*This post discusses the first season of the TV series and references the first book in passing. There may be some spoilerish content in the comments, so if you are wary of things like that you may want to skip reading the comments.

This is going to be a just a quick post in response to a few things I’ve read in passing about Game of Thrones. I hope to discuss GoT in depth at some point, but for the moment, I’m just going talk a little about Sansa. Pretty, poor, naive Sansa.

In his article over at Ars Technica, Ben Kuchera made a statement in passing about Sansa:

Sansa has never been a sympathetic character, and again the views fall into the neatly laid trap of getting what we wanted. Which is maddening, as we may have hoped something bad would happen to her during the early episodes, but now that Sansa’s in a truly wretched situation it’s hard to watch.

And Charlie Jane Anders remarks in her review of the final episode over at i09:

Take Sansa Stark, who might have been the character people most wanted to see beheaded — well apart from her fiance Joffrey, that is.

In both of these articles, the writers go on discuss the growth Sansa goes through in “Fire and Blood,” and I want to be sure not to mischaraterize their posts as Sansa-bashing, but I am interested in the apparently common response to Sansa and her characterization in the TV series (and in the books really, but I’m going to stick with the tv show here) that these two statements represent.

In line with what I wrote before about Betty on Mad Men, many people find Sansa to be an unlikeable character, and therefore an unsympathetic character. Viewers apparently dislike her so much, they were hoping she’d get her comeuppance – I searched through Twitter for “Sansa die” – that was a fun 5 minutes. I’ve never wished something bad would happen to Sansa, I always knew something bad would happen to her. It felt obvious to me that Sansa, like Ned, believed in honor, chivalry, duty, and that if she just smiled sweetly and did what she was told, everything would work out well. Why would she believe anything different when this is all she has ever learned? She’s a naive teenager, obsessed with living a magical life like the princesses in the songs she loves so much. Sure, this makes her annoying and insufferable, but no more than any moony teenage girl can be annoying and insufferable.

So, I don’t understand how this leads to explicitly rooting for her demise or hoping she gets her head chopped off. She, from the perspective of someone who more readily identifies with Arya, is obviously in the wrong when she relates the details of Nymeria’s protecting Arya, but she’s been put in an impossible position. In Westeros, women are chattel, bought and sold to cement alliances or mollify potential enemies. Her allegiance to her house would be important to her, but her new allegiance would be first to her husband’s house. It would reflect poorly on her to support her sister against her future husband and the future king. Her mother is a perfect example, Catelyn may have been born a Tully, but her marriage made her a Stark.

For me there’s an element of gender and audience identification at play here that it doesn’t seem to have been talked about much. On one hand, Sansa seems to be so easy to hate because, well, she’s such a girl. Not just a girl, but a weak, narcissistic, vapid, and willfully so girlie girl. But really, this is who she was raised to be; her lot in life is be a beautiful, complacent, baby-maker. Sansa is coded as a victim and apparently people hate her for it rather than trying to gain any  understanding what her reality is. The last episode doesn’t create a new situation for Sansa, it just throws light on what her life was always already going to be. On the other hand, there’s a consensus about Arya’s awesomeness. She’s a stereotypical tomboy, trying desperately not to be a girl; her clothes, the “dancing lessons,” and liking to kill fat boys all point to her unwillingness to conform to traditional femininity.

Even though I didn’t like Sansa as a person (as in I wouldn’t want to have a conversation with her over some tea and a lemoncake), I empathized with her by trying to understand the world from her perspective, which makes what Joffrey does to her all that more heartbreaking – poor girl never had any idea what was in store for her. So, I find the vehement and violent dislike of her character a little disconcerting.

As a side note, apart from maybe Bran, of all the POV characters in the book her storyline and perspective feel less developed than the others in their transition from book to screen, which could be due to the source material since even in the first book (I’m only 1/2 way through the second) she feels more like a deconstruction of the fantasy princeess rather than a fully realized character. If they spent as much time on Theon  as they did, surely Sansa could have gotten more screen time at some point.


Edited to add: Please try to keep references about anything beyond the aired episodes to a bare minimum. Thanks!

9 responses »

  1. *spoiler* *spoiler* *spoiler*
    Book readers seem much more upset than tv viewers. I think that’s because sansa has had a better run of things in the TV series. That, and from the TV series, people actually believe that Ned getting his daughters out of town WOULD have been found out. [when you point it out, it does seem obvious.]

    But a good deal of the Sansa hate comes from her failure to wise up, to see the inconsistencies of finding everything either “pretty” or “ugly” and judging people based on their appearances.

    Something that really struck me, from someone who doesn’t hold an ounce of Sansa hate in her bones was, “sansa never meant to hurt anyone” — along with “My sis and I were like Sansa and Arya.”

    Sansa’s the girl who was popular in school. She’s the deluded little girl who thinks she’ll always have what she wants. She’s also the girl who wouldn’t have played with me, because I’m not nice and polite. So there’s a natural antagonism there.

    That, and whenever sansa does something, it goes horribly wrong. It really, really does.

    Looking back, I see that Martin wants us to hate Sansa, to identify with Arya. Just like we ID with Tyrion. But, it’s taking it a step too far to hate Sansa, and I see that the more the more I talk with folks like you.

    So thanks!

  2. I think it’s interesting that a lot of the dislike stems from her traditional femininity and her inability to see past it to become anything else, but aside from a good old fashioned second wavey consciousness raising sessions, I can’t see how she’d had the capability to do anything else. Like her dad, her world is black and white – it’s a tad more superficial than her father’s sense of honor, but she is a teenager.

    TV Sansa seems more mean-spirited to me. That time when she was inexplicably rude to Septa Mordane struck me as very much out of character.

  3. Glad you wrote this.

    I agree but want to articulate your thesis a bit differently. It seems to me that a lot of the misdirected Sansa hate (which I certainly saw as a trend as well both with book readers and TV converts) can be understood through a post-feminist lens.

    Sansa haters seems to come from a post-feminist perspective that views properly independent womanhood as a matter of personal effort and responsibility rather than the product of some structural oppression. From this view, Sansa is just stupid and not trying hard enough.

    What strikes me about the books, and what Martin has accomplished, is that this view is precisely what he’s trying to show is NOT what is happening. Sansa is caught within an incredibly vicious and patriarchal world that has done its best to destroy her sense of self and independence through various institutional forces (family, religion, education). She has been structurally pacified, and thus, to me, her story is one of the most tragic. She desperately wants the princess fairy tale she’s been offered as her only destiny to come true, and it’s starkly exposed to be a false promise conditional on the whims of patriarchy. She’s left with nothing, until…Well, let’s leave that alone. 🙂

    Cersei is a great comparison here, because she went through the same crisis and coped in her own way. So did Arya. And Dany. And Brienne.

  4. Yes! You’ve articulated what I was trying to say perfectly. I find Cersei really interesting as well. I wish she was a POV character in the books. Sometimes I want to know what she’s thinking when she does things, and once certain things happen in the second book, well, she’s treated, um, less well I guess. Wow that was vague.

    But, yes, your bringing in the post-feminist angle really crystalizes where the Sansa sucks perspective comes from. It’s also typically American, in a pull yourself up by your bootstraps and quit whining kind of way.

  5. *spoilerish*
    Cersei is POV later. And though I do not like what she does, I like knowing her and how she’s become what she is.

  6. Martin tries to create confusion for all his readers (and watchers, although i’m more of a book fan). At some point, you will love and hate all of the characters. Even Cersei, my least favourite character, brought compassion from me when she told her heartfelt story to Cat about her dead son.
    It’s not about stereotyping, it’s about Martin trying to keep the reader aloof about who is going to win in the end. At the end of the 4th book you are voting for so many people, it’s impossible to keep everyone happy.
    All in all, he knows his ending isn’t going to be a happy one, and so he is trying to keep people from getting too attached to any one character.

  7. I just cannot bring myself to dislike Sansa. She’s the quintessential “good girl” who really believes she is doing everything right. She was brought up and groomed to serve a very specific role. She had faith in the culture she was raised in that if she followed the rules, then everying would be OK. I think a lot of women can relate to that. If anything, Sansa is a victim on several levels. And as we can see toward the end of A Game of Thrones, she’s in for a rude awakening. And that’s only the beginning…

  8. This is a good point to make, both for those who read the books and are newcomers because of the show.

    At first, Sansa is easy to dislike for all the previously mentioned reasons. In the first book, everything she stands for is in diametric opposition to what we have come to believe about women. The first thing to clue us in that we’ve been tricked is her situation; it doesn’t make her a better character, but it’s the first flag we get that says, “Wait, maybe I should reevaluate this…”

    Minor spoilers follow, but Sansa’s development through books 2 and 3 show her situation getting exponentially worse, but it’s the way she deals with that fact that redeem her, in my eyes at least. She is still the most pathetic character, but at least we can get behind her now. “A lady’s armor is courtesy,” after all.

    It’s a man’s world, and she is nothing more than a commodity. But what she does with that knowledge and understanding of her station will determine her fate. Compare her to Catelyn or Cersei, who are the characters most similar to Sansa. Both of them use what tools they have in order to accomplish their goals. They have to use a lot more proxies and emotional manipulation, but they make the most of what they’re given. Cersei uses her beauty to control men, and Catelyn preys on their sense of honor (sex and honor being of high esteem in this world). Not 100% sure what Sansa will do just yet. She continues to wait for someone to save her, but I’m hoping “Alayne Stone” will be that person. (don’t Google/wiki that name unless you want the spoiler).

  9. Sansa spends many long months being convinced that someone who is superficially “ugly” must be evil, and someone who is physically pretty must be “good” or “heroic”.

    This, I daresay, Is not what they teach, not even in stories. Unless her parents have been shielding her from fairy tales.

    Put simply, if the gal took a little initiative, on her own, to do Anything, i’d have a better opinion of her. Even “get joffrey to like me” seems above her brainpower, some days…

    Let alone “get along with my husband” or “be nice to him” in later books.

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