An Ode To Sansa: Inside The Suffering And Strength Of One Of TV’s Most Undervalued Women
It's time to start acknowledging the worth of 'annoying' or 'sulky' teen girls.
This article includes references to every season of Game of Thrones. If you haven’t watched every season, some storylines will be spoiled for you if you decide to continue reading. This has been your spoiler warning. Don’t @ me.
During their stint as beyond-The-Wall Romeo and Juliet in season three of Game of Thrones, Ygritte tells Jon Snow that “girls see more blood than boys”. The fiery Wildling is trying to one-up her cocksure hunni in a “who’s more vicious” pissing contest, but she might as well be referring to his half-sister/cousin Sansa who, at that point, was effectively a hostage of her betrothed, Joffrey, and his Lannister family in King’s Landing.
Since the moment we met 13-year-old Sansa Stark, as the Lannisters rode into her home in the first episode of the series, she was at the mercy of violent men and power-hungry women — the kind who saw her name, her face and her womb as political tools to be exploited, property to be used or violated. After her father was killed in front of her, Sansa was a rag doll, limply carried wherever her bearer pleased: from Joffrey to Tyrion to Ramsay, with Littlefinger circling like a vulture all the while.
In her mind, this is what a lady does; she agrees, she smiles, she sides with her husband, she patiently waits to “bleed” so she can be the one entrusted to carry on a royal line. But, as we saw in this latest season, the trauma she endures as a result of these men alters her at her core. Perhaps when Cersei ordered Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, to be executed back in season one, a little of the animal’s vicious, loyal instincts transferred onto her owner. Since then, we’ve seen her backbone grow, muscle by muscle, until she becomes the person who can feed her husband/captor/torturer to his own hounds.
Learning To Be A Lady
When Littlefinger takes Sansa to meet her aunt Lysa and cousin Robin, the breastfeeding heir to the Eyrie asks her how, if Winterfell didn’t have a Moon Door, they took care of “bad people”. She solemnly tells him (remember, Sansa didn’t have a mode aside from “solemn” for a long time), “girls didn’t take part in that where I came from”. Sansa was born under the Stark banner and the law of the lady. She learnt to curtsy and sew, and wore her long hair in the northern style.
In the HBO series, we’re not offered information on how the Stark children were raised before the day the Lannisters rode in, but it’s a safe bet that Sansa’s obligation to marry into another noble house was impressed upon her from the time she was a baby. This isn’t unique to the female characters. Following Joffrey’s death, Tywin Lannister instructs baby Tommen on what his impending kingship means. One of his responsibilities, the boy knows, is to marry and produce an heir. But, for the women of the show, it seems to define them.
Sansa’s body is routinely used for the utilities and pleasure of others. During her recon mission in Braavos, Arya watches over and over again as an acting troupe stages a warped version of her family’s history. As she sits in the audience watching the players reenacting the last five seasons of murder and marriage in King’s Landing, she sees her sister dramatised as a shrieking witness to their father’s beheading. While she cries, her shirt is ripped off, exposing her tits to the world.
This fictional public consumption of her body is not so far from that in our own world. When you Google ‘Sansa Stark’ the first image keyword suggestion is “actress”, the next is “hot”, the third is “stripped gif”.
Annoying Teen Daughter Syndrome
Despite the apparent desire fans have to relive this traumatic moment, Sansa has been a despised character for much of the show’s run — a trend that’s prevalent across so much of prestige television. Teenage daughters who sulk and get hurt often draw scorn from audiences for not being as active or sexual or funny as other characters.
During that first killer season of Homeland, critics regularly noted the “whiny” daughter, Dana Brody, who moped around the house (the house that her dad, who is a terrorist, just returned to). The Daily Beast referred to her as “TV’s Most Hated Character” and Rachel Arons at The New Yorker was eventually motivated to write a piece in her defence. She was characterised, by fans and Nasim Pedrad on SNL, as a nervous, greasy-haired complainer, and viewers celebrated when her character was written off the show.
Julie Taylor, the daughter of Coach and Mrs Coach on Jason Katims’ Friday Night Lights inspired eye-rolls and plenty of nasty tweets because of her tendency to slam doors, change her mind about who she wanted to date, and dream of a life outside of the small-town sporting culture she was born into. These girls — who aren’t allowed to be heroes or villains, just victims of circumstance and tools for patriarchal rules — are always tarred with the ‘annoying’ brush. They’re the boring curtains keeping us from looking at better, more entertaining views.
There are points where Sansa almost acknowledges these criticisms. “I was a stupid girl,” she tells Jon in season six, following their reclamation of Winterfell. “Back then I always thought about what I wanted, not what I had”. But Sansa wasn’t stupid — far from it. She did as she was told and fulfilled the role she was dealt. Her little sister, Arya, on the other hand, had the luxury of knowing the continuation of a noble line wasn’t her responsibility; she was the Prince Harry of the bunch, allowed to hang out at the Westerosi equivalent of polo matches and pursue her interests, knowing her boring, traditional sister was picking up the slack of familial obligation.
When compared to her little sister, Sansa never holds up. A tomboy-turned-deadly assassin, Arya is cool and strong. She’s the girl you want to dress up as, the one whose lines you want to quote and whose smirk you want to mimic. Arya shirks the gender-based expectations placed on her; the first time we meet the Starks, Sansa is eagerly receiving praise for her needlepoint skills, while Arya is listening to her brothers’ archery lesson outside, eager to join (and beat) the boys. But they’re not so different, deep down.
Arya might mutter her “prayer” — a memorised list of all her enemies and people she wants to kill — but Sansa doesn’t have the luxury: she is silent in her desire to see the people who wronged her suffer, but her smile after watching Ramsay eaten by his dogs confirms it is always simmering away.
The two Stark girls share a bloodlust, but Sansa’s is in direct response to the people who have inflicted trauma upon her. Arya hates Cersei because she ordered Elan Payne to execute Nymeria; she wants Joffrey to die because he ordered the Hound to kill her friend Micah. Arya holds a grudge, but her sister wears the scars of what her enemies did. Sansa can still taste the wine Cersei forced her to drink during the Battle of the Blackwater, can still hear Joffrey’s whispered threats to rape her on her wedding night to Tyrion ringing in her ears. That’s not to mention the abuse she survived when she was traded to the Boltons.
Sansa never had the luxury of uttering a kill list to herself before bed because her enemies were always within earshot.
Living Under Littlefinger’s Thumb
Sansa has been manipulated by Littlefinger more than anyone else in Westeros — and that’s saying something. But somewhere along the way — around the time he dropped her into the Bolton shark tank and caused her loyalty to sour — she became his worthy opponent.
It began in the Eyrie, when Sansa was in the midst of her goth phase and Littlefinger led her to what she presumed would finally be a safe place. “Know your strengths, use them wisely,” he told her, referring to the Bloody Gate that had blocked the narrow path to the Vale and protected it from attack. But he might as well have been talking about the oldest Stark girl.
Later, as her aunt Lysa grills her, filled with jealousy over Littlefinger’s affections for her, Sansa demonstrates what she knows are her strengths. Her eyes fill with tears and she rattles off a list of invented insults Littlefinger hurls at her in an effort to calm her rattled and unhinged aunt: “All he says is I’m a stupid little girl with stupid dreams and I never learn and I’m a terrible liar so I should always tell the truth”. It works. Lysa comforts her as Sansa squeezes her eyes closed, unable to believe that after all the time she spent under the control of the vicious and cruel Cersei, she’s finally escaped, only to find her own family is more a threat than salvation.
Sansa’s life after Winterfell was signposted by moments like these: glimmers of hope that shone amongst the bleakness of the violence she endured, glimmers that were snatched away the moment she started to feel safe and comfortable. Cersei seemed, at first, like a nurturing mother figure, until she ordered the execution of the Stark girls’ direwolves; Shae proved herself to be a loyal confidante, until Sansa’s then-husband Tyrion sent his love away to protect her (she didn’t really leave, of course, and her eventual fate was much worse than the one he’d planned for her).
Perhaps the most significant of these guardian angels was the one who was only a blip on the radar of Sansa’s life. Ser Dontos Hollard owed his life to Sansa after she saved him from certain death at Joffrey’s name day celebration. He repaid the debt later, by whisking her away from Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding right before the king died. He rowed her across the sea to a dark ship waiting to take her away, and when she refused to climb up the side, he assured her, “You’re stronger than you know.”
She was, and still is. As a result of his encouragement, Sansa pulled herself onto the deck, where Littlefinger was waiting. He killed Ser Dontos, wiping out the last person in the ancient House Hollard, and the one person who seemed to be truly loyal to Sansa.
Watching Sansa being traded back and forth like a pawn on Littlefinger’s chess board begs the question of what her potential for happiness and power could’ve been had she instead been sold married to a Khal in a bid to lead an army to contest the throne like Daenerys, or sent to work as a medic like Talissa, or handed a crossbow like Ygritte, or trained to fight with honour like Brienne, or raised alongside her brother like Yara.
Not all of these women survived, of course, and the ones who did have still had an objectively fucked up time of it. But girls like Sansa who are expected to aspire to nothing but marriage, are left with no plan B when the reality of their betrothed is a million times worse than being an unwed rebel, like her great-uncle, The Blackfish, was.
Playing The Role
When Sansa meets Roose Bolton for the first time, she doesn’t miss a beat; she plays the role of the well-bred Northern girl, curtsying for her lord, stamping down the overwhelming sadness of being back in her family home, now under the watch of the man who stabbed her brother in the belly. The first night she sits down to eat with the Boltons, she’s surrounded on all sides by traitors.
There’s the man who killed her brother; his wife, the woman whose father hosted and relished in the whole thing; her evil new husband-to-be; and Theon, the tortured man who was once like a proxy for Robb, but who since claimed to burn her two little brothers alive before being captured and tortured by Ramsay. She is alone in the North, a human plaything for the sadistic Ramsay. She knows she isn’t safe, a feeling that, by now, is nothing new.
But the more Sansa’s situation seemed hopeless, the stronger she became; the less power she had over her life, the more she seemed to absorb. When Ramsay’s jealous lover, Myranda, attempted to play mind games with a vulnerable, naked Sansa upon her return to Winterfell, Sansa reminded the girl who she was and where she was from. As Myranda’s dangerous fingers stripped the black dye from her hair, she became a new version of Sansa Stark — one who is as tough and beaten as leather. It’s a moment of self-actualisation that comes at an essential time: right before she binds her life and soul to Ramsay’s, and he accepts the challenge to destroy them both.
Later, she challenges Littlefinger with the reality of the situation he left her in: “He never hurt my face, he needed my face … but the rest of me; he did what he liked with the rest of me.” Like a rubber band wound tighter and tighter with every death, betrayal and act of sexual violence she’s endured, Sansa is due to snap. When Reek finally tells her what Ramsay did to the-man-formerly-known-as-Theon, she is stoic: “If I could do what Ramsay did to you, I would”. She’s convinces she’s lost any chance of making it out of this alive and so her only choice becomes grasping for the threads of cruelty and violence that are usually directed towards her.
A moment later though, when Reek breaks down and tells her that he burned two farm boys, not Bran and Rickon, her hope is instilled. She had just, a moment earlier, found out her half-brother is the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and now, with the knowledge that her little brothers might still be alive, suddenly the possibility of Arya being out there somewhere ignites, and her hope flickers like the candle that Brienne stood waiting to see.
There’s been a lot of talk, since season six ended, about how Game of Thrones has re-centred itself around the power of its female characters. Cersei is now swilling wine on the Iron Throne, and Daenerys and her dragons are heading west, thanks to Yara Greyjoy’s fleet. Sansa’s success and next move are hardest to celebrate.
This past season alone, she has gone from being a fleeing prisoner of Ramsay Bolton to the Wardeness of the North who smiled as he was torn apart in front of her. There’s been a lot of talk online about how Sansa might pose a potential threat to Jon’s claim on the North, how she might be motivated to disown her bastard half-brother and claim the seat for herself — hypotheses that presume she’s keen to model herself on the power-starved man who betrayed her and her family so frequently.
The look Sansa shared with Littlefinger across the hall at Winterfell was not the first time they’ve exchanged such a glance. When the noble people of The Vale called upon her to give testimony to Lysa’s death, she played the game by describing, in detail, the torture she endured at the hands of the Lannisters and the political environment in King’s Landing. She called Littlefinger her only friend, the person who saved her life when he stole her away from Joffrey and Cersei and Tyrion. He was then, they both knew, indebted to her because of how thoroughly her lies saved him. Sansa was a keen study, and under Littlefinger’s creepy tutelage, she learnt what her survival required.
“Even the most dangerous man can be manoeuvred,” he told her once. “You’ve learnt to manoeuvre from the very best.” He was proud of her progress, but blind to the idea that she might one day turn those skills back onto him. When they locked eyes that day in the Eyrie, they both knew that she had become his match, an equally-skilled manipulator, using emotion in the same way that Littlefinger traded power and political circumstance.
“I will always be a Stark,” Sansa told Lyanna Mormont, but the reminder was not just for the people of Bear Island; it was a fact she needed to remind herself of as well. As she told little Lyanna, who questioned whether she was still technically a Lannister or a Bolton, Sansa “did what [she] had to do to survive,” and that has changed her, impermeably and forever.
Like her little sister over in Braavos, Sansa had lost pieces of herself. But while Arya was trying to become no one, Sansa was reminding herself that she was still someone, still a human, and not just property to be traded. Her time with Ramsay taught her to tamp down the emotion she would have once let flow freely. The letter he sent Jon detailing myriad threats — of rape, mutilation from his dogs, and torture — was too much for her half-brother to read, but Sansa plucked it from his hands and pushed on. Ramsay’s words were nothing in comparison to what she’d already survived.
During their escape from Ramsay, Sansa refused to fight back when Myranda pointed an arrow at her face. “If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left.” She closed her eyes, willing Myranda to end the trauma and suffering she had survived so far, but mightn’t have to for much longer. When Theon pushed the kennelmaster’s daughter to the ground, he forced Sansa to take control of who she is, and to preserve the pieces of herself that still remain. Her time with the Lannisters and the Boltons hardened her and turned her spine to steel.
Now, she’s back in Winterfell, no longer the little girl who took delight in sewing, complained about her brothers and sister, and dreamt of being married off to a faraway prince. Princes are just men with crowns, she now knows, and men will do with and to her whatever they want.
Brodie Lancaster is a writer and editor from Melbourne. She edits Filmme Fatales, a zine about women and cinema, and has contributed to Rookie, Rolling Stone, Vulture and Pitchfork. She is a senior editor at The Good Copy and a mediocre DJ.