High-key femininity isn't weakness and here's why Sansa proves it

Femininity isn't weakness: Sansa is a strong character
Bitchens better watch out.
Images via HBO

Avast, there are spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones. Flee to safety if you're not caught up through season 7.

There are a lot of serious business questions going on about Game of Thrones. Is there incestuous chemistry between Jon and Dany? Are Brienne and Tormund going to be king and queen of the prom beyond the wall? Will a zombie dragon spit ice instead of fire (glob, that would be so cool)?

But there is one question that has been stuck in my craw since we've been watching Arya and Sansa battle it out sister-style in the last episode, Beyond the Wall. We know that Littlefinger has been plotting to drive a wedge between the already embattled sisters, though we aren't sure of the whole scope of his plan yet. Nor do we really know what's driving the choices and words of the sisters themselves. We'll see soon enough in this Sunday's season finale.

The question with which I'm struggling is why does anyone in Sansa's world presume her to be weaker and less of a threat because she is high-key feminine? Because she is young, feminine, and pretty, those around her tend to take advantage and use her for their own aims, ignoring the fact that she's very capable of turning the tables. Viewers of the show often see her as weak and manipulated. Is this really the case or are we just seeing her highly feminized persona and automatically attach the "weak" label because of our socialized gender spectrum norms?

No surprise here: even among men in the show, feminine traits are also seen as weak, mirroring Western society. Samwell Tarley is bullied by the men of The Watch for being more of a reader than a fighter, and Jojen Reed was powerful and mystical yet couldn't be taken seriously because his sister protected him with her sword skills.

Tough and more masculine-presenting women in the show like Arya, Brienne of Tarth, and Jojen's sister Meera deal with mocking and derision, but it doesn't stem from weakness, but rather their departure from their "traditional" form, femininity. It is easy to see Arya's path as mutinous and Sansa's as conventional and therefore apply strength to Arya's. But that diminishes the inherent value in what feminine-associated traits bring to society.

Femininity isn't weakness: Sansa is a strong character

To see, let's lay out Sansa's more powerful turns and know if a dress-wearing, high-key feminine character (even in a fictional Medieval-style universe) can overcome her gender spectrum stigma. Femininity doesn't undercut feminism, and here's why Sansa proves it…

She can be vengeful AF

Femininity isn't weakness: Sansa is a strong character

Remember her constant tormentor and assailant, Ramsay Bolton? Hard to forget, easy to hate, not often labeled weak, despite having a good argument for it. Remember when Sansa fed him to his own starving dogs? And there's that wicked smile as she walks away from him. You can harm her, but it will not be consequence-free.

The counter to this is that vengefulness can be seen as a weakness in itself. If we put value in traditionally masculine traits like violence, revenge, and lack of compassion, we devalue kindness, forgiveness, and empathy. But when it comes to the way we see gender and strength, she is perceived as stronger when she takes on these traits.

She's smart and is starting to wield it

Femininity isn't weakness: Sansa is a strong character

Among other assumptions about Sansa is that she isn't intelligent and in a constant state of naivete. Yet we're shown that she's absorbed a lot of knowledge about surviving a long winter at a keep, knowing when to blend in when you're surrounded by enemies (Lannisters, Boltons, The Eyrie), and has taken copious notes about how to play the politics game by some of the (arguably) best in the business like Cersei and Littlefinger. Whether those lessons will help her in the end is uncertain, but it can't be said that she doesn't get how things work in this fictional universe. Knowledge is power and being able to acquire it under a patriarchy is stronger still.

Women have often been forced to wield hidden strength to get their way and to claw themselves higher in society's tier of power. It's those smart choices, not the obvious and forceful ones, that demonstrate her savvy.

"Strong female character" is bullshit anyway

Femininity isn't weakness: Sansa is a strong character

Even Netflix loves to carve out a place for these so-called "strong female characters" in their categories. What we're meant to see in that is a character who is able to take any and all blows and come up standing. But a realistic strong female-presenting character in life is one who is complex and displays a full range of real-life emotions that you'd see in a fully realized person. It's a character who isn't reduced to easy tropes and inherent bad-assery that seemingly comes from nowhere.

A strong female character evolves in those worlds.

Sansa isn't perfect and she's been through some major ordeals. Some of these ordeals have left their mark, but she's still standing, and still (so far) all-in with the Starks. She was born into a world that crumbled around her and she reflects the journey any of us could take in that situation, warts and all. A strong female character evolves in those worlds. Sansa has evolved almost entirely alone and without the support of anyone she can absolutely trust.

Sansa can hold her own if she's able to use her stereotypical role to her benefit by working her own aims behind the mask of acquiescence.

If we can start applauding both the revolutionary women who take on masculine traits to earn a "strong female" moniker, and the women who follow the path taught to them, we can start to see strong women as far more diverse and plentiful than it seems.

Femininity isn't weakness: Sansa is a strong character

Got a different take? Share your counterpoints or more examples of feminine-linked strength in the comments!

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  1. I haven't watched GoT, but I think your points about the different ways to construct feminine strength are well taken. I just made a similar argument in my dissertation on 19th century French literature. I absolutely agree that "strong female characters" can and should be represented in ways that break with their established societies. But I also agree that it is arguably even more important to show them excelling and pushing back against reductive stereotypes while working within the system. In the real world, most of us are never going to completely rebel against social expectations. It's important for us to have art that lifts up the more common, less dramatic example of women who have learned to play the game and to turn it to their advantage. Also, as frustrating as it is, being perceived as weak can also open up other kinds of opportunities. Those who underestimate us cannot adequately counter our strategies.

    5 agree
    • Also, as frustrating as it is, being perceived as weak can also open up other kinds of opportunities. Those who underestimate us cannot adequately counter our strategies.

      This exactly. Being under the radar can be frustrating but useful.

      5 agree
  2. I agree with all these statements about high key femininity often being misjudged as weakness and that there is a tendency to underestimate feminine people… but don't hold up Sansa as an example! She is the epitome of negative feminine stereotypes, exceedingly naive *despite* having spent so much time with those power players, very petty, whiny and spiteful. She is the exact negative stereotype of a woman who unwittingly found herself in a position of power and doesn't know what to do with it. I hope I'm wrong, and that we'll see her rise to the occasion, but so far I've been completely underwhelmed with her character.

    She did not liberate herself from any of her traumatic situations, she waited for a man to rescue her. When she found herself in a powerful position with the Vale ready to rally to her aid at the battle of the bastards, she deliberately WITHHELD that information from Jon, even when he SPECIFICALLY assked her if she had any idea where they could get more men. She throws a fit because he "isnt listening," and when he asks for her for council She says, "I don't know!" She let her own people get slaughtered rather than help plan a strategic attack that could have saved many lives. And then she sits on her high horse and takes credit for the win!! Oh heck no. The Sansa character does much to damage the idea that a high key feminine individual can be smart and capable.

    On the other hand, let's look at Cersei. She has displayed high key femininity for most of the storyline, and even before her hair was involuntarily shorn and she started sporting battle garb, she was arguably the most powerful player of them all. She controlled all the pieces, played the game better than most of the men, and used the fact that they consistently underestimated her against them. She crowned herself the queen of the seven kingdoms, much on her own merit. She has lost battles, been kicked while down, been shamed and spit on, but she rises again and again, crushing her enemies. She may not be a "good guy," but she is by far one of the strongest and most feminine characters in the story.

    There's Danaerys too; she is feminine, strong and (appears to be) one of the good guys. She is smart, capable, tough, and even brutal at times. She takes crap from no one, knows what she wants and learns from all of her experiences. Unlike Cersei and Sansa, she had ZERO foundation for power, zero models who navigated politics and war, and yet she created an identity and legacy for herself, by herself. She takes control of her life, her sexuality, her influence, and uses it to her own advantage as well as the advantage of thousands of people she doesn't know.

    If you're looking for strong feminine characters, they are all over GoT. Sansa isn't one of them. People don't say she's naive because she is pretty, they say it because (so far) it is true. I keep hoping with every episode, THIS will be the one where she grows up and starts being smart, but we've yet to see it happen.

    8 agree
    • I totally agree with you that Dany and Cersei are both stronger (by far) and feminine. Those are great examples. My oooonly caveat on holding up characters like Sansa and Arya for "strong female character" purposes instead of those two, are that they are more realistic to me and therefore more well-rounded.

      Cersei is a villain archetype and feels a little more like a caricature to me instead of a fully realized person I could see living in the world. Dany, on the other hand, feels superhuman. She's almost too powerful and strong to believe. That doesn't negate your point, though. They're both tough, awesome, and feminine.

      Thanks for the awesome thoughts!

      4 agree
      • I feel like it's hard to see Cersei as rounded and sometimes even human because I have never seen her have what felt like an honest conversation. She never lets herself be vulnerable. She never entertains the possibility that she could lose. She never admits that Joffrey was a total shit. I know she's never been vulnerable because she's always been in kings landing and a Lannister, except for her brief shame period. Her father could perhaps be seen as the same because he never seemed vulnerable, but I felt like some of his battle conversations were fairly honest.

        My other point I wanted to make was that as a young child I definitely associated feminine qualities with the opposite of feminism, and so whilst I already didn't like girly things like pink and dresses, I've sort of automatically hated everything feminine for a long time without really examining why. It's hard work going back over my preferences and seeing what are just my tastes and what are kind of this inbuilt rebellion against high feminine qualities.

        Great discussion and article thanks!!!!

        3 agree
        • I heard a great point about how "millennial pink" is so popular now because finally young women are overcoming internalized misogyny to embrace a "feminine" color again. It's fascinating how we make those negative associations early on!

          1 agrees

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