is valid, Turner argued that it was a topic that should be spoken about more often, and not just because of a fictional series.

“This was the trending topic on Twitter, and it makes you wonder, when it happens in real life, why isn’t it a trending topic every time?” Turner said. “This was a fictional character, and I got to walk away from it unscathed … Let’s take that discussion and that dialogue and use it to help people who are going through that in their everyday lives. Stop making it such a taboo, and make it a discussion.”

Despite their reasoning for the inclusion, critics have doubts over the validity of those statements. In a 2014 piece entitled “Rape of Thrones,” The A.V. Club argued that there is a way to use sexual violence in a story that progresses the story forward and doesn’t sacrifice the characters’ integrity, but Game of Thrones neglected to do that.

It’s hard to shake the idea that Game Of Thrones, the show, doesn’t see a problem with pushing a scene from complicated, consensual sex to outright rape. It would be easier to accept that idea if it were clear what the show was trying to do with those changes. Rape is a tricky thing to use as character development, for either the victim or the rapist; doing it twice raises a lot of red flags. It assumes that rape between characters doesn’t fundamentally change the rest of their story—and it assumes that the difference between consent and rape is, to use the parlance, a “blurred line.”

Even with recent statements defending their decisions, the direction of the show seems like Benioff and Weiss have taken the comments to heart. Game of Thrones will return on July 16 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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