An open letter to HBO, Dan Weiss, David Benioff, and Bryan Cogman (re: sexual violence in Game of Thrones)

(trigger warning for discussion of rape, domestic violence)
Courtesy of iheartgot.tumblr.com
Dear HBO,
I am writing to express my concerns about Dan Weiss and David Benioff’s handling of the adaptation of Game of Thrones. There have been several instances now over a few seasons where scenes that were, in the source material, scenes of consensual sex – have been portrayed as rape scenes. Rape has also often been shown in the background, for no particular purpose other than to show the severity of certain situations, which could have been illustrated in less degrading, egregious ways. These depictions show a concerning theme in enacting sexual violence against women.
After much deliberation, I regret to tell you that after five years, I have decided to cease watching this show, and will stop publicising it on my blog and various other social media.
You can imagine my distress when Mr. Benioff and Mr. Weiss decided to include a particularly disturbing storyline from the book series through transferring the plot to Sansa Stark – a 14 year old girl who has suffered abuse with little comeuppance since the first season of the show. While Sansa in the book series is learning and becoming more confident, show Sansa has been put in this storyline which involves her rape, emotional and possibly physical torture at the hands of a psychopath. Bryan Cogman stated, “there was a subplot we loved from the books, but it used a character that’s not in the show” – it is concerning to me that, with all the changes that have been made in this adaptation (many that have been reductive to the representation of women), the writers chose to prioritise this storyline over one of empowerment for Sansa, especially considering her storyline thus far had a pointed lack of agency.
HBO promoted Sansa’s transformation (dyed black hair, black clothes, new alias) as something to be celebrated. This year is the first time in five seasons that she has been granted merchandise – a Funko pop figure and a Dark Horse figurine – both of which display this new look. If HBO and the writers of Game of Thrones only see this version of the character as marketable, why have they gone to such lengths to victimise her again?
Some might just say “it’s just fiction” – but as someone who works with television you must know the importance of fiction. Nothing is created in a bubble – writers bring preconceived notions about the world to their writing, whether they do this consciously or not. Game of Thrones is one of the most popular television series in the world right now, I know fourteen year olds who watch it, it is important that the stories remain as respectful in representation as possible. Raping a 14 year old female character for shock value and to eventually “empower” her, is not good representation.
This episode has left many upset and planning to cancel their HBO subscriptions. Some well known pop culture websites, such as The Mary Sue, are no longer going to be promoting the show.
I would love to see Mr. Benioff, Mr. Weiss and the other Game of Thrones writers make more effort to portray their female characters, in a way that doesn’t involve the constant, unnecessary additions of rape and sexual abuse. Nearly every female character on the show has been subject to sexual assault. The way the series is going is causing many viewers to lose faith in the storytelling, and it’s a shame that a show that has been so strong in the past, and shows such promise, should be tarnished by such a misogynistic reputation.
Since the episode’s airdate, multitudes of social media users have complained that “if it bothers you so much, why are you watching this show?” “Gore and murder is much worse.” In Australia, where I live, 1 in 6 women are raped each year. That’s twice the rate of women worldwide. In most cases, the perpetrator is known to their victim. Many of these cases are marital rape, which is often not even considered rape by the general population. The average woman is much more likely to experience first hand this kind of violence than any sensationalised gory murder on television. This is a reality for many. And that is why it is so difficult to watch, over and over again, without thought or reason, on your show.
Women do not need to be raped in order to have a compelling storyline.
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Why do we ignore the female audience?

Fantasy – especially epic fantasy – has been long perceived as a predominately “male” interest, and perhaps prior to the past ten years the majority of fantasy fans were male. Most fantasy was marketed towards men, and sadly – it still is. It has only been in the past month that Marvel has announced female-led blockbusters Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, where the past ten years they have been producing exclusively male-led superhero films. There are only two Avengers who have yet to receive a standalone film, and one of them is the franchise’s only female superhero, Black Widow (and there are no solid plans for this film). The opening weekend of this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy had a 44 per cent female audience, and yet the main female character in the film, Gamora, was the only main character to not receive merchandise.

It is only later this year that Marvel is producing a miniseries based on Captain America’s Peggy Carter. A female fan who attended the 2014 San Diego Comic Con related her experience asking for merchandise for the show on her blog:

“This was a t-shirt for their upcoming show Agent Carter, which will be their first and thus far only female-led property, and it sold out almost immediately. When my friend asked if they would be getting more shirts in, the attendant said no. “We didn’t expect them to sell out,” she said, as though baffled that their fanbase was not comprised solely of people who were or had once been fourteen-year-old boys in basements.”

Doctor Who is another fantasy series with a large female audience, and yet the show’s current head writer, Steven Moffat, has been criticised for his handling of female characters on the show. There is a noticeable lack of diversity in the characters’ personalities.

“River Song? Amy Pond? Hardly weak women. It’s the exact opposite. You could accuse me of having a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people. That would be fair.”

Additionally, there has not been one single female writer on the show during Moffat’s tenure.

According to statistics from Nielsen, approximately 2 million women are tuning in to Game of Thrones on average each week – about 42 per cent of their total 4.8 million viewers. A rather large number, considering its show runners draw female viewers in with promises of strong female characters while simultaneously including a large gender disparity with shown nudity, sexualised violence that is extraneous from the source material, and behind the scenes problems such as firing a recurring actress because she amended her contract to include “no nudity.”

Why don’t these franchises respect such a large portion of their audience?

It would appear that there is still a lack of awareness of the audience of science fiction and fantasy media, furthering a need to undertake more comprehensive audience studies in the area. Women make up more than half of the film-going audience, and yet only make up 15 per cent of leading roles – and this doesn’t even take into account the representation of women of colour and LGBTQ women (most female characters in mainstream film and television are straight and white). This misunderstanding of the audience’s desires is reductive both to the audience and to the profitability of the media itself.

Representation is also important to the audience on a personal level, as there is a noted link between self-esteem and representation. Whoopi Goldberg once spoke of her understanding of the significance of representation through her memories of watching Uhura, played by African-American actress Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek.

“When I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘come here, mum, everybody, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”

Studies have shown that correlations between self-esteem and media are reflected by the representations of the characters themselves. Coded messages within media helps young white boys believe that anything is possible, through constant depiction of white male characters as powerful main characters, while in contrast, female characters are portrayed as love interests. What results is white men having greater positive media representation from a young age.

All in all, it is evident that there is a long way to go before female characters and the female audience is afforded respect in what is perceived to be a male-dominated media.