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.