In Defense of Sansa Stark

May 10, 2012 § 46 Comments

Sansa Stark must be one of the most hated characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. The vitriol levelled against her is often frightening in its intensity, surpassing that for actually horrific characters like Joffrey and Ramsey Bolton. Her crime? The unforgivable fact that she is a pre-teen girl.

As a massive fan of Sansa, even I must admit that she is difficult to like at first. She’s spoilt and a bit bratty. She fights with her fan-favorite sister and trusts characters who the reader knows are completely untrustworthy. She is hopelessly naive and lost in dreams of pretty princes and dashing knights. She acts, for all intents and purposes, like the eleven year old girl that she is. Most of us were pretty darn unbearable to older people at that age (and that’s fine, because they were also pretty unbearable to us). Robb and Jon, although older than Sansa, are similarly misguided and bratty, with Jon’s constant “poor me, I deserve so much more” attitude at the Wall, and Robb’s clumsy attempts at being the Lord of Winterfell. But these mistakes are only reprehensible to readers when they come from a girl, interested in girly things and making girly mistakes. Because viewers have been taught that “girly” is automatically bad.

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.

Sansa plays an important role in the narrative, because she shows how societal expectations of women completely screw them over. She believes in everything that her parents and her septa have taught her. She believes in stories, and she believes that the greatest thing she can do is marry the prince (who will, of course, be chivalrous and honorable and handsome and kind) and have his children. She has spent her life in the cold castle of the North, dreaming of stories of tournaments and beauty in the south. Because people want her to be that way. That is how they think the ideal young woman should be. And it almost destroys her. Worse, it brings the reader’s hatred down on her, because even though women are told they are only “good” if they fit into this role, the role itself is seen as weak, manipulative, stupid and generally inferior. It is the Catch 22 of being a woman, both in Westeros and in our own world: no matter what you do, you are criticized, especially if you don’t act like Arya Stark and fight to become “one of the boys.” And so some “fans” of the series declare that they wish Sansa would get raped, a woman’s punishment for daring to act how she has been taught. For daring to act feminine, and making mistakes while doing so.

And all this hatred misses the fact that Sansa is one of the strongest individuals in the entire series. In a world where people drop like flies, in an abusive situation that would break so many people, Sansa survives. Sansa endures. She stays strong, and she never gives up.  As Brienne says to Catelyn, she has a “woman’s courage.” She learns how to play the game. She wears her courtesy for her armor, and she listens, and she adapts, and she keeps her cards close to her chest. She learns how to smile and curtsey and use her words to keep going long after other, older, more experienced players, including her father, are destroyed. But she will not kneel. She will not weaken. She remains strong, and she remains determined, because the North remembers, and her day will come. Her “woman’s courage” keeps her alive and in the game where characters like Arya would not last five minutes.

Most impressive of all, Sansa maintains one key part of her personality that others might dismiss as “weak” or “feminine”: her kindness. She manages to be brave and gentle and caring, despite the trauma she goes through. She shows love and affection to little Robert and to Tommen. She puts herself at risk to save Ser Dontos, using her words and her courtesy to trick Joffrey into doing as she desires. She cares for and calms the people of King’s Landing during the Battle of the Blackwater, despite the fact that she is so young and so inexperienced and few of them have ever done anything to help her. She knows that if she were Queen, she would make the people love her, because she cares about other people, even when her own life is torn apart.

Traditional femininity is not innately inferior. It has its own kind of strength and its own kind of power, and Sansa Stark demonstrates that better than any other character I’ve encountered. She is not fierce or rebellious. She is not ruthless or brutal. But she is strong. She is a survivor. And that should not be dismissed.

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§ 46 Responses to In Defense of Sansa Stark

  • Hannah says:

    PERFECT POST.

  • Amee says:

    I’m really impressed by your style of writing. It was highly entertaining and I absolutely agree with every word. 🙂

  • Lena says:

    You have said all that I could not express so eloquently about why Sansa is a character that I respect. Great article.

  • Mia says:

    HERE LET ME LOVE YOU

  • Claudia says:

    THIS IS BRILLIANT. AMAZING. PERFECT. WE NEED TO SIT EVERYONE DOWN AND READ THIS. I LOVE YOU AND YOUR AMAZING WAY OF WRITING. YOU ARE EVERYTHING A FEMINIST SHOULD KNOW AND DO AND ASPIRE TO BE.

    • Brandon says:

      I see no issue w/ disliking a character because she is a weak willed naive fool. She doesn’t get a free pass because she’s playing by society’s expectations, that just make’s her lack strength of character.

      Her character is obviously developing into something more, and maybe then I’ll respect her. But not before.

      • Kat says:

        She starts as 11 years old. That explains the weak will and naivety. She would have been murdered had she not played by society’s expectations.

        Have you read past the first book? She would have no character to speak of if she were dead. The interesting part of her character is the destruction of her childhood naivety and how she picks herself up and survives.

        Her character does not demand respect until she is proven strong after her father’s death. She doesn’t even become an important character until after that. I have a hard time believing you are very far into the series if you do not respect her. I get that in the first book she was an annoying 11 year old with dreams, but the LOSS of those dreams has made her who she is.

  • suze says:

    Sansa Stark has one of the best transformative arcs in the whole series in my opinion. No one should have a problem with her character post GOT. Well said!

  • CC says:

    I found this to be quite enlightening and eye-opening. It is true that Sansa wasn’t ever a favorite character of mine. I read her chapters as more of a ‘ok time to find out what happens on that side of Westeros’. I don’t hate her, but her chapters are considerably more dull compared to say, Dany, Arya, or Tyrion. I’ve felt that way about some of Jon’s chapters too, before he went north beyond the wall, as it was just a lot of errand boy work, then a lot of just walking around and being cold.

  • GR says:

    Yes—and no. She ends up getting her prince with all the chivalry that a person could hold in those days, but she can’t see past his size and reputation to realize no prince could be better to her (though, not necessarily for her). It’s a powerful irony.

    Of course, that just makes her less than perfect, not a weak women. I’m interested to see where GRRM takes her for the rest of the series.

  • aiyanajane says:

    I’ve never understood the hatred of Sansa, as you said, she’s just a young girl following her dream and the societal expectations. To me she was always a character deserving of empathy, as she was stuck between a rock and a hard place. (..or between the wolf and the lion)
    Despite the differences between her and Arya, she still cares for her family and tries to help them, although unfortunatly due to age and inexperience its not often that she succeeds. She’s always been a character I enjoyed reading, and I always felt for her. Imagine being bethrothed to an asshole like Joffery! She’s a lamb in a lions den and somehow has kept herself alive, which is more than many of my favourite characters can say! Great post!!

  • Kastas says:

    I agree with your critiques here but, for myself, anyway, I find that Sansa is a…less than favorite character of mine not because of what she does or does not do, but because she shows us the helplessness of our own situation. She makes me angry because the only smart thing for her to do is to fit the mold that is given to her, which I find depressing. It is…unfortunate, I think that being proud or fighting back is seen as something masculine and, therefore, an option that “feminine” characters like Sansa don’t have. An excellent critique, and an enjoyable read!

  • Grace says:

    I really appreciated this post! Especially because I felt so much empathy for Sansa during both seasons. Little girls act frustratingly self-centered and self serving, but that’s just a natural phase and I thought she truly grew out of it and did what she needed to do to survive. She was put in a horrifyingly bad situation.

    I’ve had a certain amount of annoyance for woman who demean the more outwardly feminine woman. I find that some women dislike a girl using what comes naturally to them to succeed or survive in trying situations. I’m a real girly person, a polite person, but that doesn’t say a thing about how strong of a woman I am.

    I loved that we saw such strength from both sisters, and how differently that strength comes across.

  • Avery says:

    I disagree. I think she is hated because she is dishonorable, doesn’t show loyalty to her family, and is incredibly naive. She lies about the incident with Joffery and the wolf, leading to the murder of an innocent child and her own wolf, while getting her sister into trouble. She fails to recognize what is going on around her during the purge of the Starks around her. She doesn’t form any alliances with other characters at the Red Keep. She doesn’t leave with the hound in the finale even though it would greatly help her brother. The only thing she does is get abused and avoids saying she hates the king.

    There are other characters who display feminine characteristics, and they aren’t hated for them (Daenerys and Catelyn Stark come to mind).

    She isn’t hated for being a pre-teen girl, she is hated for being one of least effective characters in the story. Give Sansa some intruiges of her own, and have her make some moves for the characters around her. She’ll be well loved.

    • Diana says:

      Oh, but have -you- being a 11 year-old with a rival sibling? This is quite normal not to back them up, and Arya doesn’t help other. Arya is egoistic, spoiled and arrogant, and thinks only about her own pain (although she -is- my favorite, it is also true).

      She didn’t get Arya into trouble, ARYA’s actions got her into trouble when she decided to hit Joffrey – and not listen to the pleas of her sister not to. I can see WHY Arya did it, and he -is- and asshole, but that doesn’t mean she can completely disrespect him physically when he didn’t do -her- any harm. Arya could have -talked- to him, -told- him not to do anything with the boy (I don’t think he would listen much, but still, that was the way to go), for up to when she started beating him, he was -complaining that the boy was hitting her-.

      Arya DESERVED to be punished for she DID break the rules, and if she wasn’t so spoiled and pampered she might have noticed that no one – except, perhaps, his betters – gets leave to hit the heir to the throne. She always gets away with her crap, and that has failed to teach her that even if she’s a lord’s daughters it doesn’t make her untouchable.

      (Now, I’m not saying that I -agree- with the system, but surely there’s no point in evaluating a character from modern perspective in a feudal setting. The boy was his to punish, and he didn’t do him any lasting harm and it doesn’t even compare to the beating Arya gives him. She starts trowing a rock in the back of his head big enough to make it bleed, for fuck sake.)

      And then, after her sister is missing for days and being looked for some really creepy man, and she has to tell the fucking King that his precious boy and her betrothed (the man she will spend the rest of her life with!) is an ass. How could she -not- be terrified? She didn’t say anything against her sister either, she kept her silence and that’s her best armor in that moment. Not taking part in a row between your sister and your (future) husband is a very good idea as far as relationships go, specially considering that you won’t be able to get rid of either for the rest of your lives.

      It’s not the fault of either child when Lady is killed, that was Cersei’s deed alone.

      But, from your comment, I gather that you haven’t read the books, which makes a rather big deal of the reaprochment between Sansa and Joffrey after that day, as well as between Sansa and Cersei. And, as everything else, it does have an important plot point in all her actions, even if they are deemed ineffective; whose ends will be shown in due time. 😉

  • skylerschrempp says:

    What I love about the Sansa narrative is it shows how a female character has to survive in the court world. While Sansa could never survive in Arya’s world of fighting and vagabonds, Arya would not have made it a day as a prisoner of Cersei’s court. Sansa is incredibly skilled at staying alive and (somewhat) afloat in a very toxic environment. Courtesy is a lady’s armor.

  • Cis Straight Middle Class Heterosexual White Male says:

    There are way too many ‘in defense of X female character’ posts floating around and this is the most pointless one, in my opinion, because I don’t know anyone that still hates Sansa after the first book. She gets all the interesting chapters, hangs around with multiple fan-favorite characters, and we can identify with her more than anything over her hatred of Joffrey. I don’t see how anyone can ‘hate’ her after the first book. Likewise, I think the only ‘in defense of x female character’ that you can really justify is Catelyn.

  • itsbedtime says:

    i don’t typically post comments on blogs but this analysis of the character of sansa stark was wonderful. thank you!

  • Mark says:

    I agree. A lot of fans of the series hate her for 1 mistake she made, and they claim it got her father killed even though the bigger mistake was made by Ned Stark. Arya, Robb, and Jon all make dumb decisions at one point, but they are forgiven a lot by fans.

    I like Sansa Stark as a character. Of all the characters, she is one that I think deserves a happy ending. I like that she kept her kindness despite her situation. I also think her sympathy is a lot more genuine than Dany.

    I am interested to hear thoughts on Catelyn and Cersei, who were probably raised in a similar manner. I’ve always thought Cersei was not happy with her role. She was bitter that she would not inherit Casterly Rock, and even after becoming Queen, she probably wondered why she couldn’t be King. I think Catelyn is stuck somewhere in the middle. She is smart, but often holds back her advice because she doesnt want to make Robb/Edmure look bad. But she also decides on taking a more active role for Robb/Ned (negotiating with Walder Frey, being an envoy for Robb, leaving Winterfell to investigate the assassination attempt on Bran).

  • Frasse Swahn says:

    Jon’s constant “poor me, I deserve so much more” attitude at the Wall, and Robb’s clumsy attempts at being the Lord of Winterfell.

    Dont you think its because they have VASTLY more responsibility? Not to mention that their own lives and lives they care about is at stake.

  • Elijah says:

    An interesting article, but Sansa is still the most annoying character in the series.[potential spoilers] As a book reader, you get a better insight into each character than you do in the show, and that just reveals how inferior Sansa is as a character. I will admit, Sansa is placed in some very terrible situations, but how she acts in each situation is the most annoying part. She trusts anyone who simply says they might help her. Anyone. After trusting a very untrustworthy character, she is then surprised when her trust was once again misplaced and she is in yet another bad situation (Ser Dantos and Littlefinger) Also, she expects literally anyone else to save her instead of actually trying to help herself. I personally find her the most annoying character.

    • Rhiannon says:

      I am a book reader. 🙂 You’re right that Sansa is still too trusting of the wrong people, but it’s difficult to know who the right people would be, and I do not think she could escape King’s Landing entirely by herself. Keeping her head down, playing the part of a good hostage and subtly trying to find people on her side *is* her way of helping herself. If she did anything more, she’d most likely end up dead.

      However, I do really hope that she continues to grow throughout the series and ends up taking decisive action for herself — turning her from a passive to an active character, once the moment is right. I think she has better chances of that in the Eyrie than she did in King’s Landing.

  • Pug says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the read. However I do have one quibble.
    To me the problem with Sansa after the first book(where she makes most of her mistakes) is exactly what you seem to describe as her greatest trait. She’s a survivor.

    Allow me to be clear, there are plenty of strong female characters in the book and show. Cersei, Daenerys, Margaery, Catelyn, Gilly, Brienne, Arya and later the Sand Snakes among others all stand out as being strong, usually while remaining quite feminine.

    And that leads to the biggest flaw and main reason, I and I imagine many others, dislike Sana. All those women I just listed ACTED. They plotted, they schemed, they went after goals, considered how to achieve them and attempted to achieve them. They are proactive in trying to get what they want, and it works out to different degrees. While it may not always end happily, at least there is movement and plot.

    Sansa however, simply survives. She reacts to whats going on immediately around her and nothing more. She does not plan, she does not act, she makes no effort to better her position or save herself. She is merely carted around by other characters as a token or prize. Sansa is, for the most part, not really a character, merely a narrating set piece.

    Indeed Sansa does survive. But so do cockroaches, and frankly I like them both about the same.

  • […] recently read an interesting piece titled “In Defense of Sansa Stark” that viewed the character from a feminist perspective. The author argued that Sansa is so widely […]

  • @ Avery

    ”She doesn’t leave with the hound in the finale even though it would greatly help her brother. ”

    You do realize that scene was way different in the books right? In the books the Hound is way more frightening. He lays on top of her and he demands she sings a song and he’s very drunk and honestly, I thought he was going to rape her at that moment, and Sansa probably thought that too. Why the hell would she leave with a guy like that.

  • Ally says:

    Sansa is not athletic, sassy, or aggressive like her sister. She is petite, ladylike, and self-controlled, and she plays to her strengths. She uses what she knows, and she uses it well.

    Some people have argued that her simple survival is not praisworthy, that Sansa doesn’t actually DO anything, but I think in her situation doing nothing is a real feat. The discipline and inner strength she displays is inspiring, and I doubt that I would be strong enough to get up in the morning to keep saying “yes, m’lady.” Just because her means of survival lack drama doesn’t make them any less valuable.

  • Mark says:

    Sansa could not survive on the road like Arya. She knows that, and that is part of the reason she doesnt go with the Hound (another being that it looked like he was going to rape her). Minor spoilers, but there are other occasions with characters traveling to one location, all of who can be considered more “useful” than Sansa, and almost none of them make it to their destination unharmed.

    Even if she did escape and made it to Robb, then what would’ve happened? He just would’ve aranged another marriage for her to make up for one of his mistakes or end up at the Twins with her family. Worse, she could’ve ended up with Ramsay Snow.

    My only complaint is that she trust Ser Dontos. That guy was always creepy.

  • Julian says:

    Agree with mostly everything except the opinion that Robb is bratty. He has been victorious as the king of the north, and his mistake was leaving no garrison at his castle, but instead, trusting Theon. Robb’s flaw that he learned a great deal from is that he acted too trustingly. He trusted his mother, as well, and she decided to give the kingslayer back to the lannisters in exchange for her daughters.

    • Rhiannon says:

      Although I did have some issues with Robb’s characterization in season two, the comment about Robb actually came about while rereading the first book. It isn’t something he should be blamed for, as he is also a young guy in a situation that expects too much for him, but he does have a rather misguided reaction to both Tyrion’s return to Winterfell and the news about Benjen’s disappearance, to say the least.

  • Vlad says:

    Interesting analysis, but I feel like it misses the mark a bit. Is it Sansa’s femininity that gets her such harsh criticism, or her naivete? I would say the latter, and I would furthermore be *very* careful not to equate naivete with feminity. (As so many societal forces would have us do…) After all, as others have pointed out, there are plenty of other characters in the series who do a fine job of being both feminine and quite savvy. It’s not her spot-on parroting of socially acceptable behavior that makes her hard to deal with; it’s her slow pattern recognition when it comes to who and what to trust. Granted, that shouldn’t really be enough to trigger flat-out hate, and wishing for her to get raped is most certainly out of line, but watching her step nimbly out of the frying pan and into the fire repeatedly is galling, and, at least in my opinion, a more likely source of unpopularity than the fact that she knows which fork to use at dinner.

    • Alex says:

      Well they established that Jon Snow and Robb were also both naive. I guess the biggest difference aside from femininity is that the boys at least face the reality of death, while Sansa’s fantasy is unrealistic on all levels.

    • Rhiannon says:

      I agree that naivete is one of the traits that societal forces often expects from “feminine” women, and I do think that Sansa’s naivete is therefore *part* of the femininity that earns Sansa such a vitriolic response at times, rather than the fact that she’s well educated about social conventions. Not because girls or women who act in a stereotypically feminine way are naive, but because girls (especially girls in Westeros like Sansa) are often *encouraged* to be naive and then disliked and dismissed precisely because of that behavior. I agree, though, that Sansa is slow about learning who to trust, and that that might make her harder for some people to like… but she’s still a young girl in an impossible situation, where she can do little to help herself, but is completely surrounded by untrustworthy people. To Sansa, it must seem like she must find someone to trust or else she will remain forever at the hands of the Lannisters, and considering the choices available to her, she doesn’t do too badly at staying alive.

  • Thanks for this article. I enjoyed reading it.

    My love for Sansa grew as I read book after book. But there are also other strong “feminine” characters in A Song of Ice and Fire like Margaery and Olenna Tyrell.

  • I would love to see one example of a fan saying they “want Sansa to get raped”. Ridiculous.

    • Rhiannon says:

      Luckily, most examples are moderated pretty quickly, but that disturbing undercurrent does exist. I’d rather not spend time googling for offensive things that I have mostly seen on Tumblr and in tweets, or forum posts that vanish soon afterwards.

      However, a quick google search brought up this forum discussion, which seems relevant. http://fop1.forumopolis.org/showthread.php?t=22533 The original poster insists their statements were “satirical,” but seem to mean “hyperbolic”… but even stating such things as *exaggeration* is fairly disturbing, in my opinion.

    • Alex says:

      She’s already been raped in pretty much every sense except the literal one. And she almost got that too. So idk what they’re talking about.

  • […] to the theoretical lens of the Stark family with this commentary from a feminist perspective: https://feministfiction.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/in-defense-of-sansa-stark/ Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in […]

  • Alex says:

    I see Sansa as a perfect foil to Cersei. Sansa is enamored with the Disney Princess archetype, but ultimately finds herself in a different story entirely where she must struggle to survive amongst some of the most despicable people imaginable. Cersei wanted to have more of a tomboyish Arya-type “strong female” character arc, but instead she was stuffed into the role of princess. This leaves them each similarly disillusioned for the polar opposite reasons.

  • c4tuna says:

    She’s an inaccessible character in the books to people who don’t understand what’s so exceptional about being a ‘wolf cub in the lion’s den’. She doesn’t have dragons or warging or gold or armies at her back, but she has an incredible tenacity and the empathy, courtesy, and self-control to keep on trucking where others would have run out of gas long ago.

    However, I find your thinly veiled resentment of people who don’t connect to her character to be no less ignorant of human nature than the sexism you vilify. Yes, it’s a shame that they cannot see what you see, but it’s also foolish to expect that they *can*. I think the show’s done a far better job than the books to make her, Theon, and Catelyn in particular more personable characters to people who would otherwise have a difficult time understanding their motives.

    • Rhiannon says:

      People can, of course, like or dislike whichever characters they choose. Everyone has different opinions on what makes a character a good one. However, I was interested/concerned with the fact that so *many* people hate Sansa (despite the fact that, unlike Theon, she is not presented as a villain character), and the level of vitriol that some people express against her. It’s the trend and the extremity of the reaction that I’m talking about, not the fact that individual people do not agree with my own feelings.

      • Dingo says:

        Theon isn’t presented as a “villainous” character, he’s presented as conflicted, pressured, and in turmoil. The moment that sealed his fate as an unwitting villain was when he burned the letter to Robb.

        Sansa, in the beginning, was just vapid and naive. She does have an interesting arc after that, though.

  • Dingo says:

    I hated her until she started having that odd relationship with the Hound. And, I was very happy with her role with Joffrey in the books (upcoming in the series). She saved Dontos’s life, so that’s got to be worth something. The thing that still irks me about her is that she never seemed to give a shit about Arya, even though Arya thinks about her and wants her, grudgingly, to be alright. 

    • Diana says:

      I think she’s pretty sure that Arya is already dead. She has no reason to think otherwise, and after her experiences with common people, she probably doesn’t believe her sister would survive even with all her will, alone in the road. She has no reason to believe Arya survived after she was kept enclosed in the Red Keep. Arya, on the other hand, is very much aware that Sansa is still alive, as Sansa is on court (until she flees) and she gets to hear things about court quite often – and she doesn’t really seem to worry until Sansa disappears from King’s Landing.

      It does bother me that she never cared the slightest about Jon, but he doesn’t seem to care much about her either… (although the point where she does think about him is so deeply warm that makes up for it)

  • Two cents:

    I believe that the main problem readers have with Sansa is not that she is feminine and fragile, it is that she takes waaay too long in the books to start learning that there is no one she can trust in King’s Landing. It is not that she is naive, is that she keeps being naive much later than what is expected from all her suffering.

    In the series, at least, they made her more hard, as in that part where she tells Tyrion that she prays for his return as she prays for Joffrey’s, while still maintaing the pure girl facade (if I recollect well, this is not part of the books). That was the kind of thing expected of her after all the suffering. However, since in the books it is all viewed from her point of view, we can see that she is still deluded that people may still treat her good, even though she should have known better.

    However, later in the books, she does finally grow as a character and start to have a more cynical view of what is told to her, which is what is expected. The only problem is that she should have changed much earlier.

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