Hyper-reality, Rape and American Policy


I, like many people throughout the world, watch Game of Thrones. As a civilized human being, I have to admit that I’m often taken aback by the brutality depicted by the series, especially the sexualized violence directed toward women as a whole. As a student of history, however, such violence, exploitation and bartering of women’s sexuality is nothing new to me. Though George R. R. Martin‘s world is fictitious, the setting is consistent with that of a perpetual medieval culture as existed on earth just a few short centuries ago. The real earth history of that time was not good for women at any level of feudal society.

Like any viewer, I was especially piqued by Sansa Stark’s rape. Why did this, of all of the rapes depicted on Game of Thrones bother us. The answer may be premised on simple affinity. We love Sansa. We’ve been witness to how much she has gone through already, including the numerous times she escaped rape only to be victimized by her husband, walking–albeit for political purposes–into what we, the audience, knew was going to be a violent wedding night. Fans have followed Sansa as she has been forced to grow up under the most dire circumstances, beginning the show as a petty and spoiled upper class teenager we all couldn’t stand to witnessing the fall of her family, finally growing into womanhood under the questionable tutelage of Little Finger. We are invested in Sansa, in her future. We want her to succeed, to avenge her family and to establish a good and virtuous restoration of Winterfell. Seeing…or rather hearing…her rape pushed the boundary of what Game of Thrones fans could bear.

Along the way, we have forgotten one important variable.

Sansa Stark isn’t real. She’s a character in a brilliant fiction. As such, she wasn’t really raped. That infamous moment was a representation, or a simulacra of rape. Yes, it all seems very Baudrillardian. We, the audience, have very real empathy for a fictional character in a fictional world. This, of course, says a great deal about the collective skill of the cast, direction and production of Game of Thrones as a form of entertainment. We are more than an audience for a presentation of reality. We are empathetic witnesses of a simulacrum, or a condition in which the distinctions between the real and the simulation are not clear.

In the meantime, though the simulacrum we know as Westeros is clearly not real, the kind of abuse, brutality and sexual exploitation that we see every Sunday plays out in real life in the real world. Rape is not a simulacra for millions of women throughout the world.

A case in point is the subject of an article that I read in In These Times Magazine around the same time that I viewed Sansa’s notorious wedding night. The author, Joseph Sorrentino, highlights the consequences of U.S./Mexican policies for controlling immigration from Central America.

Sansa StarkYou remember the problem as it played on the news. About a year ago, or so, thousands of child refugees from the drug wars and cartels of Central America showed up in the United States having traveled through Mexico on a train notoriously referred to as The Beast. These were poor, desperate young people trying to escape some of the most violent areas in the world, states in which U.S. interference and drug policy played no small role in destabilizing. When the fruits of our politics came home to us in the form of huddled masses the public outcry demanded action. We couldn’t just let poor people seek refuge from violence in the United States because, you know, terrorism…ebola…something bad.

The civilized solution, of course, would have been to re-write policies to end the drug war and to help struggling nations stabilize. Of course, that’s not what the United States and Mexico did. As if taken directly from the Lannister political playbook, Mexico, with U.S. support, solved the refugee problem by making the already arduous journey even more dangerous. The result could be a chapter in Westeros history. Those seeking refuge from narco-state terror must now travel through a gauntlet of violence, danger and, for sixty percent of women daring the journey, rape.

Moriano pointed to an overgrown area on the other side of the tracks, and we crossed. In a small clearing lay a woman’s boot and some clothes. This is where women are taken to be raped. On a barbed wire fence behind the clearing hung three pairs of women’s underwear, neatly pinned: sick trophies. A few feet away lay more clothing and bras, and a dirty sleeping bag.

On the other hand, we haven’t had that whole, awkward refugee problem lately, so…

I’m not a Baudrillardian. I believe there are clear distinctions between what is real and what is simulation. The lines become blurred when the simulations are more accessible than are the realities. Let’s face it, the Game of Thrones audience is probably much wider than is the readership for In These Times Magazine. But that isn’t how it has to be.

None of us would really want to live in Westeros, and those of us who are relatively sheltered in the United States, far away from the roads traveled by desperate refugees around the world would like to think that ours is nothing like the dire setting of George R. R. Martin’s imagination. But good fiction touches us because it embraces reality. The truth is that there are places in the world that are in many ways similar to Westeros, where people are subject to inhuman forces outside of their control, forces that closely mimic a real life Game of Thrones (Game of Capital? Game of Geopolitical Dominance?). The United Nations reports that we are currently in the midst of the worst refugee crisis in modern history. You can bet that with the desperation associated with refugees, you can bet that rape is rampant.

In every such case, Central America, the Middle East or West Africa, the normlessness bred from social instability is played out with brutal barbarism against women. Female sexuality becomes the battle ground. The feminist perspective on rape is correct. Rape is about power more than it is about sex. Throughout the world, power disparities between the genders is exercised to the bloody detriment of women and of sexual minorities. When that power is in contention as a result of social instability, women are even more vulnerable.

And when American policy is a direct cause or even a major influence on this instability we can’t just lose ourselves in fictitious worlds. We have a responsibility to the real life Sansa Starks, millions of them throughout the world, who are the victims of a global power struggle.

Jean Baudrillard posited that the postmodern world was characterized by a phenomenon he called hyper-reality. With the pervasiveness of media and the commodification of culture through advertisement the distinction between fantasy, or simulacra and reality becomes blurred to the point where we cannot tell the difference between the two. I do not find this to be a valid description of today’s culture, but the concept is informative. That we, as a society  can feel empathy for a fictitious character while at the same time demanding policies that are ruinous to women all over the world tells us more about our viewing priorities than it does our sensibilities.

In our society it is easy for us to spend our time lost in the fantasy worlds created for our amusement and, yes, to sell advertising space (also at a cost to women’s sexuality). We do, however, have a responsibility to spend at least as much time looking at the real world and the very real deprivations that our elected officials create. Those who advocate for the very policies that are the cause of so much pain would not advocate for rape specifically. They just don’t know, or are unwilling to accept, that that is part of the bargain in war or the exercise of destabilizing power on others.

Baudrillard is correct in his critique of the contemporary (I don’t really like to use the term “postmodern” any more, resulting from my own research efforts) media is apt. That part of the media that is charged with informing us has certainly taken a back seat to that charged with entertaining us. The test on that can be measured by looking at the comparative production values. War has been effectively sterilized in the informative media while at the same time becoming brutally ugly and disconcertingly violent on the entertainment side. We the viewers are partially responsible for that. Supply meets demand.

However, we the viewers are also alarmed by the brutality that we see. We have to steal ourselves for what we are about to witness when we turn the channel. That a centerpiece of depravity, the shock of a beloved character being raped, so affects us demonstrates that we can be moved to oppose very real policies in the very real world.


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