Game of Thrones: The Subversiveness of Liking Sansa Stark
Editor’s Note: The author recently completed an 11-part series rewatching/rereading Game of Thrones here at Ordinary Times. You can find those pieces here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
April 17 being the 10th anniversary of the first airing of Game of Thrones in the US, I’ll seize this opportunity to write about my favorite character ever, Sansa Stark.
Liking Sansa Stark is considered Officially Socially Acceptable now, owing in no small part to her being portrayed by the perfectly cast and likeable Sophie Turner. But back in the late 90’s to early 2000’s, when I was first reading the books, it was amusingly shocking for people to hear that I admitted to liking Sansa. Literally everyone I knew who had read the books was really quite horrified by my insistence that a) Sansa was awesome and b) she was gonna win the Game of Thrones.
Now, the oft-claimed reason underlying the widespread loathing of Sansa Stark1 is that she lied when asked what happened between Arya, Arya’s wolf Nymeria, and Joffrey, and then “betrayed her father” by trusting the Lannisters and foolishly telling them of her father’s plans to stop the ascension of Prince Joffrey to the throne. But I don’t actually think that’s the real reason why people hate Sansa with the power of a thousand fiery blasts of dragon’s breath, which is why I’m sitting here writing this post instead of one of the other 207 zillion ones cluttering up my writing notebook.
We’ll get into the meat of the matter shortly, but before I do I want to briefly discuss Bad Sansa. Because if you don’t understand why Sansa did the stuff that many folks just love to hate, you won’t be able to appreciate why Sansa is such a great character.
Writers do this thing in which they try to create characters that are somewhat based in the realities of human behavior. IMO, Sansa is one of the most realistic characters in the entire Game of Thrones, and I say this as someone who once was a pubescent girl. Even when they are precious, precious girls, alleged arbiters of everything good and holy in this world, realistic characters have faults, flaws, and they sometimes do the wrong thing when presented with circumstances they are ill prepared for. If they didn’t, they would not be realistic characters, they would be wish fulfillment.
Imagine, if you will, the following: You are a young girl living someplace extremely rural, let’s say Moosejaw, Saskatchewan. Despite of, or perhaps because of, your mundane surroundings, you’re fascinated with stories of boy bands and matinee idols and big city glamor. You have been indoctrinated from the cradle to value appearance, even to see physical beauty as a sign of a morally superior person. You adore pretty clothes and being admired, and you pursue popularity because you have been repeatedly told you are not valid without it.
At the same time, you have also been warned repeatedly that you must follow the rules of your society without question and those rules include obeying your social betters unquestioningly. And I mean “obey” Middle Ages Style, and not the modern-day fetishistic teen rebellion popular here in the 21st in which a parental directive is mostly considered as something to ignore, because you just gotta live your life, man.
Into this rather confusing stew of mixed messages and contradictory precepts, Justin Bieber shows up and wonder of wonders, you’re going to get to marry him. But it’s more than just a schoolgirl’s daydream – you have been told your whole life you are going to grow up to be a very powerful man’s wife, that marrying well is the only thing that really matters for someone like you, that you are helping your family enormously if you do that. And wonderful news – Justin Bieber is not only super hot and famous, he’s the president-for-life of North America. Plus, his dad is besties with your dad, and Justin’s mom seems to genuinely like you for some reason, even though secretly you feel woefully inadequate and are terrified every moment you will do or say the wrong thing and screw everything up. Your whole family, your mom especially (the same mom who preloaded your brain with erroneous beliefs about how the world works) is super excited over this turn of events. It is the culmination of not only your wildest dreams, but your family and your culture’s expectations.
Joffrey showing up to be betrothed to Sansa is not only a nice thing for Sansa, but it is a complete validation of her purpose as a person, beneficial to her family (both Starks and Tullys would have benefitted hugely from it both in terms of social power and overall safety) and to the entire North. The betrothal is a fulfillment of Sansa’s destiny in the social compact. “Growing up to be the queen” is not a demeaning sexist insult or a sign of arrogant ambition the way we see it here and now – it is a legitimate personal accomplishment. Sansa believes she is undertaking a highly important and actually quite difficult job that she will be expected to perform admirably.
To Sansa, becoming the queen is like being appointed the Secretary of State or to the Supreme Court, while simultaneously being crowned Miss America, winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and taking top honors in the Pillsbury Bake-Off. By marrying so well, Sansa can singlehandedly improve her entire family’s lot in life. The “living happily ever” part is really just a perk. It is not wrong or weak of her to want such an amazing thing to happen, to want it quite badly.
The only person who is a fly in the ointment for all these wonderful things coming to pass is Sansa’s pesky little sister, who refuses to live up to the standards their parents set for their daughters, yet somehow continues to get away with it again and again. Though some call Sansa spoiled, the truth is, Arya is indulged to a pretty extreme degree, even though the world of GoT is horrible and precarious, a world in which offending the wrong person can mean the ruination of not only her future, but her entire family. Sansa was not a goody-two-shoes big fat meanie pants raining on innocent old Arya’s parade. Sansa felt she was doing everything in her power to live up to her family’s expectations, and Arya was actively working against that. It is a sign of our cultural brainwashing that we see Sansa’s ambitions as less than Arya’s.
Arya’s freewheeling ways had the potential to cause trouble for the Starks, Sansa in particular, because that’s just how medieval culture worked – one person’s misbehavior affected and reflected upon their family. This affected girls disproportionally – it you don’t understand how this system worked, please read Pride and Prejudice posthaste. The ruination of one sister could easily have led to the downfall of all of them. From Sansa’s perspective, because her sister didn’t behave in the ways she was supposed to, it could – and indeed, kinda did – ruin her entire life.2
For some reason, it is very very popular among the goblins of the Internetz to judge people and things they do not like completely devoid of context. Even though they watch a character who is standing on a pyramid of fictional inputs, it is as if they are only able to see the final move of the chess match, the capstone on the pyramid, and nothing that came before. So, they judge Sansa Stark as if her acts took place in isolation, with no context and no backstory, even though she was put into that position TO act by a vast foundation of other people’s choices, including people that the Internetz like far better because they see the world created by GRRM as being as simple as a Marvel movie. It isn’t.
You know primarily whose fault “Sansa’s betrayal” is? Ned and Catelyn Stark, two grown ass adults who made idiotic mistake after idiotic mistake, starting with raising Sansa as an overly trusting naïf, drumming it into her head since birth that following the rules, including marrying as high as one could manage, was imperative. They followed up by raising Arya to do none of those things, indulging her to such extent she apparently felt the rules need not need apply to her. Then the Stark parents put a pack of untrained direwolves in the hands of children, and Ned did not bother to rein in Arya who was causing way more trouble than she should have been long before she encountered Joffrey at the river. Not to be outdone, Catelyn then runs off and impulsively kidnaps Tyrion. Ned goes on to trust the wrong people and relies foolishly upon his honor in a world he knew damn well had none.
By the way, Ned and Catelyn were adults who had seen many things, and STILL they were stupid as hell. Yet the rage reserved for Sansa Stark, a sheltered young girl just trying to do her best, knows no bounds. It’s really quite fascinating, if disheartening.
I mean, FFS, secondary character Renly was much more to blame for Ned getting beheaded than Sansa! So was King Robert the Perpetual Drunkard, going out to hunt a boar when sloshed out of his gourd, and Lancel, who got him sloshed. Littlefinger openly, deliberately betrayed Ned, and Varys stood by and let it happen. How about blaming Cersei, or Joffrey, or even Ilyn Payne, who did the deed? But nope, for some reason, the vitriol of the Internet is directed primarily at an 11 (books)/13 (show) year old child.
(We may be poring over the high school yearbooks of politicians looking for dirt, and the teenage social media accounts of reporters looking for racism, but we have not yet reached the point in our twisted society where adults are, in perpetuity, held responsible for things they did as children. Unless, apparently, those children are a part of a demographic people love to hate – pretty young women who don’t like beating up boys.)
And none of this even touch upon the fact that Sansa is not even a real person. GRRM needed a character to facilitate Ned’s demise and created Sansa’s actions in part as a catalyst for the actions he desired. He also is writing a sendup of various fantasy tropes, and Sansa happens to be the sendup of the fairy princess – so of COURSE she acts like a Disney Princess might if brought into the real world. Naive. Impulsive. So eager to fall in love she does it at the drop of a hat. Optimistic to the point of being blinded to obvious danger. Easily influenced by people who she thinks she is supposed to listen to. All this is by design. Just because you happen to prefer the Plucky Girl to The Princess, that doesn’t make The Princess inherently evil or wrong when she’s just doing her princess-y thing.
Again, it is the job of a writer to create interesting and realistic characters. In order for Sansa to have a character arc (which I still am very much looking forward to, as I do not believe the show carried this off at all) she had to start from SOMEwhere, meaning she had to have some fundamental flaws, do some things wrong, things that she would learn from in the future. I am at a complete loss to understand how an author can be expected to create believable character growth if the audience expectation is that every character is a perfect paragon of virtue who becomes more perfect-er along the way.
People who call for this sort of impeccable character who never gets things wrong are not asking for characters, they want wish fulfillment. (Oddly, they’re oftentimes the same folks who just LUVVVV sexy baddies like Loki and Patrick Bateman and Kylo Ren, even love Joffrey and Ramsay Bolton, all of whom who are forgiven much much greater and far less understandable sins than anything Sansa Stark ever did.)
Ok, that’s all very interesting, but why is liking Sansa Stark subversive?
Well, because liking Sansa Stark goes against the zeitgeist.
Some people really like their zeitgeist, so much so that anything that doesn’t fit into that framework feels offensive and wrong to them. And there is no zeitgeist in recent memory that rose harder and with less opposition than the rise of the Badass Heroine.
If you look at the type of characters, we were being presented with around the time the first Game of Thrones book was released in 1996, the Badass Heroine was definitely ascendant. Aliens was released in 1986, La Femme Nikita in 1990, Terminator 2: Judgement Day in 1991. The video game Tomb Raider, in which a buff, badass Lara Croft performed feats of action archaeology, was released the same year as GoT. The TV version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer came out the next year, and the PowerPuff Girls the year after that, the movie version of Tomb Raider only a few years later, followed shortly thereafter by Firefly.
Zeitgeist, I’m telling ya.
Grrl Power was on the rise, and in the 25 years hence, Badass Heroine-ism has snowballed to such an extent that it’s hard to get away from it. Captain Marvel, Jessica Jones, Wonder Woman – the woman who can beat up men is so common as to be nearly ubiquitous. Badass Female protagonists have become so popular, their lack is actually being used as a critique! If a female protagonist is seen as not killing enough people, there are many who decry her as being anti-feminist!
Now, let me just point out that the Badass Heroine rose for a reason, and it’s a reason I am fully on board with. A niche of representation that wasn’t being filled has been. Trouble is, that niche has not only been filled, but it’s also been filled to overflowing, so many Badass Heroines kicking and punching and stabbing that we’ve basically squeezed all the other types of girls out of popular fiction altogether. We’re not only drowning in Badass Heroines, we’re being waterboarded by them.
Like so many things I write about, it seems impossible for people to allow for LOTS of different ways of being a woman to coexist. Being a woman is all too often presented as a pass/fail, rather than as a continuum to find oneself upon. And so it comes to pass that any character that isn’t a Badass Heroine is seen by far too many people as weak, inferior, even sexist, even though most women are not badasses and never will be.
A badass is not something you can be nowadays, it’s something you SHOULD be in order to be a valid person, just like Sansa Stark thought making a good marriage was essential to her becoming a valid person. Our fictional characters – at least, the female ones – are representing badassery as an ideal. Not an option, but an IDEAL.
Physical prowess that no one of either gender could ever attain is being held up as an ideal for women, who as a general rule are less capable of using brute force to achieve their personal goals and face greater social consequences if they do. Combativeness is being held up as an ideal. Anyone who isn’t up in people’s face constantly is being told they are less-than, that they are weak, that in preferring non-confrontational methods of getting what one wants from the world, you have betrayed yourself as somehow being a victim of the patriarchy, a subhuman whose needs and hopes and desires should be disregarded.
I am at a loss to understand why it is replacing one unattainable ideal with another unattainable ideal is in any way feminist. Valuing qualities that the majority of women do not possess and literally cannot attain over anything a woman might bring to the table naturally (be it innate biological qualities, stereotypically female ones, or as I believe, a little from Column A, a little from Column B) IS sexism. There is very little difference in telling women they should be 36-24-36 and telling a woman she should have high muscle mass and low body fat and a black belt in Tae Kwon Do when really she prefers knitting.
While I enjoy a good Grrl Power spectacle myself (despite its creator being cancelled for SexPesting in the First Degree, I still count Buffy the Vampire Slayer as my favorite show ever, and I’m clearly somewhat confrontational or I wouldn’t be here) the Badass Heroine has gone well past entertainment right into a force of cultural oppressiveness. At the point at which we are being told, as I was once told in the comments section here on good ol’ Ordinary Times.com, that an MMA fighter is a better source of inspiration for impressionable female human beings than Anne Frank, who kicked precisely no asses, we have lost the fucking plot, for reals.
What does this have to do with Sansa? Well, Sansa, over the course of her story arc, is taught a lot of very important life lessons that while they do not involve fisticuffs, help her survive, thrive, and even win in the end. Cersei, The Hound, Tyrion, Littlefinger – all of them imparted wisdom to Sansa, wisdom that was as valuable for her as anything Syrio Forel and J’aqen H’ghar ever taught Arya. This wisdom was hard-won; Sansa had to take just as much abuse and be as stubborn and dedicated as Arya to attain it – the only difference between the two of them was that Sansa’s scars weren’t visible on the outside.
Even those lessons in being a lady Sansa’s parents and Septa Mordane taught her to begin with helped her. In case you missed the symbolism, while Arya had her sword Needle, Sansa was armed too, with those lessons in courtliness, gentility, domesticity – all represented by Sansa’s skill with the needle. You gotta give it to George RR Martin sometimes, truly. Brah-voh. Too bad so many of his readers are too steeped in the smugness of their own worldview to fully appreciate the genius of what he was doing there. “Don’t you get it?? Arya’s sword is called NEEDLE, because she sucked at needlepoint and ruled at fighting!” Yes, I get it, do you not get it that the reverse was meant to be equally true?
As for all Sansa’s “silly” romantic stories that so many people use to prove her weakness, her superficiality, well, who among us can’t relate to escaping into fiction to survive, mentally and emotionally, through times of turmoil and hardship? There are times in my life I would not have survived mentally intact unless I had recast them as glorious romantic adventures. I lived through like a whole year of my life – as my parents divorced, I had to start over again at three different new schools, and then my mom shacking up with a hair-triggered pathologically lying a-hole she later married – pretending I was a character in Little House on the Prairie. And none of that holds a candle to what Sansa Stark endured. Fictionalizing the world is not the mental inferiority of a silly girl, it is Sansa’s coping mechanism, just as Arya would self-soothe by running through a list of everyone, she wanted to kill every night before she fell asleep.
Is that where we are at, as a people? That a girl making a list of human beings she wants to murder is being seen by some people as more functional and less insane than a girl pretending she is in a character in a romantic story? Because I think some of us may have missed the moral renowned pacifist GRRM was imparting.
If there is one consistent lesson from Game of Thrones it is this: You do not need to resort to brute strength and physical altercations to be a successful person – and in fact, it is immensely destructive to the entire world when people choose the path of violence. If your takeaway from GoT is that “fighting is good, achtually, we should all do a lot more murdering” might I suggest a reading comprehension course?
By the by, it is not only an utterly misogynistic, but indeed, an ableist take to suggest that Arya is a better/stronger/wiser character than Sansa because she beats up boys. And if you don’t understand what I mean when I say ableist, ask yourself this – is Arya a better character than Tyrion and Bran because she beats people up? Is Olenna Tyrell a worse character than Arya because she uses guile and poison to defeat Joffrey instead of challenging him to a duel?
If you’re willing to excuse Tyrion and Bran for not being physically capable of hand-to-hand combat, and you’re willing to excuse Olenna Tyrell for being too old to mud wrestle Joffrey, you damn well better be able to excuse Sansa for being too girly. Because you do not need to rely upon brute strength and physical altercations in order to be a successful person of any gender.
Nothing in Sansa’s life prepared her for being able to fight the way Arya did. Yet she found her OWN way to survive, defeating her enemies using the weapons she had at her disposal. By the way, those weapons are powerful ones, strong, and time-tested. Daenerys engages in much the same “charm over karate” strategy Sansa uses to survive and accrue power, right up until she gets some armies and her dragons become capable of assisting. Tyrion and Bran and Olenna and Daenerys and yes, even poor beleaguered Sansa may not be supernatural assassins, but their methods of playing the Game of Thrones are just as valid.3
Apparently, we’ve forgotten that there can be a very real heroism in simply surviving another day, refusing to lay down and die. One of the most maddening things I read this week was Kyle Maddock, host of “A Podcast of Ice and Fire”, saying “It’s easy to see why Arya is so beloved. She doesn’t play the victim.” Play the victim? Sansa WAS a victim, no playin’, sport. As were a whole lot of people in GoT. If you’re incapable of making the distinction between playing a victim (Cersei, on many occasions) and being one (Sansa), maybe you don’t understand GoT as well as you think.
And by the way – out here in the real world, a whole lot of women have been victimized in myriad ways since time began, and implying that Arya is beloved because she ISN’T a victim, god those whiners just NEVER shut up, FFS, is like having a soaking wet sponge full of misogyny thrown right in my poor abused face.
Thanks for that.
Women got along for a real whole long time in the face of all sorts of abuse doing Lady MacBeth shit behind the scenes, not only fighting using other weapons, but enduring, awaiting an opportunity, biding their time. The truth is, it’s this type of fighting-by-surviving, outwit, outplay, outlast, that has long been the purview of womankind. After all, as one of the most iconic female characters – a woman who fought with pretty dresses and charm instead of Valyrian steel daggers – in all literature once said, “After all, tomorrow is another day.” If you’ve ever experienced violence, you will give me a “hell yeah” when I say there are many days when just surviving the way Sansa survived feels like a bigger victory than D-Day.
It is here where the true subversiveness of unashamedly stanning Sansa Stark lies. I think the main reason why people hate Sansa is because she represents a type of femininity that they’ve been brainwashed to loathe, without any real consideration as to the reasons why they feel that way, or the implications of doing so. We have had it SO ingrained in us that the only woman worth rooting for is the rebel, the loudmouth, the complainer, the woman who refuses to bend for anyone ever, she who sieges the gates and tries to tear down the walls, that we have forgotten that there’s a different type of hero who works on the inside to make things better for herself and for others using an entirely different set of weapons.
And that’s really sad. When you diminish what women really do and have done historically in exchange for cartoon characters performing feats of CGI-enhanced physical prowess, you’re diminishing the heroism, the real live, true heroism, of millions of other women who came before, women who faced challenges that couldn’t be solved with karate, whose biggest victory may have been simply getting out of bed in the morning.
It appears to me that the wave on Grrl Power may be somewhat cresting, that it’s no longer me but other people who are starting to find a portrayal of women with high levels of butt-kickery at the expense of all else to be not only rather dull, but offensive, demeaning, even misogynistic, continuing to define femininity in terms that most women cannot attain.
I hope so. Because we all deserve to have the hero that most represents us. Even if we aren’t badasses.
- If you are unaware of this cultural phenomenon to such extent that you doubt my word this is an Actual Thing, rather than wasting my time in the hollow gesture of posting links which barely anyone ever reads and the few who do will simply say “but that’s not a legitimate source because reasons!”, I urge you to Google instead. You’ll experience more hits than that time Rocky fought Mr. T.
- One of my personal pet peeves about the last few seasons of GoT was the dissatisfying and completely one-sided wrap up of the relationship between Sansa and Arya. Arya is, of course as she’s a Creator’s Pet, portrayed as having a completely legitimate beef with Sansa, but I cannot help but think Sansa might have had some (justified) resentment towards Arya as well. Arya is just as self-absorbed as Sansa is at the start of our story, she just manifests a flavor of selfish that is more socially acceptable to audiences of 2021. To us, playing with swords and refusing marriage is courageous rather than selfish behavior for a noble girl, but most people in Westeros would not have seen it that way. Arya’s insistence on indulging herself played a part in driving a wedge between Ned and the Baratheon-Lannisters. I mean, what the hell did Arya think would happen, hitting the Crown Prince? And why was she allowed to run around so freely anyway? In the books, it is obvious that Arya is ruffling feathers with her wild behavior long before the day she and Joffrey get into a scuffle.
In Westerosi society, ladies are expected to act like ladies, even at the age of 9, and especially by age 11, the age Arya was portrayed in the show. And lower-born people must respect those higher on the social hierarchy than they are. We may rail against that, but it was reality for most of human existence, and any story that purports to be even vaguely historically accurate should capture that reality. Arya refusing to live up to her culturally assigned role – to do her JOB – sets up the dominoes that culminated in Sansa betraying her father far more than anything Sansa ever did. Sansa was punished exponentially for that series of events that she had no part in creating; she ends up going through hell (even without meeting the dreaded Ramsay, she still goes through hell) while Arya ended up pretty much having the life of freedom and adventure she had always dreamed of. Though of course Arya’s journey wasn’t without peril, it was nowhere near what Sansa endured, and from Sansa’s perspective it would probably be hard to not think that Arya had gotten everything she ever wanted, at Sansa’s expense. This complicated relationship should have been explored rather than treated as an afterthought.
- By the way – I think a lot of people have forgotten just how much help Arya herself has received along the way. Syrio Forel, Yoren, Jaqen H’ghar, Gendry and Hot Pie, The Brotherhood Without Banners, The Hound, Brienne of Tarth, the Faceless Men, Lady Crane, and Beric Dondarrion, all help Arya. She would not have survived without any one of these people. So, let’s not pretend that Arya is a self-made dynamo taking on the world and Sansa is a lily-livered wimp relying on the benevolence of strangers. It simply isn’t true.