Hello again, everyone. Last time, when I turned a Game of Thrones quiz into the beginnings of a defense of Sansa Stark, I promised to offer up a couple of hypotheses for why Sansa’s displays of courage and integrity throughout the series have done little to convince audiences to give her even a modicum of credit. And believe me, I’m not imagining this. Sansa-hate is alive and well, to the point its practitioners will do almost anything to justify their continued disdain for the character.
That awkward moment when you realize this is what passes for wit nowadays. (Image credit: towerofthehand.blogsspot.com)
Consider, for instance, this excerpt from Entertainment Weekly’s recap of “Breaker of Chains” (S4 E3), in which critic James Hibberd goes to astonishing lengths to interpret Sansa’s escape from King’s Landing in a way that makes her look like an idiot:
[Following Joffrey’s assassination, Sansa] made her first smart proactive move in the whole series and got the hell out of there along with Dontos the drunkard. He ushers her to a rowboat, and then out to a mysterious ghost ship captained by…
So now after being captive for basically the entire show by the Joffrey and the Lannisters, Sansa finally escapes for about 15 seconds … and manages to get captured again by somebody else! Somewhere, Arya is face-palming.
It would take an entire blog post to cover all the things that are wrong with this passage, but one fallacy in particular stands out: Hibberd actually ridicules Sansa for being delivered into Littlefinger’s clutches, as if it were her fault that he masterminded her abduction.
Then there’s this choice bit from Monty Ashley’s recap of “Fire and Blood” (S1 E10) on the Television Without Pity website:
Meanwhile, up on the royal dais, Sansa faints. I want to make fun of her for fainting, because it’s the sort of thing that frail, royal ladies are always doing. But her father did just get decapitated a few feet from her, so I’m going to allow it.
Isn’t that magnanimous of him? He’s going to give Sansa a pass for fainting after witnessing her own father’s execution! Go on, Sansa: kneel down and say “thank you” to Monty Ashley for showing such restraint.
Why is it that are people so eager to hate this character, and so reluctant to acknowledge her positive qualities? Here’s what I think might be behind the continued Sansa-slamming:
Hypothesis #1: First impressions die hard.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: at the beginning of the TV series, Sansa was pretty hard to like. For the first seven episodes of Season 1, she was by turns shallow, bratty, shortsighted, and willfully naïve. When that’s our initial impression of a character, it’s very easy for us to get stuck on AutoHate. I suspect that is at least part of why there is still so much anti-Sansa sentiment among audiences now.
However, as I pointed out in yesterday’s post, Sansa has proven since late Season 1 that she possesses plenty of redeeming qualities: compassion, courage, survival instincts, and an unlikely capacity to endure tragedy, just to name a few.
Sure, she still has her share of weepy, whiny moments and still relapses into her old naivete on occasion, most notably in Season 3 when she entertains the fantasy of being married to a clearly uninterested, clearly gay Loras Tyrell. But are these flaws of hers so egregious, so reprehensible, that they overshadow the times when she has demonstrated courage under circumstances that would probably crush any one of us? The kid’s been publicly tortured and humiliated, nearly gang-raped, subjected to daily psychological abuse, used as a pawn in political maneuvering, and forced to marry into the family responsible for murdering three of her own family members; yet in spite of all this, she has not only survived but in fact emerged as one of the most compassionate characters in the series, showing empathy for the likes of Ser Dontos and Tyrion Lannister while everyone else gets off on humiliating them.
Yes, she started off on the wrong foot in Season 1. But we’re on Season 4 now, and she’s come a long way. So, while I kind of understand how the initial negative opinions of Sansa may have become ingrained in the audience’s collective mind, at this point it’s inexcusably lazy to hang on to them. Sansa’s moved on. We should too.
Ahem. Anyway …
Hypothesis #2: People Have a Frakked-up Definition of “Strength”
Ever since it came on the air, Game of Thrones has been cited repeatedly as a gold mine of strong female characters. Fans and critics have gushed variously over the steely resolve and independence of Daenerys Targaryen, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark, Margaery Tyrell, Olenna Tyrell, Melisandre, Brienne of Tarth, Ygritte, and even Cersei Lannister. And it’s true that all these women have exhibited a great deal of strength in the face of adversity. Many of them are highly sympathetic to boot.
But why is Sansa so seldom counted among them? Why doesn’t it seem to impress viewers that she was the one person who advocated for Ned Stark’s life, or that she defended Tyrion to Lysa Arryn despite having nothing to gain from it? What standards of strength have all the other women of GOT met that Sansa has not?
Well, after reviewing all of the episodes to date, I’ve determined that Sansa is the only principal female character who hasn’t done one or more of the following things:
- Worn armor.
- Wielded a sword, dagger, or other weapon.
- Committed or masterminded a murder.
- Participated in the railroading of an innocent man accused of murder.
- Abducted and/or threatened to kill a person who has never wronged her.
- Used sex to manipulate people into doing her bidding.
- Gone out of her way to make an unoffending person feel stupid.
- Had hundreds of people tortured to death without even the pretense of a trial (yes, Team Khaleesi, I’m talking to you here).
- Espoused a belief system that consists of exactly two ideas: (1) there is a single God whose efficacy and favor require regular human sacrifices, and (2) the night is dark and full of terrors.
- Bared her breasts onscreen.
So, based on these differences between Sansa and the other, supposedly stronger female characters, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the problem lies not with any fundamental weakness on Sansa’s part, but rather with the audience’s unconscious notion that a “strong woman” is one who goes around kicking other people’s asses, engages in all of the worst behaviors of her male counterparts, and generally conforms to stereotypical versions of masculinity, with bonus points awarded for getting naked from time to time.
I know that’s going to make certain people mad, because they have it in their heads that any self-respecting progressive thinker, any true feminist, must necessarily see Daenerys and Arya as quintessential strong female protagonists, while deploring Sansa’s character as being somehow antithetical to female empowerment. But those people are mistaken.
The scenes cited in the previous post should have erased any doubt that Sansa has more agency and backbone than, frankly, many of the people who watch Game of Thrones. And even if she’s far from the most intelligent character on the show, she’s not an idiot either; the way she calls Littlefinger on his BS and tricks Joffrey into sparing Dontos’s life are just two examples of her ability to think on her feet. As for being naïve … well, yes, sometimes she is, but I fail to see how that’s more objectionable than burning people alive for believing in a different god from yours, as Melisandre is so fond of doing, or shoving a sword through someone’s neck and smiling about it, as Arya has done.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to bash the other, more widely beloved women on this show. (Okay, I do have a huge problem with Melisandre, but that’s a rant for another day.) What I object to is the double standard according to which Sansa is so frequently judged. It’s a double standard that illuminates a broader, more insidious problem with us as consumers of popular culture: we mistake meanness, obstinacy, bloodlust, manipulation, and outright bullying for strength. That isn’t Sansa Stark’s fault. It’s ours.