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In Defense of Sansa

September 12, 2012

Full disclosure: I have not read A Song of Fire and Ice. I know, I know, I should. And I will at some point. Maybe after the show has ended. But this post is to address an article by a woman who has clearly not read the books either, so we’re on equal ground. Also, don’t spoil anything for me in the comments, kay?

What article am I talking about? of the Huffington Post penned an article criticizing the women in the HBO series Game of Thrones as being little more than tired sexist archetypes. Go ahead and give it a read. She does raise a few interesting points about how women are portrayed in both literature and Hollywood. However, when it comes to the women of GoT, she misses the point by a mile. Spoilers for both seasons of GoT ahead!!

Game of Thrones has been criticized for being sexist thanks to women within the world being depicted as baby makers, whores, political pawns, and generally treated like shit. But that is the point. Westeros is a screwed up sexist world, and the men in power are products of that society, using women as if they were things. The difference is that these smart, fully developed women are also products of this violent, sexist, patriarchal society, and they are finding ways to survive and sometimes thrive in a man’s world. In depicting a violent and sexist patriarchy, George R. R. Martin isn’t saying it’s awesome. He’s showing us, through his female characters, exactly how fucked up it is.

Now, onto the archetypes, specifically Arya and Sansa. Here’s what Ms. Rasmussen had to say about the Stark sisters:

The Tomboy. Arya Stark, the little daughter with a boy’s haircut, learns to wield a sword and become an assassin. She is clearly metamorphosing into another favorite recent archetype, the Woman Warrior (think Guenevere in King Arthur, Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy or Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games).

The Princess. Sansa Stark, sister to the Tomboy, is not too bright and is often punished for her vapid and romantic delusions. In case you had any doubt which, the Tomboy or the Princess, is more appealing to contemporary audiences, compare what happens to poor Sansa to her clear-minded, independent sister.

The Stark sisters exist to show us two wildly different ways young women deal with the cards they have been dealt. Arya survives by embracing the masculine, and Sansa survives by embracing the feminine. Neither is wrong. Arya rebels against the sexist society, while Sansa attempts to use it to her advantage.

Sansa is incredibly clever. Her romantic notions were killed along with her pet dire wolf. Now, a girl who is not bright would have taken that moment (or any number of other horrible events Joffrey inflicted on her) to say, “You’re an asshole, I am not marrying you!” Instead, Sansa is very aware that the only way she’ll have an ounce of power, the only way she can possibly survive is to stick close to Joffrey for as long as she can. She attempted once to kill Joffrey, but failed, and continued to try to manipulate the system in her favor. Sansa is an incredibly strong and clever young woman, and I’m very interested to see what happens to her next season now that her small amount of power and insurance has evaporated. (DON’T TELL ME, DAMMIT!)

Arya, meanwhile, isn’t quite as trapped as Sansa, both literally and figuratively. She has more freedom to rebel and take on the role of a boy.

The Stark girls offer two ways of dealing with the same problem that all young women face within Westros, a place where their options are severely limited. One remains and gives the appearance of submissive conformity while working the system as it is, while the other flees the oppressive society to find her own path, but is always under the threat of being pulled back in.

The article goes on to poorly define Cersi as a Seductress and Catelyn Stark as the Good Wife, but we’ll have to save those smackdowns for another post.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2012 2:55 pm

    Reblogged this on And then there's me.

  2. Kimmi permalink
    September 13, 2012 10:31 am

    Yaargh! Yes, there are things to complain about with Martin… But there’s boatloads of things to like.

  3. September 18, 2012 6:21 pm

    I love bad-ass, sword-wielding heroines as much as the next person (Arya and Brienne are two of my other favorite characters in anything ever), but the focus on this sort of female character — the oft-cited “strong female character” — seems to suggest that femininity is still bad, and that women can only be strong by adopting stereotypically male roles and attitudes. There’s nothing wrong with Arya declaring that being a Lady does not suit her and forging her own path, but saying that all female characters must take this attitude is as sexist and dismissive as saying that all female characters must be weak and take a backseat in events. Femininity is not bad, just as masculinity is not necessarily good.

    • September 19, 2012 11:33 am

      I agree wholeheartedly. Strength and masculinity should not be synonymous, nor should weakness and femininity.

  4. February 14, 2013 5:46 pm

    Stark girls are an interesting look at how young women deal with the expectations of their culture. You can see this throughout the story; as Tyrion says to Jon “Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” For Sansa, that armor is femininity. The show, at least. portrays her as a kind of Cersi in the making, unsure if that’s what she wants to be. As much as I would agree that Sansa is kind of horrible and actually dangerous to herself and others in her illusions of power, we see that her society offers the options of being kind and hopelessly naive, resigned and jaded, or manipulative and powerful. None of these are exactly ideal.

    You can see another interesting contrast in Daenerys, who comes from Westerosi culture but has assimilated into the Dothrakki way of life, which is perhaps equally but very differently misogynistic.

    Still, for all the interesting analysis of gender roles in a medieval setting, I think it’s a hard argument to make that Martin doesn’t have significant weirdnesses in his portrayal of women. It sounds like the article takes it out on the characters.

  5. January 21, 2014 4:13 pm

    Thanks for your defense of Sansa. I think she gets a bad rap and is too easily dismissed. And I think she has the potential to turn the tables on her manipulators.

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