Game of Thrones’ Sansa Stark: A Review
Anyone having read any of my previous reviews of the world of George RR Martin will know I am not a particularly big fan of Daenerys Targaryen or Cersei Lannister. I find Daenerys to be rather uninspiring, and her actual track record as a ruler to be absolutely disastrous. I have a rather similar opinion of Cersei Lannister as well….at least on the latter part (I do find the character quite interesting in some ways, but the fact remains she is stupid to the point of idiocy). I am often astonished, therefore, when I encounter fans of either of the two characters, especially when said fans proclaim them to be examples of a “strong female role models”. While certainly female, I would be at a loss to see how either of them would qualify as either strong or a role model. Dear Dany (as she is often referred to) has managed to set an entire region aflame (quite literally) and start a war she has to this point lost miserably DESPITE having an army of former slave super soldiers and the only three dragons in the entire world, all while fanatically pursuing her rather self-centered quest to win back a throne lost by her father because he was a stark raving mad psychopath. Cersei, for her part, assumed the position of Regent holding unchallenged power over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, and then preceded to all but throw it away through one boneheaded scheme after another, alienated her strongest allies while surrounding herself with hangers-on and yes-men while empowering those who clearly shouldn’t have.
All this is made ever more frustrating by the fact that Game of Thrones contains numerous examples of characters that are female, strong, and certainly worth modeling oneself on. Arya Stark, while I roll my eyes sometimes at the overly done “I will defy gender roles” focus of her storyline, has certainly proven herself to be both intelligent and capable….without being portrayed as a total Mary Sue. Ygritte and Val, two of the most prominent women of the Free Folk, both would be other examples. Alys Karstark is probably one of my favorite minor characters, and her exclusion from the show so far must rank as one of my bitterest disappointments (next only to the total Frankensteinian version the Thenns we were presented with) especially given she seems to have been a participant in the only happy wedding to have ever occurred in the entire history of either the book or the show.
By far my favorite female character, one I feel is absolutely deserving of both praise and admiration, would have to be Sansa Stark, Arya’s older sister. This might be surprising, and indeed I’ll admit to being somewhat surprised myself. When Sansa was first introduced as a character, like most readers I intensely disliked her. She was superficial. She was spoilt. She took Joffrey’s side over her own sister. She screwed up Ned’s plan to depose Cersei when King Robert died. The list goes on and on. Indeed, one of the things I appreciate most about the character in retrospect is how George RR Martin actually managed to completely surprise me with the direction her storyline took. As a character, Sansa genuinely grows over the course of the book, changing and learning in ways that transform her from a spoilt and utterly unlikable girl into a potentially very formidable woman.
In the character’s defense, when we are first introduced to Sansa she is basically a child in her very early teens (yes, I know, something easily forgotten by show watchers who only know the character as portrayed by the truly divine Sophie Turner). I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I was that age I was pretty insufferable as well. Most people are when their young, especially in the terrible teenage phase when we’re convinced we are the unquestionable center of the universe. But even then, hidden but not entirely invisible, we the reader can still see the beginnings of the traits that will later stand Sansa in good stead as her story progresses. She isn’t stupid, indeed she is shown to have a rather canny intellect, instead she’s merely the victim of a very restricted and narrow worldview that comes from being the privileged daughter of a nobleman (while Arya rebelled against those constraints, Sansa simply accepts them). She possesses a keen sense of observation and a nascent ability to read people. Most importantly, she is quite talented at figuring out what people want/need and trying to provide it; as Sandor Clegane observes “You’re like one of those birds from the summer Isles, aren’t you? A pretty little talking-bird, repeating all the pretty little words they taught you to recite”. Now at the time that is admittedly meant as an insult, and it does give a fair representation of the character’s state at the time. Sansa as we first meet her is singularly obsessed with simply pleasing those around her. But the ability to realize what people want and use that to your own betterment, and not to simply please others, is one that we see other characters throughout the world of Westeros use to tremendous effect. Sansa, as we first meet her, has all the potential of a character that could be a major player, she only needs a push.
That push comes in the form of a veritable landslide following the death of her father and her becoming a hostage of the Lannisters at the end of the first book. Alone, without friends, and entirely at the mercy of one of the most irredeemably vile characters ever to have graced the pages of literature, Sansa must now survive on only her wits. Survive she does. Now, some readers claim that this part of Sansa’s story only serves to victimize her and disempower her. To that all I will say is, again, the character is a young teenager. What exactly do they want her to achieve? Realistically, staying alive, and not being entirely broken as a human being, are remarkable achievements for anyone under these circumstances, more so for a sheltered young girl. This serves as an opportunity for Sansa to shed her illusions, as she slowly begins to realize her fantasies of noble nights and handsome princes were just that…fantasies. Most importantly, she refuses to be broken. Despite everything she remains determined to survive, to remain alive, and possibly to change the situation she finds herself in.
Enter the other impetus of Sansa’s transformation, one Petyr Baelish. Now, Lord Littlefinger’s fascination with Sansa as some kind of proxy for her mother, who he loved and lost, is beyond creepy. On the television show it is simply gross. In the books, where again one must remember that Sansa is a young teenager, it is absolutely revolting. However, through her interactions with Littlefinger Sansa finally begins to not just react to events around her in hope of survival but proactively take action to better her own position. In her scene before the Lords of the Vale, as she recites one by one the indignities she’s suffered, one can almost see the gears turning behind her eyes. She’s played the good, kind lady her entire life, and received nothing but pain and hardship as a result. Now, through Littlefinger, she sees a chance to finally take ownership of her life; to stop being a pawn and become a player.
It also coincides with her finally starting to realize that as powerless as she might appear, she still has power due to her lineage. Sansa (so far as she knows) is the last living Stark. She is the one person who not only has a claim to Winterfell and the North, but could actually command the loyalty and allegiance of its people. This sparks one of the most radical departures from the books we see on the show, as she returns home to Winterfell to wed the second vilest character in the history of literature, Ramsay Bolton. This storyline is another area where both the character (and the Game of Thrones universe) receives a tremendous amount of criticism; in particular the marital rape scene between Sansa and Ramsay with Theon/Reek taking the role of unwilling voyeur. Criticism has mostly fallen into the category of the scene being a) unnecessary, b) exploitative, and c) robbing Sansa of the agency she had just begun to display.
Firstly, the idea that the scene was somehow unnecessary is dubious. The argument goes that since Ramsay already had been established as a repulsive villain, having him rape his newly wed wife is pointless as it adds nothing to the character we don’t already know. Balderdash! Villains are villains, they do dastardly deeds not to establish their characters, but because it is in their character to be dastardly. In the premiere of the latest season, we were greeted by the sight of several newly flayed corpses decorating the courtyard of Winterfell and no one protested “we already know Ramsay likes to skin people alive, showing this is unnecessary”. For Heaven’s sake this is Game of Thrones! One of the story’s most laudable features is how it does not shy away from the gritty ugliness of real life. It is merciless towards its characters and never spares them from any form of agony or horror simply to give the viewers a feel good “Happy Ending”.
As for the argument that the scene was exploitative, again this is Game of Thrones. By the show’s standards the scene was practically tasteful; if you doubt so go back and review some of the first season’s episodes involving Daenerys and her wedding then compare the two.
The final point often raised on the scene misunderstands the meaning of empowerment and agency. Sansa freely chose to go to Winterfell. She deliberately decided to put herself in danger in order to play the long game. She decided to take the risks and pain that went with this choice because it was the only path forward for her to take her home back, to restore herself to her rightful place, and to save her people. When a male character does something of this nature, by bravely facing torture let’s say, we applaud, yet in this case the outcome is hisses (mostly from people who ironically claim to be feminists). And how does Sansa react to this event herself? Yes, in the next episode she cries a bit. After enduring something traumatic most of us would likely be shaken. More importantly is that she does not let the experience break her. She goes on with her plan and keeps playing her game. That’s not being dispossessed, it’s empowerment!
I think a great deal of the criticism around Sansa stems from one of the elements of the character; her distinctive femininity. Sansa’s character and actions are very much female in nature. In modernity, we’re told we should cheer for characters like Brienne of Tarth or Arya Stark, gender defying heroines who go out there and cross swords with the best of their male colleagues. Not only is this problematic for being unrealistic in most cases, but it also sends the message that a woman can only be strong or powerful by emulating the example of men. Sansa doesn’t do that. She uses her mind, her wits and, yes, at times her wiles; traits that are traditionally associated as feminine which make her vastly different from the tough as nails female heroine we are often told to look up to. Given that modern day progressives seem uncomfortable with the very idea that there is an actual male and female identity, let alone that they are distinct or different in any way, I see how they would have difficulty appreciating this in a character. Indeed, I can see how they look at Sansa and see her not pounding her chest or wielding a sword in battle and conclude that she is somehow disempowered for using her femininity not as a defect to be overcome but as an actual asset. As for myself, I find it highly refreshing.
At this point in the progression of the story, Sansa’s arch is very much a work in progress. In the world of Game of Thrones, the foolish fan makes predictions and George RR Martin laughs. So I am not going to project where I see her storyline ultimately going. I will say that at this point, given the demise of both Robb Stark and Stannis Baratheon, Sansa is the one remaining character I am actively rooting for (I do rather like Tyrion but given he appears to now be aligned with Daenerys I can’t say I am hoping he will ultimately win). My ideal ending would see her installed in her family’s seat in Winterfell, Queen in the North. Indeed, I think such an ending would serve as an interesting counterpoint to Daenerys’ storyline, which has essentially been that of a highly underwhelming individual going far based largely upon the luck of having more talented supporters carry water for her. What of the rest of Westeros? King Tommen can have it I suppose; he is too tender hearted to be oppressive, too clueless to be manipulative, and likely would hand off the actual ruling of the realm to his more talented advisors while he indulges in his love for kittens and sailing (oh wait, who does that sound like?).