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I was initially introduced to “Game of Thrones” by friends who religiously watched the TV show. Two of them had read the books, one of them had not, but all three of them loved the show and told me I would love it too, because of my predilection towards high fantasy. So, after catching up to the best of my ability, I came over to one of their houses on a Sunday and watched a live episode. I distinctly remember when Sophie Turner first came on the screen. She played Sansa Stark, a character I had yet to form a solid opinion on. At least I hadn’t until one of my friends said:
“Ugh. Sansa is so annoying.”
My other friends nodded their heads in agreement.
After doing some research on the Internet (read: Tumblr), I found out my friends weren’t the only ones who found Sansa annoying. Far from it, in fact. A lot of people did. And, because I am human and vulnerable to suggestion, I started to think she was annoying too. She was such a typical teenager, mooning over boys and squabbling with her siblings. And when she refused to stick up for her little sister Arya because she wanted to impress a boy—an action she knew full well would result in her sister’s dog being killed—I really thought I was sold on hating her.
Except the more I watched the show, the more I learned about her. And the more bad things I saw happen to her, the more I found myself really… really liking her. Sure, some of it was pity. Having your father executed in front of you and then being haunted with his head by your psychopathic fiancé is a really heavy life experience.
So is being beaten and stripped multiple times at the order of said fiancé.
And having your mother and brother killed during a wedding.
And being forced to marry someone you have no interest in after also being engaged to the worst person ever.
Aaaand being preyed upon by your mom’s creepy stalker.
But it wasn’t just pity I felt, it was also a profound level of respect: respect for George R. R. Martin as a writer, and respect for the character of Sansa herself. Because, while Sansa still initially falls into the problematic “traumatized woman” trope, she ends up breaking it by handling her trauma in a way that most characters like her do not. She doesn’t become a hardened warrior, or hide behind fire-tongued abrasiveness. How many female characters do we know that hide behind spunk, brashness, and typically “male” behaviors to cope with their feelings of hurt or abandonment? A whole lot.
Instead, she does what is largely considered the “weak” thing to do: she retreats into her femininity. She embraces her little bird sweetling image, and uses it to her advantage. She might be playing along as the pretty, delicate damsel now, but she’s positioned herself to eventually reclaim her family’s home of Winterfell—and considering everyone else is either dead or out to a very lengthy lunch, that’s a pretty big deal.
Perhaps the best part of all is that the only people in Sansa’s world who notice her potential are the incredibly intelligent characters. Her sort-of-husband Tyrion, for example, and Littlefinger—even if he is super gross and creepy. (I threw my phone across the room when he kissed her. Still have yet to recover.) Because smart people know that strength has no assigned gender expression.
And, to make an already strong point even stronger, the ones who doubt her capabilities tend to be the most narrow-minded and self-absorbed, like Joffrey and Cersei: both characters that are imprisoned by what they believe, or believed, society demands of them.
I see what you’re doing George, and I like it.
Sansa reminds us that the only reason being feminine is considered “weak” is because we’ve been socially conditioned to see it as such. Martin, however, has broken that wall down with his writing of her, because unless he takes her story in a very dark and abrupt direction (which he is, sadly, known to do), she’s going to win life in a pretty big way. The teenaged, perpetually eye-rolling sister that nobody likes, who loves knights in shining armor, pretty dresses, and a well-made lemon cake will be the one to triumph. And she will do it by being a womanly woman.
So that frustration I was feeling earlier with her character’s rose-tinted view of the world? It definitely was some weird mixture of unoriginal thinking and my own internalized misogyny. And I suspect the haters I found on Tumblr were also under the same sort of influences. This is not to say that people who don’t like Sansa are misogynists, but some of their opinions might be informed by internalized misogyny. Or not—it’s simply one possibility that happens to be really frustrating and intriguing at the same time.
Whether you like them or not, characters like Sansa Stark are invaluable in the world of literature and entertainment. They defy our expectations and make us upset, but if we are consuming media intelligently and willing to analyze ourselves, we end up learning a lot from them. And these lessons, while oftentimes being taught by fictional characters in fictional worlds, end up proving useful and even vital to better understanding real life. What Sansa teaches us is that whether you identify as male or female, you needn’t be ashamed of any feminine traits you might possess. Because where there is femininity, there is lasting power.
And as a fantasy fan and proud feminist killjoy, I’m really thankful to Martin for knowing that truth enough to include it in his work. Sansa’s story may not be finished yet, but I find myself with—dare I say it—high hopes for its ending.