[Editor's note: Spoilers ahead for season 8, episode 4 of Game of Thrones.]
Last night while watching Game of Thrones, one particular moment almost sent me into a rage blackout.
No, it wasn't when Arya rejected Gendry's marriage proposal (I actually cheered at that one). It was when Sansa had a heart-to-heart with her former protector, Sandor "The Hound" Clegane. The two characters haven't seen each other since the end of season two, and the Hound says that he's heard about what's happened to his "little bird" since (the death of her parents and two of her brothers; two forced marriages, including one that involved brutal sexual assault and degradation; manipulation and repeated harassment by another powerful man, etc.). He tells Sansa that if she had left King's Landing with him all of those years ago, she wouldn't have experienced any of the misery she has been put through in the six seasons since.
In reply, Sansa tenderly places her hand over The Hound's and says, "Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would’ve stayed a little bird all my life."
This might seem like an innocuous statement; Sansa is objectively a different person than she was at the beginning of the show, when we knew her as young, naive teen heading down to the capital with fantasies of a royal wedding (her own) dancing in her head. But the subtext beneath it—that she was weak before, and that surviving countless instances of abuse and rape is what made her strong—felt to me like a disturbing and potentially dangerous interpretation of sexual assault. One that casts sexual assault as the only, all-important factor in creating a strong, independent, worldly woman.
The danger of these "stronger on the other side" tropes is that they seem to tell us "that trauma should lead to that type of growth and development."
This isn't just a Sansa problem. "A tragic event like rape [or] sexual assault has been used to develop and shape characters by many authors and writers over time," says Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Think Marvel's Jessica Jones, who became a superhero after being gaslighted, manipulated, and raped by her ex; Robin in the Cormoran Strike novels is revealed to be passionate about her detective work because she was raped in college; it is strongly implied that Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road is motivated in the story by her own rape. It's a device that's been used by Thrones before, too—lest we forget that our Mother of Dragons was sexually assaulted by her husband, Khal Drogo, before she began breaking chains.
This trope is right about one thing, Palumbo says: "[Sexual assault] is often a life-changing experience." However, that change is usually over-simplified in pop culture. (Say, a person transforms from a regular person to an avenging superhero post-assault.) "[Healing] is part of a long complex journey; it's not just this one critical turning point," Palumbo says. The danger of these "stronger on the other side" tropes is that they seem to tell us "that trauma should lead to that type of growth and development," says Palumbo. And that sets up the unrealistic expectation that healing looks a certain way. "Everyone's healing journey is different for so many reasons," she says.
"Sansa owned her own story and characterized, for herself, the role that the abuse played in her life." —Michelle Carroll of End Rape on Campus
But there's another way to look at that scene between Sansa and the Hound, says Michelle Carroll, associate director of external programming at End Rape on Campus. One that I initially missed—perhaps because I, too, was overly quick to simplify the Lady of Winterfell's experience. "Sansa refused to allow The Hound or the show’s audience to conclude that another man [The Hound] would have been the magical solution to Sansa’s life," she says. (Carroll is a long-time watcher of the show.) "Instead, Sansa owned her own story and characterized, for herself, the role that the abuse played in her life...For me, the scene was a poignant reminder that Sansa is continuing to heal and rebuild her power," she says.
"It’s so important that books, movies, and television storylines that include sexual violence also include a storyline of how the survivor heals and takes back their own power," Carroll adds. "Showing a faithful and truthful narrative of healing must empower the survivor to lead their own healing journey." She also says it's important for writing rooms to ensure survivors are part of their workplaces and workflows to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes in their work.
With only two episodes of Game of Thrones left, it's likely too late for any further nuance for Sansa's character. But as #TimesUp and #MeToo continue to shape Hollywood and the larger entertainment world, here's hoping that more storytellers start rethinking the tired tropes about sexual assault in their own work.
Speaking of pop culture, here's what Netflix's You got right (and wrong) about domestic violence. And here's the range of emotional recovery that goes into surviving a shooting.
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