Culture Plus: Game of Thrones’s Sexual Violence Problem

8 mins read

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Spoiler warning: this article discusses events of Game of Thrones up to and including the episode aired Sunday, 4/13/14.

Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones closed with a shocking death: while toasting his recent nuptials, King Joffrey Baratheon choked to death. It was a great way to kickstart the season: after the slaughter of the Starks at the Red Wedding, it was a confirmation that the good guys can (sometimes, and indirectly) win.

Joff’s death was incredibly gruesome – his eyes bulged, his face turned purple, and blood burst from his nose. The episode devoted much of its time to reminding us just how awful Joffrey was (as if we could forget). He chopped apart a priceless history book, staged a pantomime mocking murdered family members of several of his guests, and was cruel to Tyrion without provocation. But in his final moments, desperately gasping for air as his mother tried to help, he also looked like a fourteen year old kid.

Joffrey’s death, like Robb Stark’s before him, was well-staged and will have repercussions that reach far beyond this wedding. His death will be remembered, discussed, and avenged many times over. It will change the course of Cersei, Jaime, Tywin, Tommen, Tyrion, and Sansa’s arc.

This isn’t the case for the other death of the episode. In the scene that opened the show, a nameless young woman was running through the woods, chased by Ramsay Snow and his companion, Miranda. It was a scene immediately recognizable to book-readers: Ramsay loved to set captive women loose in the woods, promising them they would be free if they could outrun him. He would then hunt them down with dogs.

Ramsay’s actions are some of the most vile in the entirety of A Song of Ice and Fire. He is abusive, sadistic, and unrelentingly cruel. But most of his abuse happens off-stage. Readers hear about it obliquely, either through the narration of his victims or through references made by other characters. This choice serves to reinforce the violence of Ramsay’s actions: Reek, the main storyteller, is too traumatized to fully communicate what has been done to him.  We are aware of how monstrous the man is, but we never witness the acts themselves. Frankly, hearing is enough.

Game of Thrones has developed a nasty habit of adding on-screen violence against women to a text that already featured plenty. There was the attempted rape of Sansa Stark during a riot in season two. In this season’s premiere, comments made about Arya Stark, an 11 year old girl, violently sexualized her while a woman was assaulted less than ten feet away. None of these moments expanded character development or advanced the plot.

Even those situations paled in comparison to what happened to Ramsay’s victim on Sunday night. The camera followed Ramsay’s victim through the woods as she ran barefoot and weeping. We saw Ramsay’s companion shoot the woman through the calf, crippling her. We saw Ramsay give the order to his dogs to rip her apart. Then we heard her die.

This scene brought to mind the death of Talisa Stark last season. Talisa was a character developed for the show, an expanded version of the essentially unseen Jeyne Westerling. Jeyne was little more than a side player in the novels, so I was fine with seeing a more fully-fleshed out woman on screen (however outlandish and out of place Talisa became). Unlike Jeyne, who survived the Red Wedding, Talisa was brought along and perished with Robb. She was not brought down by arrows or a knife to the throat, though. A Frey stabbed her belly, eviscerating her unborn child and letting her bleed out.

Talisa was not the first new female character who was created only to meet a violent end. Ros, a prostitute from Winterfell who rose in status at King’s Landing, was shot with a crossbow by King Joffrey in season three. When Ros’s fate was revealed, the camera slowly panned down her body, revealing the bolts that pierced her breasts, lower stomach, and thighs. Nude and posed for display, Ros’s death was just as sexualized as her scenes in the brothel.

Game of Thrones is an enjoyable show that is not afraid to use violence and sex to get its point across. Many of these scenes are well done – Daenerys’s seduction of Khal Drogo, Ned Stark’s death, and Theon’s botched execution of Rodrik Cassel – but the deaths of Ros, Talisa, and the unnamed woman in the woods undermine that work. The explanation that the violence is used to reinforce that no one is safe in Westeros is starting to get tired. The danger of this world has been established over and over again during the past three seasons, and I doubt the audience needs a reminder.

Game of Thrones has been praised for reinventing the kinds of stories that can be told on TV. It’s a high concept fantasy that killed off its protagonist before the end of the first season. It has juggled countless plotlines at once, challenging audiences to keep up. But the way that the writers have engaged with sexual violence and women is anything but inventive. They have featured rapes and murders only obliquely referenced in the source material, sexualized characters without reason, and invented female characters only to kill them off in increasingly repulsive ways. It’s tired, it’s lazy, and it’s antithetical to the subversive nature of Martin’s novels.

A Song of Ice and Fire tears down the tropes of fantasy stories: no kings are granted point-of-view chapters, beauty and strength is not necessarily a sign of virtue, and women are the drivers of complex political narratives. Games of Thrones, on the other hand, glorifies its kings and tears down its women.

Allison Hrabar

Allison is double major in Political Science (Honors) and Film and Media Studies. When not working for The Daily Gazette, she cajoles people into watching the The Americans (Wednesdays at 10:00p.m. on FX).


  1. The show is more certainly graphic in its depiction of sexual violence. But there message is clear: this violence tragic, and the men who carry it out are atrocious. The book characters, meanwhile, have an unfortunate habit of trivializing such actions. Nobody really cares when lords and soldiers abuse the small folk they come across, and victims are often used as the butt of jokes (e.g. Lollys Stokeworth).

    To be clear, Martin writes this way to emphasize the strength of the patriarchy in this world: men are agents with power, women are objects and don’t. In the medium of television, however, such subtleties can be lost; it needs to be obvious or people get confused. In both versions, the reader/viewer should be repulsed by the world they are seeing, and all the more impressed and supportive of female characters like Dany, Sansa, Brienne, etc.

    • That’s the thing though, the male characters who commit these heinous crimes against women are not always written in a negative manner. Drogo and Jaime are both rapists ( in the show at least) and Tyrion both killed a women and threatened to rape his sister, yet the show encourages viewers to still look at these characters as heroes. Good men don’t rape/abuse women and until the show’s producers realize this, I will not be watching this show ever again.

  2. There’s way more sexual violence in the books than the show. The overuse of rape is one of my biggest problems with the books. Have they actually shown a rape on the show? There are the three attempted rapes of Sansa, Brienne, and Theon but I don’t think they’ve shown one (perhaps Gendry and Theon?) We also don’t know if Ramsay’s violence towards that woman was sexual in nature or not. They even made women complicit against her and Theon (that’s another argument.) I just don’t get this kind of criticism of the show in relation to the much worse parts of the books.

  3. there’s an unnecessary amount of rape in the books without any consequence when in actual medieval society, people would face severe punishment for raping women, especially ones of high worth.

    people (grrm himself) like to pass it off as highly realistic, but it’s bullshit. they don’t actually know anything about history and are relying on their understanding based on things they just assume to be true (that “society has gotten steadily progressive” as opposed to “the way society operates actually fluctuates according to whoever’s in power and whoever makes the laws”).

    the show takes that violence to another level though by unnecessarily killing and torturing people, mostly women, especially having those women be sexualised in some way before doing so.

  4. This show is as bad as it gets.
    Essentially dumbed-down for video gamers with enough breasts and gore to keep the masses hooked to the convoluted and laughably contrived plot.

    Not a patch on Dune, nor the score of classics from John Le Carre and others.

    Let’s be honest here, the sex is purely gratuitous to keep the dupes watching, and the violence is simply evidence that the author is out of his depth.

    Mindless pap for simpletons.
    Predictably, like Grand Theft Auto, it’s a hit.

  5. I thought the entire role of Ros was an excuse for soft porn and, later, violence. If they’d let the character keep her clothes on for the duration of the role, I would have been more intrigued. (after all, in the current season, the lusty Red Viper manages to enjoy both women and men without ever showing more than a slightly bared chest)

    They’ve gone way overboard on Ramsay violence. They didn’t need to show every detail. There was such a “hunt” in the book, but it was revealed through the memories of a traumatized Theon. He remembers teaming up with a girl named Kyra, their escape from Ramsay’s clutches, their joy and relief, and then their horrible realization that he let them escape so he could hunt them down. Ramsay used the dogs to track Theon and Kyra, but he killed the girl himself; the dogs seemed to be used for their tracking skills and intimidation value at that point). And the memory was far less graphic because George R.R. Martin sometimes knows, unlike the writers and directors of the Game of Thrones TV show, when less is more.

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