The June 2 episode of Game of Thrones has already become broadly notorious for an event that in the George R.R. Martin novels becomes known as the Red Wedding. At a celebration of the wedding of Edmure Tully to the daughter of Walder Frey, a notoriously unpleasant major lord who controls a strategically important crossing—a union that makes up for the fact that Robb, who’s named himself King In The North, broke a promise to marry that same daughter—things go disastrously wrong. Despite the fact that Walder Frey has extended his protection to Stark, Stark’s pregnant wife Talisa, and his mother Catelyn, it turns out Frey’s cut a deal with the rival House Lannister, and to avenge the slight Robb gave the Freys, he has them all murdered.
This burst of violence was shocking because it resulted in the deaths of characters who were fan favorites, but one of the killings has produced particular revulsion among some viewers of the show. Talisa, who is pregnant, is stabbed repeatedly in the abdomen, a method of murder that’s intended to make sure there’s absolutely no chance her fetus could survive her own death. Game of Thrones hasn’t shied away from violence against women, whether Sansa Stark, Robb’s younger sister, is being beaten and stripped by King Joffrey Lannister’s guards while she is imprisoned in King’s Landing, or Ros, a former sex worker who became a gifted spy is being ordered to beat another woman, or ends up shot full of arrows, both acts the result of Joffrey’s fusion of sexuality and brutal sadism. But the attack on Talisa seemed to stand out for some viewers even in this context as uniquely stomach-churning, evidence that the show is participating in some of its characters disgusting enjoyment of violence against women.
Though Talisa’s murder is unspeakably cruel, it didn’t read that way to me. Rather, the decision to kill her by killing her fetus made, within the astonishingly cold-blooded context of the Red Wedding, a great deal of sense. A comprehensive attempt to make the Starks extinct would include an attack on everyone in their family line, born and unborn. And as an attempt to make Robb Stark feel unspeakable emotional pain before his physical death, an attack on his wife and his unborn child that he has to witness while he is physically incapacitated is a twistedly brilliant thing to do. As Talisa died and Robb held her, the focus was on their faces, and their shared pain, just as they’d shared joyful glances during Edmure’s wedding vows, and flirted during the banquet. Our sympathies and focus were on them, rather than on a pornographic contemplation of the violence to which they’d been subjected.
But Talisa is part of a larger tradition of television women who die during childbirth, or are subjected to terrible violence during pregnancy or labor, something Jessica Valenti highlighted on Twitter on June 4. I collected the conversation that resulted from her observation below:
I’m not sure we entirely sorted the issue out here. There’s no question that childbirth is a physically difficult experience, whether you’re in a modern hospital, or pregnant in the middle of a medieval war or a post-apocalypse. And I don’t see anything troubling with using pregnancy and childbirth as inflection points, whether in the form of Betty Draper’s dreamy visions while she was in labor with her youngest son, or in the context of a hereditary monarchy. But of the many forms of violence that pop culture is willing to depict right now, pregnant women as targets whether of circumstance or ill intent seems, at least for some viewers, to have demarcated a line that they’re unwilling to cross.