Jessica Jones vs. Sansa Stark: Rape Culture in Entertainment, and Why We Should Talk About It
Trigger warning: we are going to talk about rape. Or rather, I am. I'm going to muse about it, think about it. I'm going to cringe, rage, and perhaps wonder. If this is a problem for you, please don't read further, because if rape is your trigger, I can only imagine why, and my heart goes out to you. I don't want to cause you any pain.
But I swear...I'm a little confused, and I want to talk about it.
So please. If you can have a conversation about rape and its portrayal in literature and movies, read on.
But if you've been attacked or sexually assaulted, I won't be offended if you click away.
Disclaimer: I have never been raped. I have never been assaulted or attacked in any way. The only man (boy, really, in maturity at least) who ever threatened me with physical violence took me at my word when I said if he ever came near me again, the police would be waiting.
I know how lucky this makes me, in a world in which assault and rape (and the subsequent victim-blaming) have become much more the norm than the exception.
Last spring, the internet exploded with outrage over the rape of Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones. "It's too much!" said the internet (people I know, respect, admire). "Gratuitous rape has to stop! Rape should never be used to drive plot! Rape should never be graphic! We will no longer watch Game of Thrones!"
At the time, this baffled me. I mean, it wasn't that I didn't understand how disturbing the scene was, in which Sansa walks, head held high, to her "wedding bed" with the sadistic Ramsay Bolton. The camera cuts away from the act itself, but we hear it. We hear her cries of pain, of dismay.
We hear him rape her.
Later, we see her bruises.
But we never see the actual attack.
Still. "It's too much," they said, those internet writers who I admire. "Too graphic. Too painful. We will no longer watch Game of Thrones."
This bothered me. It really did. Because...why then? Why that scene which, compared to much of the Game of Thrones sexual activity, was handled with a reasonable amount of grace. Why not back in Season 3, when Joffrey shot crossbow bolts into naked prostitutes hanging from his bedpost? Why was that scene, displaying so much cold-blooded brutality, not the straw that broke the camels' backs of Game of Thrones supporters?
Was it because we can handle brutality toward "bad" women like prostitutes or even, say, the vicious, scheming Cersei Lannister? There was uproar when Jaime raped Cersei, yes, but that uproar was based more in semantics than the act itself. Was it rape? (It was.) Was it consensual? (It wasn't.) We weren't bothered as much at seeing Cersei raped, so long as it was properly labeled.
But Cersei is a character whose morals we question from day one of the series (both on film and on paper). Cersei, along with her brother the Kingslayer, is a serial participant in an incestuous relationship. She and her brother have illegitimate children together. Those of us women with brothers cringe whenever we see them together. The bile rises along the backs of our throats. So we didn't cry over her rape.
No. we cried over Sansa's.
Was it Sansa's innocence then, her virginity, that pushed us over the edge?
I'd argue here, though, that while Sansa is a virgin, she's hardly innocent. Raised to be a queen, she has a thirst for power, and an ability to survive beyond most of the rest of her family. She's been known to plot with the Imp. She's been known to scheme with Margaery Tyrell. She's not as innocent as her porcelain skin and lovely red hair might make you think.
But that gets dangerously close to victim-blaming.
Of course the rape of Sansa Stark was brutal. Of course it was upsetting.
That said, I continue to watch Game of Thrones, despite what the internet has told me to do.
"Rape shouldn't be used as a plot device," said the internet last spring. "Rape shouldn't be used as a catalyst."
Until....along came Jessica Jones, Marvel's newest superhero drama on Netflix. It's the first of its kind in that it showcases a super-strong, bad-ass female character who isn't sexy in any traditional way. She doesn't use her femininity to gain power (like Cersei or Sansa or Margaery). She doesn't wear dresses or lipstick or high heels. She's awesome, the internet loves her, and so do I.
Here's what gets me, though.
The catalyst of her story?
She's been held captive by the mind-controlling Kilgrave (Oh, 10th Doctor, what have they done to you??). She's been mind-fucked by him...he's invaded her thoughts, controlled her actions, her words. He's forced her to kill. He's forced her to maim.
Oh. And he's physically raped her.
Over and over and over again.
I can think of nothing worse. Nothing more disturbing.
So where's the outrage of last spring? Where's the furor? Why aren't we pissed off about this rape, this mindfuck and body-fuck? Why was this rape allowed to be the catalyst that created Jessica Jones and her quest to destroy Kilgrave?
Was it because we don't see it? We don't hear it? Those rapes occurred off-camera completely, in a time long before we actually meet Jessica.
Was it because the sex we do see in Jessica Jones is clearly consensual? Does that give the show a pass to use rape in a way no show has dared use it before?
Is that why our rage-o-meter is so comparatively silent? And we're free to enjoy the rest of the show?
Game of Thrones is about so much more than rape.
It's about epic struggles for power. Good versus evil. Family. Love. Lust. Hate. Betrayal.
Rape plays but a small role in the show, and yet, it infuriates us.
Jessica Jones is also about so much more than rape.
It's about revenge. Love. Lust. Family. Friends. Good versus evil. Struggles for power.
But rape is the catalyst to the show's arc, and we cannot deny that our fury is silenced here.
So why? Why the disparity in our collective reactions?
I'm honestly curious. My thoughts are that it does have something to do with Jessica's inherent and obvious bad-ass-ness, versus Sansa's sweet demeanor. We don't love to see beautiful things broken, but we can handle seeing something strong grow...stronger, whatever the cause.
Or can it be that rape as a device in the entertainment media isn't inherently bad? Maybe? It can spark discussion of rape culture, that's for sure, the necessity of which cannot be denied. We cannot stop rape culture without discussing it. Without being willing to say things that we'd rather not say - like that rape isn't always boy-attacking-girl, that sometimes it's boy-attacking-boy, or girl-attacking-girl. And that in any guise, it's vile and terrible, but also pervasive. Ours is a world full of sexual assaults, just like the world of Game of Thrones and Jessica Jones.
We need to talk about these problems in order to solve them. We cannot close our eyes and hope that rapists stop raping. We cannot turn away and pretend it doesn't exist.
Our outrage is good. It's needed.
But our lack of outrage also needs to be investigated. We need to know why we were so upset last spring, but aren't devastated this winter.
What does this say about us?
I'd love to hear what you think. Feel free to leave a comment. Keep it tasteful, please. Be adults. Be kind. And be curious. I'm curious. What does this say about us?
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