Today’s most popular and anticipated drama show, “Game of Thrones,” televises a brutal, misogynistic medieval world. Though the violent fantasy series has been criticized for its problematic use of rape as a plot device, it has also been praised for subverting the gender norms of the complex, fictional society and creating nuanced female leaders. From a compassionate, ambitious heroine in Daenerys Targaryen to an enigmatic, bloodthirsty villain in Cersei Lannister, the show tells us there are many ways to be a strong woman in Westeros — but is it the same in our real world?
In the discussion of femme power in the Seven Kingdoms, Sansa Stark, the stereotypically feminine character — who initially knits for leisure and wears pretty gowns — often misses the cut. Young Sansa, the underdog of tragedies in the show, amassed viewer distaste that was similar to the reactions to characters like Viserys Targaryen and Joffrey Baratheon and made it to a list of the six most despicable characters on "Game of Thrones," with a paragraph that lambasted her as “utterly useless and whiny.” Memes about Sansa Stark have been milling around the internet, one of which features her realistic, painful expression when her father Ned Stark gets decapitated. The caption reads: “Bitch calm down, you cry like 99.9% of the time.” This hatred for Sansa Stark reflects internalized sexism towards traditionally feminine characters.
Many Reddit threads presently deem Sansa Stark deserving of what they call her “garbage life,” and criticize her for fancying the nefarious Joffrey (though we are shown she was conditioned to worship him as her future husband). In season one, episode six, when Sansa slowly begins to question Joffrey, he apologizes to her and says: “I will never disrespect you again,” and she takes his word for it. Yet she is the one blamed for perceiving the good in a vicious man. But this hatred for “gullible” women is familiar. Many young girls — myself included — chose manipulative, cocky men in our teen years and later bear the repercussions with the shamefaced label: stupidly falling for the bad boy.
Baffled by this abhorrence for such a relatable character, I asked my followers on Instagram through the story option: “Why is Sansa Stark not a strong character?” One of the responses stated: “She could pick up a sword once in a while like Arya.” Other answers included: “She is a dumb girl but learning." All of the responses depict our inability to recognize a woman’s strength and intelligence when they are stereotypically feminine and lack masculine traits.
The comparison between Sansa and Arya has historically favored the latter, indicating a common Hollywood fallacy that a “feminist” story must focus on iconoclastic women who can physically fight like men. Arya Stark (who resembles a delinquent tomboy) has a much larger fanbase than her sister, Sansa, who encompasses the prototypical girly, privileged girl we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the real world. And similar to reality, her passivity throughout the show is misinterpreted as weakness by fans. Unlike other inherently badass female characters, Sansa is non-violent and does not give loud, rousing speeches.
It is this conformist femininity that the audience misconceives as her transgression because she isn’t the usual fantasy heroine. The preference for Arya arises from the inherent social pedestal of masculine characteristics and the hatred for Sansa parallels our animus towards “ordinary” girly women. The audience’s selective idolization of the Stark sisters mirrors some of the double standards present in our society today. If we are truly feminist, we should be able to credit all kinds of women as equally strong — tomboys, girly and androgynous. Our tendency to revere characters who aren’t like other girls and scorn Sansa Stark demonstrates normalized sexism.
The audience’s disdain for Sansa’s strength exhibits the skewed, sexist vision of female power in our world — one that precludes traditional femininity and symbolizes an implicit rebuke for passive, unassertive women. On the other hand, the writers of the show have attempted to balance the discourse on strong females, not privileging one narrative over another. In this groundbreaking show, where women own dragons, possess unworldly martial skills and sit on iron thrones, unarmored Sansa Stark fearlessly perseveres. In "Game of Thrones," where characters have dropped like flies, Sansa Stark, the so-called lone wolf, has survived. But our inability to appreciate her perseverance shows how little we are able to accept traditionally feminine characters.
Arguably, Sansa Stark is the most reasonable and resilient character — one who snubs the idea that strength only stems from swords. Her internal fortitude remains consistent through five seasons of endless torture from her Lannister nemeses. Sansa has never needed a weapon or superpowers, because her proclivity to withstand pain with her bullet-proof vest brings her back to power in Winterfell. After winning the Battle of Bastards in season six, she kills her husband, Ramsay Bolton, and softly fires the most hard-hitting dialogue that distinguishes her unique competence from the supernatural charisma fans expect from leaders of both genders.
But no matter what she does, Sansa Stark remains unacceptable to some fans. After judging Sansa for her initial submissiveness, many remain vexed at her development in season seven. In 2017, a mid-series TV Guide open letter to Sansa Stark berated her as overly aggressive towards Jon Snow and underestimated her ascension as “playing right into Littlefinger's hands” — which, ultimately, proves false, because Lord Baelish is now dead. If we were all waiting for Sansa to unravel her “real” strength but cannot accept her leadership now, then we are erecting a spectrum of what constitutes acceptable “strong” female gender expression with a narrowing crevasse between weakness and hostility.
The social aversion towards feminine characters also emerges when Rachel Green, a character in the hit sitcom “Friends,” continues to be castigated as “annoying” for conforming to the ideals of girly behavior such as fangirling celebrities and shopping a lot. Similar to Sansa Stark, her evolution to a strong, independent career-oriented single mother is often ignored. The audience cannot forget unsophisticated comments of their pasts and present their development to strong-willed figures as overstepping boundaries. But if we truly want to see more female strength in Hollywood, we have to find a middle-ground for accepting girly women and dispose of this current narrative that jumps from preserving a woman’s teenage naivety as her eternal stupidity to immediately bulldozing her revolutionary voice as "bitchy."
While the real world — with all of its various technological advances — still struggles to extend trust and appreciation to feminine women, it’s good news that mythical Westeros might just be a step ahead of the rest of us (given, of course, that golden boy Jon Snow doesn’t boringly end up in power come April). Let’s just hope "Game of Thrones" fans — especially those who consider themselves feminist — begin to appreciate Sansa for her past, present and (hopefully) her future beyond the final season in order to expunge the backlash against stereotypically feminine women, whether real or fictional. So, the next time we complain Hollywood doesn’t have enough tough female characters, we should probably acknowledge the ones we already have, like Sansa, and stop disregarding them with internalized, normalized sexism and unscrupulous double standards.
Ramisa Rob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.