When Does a Guilty Pleasure Become Too Guilty?

sansa stark

In Game of Thrones, Sansa Stark is trapped in an abusive marriage with a powerful villain. 

We all have our guilty pleasures. Some of us like to binge-watch old episodes of Sex and the City, other people indulge in low-budget horror movies or ultra-cheesy musicals. For years, my guilty pleasure has been Game of Thrones

There are many great parts about Game of Thrones—the actors, the scenery, and the plot are all captivating—but it’s a guilty show for me and many others because of the show’s gratuitous rape scenes, which have been discussed at great length over the show’s five seasons. But after years of wincing at violent plot points, I have to ask: Is it time to walk away from this show?

The trouble with guilty pleasures is that millions of us really genuinely like Game of Thrones and are invested in the story. For a long time, the unnecessary rape and sexual violence outweighed the critical voice in my head that says: “This is messed up.” Every TV show has its flaws and problems, consuming any TV as a feminist means you’ll sometimes find yourself rolling your eyes or tweeting criticisms.  But after this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, it feels to many fans like the scales have tipped the other way: The part of me that feels bad while watching the show outweighs the joy I get from it. Game of Thrones feels like it’s no longer worth the trouble.

In this week’s episode, Game of Thrones took us to a violent place, once again—but this time, the sexual violence was even worse. Viewers spent the final moments of the episode, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” listening to Sansa Stark’s scream as she was raped by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton. In another layer of cruelty, her childhood friend and Ramsay’s enslaved servant boy, Theon, is forced to watch from the corner of the room. Viewers could hear the rape but not see it (somewhat of a relief, to be sure) as the camera focused on tears running down Theon’s face. Yesterday, The Mary Sue wrote a piece announcing and explaining that they will no longer be watching or promoting the show. No teasers, no recaps, no reaction essays. A large portion of their essay was dedicated to preempting criticisms of their ban on the basis of “creative freedom.” After expressing my concerns over the episode and my vow to stay away from the shows remaining seasons, some friends told me, “Well what did you expect? It’s Game of Thrones.” There seem to be the two primary reasons for sticking with a problematic show even after its proven themselves to be invested in values that sharply contradict our own. Nasty elements can make for a better plot, and if we’ve already watched so much, why would we back out now? 

Last season on Game of Thrones, a scene where Jaime Lannister forces his sister to have sex despite her saying "no" caused outcry among many fans.

Sometimes, the violence in Game of Thrones is used effectively to portray how women and colonized peoples are hurt and exploited in a patriarchal, warring society.  At many times, the show does a solid job of creating empathy with characters and showing viewers how violence rends communities apart. The choice of some fans to finally walk away from Game of Thrones is not necessarily a condemnation of the entire project or its viewers. What has happened for many fans of this and other shows, is that the egregious sexual violence has undermined our trust in the show. Instead of helping create empathy and an investment in the characters, several examples of sexual violence in the show have instead felt like a cheap and hurtful way to create drama at the expense of viewers. 

Writer Ijeoma Oluo’s recent essay about “problematic faves,” has sparked a lot of excellent discussions about being critical pop culture consumers. It’s important to acknowledge that most of popular media is riddled with problems and deciding to just not watch a show is not always the best option. Events like this week’s episode of Game of Thrones force us to push this idea further and wonder whether or not making note of repeated, wildly uncomfortable scenes is enough to justify commitment to our favorite media. In some cases, merely discussing the flaws does not feel like enough to forgive the flaws. With Game of Thrones, I no longer feel that noticing the problems is enough—I personally don’t want to look at it anymore.

Knowing when to walk away from troublesome shows isn’t always clear-cut, nor is it easy. Some of us can’t stomach Law and Order: SVU but others can genuinely feel okay after reading the rape scenes in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. We don’t need to create universal rules for media consumption, but we do need to start being honest about what we’re willing to tolerate for the sake of entertainment and start to make tough decisions about where we place our support. Mental escapes into pop culture are something we should all enjoy, but not at any cost. In the meantime, I’m on the market for something else to enjoy on Sunday evenings.

Related Reading: Don't Hate on Sansa Stark's Powerful Femininity

Elizabeth King is a freelance writer and non-profit coordinator living in Chicago, IL. Feel free to say hi on Twitter @ekingc.


by Elizabeth King
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Elizabeth King is a writer, feminist, mountain enthusiast, and ice-cream connoisseur based in Chicago, IL. Come say "hi!" on Twitter @ekingc. 

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12 Comments Have Been Posted

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" . . . forces his sister to have sex despite her saying "no" caused outcry among many fans."

RAPE. He RAPED her. When someone "forces someone to have sex,' it's rape.

Agree completely! Call it

Agree completely! Call it what it is!

I think the problem is in how

I think the problem is in how far the show has deviated from the novels, esp with Sansa's storyline. When I read the books, I was put off by the sheer volume of sexual violence, and the fact that Martin can't write women. But the rape reduced as the story got going and he learnt to write women. The TV show is so far from what has been written, in the books *spoiler* Sansa is still in the Vale with Littlefinger and her cousin Robin.
It was totally gratuitous and unnecessary. We know Ramsey Bolton is a vile human being, it doesn't need to be reinforced this way. He didn't need to rape Sansa.

I will keep watching it.

I will keep watching it. This is what happens when patriarchy is at it's worst. There is already a long history and backstory in the book and the show of the rape and killing of women and children. They're keeping it real. My guess is the pendulum will swing in the other direction. Do you honestly not want to see Sansa, Arya, Daenerys, Brienne, and the countless other women take back the night (winter)? I do.

At least this time the rape

At least this time the rape is half-based on the source material (see below) instead of the weird yanked-out-of-the-ether scene of Jamie raping Cersei practically on top of their son's corpse.


Ramsay rapes Jeyne Poole in the books, thinking that she's Arya. Not sure why they nixed that angle (or Poole's ensuing rescue/half-assed escape with book-readers-know-who, but I guess we'll see.

That rape scene wasn't yanked

That rape scene wasn't yanked from the ether. It was based on a scene in the book that can easily (should) be viewed as rape. Person 1 (Cersei) says no, Person 2 (her brother, old what's his face) ignores no and keep pushing until Person 1 relents. That's not consent, cause, you know, no means no, no doesn't mean keep at it till you get to yes.

I noticed that immediately

I noticed that immediately following the airing of the episode, EW posted theinterview with Sophie Turner, and how much she loved that scene. It was almost like a justification from the producers - see the actress is fine with it, so you should be, too

I'm not sure if I want to give up on it just yet. My heart sank during the scene and then quickly became angry. However, I'm curious to see how they handle Cersei's plotline. It made me more sympathetic to her in the books, but then I'm sure people will just say she's getting what she deserves.

like the distopian tv guide from Woman on the Edge of Time

GOT and other shows on tv are reminding me more and more the tv guide mentioned in Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. In particular, the tv guide from the distopia specifically lists rape and murder as selling points of the plot line on various shows.
I stopped watching GOT at the end of season 3, I only was interested in a handful of characters and just didn't feel it worth it to wade through the excessive violence for that.

Why are you walking away?

I've been raped twice in my life. I state that as a fact and am not fishing for sympathy or empathy. I've come to terms with what happened to me, forgiven the men who acted against me, and have made myself ready for any further attempt by anyone else.

All that to say, when I heard Sansa being raped, hearing her screams, seeing Theon's tears - I felt her pain, her fear, her anger. It brought around imaginations of what she would think and do afterwards. Her possible thoughts, her preparations for the next time she would have to deal with the monster called her husband, and who she is thinking of when she thinks of being safe in someone's arms seeing as she has no family left.

My point is that rape is a reality that is ignored by many, including those that it has happened to, and that is wrong. It may not be Martin's (in his books) or HBO's (in the show) goal to bring that reality into light but that is exactly what they have done. And to walk away from it.... why?

Because you simply do not want to see a reflection of a horrible reality? Or is it deeper? Because we should not be viewing these things on something as public as tv? We should keep those things in the dark, sweep it under a rug and walk away as if it doesn't actually happen... it's too ... egregious.

Or are you walking away because of another reason? And what would that be, I wonder?

Sexual violence, whether it is through rape or other methods, is a reality that many people sweet under a rug. And sometimes the only way to make the world realize how bad it is and how often it happens is to show them a reflection of it through their favorite mediums.

So why are you walking away?

i quit after episode four...

i find this interesting mostly because i had to quit the show on my own, after episode four's brutal religious hate crime gave me a panic attack. i've been telling my friends i bailed on the show and they couldn't understand why, but now are beginning to see where i was coming from.

i'm all for pushing through shitty things to get to the meat of a good story, but it gets to a point where showing the reality of life becomes forcing audiences to be complicit in perpetual trauma. i can't take that any more. and anyone else who can't should give up on the show. i'm surprised to find i'm just as happy with gifs and wikipedia as i am with actually spending an hour of my week cringing and crying over yet another assault.

...no disrespect to those who can still watch. it's a good show, it just hit my threshold pretty hard.

Looks like I did the right thing last season!

walked away last season when Bran used his amazing special ability, Jojan used his amazing cunning and Hodor used his amazing strength to rescue Meera from the Bad Rapey Man. For me this was a perfect example of the show introducing new scenes whose sole purpose is to empower men at the expense of Damseling women via the lazy use of sexual violence as shorthand for Baddie. After the Dany incident in season we and the Cersei incident of season four I considered this Strike Three and refused to watch any more. Good thing too apparently since the shows writers can't seem to find any more imaginative ways to stall things whilst we wait on books


The morality of "Game of Thrones" has always been to punish good and reward evil -- it's practically the designing principle. I don't like it either, but it's naive to expect anything else.

If you're looking for exciting Sunday night drama with a strong female lead, I recommend "Penny Dreadful."

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