The backlash to Sunday night’s episode of “Game of Thrones” has been hitting hard since the closing credits started rolling. [Spoiler alerts ahead if you haven’t yet tuned in.]
The latest episode featured the wedding-night rape of Sansa Stark by her new husband Ramsay Bolton as her quasi-brother Theon Greyjoy is forced to watch. Key female characters Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen have also been subjected to rape storylines, but the latest instance has touched a nerve.
According to social media analytics firm Crimson Hexagon, audience sentiment following the episode was 51 percent negative, 49 percent positive, with negative sentiment increasing by 6 percent and positive sentiment decreasing by 6 percent in the week of May 17.
“Over the last few days, the amount of negative conversation has definitely grown,” said a Crimson Hexagon spokesperson. “Usually, the media cycle following a Sunday show would have finished commenting by Wednesday, but there is still a significant amount of negative discussion from May 20.”
The continuing fallout makes the Washington Post headline “‘Game of Thrones’ has always been about rape” appear tin-eared.
The show is no stranger to taking creative liberties that deviate from George R. R. Martin’s books: last season, the sexual encounter between Jaime Lannister and his sister Cersei was portrayed as a rape, while the scene from the book “A Storm of Swords” (itself a rapey title) depicts it as consensual. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss are responsible for steering the show to its conclusion, and reactions to Sunday evening’s episode suggest that they may have overstepped a line, possibly putting a dent in the breakout HBO franchise.
This could be due to the fact that prominent media figures have taken a stand against the scene. Feminist pop culture website The Mary Sue announced on May 18 that it would no longer be recapping or “promoting” the show in light of Sunday’s episode.
On May 19, Democratic senator for Claire McCaskill tweeted:
Ok, I’m done Game of Thrones.Water Garden, stupid.Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable.It was a rocky ride that just ended.
— Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) May 19, 2015
According to social analytics company Brandwatch, the data shows that certain key phrases such as “[no] longer be promoting HBO” were used predominantly by female tweeters. Male Twitter uses were more likely to express sympathy for Sansa, using phrases such as “poor Sansa.” As such, McCaskill and The Mary Sue’s reactions reflect a gender split in reactions that is still playing out.
Still, not everyone believes the creative detour will turn fans away. Describing the recent television upfronts in New York City, Zach Servideo, partner at Fabric Media, pointed to the popularity of Viners, Instagrammers and the “raw and authentic experiences” that characterize creativity generally today. Also, the decision may be creating discomfort, but it’s also sparking conversation.
“That’s the whole point of creative … [it’s a] new creative thing on the screen that we can all experience,” Servideo said. “No one is getting hurt in ‘Game of Thrones’.”
This is certainly true, but the creative liberties taken by the showrunners might work against it in the future now that Martin is no longer writing the show. Tyler Coates, deputy editor of Decider, asked, “Why, then, would the show push yet another envelope when its audience has suffered alongside its many female characters already?”
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