Female representation in media is an ever-present issue, and rightfully so, yet it’s been a while since I’ve felt such stunning highs and disappointing lows within the space of a few days.
Spoilers for Game of Thrones S05E06: ‘Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken’ and Mad Max: Fury Road.
Like a lot of fans of Game of Thrones, I’m more than a little desensitized to the graphic sex and violence on the show, and especially since those two facets collide as frequently as they do, like they did on the latest episode of season 5 – Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken. (Once again SPOILERS AHEAD). In the final few moments of the episode, Sansa Stark is brutally raped on her wedding night by Ramsey Bolton, while Theon Greyjoy/Reek is forced to stand and watch.
There’s a few things to put out there before going any further. This isn’t the first time a female character has been assaulted by a male character on the show, and this isn’t even the first instance of rape (Jamie/Cersei last season, arguably Dany/Drogo in season 1). Likewise, within the books, this scene is significantly worse (although the victim in that case is another character that Sansa has replaced for the TV show, and George R R Martin himself explicitly states they have always been two separate entities). However.
My beliefs on the use of sexual assault in fiction is pretty strong: I have never seen a case where I thought it was necessary to progress the plot, where I thought it was the right choice for the characters involved. Never. And I absorb a lot of books, TV, movies, comics. The only way I’ve ever seen it used is as a lazy shortcut to either progress the arc of a separate male character (at the expense of a female character) or to quickly illustrate just how horrible a villain is. I could explain my thoughts on the previous instances within GoT (or in any media for that matter) but for now I’ll stick to the instance at hand: Sansa’s wedding night.
Nothing was achieved in that scene that had not already been established.
We already know that Ramsey Bolton is a horrible, vicious being, so showing him committing such a heinous act was unnecessary. What, I’m supposed to hate him more after the things he’s done? I’m at peak capacity of hatred for him. We’d already seen in that episode that Theon was clawing and fighting his way back from the overwhelming Reek persona that his psyche had been drowning in (thanks to the stunning acting of Alfie Allen). Did he need a visceral and brutal act to snap him back to reality? Maybe, but only if you, again, want a lazy shortcut. We’d already seen Sansa being mentally tortured and physically assaulted by cretinous characters, we already knew that by marrying Ramsey she was in for a shit time, did she really need to be raped as well? Which brings me on to my next point.
That scene actively unravels important character building.
Within this very episode we’re treated to an amazing moment of growth with Sansa (again, credit to the actor is due – Sophie Turner is fantastic), when she stood up to Ramsey’s twisted mistress. That was awesome, I fist pumped the air at that moment – how long have fans been waiting for Sansa to finally stand up for herself and show that she not only knows that this is all a game but that she’s learnt from her horrendous experiences how to play it.
Then, just like that, it’s all taken away.
I know that this isn’t the end of her story. I’ve read a lot of think pieces about this subject since the show aired (especially The Mary Sue’s perfectly formed opinions) and one of the defenses is that it all adds to the idea that Sansa will take on an arc not unlike Daenerys, rising up through adversity etc etc. Which, having not read the books I don’t know her story arc, but at this point it’s irrelevant. She’s already faced such horrific situations (being forced to look at her father’s head on a spike by her future husband is one) that adding rape to the mix is completely and utterly unnecessary. I’m already rooting for her to rise from the darkness she’s constantly been surrounded in without adding a lazy and insulting story trope into one of my favourite shows.
Moving on to Mad Max: Fury Road, and a pretty perfect illustration of female representation. It’s so good it’s got Men’s Rights Activists freaking out (which is obviously amusing) and it’s clear to see why; the main character is not Mad Max, it’s Charlize Theron’s flawless Imperator Furiosa. In fact, there are many occasions where Max is nothing more than a spectator, literally doing nothing but stand and watch as Theron’s Furiosa does all the hard work.
Case in point. Furiosa’s War Rig is trapped in mud and a tow cable is wrapped around a tree straining to release them. The enemies of the Citadel are bearing down on them, closer and closer, Nux (played brilliantly by Nicholas Hoult) is foot-down, full-throttle struggling to drive free, all the while the single solitary tree on the entire landscape is buckling under the weight of the tow cable, seconds from giving out. Where’s Max? Clinging to the tree, trying to avoid incoming gunfire. Where’s Furiosa? She’s pushing the rig. She’s hurling her entire weight behind one of the massive wheel arches of a 78 foot, 18 wheel behemoth, praying it to move. It could not be a more futile, pointless waste of energy, but that’s the point. Furiosa refuses to give up.
She’s one of over a dozen strong female characters, but as Theron states perfectly herself:
“People keep saying ‘strong women’ but we are actually just women. We had a filmmaker that understood the truth of women is powerful enough and we don’t want to be put on pedestals or made to be unnaturally strong.”
It’s a shame that we live in a world where a film as brilliant as Mad Max gets called a strong feminist movie. That should be true of every film, to the extent that it wouldn’t even be a talking point. And yet we don’t live in that world. We live in the world where Mad Max is the exception rather than the rule, and where TV shows still lean on sexual abuse as a viable plot device.
The point being, Mad Max was hands down a breathtaking tour de force; one long chase scene that refuses to let you break for even a moment; it’s one of the best action movies of the last 20 years and will be hailed as a masterclass of its form I’ve no doubt. It also has some of the strongest female representation certainly in action movies and arguably throughout all of Hollywood. More of this please. Game of Thrones creators, take note.