Sexual assault in narrative fiction: themes really do matter, you guys

Can't remember how I came across this post—We Are Not Things: Mad Max versus Game of Thrones—but I think it's worth talking about at some length, if not a full post length.
Two portrayals of a world where women hold dubious power and are seen as “things.”
One of these is roundly criticized for it.
One of them is roundly celebrated for it.
Game of Thrones catches hell for its portrayal of women and this subject.
Mad Max is wreathed in a garland of bike chains and hubcabs for it.
What, then, is the difference?
Here we go. I'll just come out and say that I think the article misunderstands how the themes of Mad Max and Game of Thrones are different: Max Max is about liberation, while Game of Thrones is about the nature and abuse of power.

The article focuses on frequency and point-of-view as two points of contrast between MM and GoT. I'm not sure of the author believes that sexual assault should never be depicted, or if depicted, only once?
Frequency is an issue, for one: in GoT, we see rape and sexual assault again and again. In four seasons, we have three (ugh this sounds horrible to even put it this way) “major” rape events used as plot devices and character motivational tools (and that sounds even more horrible and icky). In Mad Max, we never actually see it at all. In Got, it happens often enough that you begin to wonder if there is a well-worn, oft-punctured notecard for the GoT storyboard that has written upon it: I DUNNO, PROBABLY RAPE?
But these differences make sense if both shows adhere to their themes: if Mad Max is about liberation, we don't really need to see the tyranny or oppression outright, it's enough to see the effects it has on the characters. (Recall how well Fury Road conveys this among multiple characters with minimal dialogue!) If Game of Thrones is about the nature and abuse of power, we do need to see abuse as commonplace, and not some freak occurrence. There's more than one way to achieve this, of course, and GoT hasn't always picked the optimal method, but 100% subtlety is probably not optimal either. Notably, the Song of Ice and Fire book series has a lot more sexual assault, both explicit and referenced, but the victims are largely non-POV characters and even nameless characters. In some ways this would have been even worse for the show, to bring on extras just so they could be violated.
Which also suggests that another issue is point-of-view. Where do you put the camera? Where do you place the narrative? Fury Road begins well after any actual assaults have occurred (with the exception of the “cutting out a baby” thing, which is more a byproduct of sexual assault rather than an explicit sexual assault). And none of it is on-screen. The story happens after. In Game of Thrones, the rapes are — man, this will never not sound gross — “ongoing.” It’s an ever-unfolding rape carnival, a parade of sexual assaults.
Again, it's unclear whether there's any possible way to depict a sexual assault that isn't problematic, "gross," carnivalesque, etc.
Of course, they don’t hate women. That’s absurd and we can’t really assume to be true — both Mad Max and GoT posit a world that hates women, though, so again, what’s the difference? GoT gives us the pain and suffering of women as part of a larger pattern meant to motivate characters. In some cases, male characters — in the assault on Sansa Stark, I have been repeatedly told that it “explains” what Theon Greyjoy does. I have no idea what that is, but I can guess that it’s something against Ramsay Bolton, and there I’d like to suggest that Theon (the subject of the earlier “dick removal scenario”) probably needs no more motivation to do ill against the Boltons given the aforementioned fact of his man-wang being turned into dick salad. Nor does Sansa require “motivation” to hate the family who literally murdered members of her family. We don’t actually need more, there. We do not require further “character motivation,” and if rape is the only way you can motivate your characters, you may want to go back to Writer’s School because I think you skipped a few crucial 101 classes.
So first of all, whoever told the author that Ramsay's rape of Sansa "explains" Theon's behavior is an idiot. Any problems with that scene have to come from somewhere further back in the storyline, since given the character motivations of Sansa and Ramsay, any other scene would be highly implausible. Amanda Marcotte (surprisingly!) wrote a good analysis of this particular thing: "Sansa Stark's rape was, like Ned's execution and the Red Wedding, not treated lightly, but presented as an act of war against the Stark family. Yes, it was horrible. It was meant to be."
[W]hat does assault do for the character’s power and choice in the story? Placing the events off-screen and before the film begins, Fury Road buries it well enough to explain why the characters are doing what they’re doing. The arc of those characters — the women — in Mad Max is one of going from zero to one. From a loss of power to a gain of power. The story is about the reclamation of agency — it’s them saying with great and violent effort: we are not things.
True: Mad Max is relentless with the theme of liberation. It's a fundamentally heroic and optimistic story. But you cannot view Game of Thrones through that same lens. Note also the emphasis on "placing the [sexual assaults] off-screen and before the film begins," as well as the phrase "buries it"... again, is it just not okay to ever see a sexual assault?
But in Game of Thrones, the opposite occurs. We witness powerful women undercut by assault. It removes their agency. (That is, quite explicitly, what sexual assault does.) They are robbed of power to motivate them, to make men feel bad, to make the audience feel sympathetic. But they go from one to zero. They go from something to nothing — from agent and actor upon the plot to victim of the plot.
Again: nature and abuse of power. Questions of agency are central to every character's arc. With the Stark men it's explicitly stated, in words about honor and duty (and the deadly consequences of following these notions in a society bereft of them). You have Tommen being puppeteered by Cersei and Margaery, Stannis becoming a true monster, Brienne struggling with the burden of her promises to Catelyn and Renly, Arya caught between her desire for vengeance and the dictates of the Many-Faced God, and so on. If anything, the real strangeness is that none of the male characters have been raped—it's not like male-on-male sex isn't done in Westeros, and it's not like there aren't some truly despicable male characters who would use rape as a weapon against other men as well as women.
Listen –
This isn’t about being shocked.
This isn’t about being offended.
It’s about something larger and lazier and altogether nastier.
It’s really about rape culture. About how this seeps in like a septic infection. About how it’s illustrated and handled with little aplomb, how it’s a default, how it forms an overall pattern.
If you're going to explore the nature and abuse of power in a medieval-esque world, even a fantastical one with magic and dragons, it'd be weird if it didn't have a culture of rape. And the various societies in Game of Thrones do have cultures of rape: Rape is used as a weapon (Ramsay raping Sansa, as Amanda Marcotte noted, is as a declaration of war), rapists are only punished insofar as they are sullying another man's property, and rape is commonplace.

Now, that's not really what the author meant. They meant rape culture as they see it in our society.
The problem isn’t in individual instances, you see? It’s in the pattern. It’s in how this keeps showing up again and again, a lazy crutch, a manipulative button the writers mash with greasy mitts, a cheap trick to rob agency and push plot. Meanwhile, you have actual rape victims in the audience who are like, “Hey, thanks for turning my trauma into cheap-ass plot fodder.”
I wonder if anyone wrote a similar article about Breaking Bad from the perspective of a recovering addict. But in terms of the literary analysis, I wonder if I'm alone in finding the "It's not about individual instances, it's about the pattern" attitude akin to a playground mentality—those kids over there were playing soccer too rough and students got hurt, so nobody is allowed to play soccer any more. Despite the author's insistence that "We must be allowed to talk about bad things," it really seems as though certain ways of talking about bad things are just beyond the pale.

I can't help but read the contrast between Mad Max and Game of Thrones as rather, well, privileged. In our society we get to see sexual assault as a freakish, unnatural trauma to be overcome. People can confidently say that Mad Max is better for its lack of explicit depiction, it's focus on survivors persevering and fighting their way towards liberation. But (go on and check off this particular bingo square) what about the situation in parts of Africa? Or central Asia? In a place where roving warbands use rape as a weapon of oppression and terror, I doubt that keeping such atrocities "buried" or "off-screen" would do anyone justice.

And of course, people in those societies probably don't get to watch and enjoy (or hate) Mad Max and Game of Thrones.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a necessary and brilliant bit of revolutionary optimism hidden inside a post-apocalyptic shell. It says, allegorically, This is what winning looks like. On the other hand, Game of Thrones is at its best when the audience can see exactly what societal flaws (or worse, what deliberate institutions) allow such-and-such monstrous villain to violate, terrorize, or oppress their victims. It says, This is how things go wrong, especially a romanticization of feudal hierarchy. That's worse than no guarantee of safety and order; it's a license for bad men (and, at times, women) to destroy the lives of decent people on a whim.

I believe both are necessary stories to tell. We just need to keep in mind what kind of stories they are (liberation? nature and abuse of power?) while we listen.