To film a rape scene is to walk an utterly fine line. Most often, rape scenes are gratuitous and therefore worthy of scorn. Yet when done right, a rape scene can be a productive teacher, just as art so often is.
Hollywood has power over our minds. For example, on the issue of gay marriage, shows like Will and Grace helped to move public opinion. And for people who receive no other exposure to sexual assault, rape scenes in movies and television have made the crime much more real in every way. Therefore, we can give Hollywood some small amount of credit for recent progress in the ways that our society treats and prosecutes rape. I say again; a rape scene done right can be productive.
However, execution is everything, and the sad truth is that most rape scenes are gratuitous. The line between “gratuitous” and “productive” is so fine in this context that it is difficult to say what makes a particular scene one or the other. Like the United States Supreme Court has said of obscenity, we simply know a gratuitous rape scene when we see it. And these scenes should be called out for the filth that they are: cheap shocks to keep you watching.
Thankfully, there are two excellent examples. For the productive, we look to The Sopranos. For the gratuitous, we look to Game of Thrones. By contrasting these two, we brighten our fine line, and we create a barometer for measuring other scenes.
THE PRODUCTIVE: THE SOPRANOS
There are six elements that make this rape scene productive. Note again that when I say “productive,” I mean something very specific; a scene that exposes the crime’s horrific realities to people who otherwise lack basic understanding.
This scene takes place during the show’s third season, in an episode titled “Employee of the Month.” Right off the bat, we have a point towards productivity. The employee of the month is the rapist, and the entire episode focuses on the rape. The assault is not at all peripheral; it is front and center, unlike in Game of Thrones. Thus, The Sopranos creator does the crime figurative justice.
Further, the circumstances that lead up to the rape are incredibly true-to-life. The victim is in a parking garage after business hours. She is on the phone as she descends a set of stairs, and her soon-to-be attacker walks right past her as he himself ascends. Though she does not register him because she is engrossed in her conversation, the audience sees in his eyes that he registers her. When she exits the stairwell, we notice that the garage is dark and near-empty of vehicles—let alone other people. Then the victim approaches her car, hangs up the phone, and pulls out her keys. That’s when the attacker comes from behind, puts his hand over her mouth, and proceeds to drag her back to the stairwell.
This is how a lot of sexual assaults happen. With respect to rapes where the rapist and his victim do not have a prior relationship of some kind, The Sopranos scene depicts risk factors and blind spots in our society that provide rapists with greater opportunity to strike. None of this is present in Game of Thrones.
Third, the camerawork during the actual rape is simple and perfect for productivity. The shot is right up close; when the rapist drags his victim into the stairwell, he shoves her against the stairs themselves, with the metal railing close on one side and the concrete wall close on the other. Under it all, there’s the hard, uneven surface, and you can feel it dig into your own back as it digs into hers. There’s such little room to move—let alone to stick the camera—and the resulting closeness makes the scene both all the more horrific and all the less sexual at the same time. In other words, not only does the camerawork do a good job of putting the viewer in the victim’s shoes, there is absolutely nothing about this rape that resembles sex, unlike the gratuitous Game of Thrones scenes. During those, you’re disgusted, but you’re not close to the victims.
Another way in which The Sopranos scene is stripped of sexuality is in the victim’s bland skirt-suit, which reveals almost no skin. Indeed, beyond her panties, the attacker does not disrobe her. And even the panties are handled well; the audience hears them rip and sees them flung out of the frame, but there’s no shot of them being pulled down. Stop and think about that. Shots of lowering panty lines are among Hollywood’s favorite sex scene shots, and the absence of any disrobing here serves to visually distinguish rape from sex.
This complete lack of sexuality is not only clearly intentional, it is also productive. The scene does not show the audience a “special” crime; it shows the audience a crime. Yes, my choice of words here is 100% a stab at Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Part of the reason that rape prosecution was so horrible for so long was because, in the United Kingdom and the United States, these were first treated as property crimes. A woman was her husband or father’s property, so the rape victim was the husband or father. Though we’ve long since abandoned this characterization, vestiges still linger to this day—not only in law, but in our culture as well. When I say “vestiges,” I refer to the fact that, in law, we took the half step from treating rape as a property crime to treating it as something less than a full violent crime: through doctrines like physical resistance requirements. Our culture followed a similar path as the law, and of course it did. We are a nation of laws, are we not? Yet the manner in which The Sopranos depicts rape leaves no room for thinking about it as anything other than what it actually is; a horrific crime that is “special” only in the fact that it is more violative than any other.
Another point in this scene’s favor is the choice of characters—victim and attacker both. The former is Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, and she is one of the show’s least sexualized characters: male or female. Further, Dr. Melfi refuses sexual advances from Tony early in the show. Until the final season, this is the only time that the audience sees Tony fail to woo a woman. All these are counters to the common horror movie trope, which teaches audiences that the virgin is always the one who survives. In other words, one of this scene’s clear, productive messages is the simple fact that a woman’s occupation, sexual history, and dress have nothing to do with rape. Now compare Game of Thrones, where the victims are younger, beautiful women who are sexualized in every episode: Sansa Stark and Cersei Lannister.
As for The Sopranos rapist, he is not a recurring character. The only time the audience sees him is during the rape scene itself. This is a point in the show’s favor because, unlike Game of Thrones, the creators don’t continue to shove the rapist in your face. Further, while The Sopranos rapist is otherwise unknown, the Game of Thrones rapists are prominent characters. Ramsay Bolton is also pure evil, and his assault of Sansa Stark merely gets chalked up as one of his many vile deeds. I’m not even going to touch Jaime and his rape of Cersei here.
Finally, The Sopranos shows the rape’s aftermath in productive fashion. The Sansa Stark assault in Game of Thrones occurs at the very end of an episode, and afterwards the only reference to it is one remark from her about how it was painful. In The Sopranos, the audience lives through the aftermath with Dr. Melfi. We see her physical, mental, and emotional trauma. We see the justice system fail her.
And when the police mess up the chain of evidence, and her attacker is back on the streets, we see straight into Dr. Melfi’s heart, mind, and spirit. We see her grapple with a serious dilemma. She knows the rapist’s name, and she knows where he works. Should she tell Tony Soprano—this mob boss she treats—what really happened to her? If she does, there is no doubt what Tony would do. Tony loves Dr. Melfi. He would kill the employee of the month, and he’d probably do it himself too. Tony has button-men at his disposal, but whenever it’s personal, he does his killing himself. And we see Dr. Melfi make her decision: no. She lies to Tony and tells him that she got into a car accident. What. Strength. In her shoes, I for one don’t think that I would have been able to resist.
So from The Sopranos we have the “Employee of the Month” episode’s title and focus, the circumstances that lead to the rape, the camerawork, the lack of sexuality, the character selection, and the aftermath as examples of elements that make a rape scene a productive one. Further, we started to contrast with Game of Thrones. Now we hone in on the gratuitous.
THE GRATUITOUS: GAME OF THRONES
The first thing to say is that Game of Thrones has not one rape scene but multiple. Before we even classify these scenes as gratuitous or not, the fact that there is more than one speaks volumes. When you ask someone about The Sopranos rape scene, they know; when you ask about rape in Game of Thrones, they ask: which?
The crime and its horrors stand out in the former show. Mind you, we’re talking about a mob show that depicts all sorts of heinous, violent crime. But Dr. Melfi’s rape stands out above them all as the most traumatic scene: period. Though the mobsters are killers, some of the people they target are rapists, which makes them vigilantes too.
The characters in the other show, however, talk about rape in almost every episode; as if it is no big thing. In Game of Thrones, rape is normalized through the sheer number of scenes that depict or refer to it alone—without even turning to these scenes’ specifics.
And when we turn to the specifics, the picture becomes far worse. For our purposes, I focus on the Sansa Stark and Cersei Lannister rapes.
Before we go any further, I’ll address all the people who have sprung to their feet in indignation to shout “but it’s a fantasy show!” The reason Game of Thrones is so successful is because it’s telling real stories in a fantasy environment. You can’t have it both ways, so sit back down.
Moving on. Apparently and according to the Game of Thrones creators, rape isn’t disgusting enough. While The Sopranos rape is true-to-life and focuses on one human violating another in an especially harmful manner, the Game of Thrones rapes add other dark, twisted elements. Jaime rapes his sister as their son—who is the product of their incestuous union—lies dead beside them. Ramsay violently rapes his teenaged bride on their wedding night and forces her castrated foster brother to watch. These added elements detract from the horror inherent in rape itself and can only be called gratuitous.
So too the camerawork for the Sansa Stark rape leaves room for no reasonable conclusion other than the fact that this scene is the very definition of gratuitous. The creators cannot actually show you the rape. They set it up, and then the camera focuses in on Theon’s face as he bawls like the cockless child he is. Meanwhile, the audience hears Sansa’s pained whimpers.
A filmmaker who sets up something atrocious—something they can’t actually show you—and leaves it to your imagination is a coward and a bottom-feeder. There’s three reasons why they couldn’t show you this one. First, Ramsay is not your average rapist. While the employee of the month is a monster who can only get off by overpowering another, by feeling his victim’s body’s innate revulsion, Ramsay is a demon who uses humans as toys and knife-sharpeners. In other words, this rape is more disgusting than average. Second, the audience already revolted a little bit in response to the scene as-is; if they had actually seen Sansa raped, they would have revolted more. And third, as an actress Sophie Turner simply could not do this scene any other way. I’m not sure whether she was of age or not at the time, but that’s largely immaterial in comparison to the other concern. Actresses don’t often recover from scenes like that. Ask the woman who played the little girl in The Exorcist.
So the Game of Thrones creators are cowards with cameras. There’s no reason the audience needs to be anywhere near that room with Sansa, Ramsay, and Theon, and the creators know it. In a situation like this, where the rape is a part of the story but showing it is inescapably gratuitous, you simply show the aftermath. Yet Sansa, at all of fourteen, takes her brutal rape like such a champ that the whole thing is beyond unbelievable. She takes it like a champ in such a way that renders the entire scene gratuitous, even without considering any other aspects. And it renders the entire scene gratuitous because, without showing the victim impact—which is an essential piece of the puzzle—there is simply no way the scene can be productive.
Oh, and those guys pulled this camera stunt with one other scene too: setting up horror then turning the other way. When they burnt a different girl at the stake. Though there’s a lot of rape in the Game of Thrones books, not even George R. R. Martin went as far as child sacrifice. That’s some Satanic shit.
There’s more I can say about sexual assault in Game of Thrones, but a guy can only type the word “rape” so much. Even in an effort to do right. I’m fucking exhausted with the subject.
ALL EYES ON DECK
How many movies have you seen for no reason other than the fact that they’re the big movie out? How many television shows do you finish long after you’ve lost interest in or been offended by them? How many scenes have you watched that you wish to forget?
I stopped watching Game of Thrones after Ramsay Bolton raped his wife on their wedding night and Stannis Baratheon burned his daughter at the stake. Then after the most recent season I cracked and caught up on the show. Would that I had stayed strong and kept my eyes averted.
That’s one mistake I won’t make again. The thing is this folks; the revolution is not televised. We underestimate the power of bottom-up action because we don’t see it on television, don’t see it on the mainstream internet. But bottom-up action is of greater utility more often than top-down action is.
Conceptualize it this way, and bear in mind that I oversimplify for explanatory purposes. You both think and act. For both thought and action, you have a choice of top-down or bottom-up. Though you will at different times and depending on the circumstances employ all possibilities, bottom-up action and top-down thought are most often the best choices.
So when one-by-one people stop watching Game of Thrones and start calling the show’s creator’s cowards, we have top-down thought that results in bottom-up action. And we see the grassroots revolution grow. Maybe we don’t see it on television, nor on the mainstream internet. But we see it in our daily lives. We see it spread across our circles and networks. By forcing these clowns to get gratuitous rape out of our collective face, we see our power swell, and we see theirs recede.
And more even than the seeing, the thinking, the acting, is the feeling. It’s hearts and minds, people. Both are necessary, and the heart comes first.
If you’re reading this, its because you’re one of those people who feels that there is something terribly wrong with the world. Hell, maybe you even know a few specifics. But for most people, who by no fault of their own cannot afford much time to think about such lofty matters, it’s a simple, strong feeling that the world is fucked.
Well, fucked up, yes; fucked, not necessarily. Maybe we the people can overcome and get society back on track, and maybe humanity is doomed to dystopia. Who knows? What I do know is that I for one refuse to go down without a fight. And I know that a grassroots revolution is our only shot. As lofty as the war may be, the battles are utterly undramatic. We win this through actions as simple as turning off Game of Thrones. All eyes on deck.
Featured image by Valeri Pizhanski — Flickr.