So. Let’s talk about Ros.
In particular, let’s talk about her death. Many eloquent people have already spoken on the subject, and many people have also been arguing that her death isn’t problematic. Although the reveal of her death was punch-to-the-gut shocking, some of these arguments appear fairly persuasive.
So I’m going to talk for a little bit about her death scene (if we can call it that) and the general reasons why it was disturbing and deeply misogynistic. But then I’m going to address in more depth a lot of the arguments that I’ve seen against this perspective, and explore why they don’t hold up under scrutiny.
Littlefinger talks to Varys about all his Littlefinger schemes. Then he mentions that he gained more of Joffrey’s favor by allowing him to experiment with a toy he wanted to dispose of. This “investment” betrayed him, you see, by selling secrets to Varys. As Littlefinger gives his power speech, the camera pans over Joffrey with a crossbow, before settling on Ros, tied up to a bedpost, clothes falling off. She has several arrows in her, including in her chest and her crotch. The camera zooms in closer, panning up her broken, dead body. And then the picture changes, and Littlefinger continues monologuing.
Why it’s a problem
Ros dies an incredibly sexualised, brutal death, and she dies it off-screen, to tell us something about male characters that we already knew.
That’s it, in a nutshell. Ros is a prostitute, invented by the show for the purpose of sexposition scenes. She has been used, again and again, to develop male characters. Littlefinger expositions about his past while she’s naked on screen. Joffrey threatens her and brutalizes her, to show us just how awful he is (in case we hadn’t already figured it out). However, at the end of the second season, Ros starts to have more agency, as she begins to work for Varys and generally step up in the world. She even talks to Shae about Sansa, and warns her about Littlefinger. And then she’s killed, without ceremony, without a hint of what was coming, without a word of dialogue or a reaction shot or anything. She’s killed in a very sexual way, and we view her death from the outside, looking at her body as Littlefinger talks. We aren’t supposed to think about her and her death, but about Littlefinger, who he is, and what he’s saying.
She doesn’t get the chance to die. She just appears dead, grotesquely sexualised, so we can think, “Wow. These dudes REALLY suck.”
But lots of characters in this series die pointlessly. Why not her? (SPOILERS FOR THE BOOKS HERE).
There’s a difference between a pointless death and what happened to Ros. Robb died an apparently pointless death, betrayed at a wedding, with his expected “boy king” plotline cut short. But his death was about him, about who he was and the things that he had done.
Assuming that he’s dead, Jon was also betrayed by his own men, because of things that he chose to do. Of course, lots of nameless people die in the series because of a war that they have nothing to do with, but once a character is named, we at least have some kind of emotional connection with their situation. Yoren died pointlessly… but he died for the Night’s Watch, protecting a bunch of boys (and Arya) that he barely knew. That says something about him. Ros wasn’t even really present in this episode. Her body was, strung up and panned over to say something about Littlefinger, but that body could have been anybody’s. They used Ros because she has a familiar face, and so it has more shock value. And her death was narratively pointless. We didn’t learn anything about any of the characters. It didn’t play a part in Ros’s own story. It was simple, pointless exploitation.
But Westeros is a misogynistic world. The show isn’t being misogynistic by portraying that.
I agree that the show can develop a misogynistic world without being misogynistic itself. I would argue that it’s something the books generally achieve, although they do have their problems too. But the key to this is perspective. Are these women fully developed characters of their own, with plotlines and goals? Do we see the misogyny from their perspective, or it is background noise, something only used to say things about others? Last week, we saw Cersei’s horror and fear when Tywin declared that she must marry Loras. The scene says something about Tywin (and how little he cares for his daughter’s feelings), it says something about the value of women in Westeros, but it also says something about Cersei and the things she’s struggled against. Tywin might be doing most of the talking, but we feel for Cersei. Similarly, Brienne’s almost rape a few episodes ago was horrific and really difficult to watch, but again it not only told us things about the Bloody Mummers and about Jaime, but things about Brienne as well. It was a part of her story and the development of her character. We sympathized with her, and were meant to see it partly from her perspective, to feel the horror that she felt.
Ros’s death gets no such courtesy. She doesn’t get a perspective here. She doesn’t even really matter. We didn’t see the moment when Littlefinger confronted her about her working for Varys. We didn’t see or hear her say or do anything. It could have been any female character with arrows in her. We see her entirely from the outside. The show is not criticising misogyny here, but using it.
Joffrey and Littlefinger are evil. This is exactly the sort of thing they would do. The show has to make that clear to the audience.
The books manage to tell us that Joffrey is evil without including scenes like this. And we already knew that Joffrey and Littlefinger were terrible people. We already had a horrific prostitute-torture scene with Joffrey last season. We’ve seen him both emotionally and physically abuse Sansa. We saw the way he tried to kill Ser Dontos. We see his psychopathic tendencies when talking to Margaery. We get it. He’s a horrible person. This scene added nothing to our understanding of that. And there are ways to suggest that a character is evil without exploiting female characters in this way.
And if he has to do these things on screen, at least give his victims a voice as well, instead of throwing them in as disturbing human window-dressing.
But what about Theon? He’s tortured in this episode as well.
I found the Theon torture scene in this episode horrific as well. To be honest, I have no idea what Ramsey was doing in the final minute or so of that scene, because I was struggling to cover both my eyes and my ears at the same time. In my opinion, that scene crossed a line for graphicness and audience manipulation, and I really wish they’d left it out, or at least filmed it in a different way. But part of the reason that Theon’s scene crossed a line is that, like many before it, it makes us feel for Theon. The scene showed us how psychopathic Ramsey is, but it was mainly part of Theon’s story, part of the horrific fall that he began last season, and part of a plot that will develop in the future and affect his character in fundamental ways. Theon has always been a fully-fledged character in the story, with relationships and goals and emotions and problems of his own, and his current situation has developed out of that. Ros has often been little more than background nudity, and this scene exploited and tossed her aside again.
Book fans hated Ros. Shouldn’t they be happy?
I’ve always been neutral on Ros, so I can’t directly address this one. But I’d like to that think at least some of the general hatred for the character was based on people’s dislike of pointless sexposition and brothel scenes. A Song of Ice and Fire is a sprawling world, and adapting it for TV means that some plotlines and scenes and characters must be cut out. I think that most readers would be frustrated at seeing pointless nudity instead of spending more time with their favorite characters. As Ros was the embodiment of this problem in the first season, this anger became directed at her. And easily so. Ros did have a little bit of character in the first season, a little bit of sass and strength (and that is to the actress’s credit), but how can people view her as a character with a plotline of her own when she is literally just presented as something for us to look at while other characters talk?
But even if people genuinely hated Ros, that doesn’t mean that we should enjoy the manner of her death. When I read A Clash of Kings, Theon was my least favorite character. Forget Joffrey; Theon was the character I thought most deserved to get his comeuppance. That didn’t change the fact that what happens to him is horrific, something that nobody deserves to go through. Disliking a character doesn’t mean that viewers want them to go through a torturous, misogynistic end.
Ros died as she lived: as a woman in the background, and a tool to further the development of male characters. Anger about that shouldn’t be directed at her, but at the writers who created her.
The arrows on Ros’s body mirrored the ones that Arya shot at the start of the episode. Her death is developing FEMALE characters as well.
I haven’t actually seen anyone arguing about this, but it’s been on my mind, so I’m going to throw it in. At the beginning of the episode, Arya practices shooting and hits where she intends to hit: “head, tits, balls.” Melisandre says there’s darkness in the girl, and that seems proved right when Joffrey’s merciless murder of Ros involves the same arrow shots. But this is still really problematic. Firstly, Ros still died off-screen to develop other characters, with her body trussed up during a monologue to show how evil they are. It might show that Arya has darkness as well, but it’s still using Ros as a sexual tool to make a statement about others. And if the scene was to show how evil Littlefinger and Joffrey are, the Arya connection somewhat negates it. Arya might become increasingly brutal as the story continues, but she has reasons to hate the people she wants to kill. She imagines killing Cersei, Joffrey and Ilyn Payne… and every one of those people did something to emotionally damage her and destroy her life. Arya’s arrows are about both Arya and the person she’s shooting. Joffrey’s arrows have nothing to do with Ros at all.
But what else could they do with Ros? She’s not a book character, she was just going to get in the way.
And this, I think, is the worst problem. The writers created Ros as a sexposition character. They didn’t need to have her around, but they decided that having another named prostitute character was worthwhile. OK. Fine. Then they used her to replace other characters, like Alayaya and Chataya. Again, fine. Problematic that they replaced some of the few non-white named characters with Ros, but it’s an adaptation, and simplifications have to be made. But if they are going to make a character, to name her, to have her appear everywhere, to begin to develop her and give her some purpose as the series goes on, they can’t just then toss her aside like narrative garbage when it pleases them. There are many roles she could have taken, and even assuming a pure interpretation of the books, there were alternatives to killing her off in this way. She could have stopped appearing in the show altogether. There are lots of characters, and not enough time for all of them. She could have been Varys’ voice when speaking to characters that Varys wasn’t likely to communicate with. She could have moved out of King’s Landing to somewhere safer. Varys could have sent her elsewhere. Or, in a worst case scenario, she could have died in a way that was about her. She could have been given even a shred of agency. Littlefinger’s speech was about how she failed the climb. Perhaps we could have seen her struggle, seen her fail, seen even a hint of what happened from the perspective of her as a living, breathing human being.
Or perhaps the show shouldn’t have created an original prostitute character in the first place if it wasn’t sure what to do with her and couldn’t handle her with some degree of humanity and respect.