by Layton E. Williams
Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, “The Door,” had a wealth of stunning moments; it’s likely none of us will ever hold a door again without feeling a bit weepy. But for me, as a survivor of sexual trauma, the most unexpectedly powerful moment came when Sansa Stark forced Littlefinger to confront and articulate the violent rape she experienced at the hands of her husband — a marriage Littlefinger arranged.
The scene offered a strikingly profound instance of a woman reclaiming her own power — and a surprising one, given the show’s historically problematic treatment of sex, violence and women in general.
When Game of Thrones premiered in 2011, I watched it largely because the guy I was dating was a dedicated viewer. I remember lying on the couch one evening and watching a scene in which the conniving and depraved Littlefinger, then a brothel-keeper, commands two female prostitutes to have sex with each other while he launches into a expository monologue in the foreground. I decried the gratuitous scene — even as I privately realized with new certainty that I was sexually attracted to women.
That scene motivated outspoken response from many fans and even inspired reviewer Myles McNutt to coin the term “sexposition.” It made clear that Game of Thrones would not hold back its use of sex and nudity; the show has faced ongoing criticism for its exploitation of female characters ever since.
Arguably, the show’s most impassioned blowback came last year in response to a scene in which Sansa Stark is raped by her sadistic husband, Ramsey Bolton, while one of her childhood friends is forced to watch. Although the show’s depiction of the rape was actually less gruesome than in the book, Bolton’s wife in the book is a minor character — not Sansa, a key character. When it happened to Sansa onscreen, even some diehard fans called the scene unnecessary.
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In last Sunday’s episode, Sansa comes to face to face with a man who played a pivotal role in the violence she experienced. Littlefinger didn’t rape Sansa, but he arranged for her to be married to Bolton, and then abandoned her to his cruelty. Littlefinger’s smoothly confident veneer falters as Sansa observes him with a cold stare. When he tells her how relieved he is that she is unharmed, she scoffs: “Unharmed?”
“Did you know about Ramsey?” She sneers, condemning him either way. And then, “Do you want to hear about our wedding night?”
Littlefinger does know something of Ramsey, enough that he can’t look Sansa in the eye. He wants to avoid the uncomfortable conversation, the damning truth, but Sansa will not relent.
“What do you think he did to me?” She demands until he answers — that Ramsey beat her, cut her and … She doesn’t merely tell him what happened to her, she forces him to conjure the image and say the words. It’s her trauma they’re reliving together, but in this scene, Sansa has all the power, while Littlefinger is forced to painfully confront the violence that he enabled.
I can’t claim to be an avid Thrones fan. I’ve read the books, watched a fair few episodes, and — because I’m a pop culture geek — read a lot of articles about it. After last year’s rape scene, I went on at least one tirade about TV sexual violence. But I’ve been watching it lately and on Sunday night, this scene struck me to my core; not because I’m a dedicated fan, but because of my own experience of sexual violence.
It was powerful to watch Sansa reclaim her power and experiences. She doesn’t shy away from the truth; she owns it. Sexual violence may be freely depicted in Game of Thrones, but Littlefinger is no more comfortable talking about it than we are in our own world. I keep my history of sexual trauma to myself — not because I don’t want to speak, but because it has been impressed upon me that it is a shameful secret that makes others uncomfortable. Sansa doesn’t care about polite restraint or shame in the way I wish I didn’t care.
Sansa tells Littlefinger that she can feel the pain; not just in her heart, but in her body even in the moment. I know exactly what she means. As I watched her, I could feel the physical reality of my own experience too. Often these echoes of pain make me feel like I’m being traumatized all over again, but this was crucially different. There was strength in the way Sansa claimed her embodied trauma and forced Littlefinger to reckon with it.
If I have a critique, it’s that she doesn’t go all the way. She doesn’t force Littlefinger to name her actual rape, alluding to it instead with a sardonic quip about what polite ladies can talk about. I wanted him to have to say it. I wanted him to have to taste the words in his mouth the way Sansa has to feel the pain in her body.
Still, Sansa’s fearless, angry confrontation offered me genuine catharsis — a chance to vicariously encounter the justice that I’ve never been able to find in my own life.
Sansa will likely never confront her violator in the way she confronts Littlefinger. But she does get to challenge a man whose life hinges on a system of exploitation that allows such violence to exist. She makes him stare into the face of her pain. It seems satisfying in a way that I crave as a survivor, and that I was grateful to witness as a viewer.
I’ve talked to a number of other women since Sunday night’s episode, and they’ve all expressed similar experiences of resonance and catharsis. It’s still shocking to me that such a powerful moment came from a show so notorious for its careless treatment of women and sex. There’s an extra level of profundity — and even hope — in that paradox. We are a society soaked in rape culture, even in the most unexpected places there is the possibility of justice, healing and redemption.
Layton E. Williams is a writer and Presbyterian clergy working at the intersection of faith, justice, progressive politics and culture with particular emphasis on feminism and queerness. She is relocating from Chicago to Washington, D.C. this summer to pursue advocacy work.
[Content warning: sexual violence, spoilers]