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.