George RR Martin defends sexual violence in Game of Thrones: “we shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t exist”

The author's novels and the TV adaptation have received criticism for their treatment of female characters

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Game of Thrones’ depiction of women has long been a topic of debate, but the HBO series has come under particular scrutiny of late thanks to a controversial rape scene featuring Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon).

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The scene in question does not take exactly the same form in George RR Martin’s books, on which the show is based, but the author nevertheless has something to say about the more general question of how female characters should be treated in dramatising what he says is essentially a medieval world. 

“The books reflect a patriarchal society based on the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were not a time of sexual egalitarianism,” said Martin. “It was very classist, dividing people into three classes. And they had strong ideas about the roles of women. One of the charges against Joan of Arc that got her burned at the stake was that she wore men’s clothing – that was not a small thing.

“There were, of course, some strong and competent women. It still doesn’t change the nature of the society.”

Martin went on to address the depiction of sexual violence against women in the world he has created, an issue which hit headlines once again last month after Ramsay’s attack on Sansa. It was interpreted by some as another example of the trivialisation of sexual assault in the Game of Thrones world (although in a poll by RadioTimes.com the majority of viewers said the scene was not out of place given its context).

“I’m writing about war, which [is] what almost all epic fantasy is about,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly. “But if you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that.

“Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today. It’s not a strong testament to the human race, but I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist. I want to portray struggle. Drama comes out of conflict. If you portray a utopia, then you probably wrote a pretty boring book.”

Martin also refuted the belief in certain quarters that because his books present a fantasy world with non-historical elements, his “medieval” explanation doesn’t hold water.

“Now there are people who will say to that, ‘Well, he’s not writing history, he’s writing fantasy – he put in dragons, he should have made an egalitarian society.’ Just because you put in dragons doesn’t mean you can put in anything you want. If pigs could fly, then that’s your book. But that doesn’t mean you also want people walking on their hands instead of their feet.”

“It’s a complicated argument. To be non-sexist, does that mean you need to portray an egalitarian society? That’s not in our history; it’s something for science fiction.”

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Game of Thrones continues on Sky Atlantic on Mondays