Housekeeping: This post is based solely characterisations in the TV show. SPOILERS for Game of Thrones up to Season 3.
I like Game of Thrones for many reasons, up to and including my pantsfeelings for Tyrion. But as the series has developed, one thing that has really stood out to me for all the right reasons is the characterisation and treatment of female characters. When feminists advocate for more strong female characters and better treatment of female characters, a lot of people seem to hear ALL FEMALE CHARACTERS MUST BE PERFECT and NO BAD THINGS MUST EVER HAPPEN TO FEMALE CHARACTERS, respectively. This is not what we are advocating for. We are advocating for female characters who are, respectively, well-rounded and flawed in interesting ways, and who are more than disposable props used to further the male protagonist’s emotional journey.
Game of Thrones is full of women; all of them are flawed, some of them are outright detestable and, as one would expect, they are in no way immune to having graphically violent things happen to them. Granted, those violent things are usually pertinently gendered (we did all just watch a lady get stabbed to death in her pregnant belly a few weeks ago) and deserving of their own discussion, but in terms of character creation, the series has so far done an excellent job of portraying the women of Westeros as complex and engaging. The main theme of Game of Thrones – wrought with all the subtlety of Jorah’s raging Khaleesi boner – is the nature of power, who wields it and why. In this universe that is so starkly defined by its power relations – in this pseudo-Medieval society patriarchal society with a firmly established primogeniture system – women are powerless, by law and by custom. Their roles are defined as subordinate to their husbands, their lords, their fathers and sometimes even their sons. In Westeros, the power struggles are defined by men and male concerns and they are, of course, interesting. But for me, far more interesting than watching the established dominant group fight among themselves for yet more dominance, is watching how the women find and negotiate their own power in a world where they technically have none.
Catelyn and Cersei draw their power from motherhood; not only do they love their children, but they also recognise (either consciously or subconsciously) that all their influence must be wielded through their sons. They will fight like tigers to advance them, while simultaneously protecting them from the dangers that come with advancement in Westeros. Characters like Arya and Brienne of Tarth cannot locate power in femininity, and thus they reject it outright in favour of navigating their way into masculine roles. Daenerys remains an unknown quantity, both for the other characters and for the viewer, and thus wields power by defying any single role that is typically understood as female; she is simultaneously embodies the maiden and the mother, the whore, the witch, the queen (crucially, a queen as opposed to a princess) and her complex form of power probably deserves a post to itself.
But this post is about Sansa Stark. Sansa Stark is a “weak” female character in the traditional sense, meaning that she is stereotypically feminine: silly about boys, loves dresses and weddings and screams when she sees blood. On the surface, it seems like she has no agency; she is just buffeted around by the winds of Martin’s incredibly violent imagination and weeps every time someone dies. A few years ago, I probably would have hated Sansa Stark. I would have gravitated towards a character like Arya, whose scrappy rebellious tomboy role is much closer to my own experience of being a teenage girl. But older Marianne (who recognises that rejection of things typically coded feminine is a form of internalised misogyny in itself) has a lot more time for Sansa, and even outright admiration for how she’s handled herself so far.
Sansa has a talent that completely evades her sister, often evades Catelyn, and even evades Cersei from time to time. Sansa Stark knows when to keep her mouth shut. For most of Season Two, she is trapped and surrounded by truly despicable people, people who murdered her father and fully intend to murder the rest of her family, and almost certainly her as well as soon as she stops being useful. She has been betrayed, abused, beaten and humiliated, and what does Sansa Stark do? She smiles sweetly and speaks prettily and keeps her mouth shut. Sansa knows there is no escape and she knows the only way she’s going to get out of King’s Landing alive and intact is if she does not give Joffrey or Cersei a single reason to hurt her. She robotically repeats that her father was a traitor and her brother is a traitor and that she loves his Grace King Joffrey. Her defiances are small, almost imperceptible, balms for her own dignity and sanity rather than acts of real rebellion. All she does is a conscious and calculated bid for survival.
I mean, can we just pause for a second here, and talk about Joffrey? Sansa not only puts up with, but actively humours and panders to Joffrey, who is literally the Most Punchable Character Ever Created. I can barely WATCH Game of Thrones without shouting obscenities at his smug little face. Think about the strength of will and self-control it takes for Sansa to keep her mouth shut. Arya would not have managed in the same situation. Arya would be dead. Sansa is somehow, miraculously, still alive and it’s all because she knows how and when to tell people what they want to hear.
Sansa effectively spends an entire season in complete isolation. She has no one she can trust, no one she can talk to, no friends, no one with whom she can let her guard down even slightly (until she very tentatively begins to trust Shae.) She has suffered unspeakable loss and she’s well aware that she’s going to suffer more, since she’s engaged to a sadistic brat who has her beaten for fun. Considering that she’s a teenage girl who has just had her entire life and worldview ripped to shreds, she deals with this isolation remarkably well. No other character (bar Season 3 Theon) spends a similar length of time imprisoned and alone in an unambiguously hostile environment with no human comfort or kindness. In many ways, I see Sansa as an unrefined version of Margaery Tyrell, a calculating woman who knows exactly how to use beauty and benevolence to her advantage. Sansa, after all, had her own streak of ambition before everything went to shit. She also caught the attention of Granny Tyrell, who is literally the sassiest woman in Westeros, so sassy that she went sass to sass with Grand Sassmaster Tywin Lannister* and almost won, and then demonstrated the even more powerful trait of being able to admit when she’s been beaten.
Perhaps Sansa will grow up to find her power in much the same way, wielding implacable courtesy as her shield and masterful passive-aggression as her sword. (I’m aware it is far more likely that she will die very soon.) When we first met her, Sansa was naïve, idealistic and spoiled. Many of those qualities have been stripped from her, to reveal a core of dignity that keeps her upright and courteous through all her humiliations. That’s a very special kind of strength. And in spite of all she’s been through, Sansa is still Sansa. She hasn’t gone numb or cold or indifferent. She still cries and gets butterflies over Loras Tyrell. She still has hopes and dreams for her future. In spite of everything she’s been through, she remains human and remains a teenage girl. If retaining your humanity in the face of overwhelming grief, abuse, humiliation and adversity is not a strong and admirable trait, I don’t know what is. Here’s to you, Sansa Stark, and many more strong female characters like you.
*Tyrion is Grand Sassmaster in training, obviously.