Content Warning: sexual assault, sexual abuse, physical abuse
In 2015, during the fifth season run of the HBO series Game of Thrones, fan favorite character Sansa Stark was violently raped by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton. At the time the episode aired, many critics questioned the necessity of such a violent scene for someone who had already suffered so much. Fans were outraged once again when, years later, Sansa attributed the rape (and her rapist) with toughening her up, saying in the eighth season episode “The Last of the Starks,” “Without. . .Ramsay and the rest, I would have stayed a little bird all my life” (00:21:58-00:22:04). In 2017, Terminator director James Cameron sat down for an interview about one of his upcoming movies, during which he made what many regarded as misogynistic comments about the Hollywood blockbuster Wonder Woman: “She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing. . .to me, it’s a step backwards. Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon. She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit” (Freeman). And most recently, last year the cult classic TV show Veronica Mars was revived for a fourth season, to the delight of legions of devoted fans. Unfortunately for them, the season ended with the death of Veronica’s long-time beau, Logan Echolls, shattering the hearts of millions and sending angry Marshmallows (a nickname for fans of the show) to Twitter to vent their frustrations. In response, show creator Rob Thomas explained, “We’re doing a show that’s noir, and our noir detective and her happy home life with her boyfriend or husband just didn’t feel right moving forward” (Porter).
All of these examples serve to demonstrate the pervasiveness of an all-too-common trope in media, one in which a woman must have her world shattered by a trauma (often, but not always, rape), before rebuilding herself as a stronger version of the person she once was. This is why James Cameron finds it unrealistic that Wonder Woman could be both endlessly optimistic and a kickass warrior, or why Rob Thomas believes his heroine would become boring to the audience if she married her partner, or why Benioff and Weiss felt that the only way to indicate strength in Sansa was to have her survive a rape. This trope is so widespread across the media we consume because we live in a male-centric society, one dominated by the idea that men are inherently strong, but women can only be strong after something terrible has been done to them. Occasionally, men will have something called a “fridged woman,” a term first coined by comic book author Gail Simone which involves a female character being killed off or otherwise stripped of her power in order to drive a male character’s story forward. Well-known examples include Gwen Stacy in the Spiderman franchise, or Tracy Mills in Seven. Both women are killed off, their stories sidelined in order to propel the man’s story forward. It’s important to note that while this trope is often presented as a trauma for the man, it’s still a woman who is the primary bearer of the suffering. For the most part, because men have been the ones to hold all the power for centuries, they are the ones that are allowed to have strength and drive without also needing to be tormented.
Women, however, haven’t had the same privilege. Being a woman means living with the fear that at any point, they could become a victim of violence, especially sexual assault. It means walking to their car at night with their keys held between their fingers like knives. It means carrying an arsenal of weapons in their purse every time they make a trip to the grocery store. It means never accepting a drink from anyone at a party. According to the CDC (2020), one in five women will be raped in their lifetime. It’s a very real threat, yet one that has been unfortunately popularized as an untidy way to give a woman a reason to claim her power and agency. Film and television treat it as nothing more than a plot point to be addressed and quickly moved on from. Journalist Lucy Tiven describes how damaging this can be when it comes to telling women’s stories: “When male writers use sexual violence to superficially grant female characters strength or complexity, it not only trivializes sexual assault, but reflects a larger disinterest in how women think, feel, and act” (Tiven). In the case of Sansa, we see her getting revenge on her attacker by siccing his hounds on him, but her rape isn’t addressed again until the final season; there’s no time set aside for her to mentally process her trauma and come to terms with it.
Look, this doesn’t mean that all storylines involving rape need to be axed from film and television. When the material is handled sensitively, it can be empowering and useful in destigmatizing an ever-present fear for women. Shows like Unbelievable and Sex Education both handle the assaults of their characters deftly, highlighting the very real pain that comes with sexual assault. After she is masturbated on while riding the bus, we see Sex Education’s Aimee mourn her loss of security, but slowly accept what has happened to her and reclaim her control with the help of her female friends who have all experienced similar assaults. Her story is concluded with the powerful image of her sitting on the bus once more, this time surrounded by her friends and imbued with new confidence. Unbelievable, based on a news article from 2015, follows two stories: that of Marie Adler, a victim of rape, and two detectives tracking a serial rapist on the other side of the country, several years after Marie’s assault. Over the course of the series, and as the two separate stories intersect, we see Marie retraumatized by a legal system that doesn’t believe her and won’t protect her. It’s a grimly authentic representation of how rape victims are often treated, but one that, like Sex Education, ends on a hopeful note. With these shows, the pain doesn’t end after one forty-five minute episode, but carries over in an arc that ends with a satisfying, yet grounded, conclusion. And it should be no surprise that both these shows were helmed by women creators.
The problem is that for far too long, with men in creative control, the suffering of women has been used as a lazy attempt to drive a narrative forward, a slapdash method of transforming a meek and mild character into a superhero without addressing any of the long-term psychological effects that come with sexual assault or other forms of trauma. It’s sloppy, it’s insulting, and it’s getting old. Women have just as diverse a range of stories to tell as men, and shouldn’t need to be raped or otherwise traumatized to prove that. Creators like Greta Gerwig, Regina King, Lorene Scafaria, Patty Jenkins, Sofia Coppola, Ava DuVernay, and countless others don’t seem to have any trouble telling these stories. Male writers, directors, and producers just need to start getting a little more creative and begin delving into these stories, rather than continuing down the path of writing sexist, tone-deaf, rape-heavy narratives without thinking about the damage they are doing. . .both to the ingenuity of the film and television industry, and the women who are watching what they put out into the world.
Benioff, David, and D.B. Weiss. “The Last of the Starks.” Game of Thrones, season 8, episode 4, HBO, 5 May 2019.
Freeman, Hadley. “James Cameron: ‘The Downside of Being Attracted to Independent Women Is That They Don’t Need You’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Aug. 2017, www.theguardian.com/film/2017/aug/24/james-cameron-well-never-be-able-to-reproduce-the-shock-of-terminator-2.
Porter, Rick. “’Veronica Mars’ Creator on What’s Next After That Stunning Ending.” The Hollywood Reporter, 23 July 2019, www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/veronica-mars-season-4-explained-rob-thomas-interview-1225788.
Tiven, Lucy. “Jodie Foster Nailed the Reason Some Rape Scenes Are Gross (and Some Aren’t).” ATTN, ATTN: 13 May 2016, archive.attn.com/stories/8333/jodie-foster-sick-men-hollywood-using-rape-trope. “Preventing Sexual Violence.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 Jan. 2020, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/fastfact.html.