Before talking about the women of Game of Thrones I think is a worth talking about the man behind the women of Game of Thrones, George RR Martin. Martin is a very prolific author who has won praise for his ability to write genuine and interesting female characters. In a 2012 interview on Canadian television he chalked up this ability, half-jokingly, to the fact he considers women to be people. As a writer he has largely avoid the pitfalls some male authors fall into such as overemphasising femininity, disregarding femininity as a factor entirely or having women behave in otherwise bizarre, irrational and alien manners.
The female character that George RR Martin seems to take particular pleasure in writing is the gender-bending tomboy, girls drawn to masculine pursuits in the face of social pressures. The most notable in his book series and the TV adaptation being Arya Stark, Brianne of Tarth, Yara/Asha Greyjoy and Lyanna Stark.
To those not blinkered by strict notions of gender roles, the stories of tomboyish girls escaping the social constraints of their universes, becoming the women they have always wanted to be and holding their own alongside men has many appealing and positive qualities. Audacious rebellion, idealism, tough challenges and perseverance makes for great stories. The Game of Thrones TV series has seen Arya Stark in particular become beloved by both the fans and the showrunners. For better and for worse.
With the Game of Thrones TV series now coming to an end, I now cannot help but feel that one female character has come to represent a dreadful waste of storytelling potential, a figure within the narrative whose position and achievements in recent seasons feel distinctly unearned. The castle built on clay I am talking about the highly feminine, anti-tomboy, Sansa Stark.
When we first meet Sansa she is every inch the girly girl about court. She spends her days dreaming of knights, princesses and the glamour of the south, all while conducting herself with meticulous grace and courtesy. She is the embodiment of medieval expectations for girls, primed and ready for a life of comfort and domestic responsibility. With the death of her father on the order of her prince charming, her abuse and imprisonment at court, the apparent destruction of her entire family during her captivity and the friendless existence she endures, her girlhood conceptions of the world are shattered, leaving only the lady-like code of conduct drilled into her.
Some writers and audience members make the mistake of believing that for a female character to be compelling and interesting, particularly within a violent, patriarchal world such as Game of Thrones, female characters MUST burn their bras, don armour and wade into the fray. To do anything else would be to see them reduced to mincing gossipers with their heads in the clouds or glorified domestic servants.
Fans of the medieval history that Martin based his books off of likely know the names and stories of some of history’s most famous tomboys, the likes of Joan of Arc, Jeanne de Clisson and Gráinne Ní Mháille. They will also likely know of more courtly ladies such as Margaret of Anjou, Catherine de’ Medici and Elizabeth Tudor, women who lived in the same society as the aforementioned amazons and are arguably far more compelling and impactful characters in history.
In the world of Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister, Catelyn Stark and Olenna Tyrell exercise great power and influence. While Arya is travelling the world and learning from various lethal masters, Cersei Lannister exercises great power in King’s Landing. While Yara Greyjoy is leading military missions for her father, Catelyn Stark is guiding her son through the treacherous political waters of the War of the Five Kings. And finally, while Brianne of Tarth is knocking several famed knights into the dirt, Olenna Tyrell plays kingmaker.
Like the historical courtly women they are based off of, these woman take the base amount of power and influence their names grant them and through their formidable intellects, social skills and keen awareness of the harsh realities of feudal existence, they dominate many of the events in Game of Throne’s grand narrative.
From what we learn of these women’s pasts, the audience feels they have earned their place within the narrative. Olenna and Catelyn grew up and lived their live amongst great lords during times of turbulence. Cersei began her life as something of a tomboy herself before being inextricably moulded into a well-crafted political chess piece by the iron hand of her father.
To many, including myself, Sansa storyline was supposed to depict in detail the creation of a new great player in Westerosi politics. A beautiful, brilliant and ruthless woman whose mere image would inspire respect and who would wrap men and kingdoms around her graceful fingers without so much as swinging a sword in anger.
The show seemed to pursue this goal well at first. While in King’s Landing, Sansa’s fear, trauma and disorientation restrained her from pursuing anything other than survival and whatever scraps of comfort she could scrounge up. Through this ordeal she is quietly learning and observing. In some cases her lessons are direct, such as her conversations with Cersei. In other cases they are more indirect, such as her friendship with and manipulation at the hands of the Tyrell women.
Following her escape from King’s Landing into the protection of Lord Petyr Baelish, Sansa begins to regain some of her confidence and passion for life. Littlefinger tutors her further in the arts of scheming and politics during her time with him. Sansa also begins to apply some of the skills she has learned thus far upon arriving in The Vale, the most notable instance being her revealing her true identity to the nobility of The Vale on her own initiative and saving Littlefinger from them through emotionally manipulative acting.
In the books Sansa is currently still under Littlefinger’s protection and tutelage in The Vale. In the show Sansa and Petyr ultimately leave The Vale for The North and events that render Sansa’s story irrevocably hamstrung.
Upon learning of Littlefinger’s plan to marry her off to the Boltons Sansa initially refuses point-blank but is ultimately convinced by Littlefinger telling her to stop being so passive and that the marriage would somehow put her in a position to get revenge against the Boltons for the their role in her brother and mother’s murder. Sansa agreeing to this plan based on this rather vague and weak argument makes little sense.
What makes Sansa’s marriage to Ramsey Bolton and effective imprisonment so damaging to her character is the fact she has been reverted to the same situation she found herself in back in King’s Landing, of detachment and helplessness while waiting for rescue. The only instance during her time in Bolton-occupied Winterfell when she uses her skills and insights is when she plants seeds of doubt in Ramsey’s mind as to whether the trueborn second son of Roose Bolton might have a better claim to his inheritance than a legitimised first-born bastard. This jealousy and paranoia ultimately leads to Ramsey murdering his father, step-mother and infant half-brother, weakening House Bolton.
The nature of Sansa’s ultimate escape from Winterfell seemingly reveals that events in Bolton-occupied Winterfell were less about continuing Sansa’s story in an satisfying way and more about beginning a redemption arc for Theon Greyjoy. One might argue that Theon rescuing her was due to Sansa’s attempts to win him over. I would argue that Sansa’s role in Theon’s ultimate rescuing of her was mostly passive. She treated Theon with undisguised hatred before she learned that Theon hadn’t murdered her younger brothers and after Theon betrayed her original escape plans to Ramsey she clearly gave up on him. Theon’s change in loyalties clearly had more to do with Ramsey and Miranda’s cruelty to Sansa than anything else. Once more Sansa the helpless victim has to be saved rather than be allowed to succeed on her own merits.
I feel that Sansa’s story and character development could have been pursued far better by keeping her with Littlefinger in The Vale for longer. She could have remained in his tutelage and learned even more. She could have become involved in The Vale’s preparations for war and winter. She could have used her skills of persuasion and manipulation to keep Robin Arryn in line and gather support from the Vale lords to move against the Boltons. This change could have also served the dual purpose of fleshing out Littlefinger’s own grand ambitions, setting the stage for a climactic confrontation or betrayal.
We could have still gotten that awesome moment in the Battle of the Bastards when Sansa arrives in the nick of time with the Vale forces, rescuing Jon. Only now Sansa would be returning to The North as a person who we know has the skills and intellect to become Lady of Winterfell.
What we got saddled with in the show is Sansa convincing a resurrected Jon Snow to fight the Boltons, a decision he would have likely come to on his own eventually and a interaction between Sansa and Lord Glover which frankly makes Sansa look arrogant and stupid. Also on a related note it is bizarre that Sansa would so quickly write off her little brother Rickon when he falls into Bolton hands and seemingly not even mourn his death considering that her reason for returning to The North was avenge her family and restore Stark rule in The North.
At the beginning of Season 7 we are reintroduced to Sansa as somebody who is every inch The Lady of Winterfell in both her appearance and actions. She speaks boldly and rationally when challenging King Jon on his decision to not punish House Umber or House Karstark for their loyalty to the Boltons, providing an interesting foil of pragmatic ruthlessness to Jon’s more forgiving idealism. She is also shown ably running the day to day affairs of Winterfell, including preparations for winter without any advice from the Maester of Winterfell or any other lords.
The issue here is that compared to somebody like Jon Snow, whose capacity to rule is explained by the fact that he served as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Sansa has not previously displayed proficiency or even promise in anything other than persuasion and manipulation. Again, this feels unearned.
Season 7 then proceeds to undermine Sansa through the bizarre and forced tension between Sansa and the newly-returned Arya Stark. Arya is manipulated by Littlefinger into believing that Sansa is a traitor to their family and that in order to protect the Stark family she has to murder Sansa. Arya behaving like a paranoid serial killer understandably freaks Sansa out and almost has her preemptively kill Arya in self-defence until Bran Stark defuses the situation with his Three-Eyed Raven powers, uniting them against their true enemy, Littlefinger.
In the scene where Sansa checkmates Littlefinger and has him killed, the scene tries to convince the audience that this is Sansa surpassing and outwitting Littlefinger with her quoting his words of advice back at him and thanking him for “all his many lessons.” But the scene has Sansa defeating Littlefinger with information she could have only gotten from the recently returned Bran. Sansa ultimately outwitting Littlefinger and beating him at his own game, definitively proving Sansa to be a truly gifted woman going into the climax of the story is what the writers were attempting to achieve but once again, it is completely unearned as Sansa seemingly fully intending to either murder Arya or get herself murdered before Bran intervened.
In season 8 Sansa is supposedly the dominant political force in The North following Jon’s renunciation of his crown. She instantaneously becomes a rival of Queen Daenerys, working to undermine her and asserting that The North deserves independence. The blatantly rushed season proceeds to do a terrible job of explaining why Sansa has become such a determined believer in Northern independence. Honoring the memory of her older brother King Robb is not invoked. The murder of her grandfather and uncle by Dany’s father is never brought up. Sansa’s primary motivation for opposing Dany is apparently a general, vague mistrust which comes across as catty.
By episode 4 of season 8 Sansa’s plans and motivations have become completely confused. Despite Dany’s army and dragons saving Winterfell, the remaining Stark family and the rest of The North at great cost, Sansa’s continued general mistrust of Dany has her attempting to incite a coup against Dany by leaking Jon’s secret Targaryan parentage to Tyrion, presumably under the impression that Jon would ultimately accept the throne and permit northern independence. This action on Sansa’s part arguably led to Dany’s decision to burn King’s Landing in episode 5 and places her in mortal danger from a vengeful Dany going into the final episode.
Sansa Stark seems set to pass with a whimper in the ether of the post-Game of Thrones popular imagination. Cersei Lannister will go down as one of the great antagonists of our generation. Brianne and Arya will likely become symbols of girl power to surpass Rosie the Riveter. Our enduring memory of Sansa Stark will be of a vague, passive mess of a character. The shadow of a truly great matriarch projected onto the wall of entertainment history by careless and uninspired TV writers.