Even if you've never seen an episode of Game of Thrones, there's no way you haven't been exposed to at least some Game of Thrones the past five seasons it's aired on HBO. At the very least, you probably know this is a show that has dragons and you probably know who Jon Snow is. Game of Thrones has prided itself on being a very adult, gritty fantasy show, each episode checking off nudity and violence boxes in the TV-MA rating. But many red flags have been raised since its start, due to its continuous portrayal of violence against women, most of which feel gratuitous and have seemed to worsen over time. The first major no-no came two years ago, with the infamous, often debated Cersei and Jaime Lannister incestuous rape—rape?—scene, a turning point that inspired the A.V. Club's "Rape of Thrones" piece. Since then, the assault of female characters has been ongoing, but many viewers can agree that Game of Thrones hit a low with Sansa's storyline. Last season, the show's beloved character Sansa was raped, but what infuriated people even more was the fact that the makers of Game of Thrones chose to focus on the witness, Theon, a.k.a. Reek, and seemingly used a woman's rape as a point of distress or development for a male character.
Before the Season 6 premiere on Sunday, April 24, we gathered a panel of esteemed female TV critics to talk about their relationship with the show, how the Sansa storyline changed their viewership, and if and why they still watch.
LaToya Ferguson (Freelance TV Writer, The A.V. Club/Complex/Guardian)
Caroline Framke (Culture Reporter, Vox)
Alison Herman (Staff Writer, The Ringer; previously TV Editor, Flavorwire)
Inkoo Kang (Chief TV Critic, MTV News)
Allison Keene (TV Editor, Collider)
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya (Freelance TV Critic, The A.V. Club/The Hollywood Reporter; Staff Writer, Autostraddle)
Lauren Leibowitz (Entertainment Editor, Thrillist; previously Copy Editor, Vulture/New York Magazine)
Watching as a Woman
Alison Herman: I obviously have some issues with it, but I still think it’s one of the best and most interesting shows on television. I wrote a piece defending it. When handled correctly, depicting violence against women is actually a very effective way of demonstrating sexism and what it is like to navigate a world that isn’t necessarily safe for you. That’s obviously true in the real world. It’s true in the fantasy world. The fact is that you see these characters who are not really defined by their victimhood.
Allison Keene: The show introduced me to the books, which then complicated my relationship with the show. There are elements of its style and storytelling and cast that I find compelling, but it is increasingly unable to justify, in my opinion, certain narrative choices. It’s interesting because so much about the women in the stories has been changed significantly from the books. For starters, Cersei doesn’t get raped by Jaime and Sansa doesn’t get raped by Ramsay, which is then experienced by the viewer through Theon's pain over it. Really?
Lauren Leibowitz: It just seems that they're unsparing in that anytime an animal gets hurt, it's off-screen. And I don't know if that's intentional but respecting the animals more than the women is pretty dark when you think about it.
LaToya Ferguson: I found myself dreading watching episodes. I dreaded seeing another sexual assault, I dreaded seeing a full-on boob assault, I dreaded having to hear and see all the conversation about the sexual assault.
Allison Keene: Westeros is set up largely as a patriarchal society, though not exclusively. There are places (Dorne, Pyke, not to mention life across the Narrow Sea) where that’s not true. Plus, the bottom line is that it’s a fantasy series. You don’t need to adhere to medieval ideas about anything. And what’s more troubling is that the show manages to add more rape and torture, mostly of women, than the books already include. If you’re going to make changes, how about something more interesting and positive? At the very least, portray strong female characters from the book as strong characters on the show.
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya: I do admittedly watch other shows that can be just as graphic, like Outlander, which also has depicted sexual violence. I think the big difference is that it's not violence for the sake of violence. It's violence that shapes the story and has discernible consequences for the characters' arcs. I do think some of the most violent scenes on the show have advanced the storylines for the male characters. But other times, the violence just seems to be part of the spectacle.
Inkoo Kang: As a viewer, I find myself increasingly weary of the cartoonish nihilism of the show's universe, and numb to the repetitive violence. Most people were devastated by Shireen's sacrifice by fire last season by her father Stannis last season, but I felt nearly nothing. The show had already created a dead zone where my heart used to be.
Are There Strong Female Characters?
Allison Keene: While there have been a few positive changes, like giving Margaery more of a storyline, and Brienne her own extended adventure with Pod, so much of it also feels like wasted potential to introduce some agency, especially when it comes to the Sand Snakes. Oh, what a tragedy that was. In the books they’re these badass fighters from a land where women are equal to men, and in the show, they are reduced to bickering and exposing their breasts (adding to the hugely unequal amounts of nudity on the show). Their one fight scene was a travesty.
Alison Herman: I think a lot of the criticism of that was warranted but you also see her—she’s a woman born into an aristocratic family and the only way she is able to wield power is by who she marries and she’s a mom to. I think a lot of the violence, or just straight up sexism, you see women experience on the show is part of illustrating the character’s realities in a way that adds to their characterization. I think that tends to go wrong when it is either casual or mishandled. For example, Cersei Lannister became the center of this huge controversy because there’s this scene depicting her sexual assault. The creators didn’t believe it was sexual assault. Cersei and Jaime are two characters, both of whom we have learned to have really complicated feelings about. Outside the show, it’s obviously mishandled by people being like, “I don’t understand why that is rape.” But in the show you see a character assault someone. Then the way Jaime is depicted afterwards, it’s pretty clear you are supposed to view him as the hero or more on the progress of being a better person. It’s unfortunate that you don’t see any ramifications of it, either in Cersei or in the depiction of Jaime as more of a flawed protagonist.
Lauren Leibowitz: They have their strong moments... Daenerys is a pretty strong character. She's really powerful and they show her rise to power and how she gets all these people to be on her side. But she basically gets sold to this really brutish guy that she must marry, and then she falls in love with him, but then he dies and her whole relationship is romanticized.
They really push that to its limits. Lot of full-frontal female nudity. No male nudity.
Alison Herman: There’s a scene last season when you are in the North and they walk into a room and the bad guys are in control. You literally see women being raped in the background. You don’t know their names. You’ve never been introduced to their struggle before. You don’t see them afterwards.
That Sansa Storyline...
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya: The way the scene of Ramsay raping Stansa is filmed reflects that this show doesn't really seem to understand or care about the pain it inflicts on women, situating viewers in Theon's point of view rather than hers.
Caroline Framke: The way they shot that scene is what made me very aware of the show's priorities (especially after they DIDN'T EVEN REALIZE they had shot a rape scene with Cersei/Jaime beforehand). The whole episode was a drumroll to Sansa's rape, which was then drawn out for maximum shock. They knew exactly what they were doing, manipulating that moment to get the most possible pain, and I just sat there going, "Why the hell am I putting myself through this if I don't have to?" I don't think I'll ever be excited about Game of Thrones the way I used to be.
Inkoo Kang: Sansa's rape was shocking, but only because she's a young character we know and are invested in. It's usually the women on the show's margins that are sexually assaulted. I was more offended by the spectacle of Cersei being humiliated, naked, and spat on in the Season 5 finale, because it went on and on and on and on and on. I guess I'm a bigger Cersei fan than I thought.
Alison Herman: I definitely think Sansa is still one of the more interesting characters on the show. I don’t think her progression is over, but I can’t really speak to what I think is going to happen with her or anyone else. I still trust the show enough to think that she’s not going to become a two-dimensional prop.
Is All Violence on the Show Gratuitous?
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya: I do think the violence against women has been gratuitous since the beginning and has only gotten worse over time. There are ways to tell stories about sexual violence, but Game Of Thrones puts much more of an emphasis on horror rather than emotion. Game Of Thrones isn't making any attempt to tell real stories about sexual violence or to show the psychological and emotional aftermath survivors go through. It's not just that Game Of Thrones is gratuitous; it's completely ignorant of trauma.
Alison Herman: I think it gets progressively more gratuitous as the series goes on. It’s had five whole seasons. After a certain point, you are not really proving anything when you are like, “Wow. It really sucks for women.” It’s not adding anything new to audience’s understanding. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all violence of women on that show is gratuitous. I do think the show has gotten less good at deciding what makes a point and what is piling on. I think it’s flipped a few times. I think it’s a crude understanding of violence. But I think it has, on balance, been a really interesting show. I’m not ready to discount it based on a few incidences that I think are rightfully criticized, but don’t really discount the show as a whole.
Inkoo Kang: The violence doesn't seem gratuitous in the context of the show; it's very intent on creating a grim, dark version of the Medieval Ages.
Caroline Framke: I really hesitate to blanket ban any storyline from being told. I really hate watching violence against women onscreen but I can't deny that TV's told some really powerful stories about that subject. Shows like The Americans, Mad Men, Veronica Mars, and Buffy have shown violence against women, but made it and the women's reactions afterward an integral part of the story. Those women weren't raped, abused, berated for no reason. It informs their characters, and it sticks with them beyond any single scene, as it should.
But on Game of Thrones... Man, I don't know. I don't think George R.R. Martin was particularly concerned about how he was depicting violence against women in the books beyond "everything is awful for everyone," and that has inevitably bled into the show. The problem I have with Game of Thrones is less that horrible things happen to women than when horrible things happen to women, they're filmed for shock value, and there's often very little use in that story beyond how horrible it is. Sometimes they'll get a quick moment of triumph, but the show feels stuck in its own misery spiral, and for me, I couldn't stomach watching more sexualized violence onscreen when it seemed to me that there was very little reason—narrative or character-wise—to be doing it. In retrospect, we probably should've known something was up when the show decided to include Robb's pregnant wife in the Red Wedding massacre, and show us someone stabbing her stomach into pieces, which wasn't even in the book.
Lauren Leibowitz: The violence feels gratuitous. You can still understand how terrible these characters are even if they scaled back the violence against women.
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya: Game of Thrones isn't telling a particularly compelling or well-developed story through its violence. The show uses violence for world-building but on a very surface level. The violence is part of its world, but the show often fails to justify why.
Will the Showrunners Tone Down the Violence Against Women?
Lauren Leibowitz: I think it's part of its identity. I don't think it will change.
LaToya Ferguson: I don't think the showrunners made any promise of such a thing. They were vehement that Cersei was not raped.
Allison Keene: The worst part is that these terrible acts of sexual violence are drowning out some other really great aspects of the series. My question to the showrunners would be: Why would you continue to undermine your own work like that?
Inkoo Kang: I lost faith that the showrunners knew what story they were telling when they couldn't recognize Cersei's rape by Jaime for what it was [in Season 4]. Benioff and Weiss and the episode director claimed it wasn't rape, arguing that Cersei consented midway through the scene, but that's not actually what ended up on screen. In Season 1, I felt like the violence against women felt honest in a sense. If you're a dethroned princess like Daenerys, for example, you probably were traded like a commodity for your family line—that felt like an important corrective to the princess fetishization in the rest of our pop culture. But over the years—with the sex scenes, the gratuitous rapes, the lack of engagement about what sexual trauma means, and my final straw of Cersei's rape—I gave up on taking the show seriously with regard to gendered violence.
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya: In multiple instances now, the writers have altered scenes from the books to be much more horrifying and misogynistic. Why? How can anyone justify a creative decision that basically amounts to adding more rape?
Alison Herman: I don’t think they’ve really responded to the controversy too much. Frankly, I understand. They are in charge of one of the biggest international productions ongoing today. I would hope that they are approaching violence towards women or even violence in general with a thoughtful eye towards what it actually adds or doesn’t.
Do You Still Watch? Why or Why Not?
Caroline Framke: I stopped watching Game of Thrones after that Sansa episode. It's not like I was surprised, though. The show's been horrific and graphic and brutal towards everyone since day one. I love Sansa and hated watching that.
Lauren Leibowitz: I've been having to read about it for years now and I resisted watching for a long time, but now I really have to watch for work.
Alison Herman: What I love about the show is that it brings a real complexity to a genre that is often not credited for being particularly sophisticated and does so in a way that I think elevates a potential for that genre. I think it does that based on the depth of its female characters, on the production value, on any number of things. It’s still too interesting and exceptional of a show to write off, but I think it’s healthy to approach something with skepticism and to call out something when it hasn’t lived up to the standards it established for itself.
LaToya Ferguson: I quit in the middle of Season 4 (episode five was my last, I believe). It wasn't so much that a particular storyline made me quit.
Allison Keene: I watch because there are still things about it I do like, but I also watch because it's my job to keep up. This season, I’m pretty interested to see how the show will pivot now that it doesn’t (for the most part) have the books as source material. But HBO not sending out screeners to press this year has me suspicious—maybe it’s not really a piracy issue, but rather, because there’s some more controversial, violent sexual content in the first episode, or soon after? So I continue with a wariness, and some fatigue, though I’m sure there will still be moments that are payoffs from the books and from the overall story that will keep me invested.
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya: I quit watching after Jaime raped Cersei. I got sick of people balking at the fact that I am a TV critic who doesn't watch GOT so I started watching again. I quit again near the end of last season when the Sansa stuff went down, and I intend to stay committed to quitting this time because I no longer give any fucks about outside pressure to keep watching.
Inkoo Kang: I'm still interested in what happens with the characters. There's something like 450 characters and the majority of them are men, and their storylines are interesting enough to keep going. The other, equally boring answer is that it's my job to watch Game of Thrones as a TV critic. It's the most popular show on TV right now.