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?
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 traditionally attractive, 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, and 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 feminine-associated traits.
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
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
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
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.
Got a different take? Share your counterpoints or more examples of feminine-linked strength in the comments!