Spoilers through season 5 of Game of Thrones and through season 2, episode 4 of Outlander.
Disclaimer: I don’t enjoy rape and sexual assault on television, in movies, books, or any media. Whenever it happens (and it seems like it’s often), I understand it’s hard to watch for most, as it should be, but I think it’s important that we do depict these barbarous acts, not for shock value, but for the sake of discussion. We need to critique not that the act is on screens, but how it’s being shown and then how it is later dealt with.
Outlander had another violent episode this weekend with “La Dame Blanche.” Book readers knew the attack was coming but it still didn’t prepare for the brutality of the scene and watching young Mary Hawkins raped in a dark alley with Claire helpless to save her.
If you’ve read the books, you’ll know that rape, unfortunately, isn’t uncommon in the world of Outlander. In fact, I can only think of one main character in the series who isn’t raped or nearly raped. In some ways, viewers might compare Mary’s rape to Sansa’s rape last year on Game of Thrones and they wouldn’t be off base. For starters, both characters were innocent, virgin girls raped horrifically by men exerting their power. Both scenes were difficult to withstand, making good use of screams and lighting to convey the horror of the moment. However, it’s how these shows handle the aftermath of rape that tells their difference.
It’s no coincidence that Jamie finally regains some sense of self the same episode Mary is raped. It’s through his eyes that we see the repercussions of this crime and see it as more than just a shocking act. I’ve already discussed before how I approve of Starz not holding back on the brutality of Jamie’s rape and showing his PTSD, but in “La Dame Blanche” we get to hear in his own words how the rape has affected him. Early in the episode, Claire tells Jamie that Black Jack Randall is alive and much to Claire’s surprise, Jamie is elated at the news because now he can kill Randall himself. He’s a renewed man, even gaining back his lust. When the couple argues over Jamie’s actions at a brothel, Claire begs Jamie to make her understand what’s going on his head after the harrowing moments with Black Jack Randall. He tells her:
There’s this place inside me, a place I think everyone has, that they keep to themselves. A fortress where the most private part of you lives. It is your soul, the bit that makes you yourself and not anyone else. But after Wentworth, it was like my fortress had been blown apart. The thing that once lived there was suddenly exposed, out in the open, without shelter, without–That’s where I’ve been ever since, Claire. Naked. Alone. Trying to hide under a blade of grass.
And therein is the difference between how Outlander and Game of Thrones handle rape. Outlander understands it is a dark reality but never plays into it being solely for shock value. Jamie’s rape is very much a part of who he is now. We’ve watched four episodes of him trying to pull himself together and with a meeting with Black Jack looming on the horizon, it seems like it won’t be something we’re likely to forget very soon. Nor should we forget.
The same is true for Mary Hawkins. Had her rape been in Game of Thrones, it would have thrown in as an aside, much like the rapes we saw happen at Craster’s Keep in season four. What happened to Mary in Outlander was despicable, but we’re not likely to see it as a footnote in the history of Claire and Jamie. Claire cares very much for the safety of this girl, her mental and physical well-being. It is not a crime that any of these characters will brush off as “something that just happens in this world.” It is an act that rightfully enrages them, something that should be dealt with. They care for her reputation, knowing what it means in this world, but more importantly they care for the girl behind the reputation.
In Sansa’s case, there is no “dealing” with her rape, there is no help for her pain, no talk of her torture. Narratively, it lifts completely free from most everything else going on in Westeros, much like many of the gratuitous violent scenes. At one point she makes mention of Ramsay’s abuse to Theon and he responds with a look that says, “Well, yea, that’s what he does.” No one, not even Brienne tells Sansa how wrong it is to be raped, they simply offer sad looks and we’re left to accept that rape is inevitable for women in the world of Game of Thrones. Just because something is inevitable or god forbid, common, doesn’t mean it needs to be accepted as such by both the characters in that world, and viewers alike. Outlander understands this, Game of Thrones doesn’t.