words by michaela bell
artwork by cheyenne bholla
Like most mega-fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones, after the series finale ended, I promptly vowed to hate the show forever. From rushed plots to the destruction of beloved character arcs to unanswered questions—it was a little heartbreaking to see what was once so prominent in pop culture crumble in on itself and quite literally disappear from it altogether. While I’m all for banishing poor writing and eternal unanswered questions from my mind, what I can’t seem to let go of is one particular storyline. One which seemed to come out unscathed—and in fact seemed almost more central to the end of the plot than the Mother of Dragons’ and the secret Prince of Westeros’ themselves.
She was one of the show’s most hated figures, and in my eyes the most important. Let’s start with a question.
Why was child-turned-teenaged Sansa so despised by the mainly adult audience of the show?
She was no Joffrey Baratheon, or Ramsay Bolton, or Cersei Lannister— the most reviled villains of the show. In fact, Sansa stood across from those villains for much of the show’s run, and was often the victim of their violence. Why, as a young girl written to win her own throne in the end, was she so hated? Is it simple enough to call it misogyny?
She was instructed from a young age to be polite, dutiful, and loyal to the men in and above her station in life. And she listened—the audacity.
Sansa first appeared in Game of Thrones as a child. The show changed the age of many of its characters to fit the violence of the plot, shifting Sansa’s age from 11 to 13. This maintains the fact that she was still very much a child at the beginning of her harrowing tale. What I believe made so many fans dislike her from the beginning was the fact that she was very real in a land of fantasy. Like many 13-year-olds, she wanted to fit in, she was annoyed by her embarrassing little sister and she believed in the fairy tales she had been told. She was instructed from a young age to be polite, dutiful, and loyal to the men in and above her station in life. And she listened—the audacity.
She was a little girl who believed that the heroes were right, the knights were meant to protect, and that handsome Princes would be fitting of their title. Much like the audience, Sansa’s time on the show led her to realize these falsities. George R.R. Martin’s story was meant to expose and invert the classic tropes of fantasy works. The heroes could turn into the villains, knights could be cruel and betray their duties and that being handsome is not what makes someone kind. Characters like Daenarys, Jaime, and Tyrion were devised to turn everything we as an audience thought we knew about fantasy on its head. Sansa played a role in exposing the narrative that inverted these classic tropes. Yet audiences assumed her naivety was not meant to be a representation of their own.
In a show full of extreme violence, its most harsh and cruel acts were often justified with a call to realism. This is seen over and over again in television and movies — the expression of realism as violence. More often than not, it is an intense fetishization of violence against women. Shows like Game of Thrones have been marketed to be ‘sexy’ and ‘violent’, but instead are actually marketing the exploitation of the abuse, degradation, and oppression of women.
We see beloved characters make capital out of women, abuse them, wish harm on them, and regale detailed stories of their pain. This is okay! Because history has been cruel to women, and women have been treated poorly for thousands of years. So excluding it from a story about dragons and ice zombies is what really would make the story unbelievable. I would argue using the pain of women—a pain many still feel and go through everyday—as a plot choice is a cop-out for the use of creative and innovative narrative devices. Violence against women is prominent, familiar and comfortable in our narratives, and that’s the problem.
Hate towards Sansa is unfortunately easy to find, especially on social media. This widespread loathing ranges from simple things such as a person disliking her based on her childlike behaviour during, well, her childhood — to arguments that she deserved to die or experience more violence for some sort of perceived betrayal or conspiracy.
It is a deeply feminist stance to redefine strength beyond muscles, to things like emotional expression and the bravery of truly being one’s self.
Without a doubt, Sansa Stark was a traditionally feminine presenting woman; one with ‘girly’ hobbies and dreams of motherhood. Unlike a lot of other female characters in the show, Sansa refused to give up her traditionally feminine qualities or role in society to gain power. The idea of women being able to do whatever men can do is an outdated stance because it equates strength with masculinity. Women should not have to match men in their skills, qualities, hobbies, and expressions of strength to be seen as strong.
This is a huge issue that Game of Thrones fans struggled with. It is a deeply feminist stance to redefine strength beyond muscles, to things like emotional expression and the bravery of truly being one’s self. The idea of finding strength through self-expression is an ongoing and common theme for many characters. We see this in Bran Stark, whose early show tragedy left him in a wheelchair. He was then picked on by fans questioning why his storyline was still a part of the show. That was before he became King of Westeros. And Samwell Tarly, who saw teasing on and off-screen due to his weight. Some fans were surprised by his survival to the very end, despite having proven himself time and time again, like when he uncovered the weapon needed to save the world from the show’s biggest threat.
George R.R. Martin has written a story for the unexpected heroes – the unequal, the unwanted, the undesirable – those who society otherwise would’ve cast aside for the handsome, brawny knight. Instead of seeing these characters as capable, intelligent, and worthy of their lives and achievements, audiences still cast them aside.
There is often a quiet strength that comes with waking up every day and enduring physical, emotional or sexual abuse. There are small victories that come with a turn of phrase, or eye contact held for a second too long.
Sometimes when you are in an abusive situation, outright defiance is not an option. Things like a coy comment or having the bravery to look someone in the eye is defiant and a sign of resistance. In the show’s second season, an episode was dedicated to the Battle of the Blackwater. A moment between Sansa and Joffrey stands as a shining example of what I’m attempting to describe. Sansa, being held captive in King’s Landing, as a political pawn by her fiance’s family, is told by the sadistic King Joffrey to kiss his sword before he goes off to fight. She asks if he will kill his greatest rival, his uncle, by fighting on the frontlines, advancing the military formation. To this, he replies, “A king doesn’t discuss battle plans with stupid girls.”
Sansa uses this opportunity to seemingly belittle herself by accepting the insult. She says that of course, he would be fighting in the vanguard because her brother Robb would always go where the fighting was thickest, and he was only pretending to be a king. She did this purposefully to bruise his ego in hopes he would risk his life, and die in battle. She would never tell him outright that she wanted him to die. By manipulating him, she gained a sense of control in an oppressive situation.
Some people cannot ride dragons away from their circumstances, wear other people’s faces to fight their abusers, or stand tall in full armour against their insecurities.
Those who have not experienced abuse might not notice these actions of survival, but they speak volumes to those who have. Some people cannot ride dragons away from their circumstances, wear other people’s faces to fight their abusers, or stand tall in full armour against their insecurities. Some must sit quietly beside those who hurt them every day and smile because smiling will keep them safe that day. Sansa’s journey was a monument to this quiet strength. She proved that holding true to one’s own values, despite what they have to say or do outwardly to live day-to-day, is one of the strongest things a person can do. Especially when fighting and screaming isn’t an option.
One scene that sticks out so vividly in my mind is when Sansa returns to Winterfell for the first time in the show, after five seasons. She is returning to her birthplace. The place that once held her happiest memories. The last time she was there, her family was together and safe. Now, more than half of them are dead or missing; all of them estranged from one another for the majority of the show. She cries to Petyer Baelish, a man who groomed her and abused her much of the time they had been together. She says that she would rather die than have to return to a home overrun by the people who killed her family.
In the next scene, we see her bowing in the courtyard, smiling and acting cordial to the man who stabbed her brother in the heart. This is to say if the show had an internal monologue running through it similarly to The Handmaid’s Tale, Sansa’s smile would have come across very differently to audiences. Without this monologue, her actions were regarded as power-hungry, disloyal, and ambitious. Could people not hear the pain in her voice, not see the hollowness behind her eyes, the emptiness behind her words, nor the strings of obligation pulling at her limbs?
I could go on for hours, years, decades about how much I admire and revere the characterization of Sansa Stark. Her story was a spotlight on the realities of many survivors. In her experiences of trauma, she did not lose her personhood in her victimhood. She endured the worst violence while never losing the compassion, loyalty and intelligence that made her strong. As a foil of Cersei, Sansa was able to show audiences what maintaining kindness in the face of a cruel reality looked like.
Cersei and Sansa have childhood behaviours that align, such as being cruel to a younger sibling and having personal, self-serving desires like marrying a handsome prince. However, their distinctly opposite reactions to their life experiences shaped their arcs. Cersei’s experience led her to harden, to let the abuse she endured turn her own heart to hatred. Cersei instilled fear. Sansa’s role in the show, however, was to inspire.
Sansa’s story is important to understand. Life will not be kind to you just because you are kind. Men will not act like knights just because they wear the armour. The people you put your trust in can use you for the worst. This does not mean that you have to give up your kindness and hope in good people or lose your ability to trust. It means you learn, you grow, and you fight like hell to stay open-hearted in a cruel world. That is bravery.
Most importantly, we must understand how we take in the media presented to us. Sansa is not physically strong, she has not compromised an ounce of her traditional femininity. She has not given up on her womanly desires, skills, or behaviour. She has shown no interest in ‘masculine’ activities or proven herself to be stereotypically strong. Fans of the show treated her like she was weak, despite her ability to endure, maintain respect and stay in positions of power. It is within this so-called weakness that she has that quiet strength—she has endured pain and degradation without becoming hard, vengeful, or angry. She has continued to smile, to show kindness, to care for her family and her allies.
It’s time we look to the women on screen and in our lives, and see the strength in their refusal to be hardened by the cruelty of the world.
The denial of such behaviours as a representation of strength is the lesson we’ve all unknowingly been subjected to. A lesson that turns these admirable qualities into selfishness, untrustworthiness and deceit. It’s time we look to the women on screen and in our lives and see the strength in their refusal to be hardened by the cruelty of the world. Enduring and moving forward is what makes them strong. Finding joy and happiness again is what makes them strong. In a show full of powerful and violent people, respect and validation are lost on characters of passive perseverance.
We must acknowledge the abilities of women who are composed, smart, and capable in tandem with their trauma. We must not see them as lacking in the traditional armour of heroes, but as though they don their own unique armour, made from inner strength and survival.