Don’t Hate on Sansa Stark’s Powerful Femininity

On Game of Thrones, there are plenty of characters to hate. You have your pick among the brutal and horrific Lannister family or you could go for any of the leaders of the ironically named Free Cities, who hold thousands of slaves. But one character in particular seems to be a target for an almost unique level of dislike: Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). The reasons she’s so hated are somewhat bizarre, because they’re the very things that make her such a fascinating, strong, and powerful character.

Make no mistake, Sansa Stark is one tough cookie. Sansa isn’t, however, a typical “strong female character” like her sister Arya (Maisie Williams). Her strength and power lie in her mind and in her ability to assess, adapt to, and manipulate situations by means other than brute force—something that’s rare on Game of Thrones. In the show’s assortment of extremely powerful women, Sansa may fade to the background. But that’s actually part of her goal as a character, because she thrives by sticking to the shadows rather than attracting attention to herself. As Game of Thrones returns to TV this Sunday, I personally hope we’ll see more of Sansa. 

Particularly in the first season, poor Sansa attracted bitter vitriol from almost every imaginable angle because of her very traditional performance of femininity. She wore dresses, loved cakes, chose the gentlest of a litter of direwolves as a pet, and dreamed of being a queen, living in King’s Landing, and having every advantage for herself. But things quickly took a dark turn (because when do they not in Game of Thrones) and she realized that her golden prince was rotten to the core, the Lannisters were determined to destroy her family, and she was isolated and alone.

Kristin Iverson at Brooklyn Magazine has a theory to explain why Sansa attracts so much hate, and it carries a note of bitter truth: “The problem with Sansa Stark is that she bought into a world that was nothing more than an illusion; she was born into a position of privilege that turned out to have a crumbling foundation. The problem with Sansa Stark is that she is just most of us, and so we hate her.” Viewers expect the women of pop culture to be iconoclasts, as Iverson puts it, but the fact of the matter is that surviving is iconoclastic in itself.

Somewhat uniquely among the other strong women of Game of Thrones, Sansa is often entirely on her own, without social supports. She’s forced to look out for herself, and it is here that her canniness comes into play: she’s fully aware that she can’t fight—not in a physical sense, that is—if she wants to survive. Where other characters can rely on brute strength or powerful dragons, Sansa needs to use other strategies in an environment where she can trust no one and is a figure of constant abuse. It’s not surprising that in later seasons, we see Sansa sinking into depression as she’s humiliated and tortured by prince-and-later-king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), but something shifts in her as she finds the will to develop her internal fighting abilities. That moment seems to come when Joffrey forces her to view her father’s head on a pike, laughing at the prospect of disgusting her, and she falters for barely an instant before picking up her stride. It’s the foretaste of Sansa’s defiance, one carried out in a clever war of words and stealth behind the backs of the Lannisters and through the halls of the corridors of power.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Turner spoke out about the character and stereotypes about what makes a character strong:

“I think the strong thing about Sansa is the fact that she doesn’t fight. Fighting alone can be seen as a very strong thing to do, but the fact that she doesn’t fight and she doesn’t strike back is probably her best trait. Having to resist the urge to fight back—which, you know, I’m sure she has—is in itself one of the best things about her. In that sense, she’s very strong, and she’s very strong-willed, and she has willpower.”

She sees the character as strong not in spite of her traditionally feminine traits, but because of them. Sansa’s an intense figure in the Game of Thrones landscape because she’s figured out how to weaponize femininity, how to turn what looks to casual viewers like a disadvantage into an assert. By writing her off as insipid, those in her surroundings dismiss her activities and ignore her quiet work behind the scenes. Sansa stands out by being a survivor. In her own way, she is perhaps a more of a parallel to the strong women of the real world than the other women on Game of Thrones. Most women in the real world don’t pick up swords. More commonly, hardship forces us into survival mode. In a world of abusive relationships, everyday sexism, and misogyny, we can’t just lop off peoples’ heads like Prince Joffrey does. Arya Starks of the world certainly exist, but there are many more Sansas quietly wearing their pretty dresses and pushing teacakes around on their plates as they maintain a façade, refusing to break character and betray themselves.

Haters, it seems, have missed this nuance of her character, taking her seeming innocence and compliance at face value, when it’s clearly evident that she’s anything but either of those things—she’s just willing to fake it until she can reach safety and start dealing out some revenge. Sansa is at the very early stages of realizing her own potential for power and building up her own base, something we saw hinted at when the last season closed, and something we will see much more of in the upcoming season of Game of Thrones. Compared to the other women of the show, Sansa is in some ways the strongest. She endures unimaginable torment and it’s sustained. She can’t easily escape her abusive situation. Instead, Sansa lives in conditions that would break some people, as at first glance they appear to break her, as Joffrey hopes they’ve done. Her ability to rally her resources for survival makes her an impressive and outstanding character, even if she doesn’t meet the oft-vaunted standard of a “strong female character.”

At Mic, Julianne Ross cuts to the heart of the bizarrely patriarchal double standard in which women are really only powerful if they inhabit stereotypically masculine qualities:

“The female characters we tend to applaud typically adhere to a particular formula for strength, one that breaks the patriarchal mold of how a woman should behave. This can be empowering, but the constant regurgitation of this one type of ‘strong female character’ limits the kind of women we value on screen and dismisses the merits of those who prove themselves in a different way.”

Sadie Gennis at TV Guide describes this as the double-edged sword of the show, but it’s also the double-edged sword of pop culture in general. Speaking to the publication about that very issue, Turner said that:

“It annoys me that people only like the feminine characters when they act like male characters. And they always go on about feminism. Like, you’re rooting for the people who look like boys, who act like boys, who fight like boys. Root for the girls who wear dresses and are intellectually very strong.”

There’s more than one way to be a strong female character, and more than one way to be a strong woman. Sansa Stark is one of the most iconic badasses of Game of Thrones, no matter what her haters say. She’s showing us that many of the women we dismiss as weak, compliant, and useless are actually incredibly powerful in their own right. They’re surviving within a system that is stacked against them—not every battle is fought with a sword. 

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by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

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20 Comments Have Been Posted

What, specifically, has Sansa Stark done that is "badass"?

An article long on praise, with almost no backing examples. I don't claim to have a photographic memory, but when exactly did Sansa have to do anything nearly as tough as the sorts of trials Arya or Brienne or Catelyn Stark had to endure? I do not recall Sansa being imprisoned, or living in privation. She is petulant, selfish, and stupid -- arguably, the entire fall of her family doesn't happen if she hadn't turned on her own father to (appear to) marry the hateful Joffre. Until she stood up for Littlefinger, she hadn't done a single intelligent thing in the entire time she was onscreen.

Did you even read the

Did you even read the article? No. You cant have, because if you did you would see that they said Sansa isn't a bad ass like her sister. Her strength is in her survival. Sansa is fully aware that she's in danger, and knows how to adapt to the situations to just keep her alive long enough until she can finally fight back. Little Finger isn't an ideal situation either, but she's doing whatever she can to get the best out of it. Also, you're a part of the problem that this article talks about. If a woman isn't doing something masculine, she instantly isn't seen as strong to you. Yeah Sansa is a brat at first, when she didn't think anything bad was going to happen, but now she lies in wait to strike, just like Little Finger does. That makes her plenty bad ass. Read an article before you decide to bash it, or sit down and shut up.

I totally agree!!! I had to

I totally agree!!! I had to read the article twice to make sure that I didn't just skip over the examples.

Are you nuts?

This is in reply to "What, specifically, has Sansa Stark done that is "badass"?

1 - You ask when she was imprisoned. She was imprisoned the moment that the Lannisters caught her and Arya escaped. She was surrounded by people loyal to them, and had nothing she could do, no one she could talk to and no one to support her *at all* . And she was still a child - they had to unfortunately try to point that out to people like you who don't get she's actually 14 years old (probably because the actress is now 17) and you still don't get the point. She is a child more than Arya ever was, and pretty normal for a girl her age. She is a 14 year old who was manipulated into trying to help her father to save him and then Joffrey turned around and had him murdered. She couldn't leave, she couldn't go anywhere and she had to act a certain way or she would die. How is that NOT being imprisoned? Seriously, you apparently don't get the whole hostage issue.

2- Again, you don't get she had NO power. Yet she managed to do certain things, like convince Joffrey not to kill Sir Dontos by saying it would be bad luck on his wedding day. Which helped her later GET OUT.

3- She managed to keep everyone calm during the siege when Cersei was drinking herself into a stupor and acting like the idiot she is.

4- She managed to convince the Hound not to kill or rape her. Which is actually more illustrated in the books.

5- She started to be able to talk to the court, which prompted Tyrion to say she might survive them yet.

6 - She saw a way out and she took it. While I think she came to understand Tyrion was not going to hurt her, she didn't want to stay there and she took the way out, and it's a good thing she did because the Tyrell family would have let her fry. An imp married to the daughter of a traitor who had every reason to want revenge? Too perfect a target to resist.

8 - In the end, despite being a child with limited capabilities, a girl with no power and no position and the daughter of someone deemed a "traitor, and all of her family being killed. She has survived being a pawn in the "Game of Thrones" in effect. And she did this by recovering from her own fantasies. The fantasies were what she wanted, the reality of her soon-to-be husband showing her her father's head and threatening her woke her up initially, and she continued to wake up and realize...the final part being when Lyssa got thrown out of the Sky door. And now she knows how to deal and how to get around things (look at how she acted during the witnessing of Lyssa's "accident."

She is much much stronger than you believe or even want to see - she used what she had available to her and managed to sometimes strike back. She had problems, yes, but she will be very strong if George R.R. Martin does not kill her.

No, not nuts, just not possessed of a perfect memory

In the time between when I wrote that I realized that Sansa was in fact imprisoned (and beaten) by Joffre, so there's that. But I still don't see how any of this makes her admirable. She's willing to screw over even her closest loved ones (remember, she gives her father over to Joffre, and lies by omission about what happened with Arya's direwolf before that) in order to seemingly achieve her own selfish ends, and is a remarkably poor judge of character, to boot. But about this:

<blockquote> In the end, despite being a child with limited capabilities, a girl with no power and no position</blockquote>

You are kidding, right? She starts out as Ned Stark's daughter, betrothed to the future king, and makes a hash of all of it, destroying her family AND their army, having their lands seized, and getting her father killed (and very nearly getting herself killed in the bargain). She <i>starts</i> with numerous advantages and squanders every one. It reminds me of the old joke:

Q: How do you make a million dollars?
A: Start with two million dollars.

So, you skipped the article, but decided to comment, anyway

By insisting that a character has to be "badass" to be strong, you ignore the entire point of the article. And by your description of what has/not happened to Sansa's character, I have to presume you aren't really watching the show, either. What trials did she have to endure? Being trapped in a foreign court & tied to an insane little despot. If Arya was in that situation, Arya would have openly rebelled, and would be DEAD. Probably the same for Brienne. Just because Sansa didn't have a small cell with iron bars does NOT mean she was not "imprisoned". Just because she has pretty clothes to wear & good food to eat doesn't mean she had freedom or anything else a human being requires to actually live decently. She does complain, because she's been LIED to her whole life."Just do what we tell you & everything will be fine." Well, obviously not! She only looks selfish because she has only herself to rely on!. She "turned on her father" because it was either that or be killed right alongside him. There's no argument at all that Sansa is responsible for any of the tragedies of House Stark - that's ridiculous. Sansa is obviously a lot smarter than either her father, her mother or her brother: she's still alive.

A gilded cage is still a

A gilded cage is still a cage, as was her imprisonment at King's Landing. Sansa has managed to survive alone in a court with people who would have her used. She has been physically and mentally abused in front of in front of some of the most powerful people in all of Westeros. In the books, she contemplates throwing herself off of Maegor's Holdfast. Yet despite all this she manages to survive.

As far as being "petulant, selfish and stupid", she is only the girl that Lady Catelyn and, yes, Lord Eddard wanted her to be - a lady that held Southron values. One that was raised on stories on Jonquil, knights, and girls with flowers in their hair. She is the medieval image of a woman who was taught that her use is to give sons to kings and lords. When that foundation suddenly crumbled around her and she is suddenly in the company of pit vipers, she naturally panicked. Knowing that you have not been educated on court intrigue and politics like Margaery and that you hold no power like Cersei, what would you do when you are suddenly placed in the company of pit vipers?

And yes, arguably. While Sansa did have a part to play in what happened to the Stark household in KL, it is unfair to completely place it in her hands as it was Lord Eddard who ultimately diverged his entire plan to Cersei.

I agree with this article

I agree with this article wholeheartedly. I don't really agree that women always look for the Arya Stark characters. All my life the women people liked were strong older sisters that held their families together or bitches like Blair in Gossip Girl. The thing about Sansa that pressed my buttons is how stupid she was. She lied for Joffrey because she wanted him to like her at the expense of her dog's and another boy's life. She blamed it on Arya, even though telling the truth would have saved two lives. She also began to shun her own northern culture to the Southern one that she felt was more glamorous because she wanted to be queen. I also hate that scene when she's purposefully rude to her maid. This shows off her arrogance. Had her father not been executed she would have been just as terrible as Joffrey. I know, I'm reaching but for me she was already dabbling in being cruel and starting to show little respect for those who served her. Yes I agree. She is like a lot of women. I've dealt with plenty of self-absorbed and shallow women. It was only after she endured her hardships that she became a more respectable character to me. And she was totally brilliant at the end of this last season. This is a woman I can respect and look up to. Sansa in the beginning was not this way at all!

Most of my life people look up to the female characters who are the typical heroines: the mom who holds the family together and so on and so on. Women who despite their physical shortcomings who use their brains and in many cases their cleavage to manipulate fate in their favor. These women usually tend to have children or if not friends they have to fight for. It's always these women enduring ridiculous circumstances to take care of someone dear to them, all the while ignoring their own needs.

The trend for wanting female characters who can fight physically is pretty new for me. And usually when women fight in media they are good but not as good as their male counterparts. Brienne blew that one out of the water. So what if she comes off as "manly". Why should brute strength and power be something that is intrinsically male? That's the main problem I have with this article. There are male characters in Game of Thrones who also use their brains to overcome all odds such as Petyr Baelish, Varys, and Tyrion. No one is saying these men are acting like women. It's pretty sexist to say that these physically strong and brash women are like boys. That in itself is sexist. People do appreciate the other women but those heroines have existed in literature for centuires. You mean to tell me there is something wrong for wanting to see a woman who can overcome a man physically? And are you also implying that you don't need brains to win a fight? please

The author wants us to not

The author wants us to not "ignore her quiet work behind the scenes." Which is hard because there hasn't hardly been any. I like Sansa but I feel like they problems with her character is more that she has existed to be acted upon, not be her own actor.

Cersei and the Tyrell ladies act in the background in non-violent ways. Lady Stark acted as a diplomat, but also liberated key prisoners and acted as a counselor as does the priestess.

Did she turn to the clown and say get me out of here? No, she merely chose to engage with another's plan.
Did she poison or undermine joffrey and the lannisters public approval ratings? Nope, but Margery Tyrell managed that, too.

You might say Sansa is young, but Arya is younger, and far more active. She was not violent with Tywin Lannister, but the audience could tell she learned things there. Restraint and timing. Can we really say the same of Sansa?

Sansa has lied to save Littlefinger, and walked down a staircase looking absolutely smoldering, but it is hard to see other fruits of her own labors.

She isn't an alternative model for a strong female character, yet, because she has merely been a strongly enduring female setpiece. Which isn't really a character to look up to as a rolemodel. I hope that begins to change Sunday.



well explained. I watch

well explained. I watch regular the show and love the concept

The reason people hate her is

The reason people hate her is because she has the audacity to fail like a girl. But that's not fair. Sansa is a badass. Her armor is her manners and her words are her sword.

You could argue that she needs a lot of rescuing. The Hound, Tyrion, Balish, etc. But everyone has mentors that help them up when they're still learning. Sansa is isolated and has to manage on her own. Of course she's going to need someone to bail her out at the last moment sometimes.

You hit the nail on the head!

I was sooo happy to find an article like this! I love Sansa as a character and always have to defend myself whenever I mention how much I like the character and don't think she's a stupid, immature girl!


This article has really hit the nail on the head for me. I have always loved Sansa Stark, even at her times of weakness, and the times when she acted as a brat. People are complex and have both good and bad qualities. To deny that is to deny their humanity and that is exactly what the feminine woman is being denied epecially in the context of the world that is GOT.

My only disagreement is in the idea presented in this article that Sansa is silently vying for revenge. I am not so convinced of that; I believe Sansa seeks her fairy tale's finish which has her as a gentle and traditionally feminine wife, mother, and queen. I do not think she is actually as bitter as Arya who I believe has lost sight of her goal because of her anger. I think Sansa will make it to the end. I question whether Arya will. I hope they both make it!

Yes, yes, and yes! A well

Yes, yes, and yes!

A well written character is allowed to have unattractive traits. Sansa is an example of that!

Sansa's journey as a character...

Sansa's journey as a character is the lesson of letting go of what society wants for us. Why do we have to "like" every woman character? Sansa is slowly learning how to become a master manipulator and we're just seeing the beginning of it. She came from a place of assuming things would work out a certain way and having to react when it became clear that things were not in control and did not have the safety that her family provided her. Before her attempts to manipulate were immature and misguided. After little finger killed her aunt she finally recognized consciously her power to manipulate. I see her becoming a master seductress which is often the act of using people's desires, as individuals or as groups to do one's bidding. It is the most coveted and the most resented power and I think we'll get to watch her become that. She is going to have a political mind that matches or exceeds Cercei's.

Yes and No, Not Yet

I believe the last season only broke Sansa's oblivious spirit. She has yet to do anything that seems like justice or a good deed.
When Sansa approached LittleFinger and said "I know what you want." is when we began to see that she is ready to join the sick game this entire show is about. This is the Sansa we're looking forward to.

The reason the audience hates her is because she's not a macho-female character. To be a "strong female character" for many of us, seems to be a woman with masculine (deemed) traits: such as active personality, dependence on resolving issues through a fight, not staying silent and not adapting to a situation. Sansa is an example of a female character who depends on "feminine" traits: such as passive behaviour, naive heart, adapting, having girly ambitions (to become queen and wear dresses, doesn't every little girl dream of that?).

I believe she was written well, because for me a "strong female character" is in a literary sense, rather than literal. I really disliked her in the first season because she was written like a real middle-school girl; who had a crush on the popular boy and was willing to sell out her own little sister for his approval.

Some of us feel that if you're going to plaster on a female character on television or a movie: make sure that inside she is masculine. Well, those people should prepare to be disappointed by the real world.

Yes and no

Some very good points about Sansa's strength within a traditionally feminine role. That said, I have to disagree that that role is why "we" hate(d) Sansa in Season 1. Like another commenter, I hated her because of her lies and betrayal of Arya, and later her father--and initially Arya and Ned were probably the most sympathetic characters, for me and some other viewers. I disagree even more strongly with the idea that "ability to assess, adapt to , and manipulate situations by other than brute force" is rare on the show: many of the women (and men--e.g. Tyrion, Varys, Littlefinger) do likewise, and even Arya survives more by cunning than by swordfighting. I would, however, agree that Sansa is one of the female characters who does this best; Cersei, for instance, thinks of herself as very clever but her schemes often fail catastrophically; Catelyn Stark is smart but not smart enough, and cannot dissemble or manipulate well enough to survive in her world. Margaery Tyrell (and her grandmother), of whom I wish we saw more, also excel at the combination of traditional femininity with savvy and quiet strength... OK, enough fangirling. I am always happy to see sources like <I>Bitch</i> give the lie to bogus claims that feminists do not allow space for traditionally feminine women as well as those who take on less traditional roles.

My biggest complaint about

My biggest complaint about Sansa is that she's just seemed in over her head, rather than a savvy young woman using her femininity to achieve her goals -- the latter is why Margaery and her grandmother are among my favorite characters. If Sansa is actually developing into a savvy young woman as capable of playing for keeps as anyone else in Westeros, I will be thrilled. It would be a great turnaround!

Reasons for Sansa Dislike

As with most characters in the books Sansa has had it rough. Aside from Jon Snow I feel the most sympathy for her and her circumstances the entire series thus far. That being said her characteristics are weak compared to the other very strong females in the books. The most notable and attractive thing about the books is the immensely strong female characters, they make the books in almost every way and their wills are exerted to massive affect in the story. Things that make people dislike Sansa Stark;

- she's a traitor to her family (not backing up Arya and defending Jeoffry who tried to kill her sister, giving away Ned's plans to Cersei)
-Defends Joeffry's worst behavior multiple times. Even expresses anger at Jeoffrys killers and their motives
- she's naive, Tells herself lies to avoid unpleasant truths even to her own detriment
- she's passive, relies on others for protection/rescue
- she's spoiled, shallow

Even still that's the beauty of the books. There are so many complex characters. Sansa represents and young naive girl at court that believe in fairytales and happy endings. As George RR Martin said "if you think this has a happy ending you haven't been paying attention"