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Sansa Stark Does Not Kneel

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Aka a review of Game of Thrones: Second Sons

The most difficult part of reviewing Game of Thrones is the fact that it’s an adaptation. Every episode, every scene, every change has two sides to it: how it works as a scene in a TV show, and how it works as an interpretation of the books.

This problem has never been plainer than with Sansa’s wedding to Tyrion. From a show perspective, it was brilliantly acted and painful to watch, perfectly in character for the Sansa and Tyrion we’ve seen on screen. But from a book perspective, these changes create a very different Sansa and Tyrion, one where Tyrion is the unlikely hero, and all of Sansa’s protests and defiance are taken away.

Let’s put this bluntly. Sansa is nicer in her wedding scene in the show than she is in the books. Joffrey steals Tyrion’s steps, Tyrion can’t reach to put the Lannister cloak around her shoulders, he politely asks her to kneel, and she does. The moment is somewhat awkward, but Sansa takes Tyrion’s feelings into consideration, and she complies.

In the books, she blankly refuses to kneel. She stands with her back to him, silent and defiant, until Joffrey orders Ser Dontos to act as a footstool for Tyrion.

Of course, many other factors have changed in the show versus the books. Sansa knew about the wedding beforehand, instead of being ambushed. She’s spoken to Tyrion about it. Margaery had a long conversation with her, telling her to make the best of her situation. It makes sense that a generous-hearted girl like Sansa would see that Tyrion doesn’t want this marriage either, but decide to make the best of it, and kneel. People have commented that it would be out of character for Sansa not to kneel at this point, that it would just seem cruel for her to stand there and would make people side against her.

But all this has me wondering… why does she have to be nice? Why should she not be defiant and bold, fighting back in whatever small way she can Sansa’s character, her entire story arc, is about small rebellions. She cannot fight overtly, or she will end up dead, so she fights back in tiny, almost insignificant ways that allow her to keep some of her dignity and sense of self. She suffers small humiliations every day, and larger ones on a regular basis, and she can do very little to protect herself. Throughout most of the wedding day, in the book and in the show, she is forced to be submissive. A lady does her duty and remembers her courtesies, so Sansa will tell Tyrion that he looks handsome, and she will call him Tyrion when he requests it, and she will drink wine and undress even as her hands shake, because that is what she must do, and she will at least do it bravely, with her head held high. Although neither she nor Tyrion have much choice in their circumstances, Tyrion is the one who gets to say stop, who gets to be kind and magnanimous and refuse to sleep with her. All Sansa can do is act with dignity.

But she has one moment of defiance, one moment where she gets to stand up for herself, in an almost insignificant way, and say, “I do not consent to this. I will not be part of this.” She cannot stop the wedding, but she can refuse to make it easier for anybody. She can be dignified and detached and refuse to participate. And that strength and non-consent was taken away from her. To make her nicer. To make her kinder to Tyrion, and to smooth things over so that we see them both as victims, in this together, with Tyrion’s kindness there to save her.

To be fair, Tyrion is bold when he defies his father. It’s not something that the Lannister siblings do often. It shows decency, both in more-messed-up book Tyrion, and in the nobler, kinder show Tyrion. But why should Sansa need to care about his kindness or his decency? They are both being told to do something that they would rather not do, but Sansa is truly the one in a horrible situation. She is being forced to marry into the family of her enemies. The Lannisters murdered her father, her septa, and everyone from the North in Kings Landing. They have kept her prisoner, away from her family, and threatened her. They are actively trying to kill the little family she has left, and now they are forcing her to become one of them. She may have dreamed of escape, but now she can never escape, because she has become a Lannister. They have completely taken over her identity.

And Tyrion may seem kind and promise not to hurt her, but she’s heard those words from Lannisters before. She heard them from Cersei, and she heard them from Joffrey, and she learned the hard way that Lannisters lieTheir apparent kindness cannot be trusted. And even if she could trust that Tyrion is genuinely kind (which she cannot), that doesn’t change the fact that her marriage is a new kind of prison, and a permanent one at that. It is something that she does not consent to, and she never has to consent to it, no matter how kind Tyrion might be.

Her only way to express that, her only moment of clear strength in this story arc, was her refusal to kneel. And in the show, she knelt. She was strong in other ways, in her politeness and her courage and her quiet, terrified dignity, but her one way to fight back was taken away and blurred into niceness.

Yet Sansa is also kind in this scene in the books. She feels guilty after humiliating Tyrion, and she tries to make amends by being courteous. The scene emphasizes that she’s both a likeable person who cares about others and someone who is bold and stubborn and defiant and will fight however she can. The existence of one trait does not contradict the other. She can stand up for herself and be a caring person. She can refuse to silently to do everything everyone expects from her without losing her “nice person” credentials. She can be a wonderful, caring individual, and yet not want to marry one of her enemies, no matter how courteous he seems. But not in the show. In the show, “niceness” is a bland, all-or-nothing kind of trait. Sansa is nice, and so she kneels. If she refused, she would be being cruel to Tyrion, our truly sympathetic character, and so she would be instantly transformed into a bitch.

Yes, the scenes were wonderfully acted, absolutely heartbreaking, and seemed emotionally genuine. The changes made sense in the context of the show. But everything about that context was a conscious decision on the part of the writers. They have adapted the books for screen, simplifying things while also keeping everything that is important. The message, then, is that Sansa’s defiance is unimportant. Her lack of consent is unimportant.

It’s much better for her to be nice.The way the girls are in songs.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

19 thoughts on “Sansa Stark Does Not Kneel

  1. I’ve gotten so used to the writers adapting the books in ways that disenfranchise the female characters (and in some cases erase their contribution) that I didn’t even pick up on this divergence on first viewing. I did recall that the wedding was a lot more fraught and awkward and that Sansa didn’t roll over quite so easily but the finer details escaped me until now. I’ll admit I’m not a huge Tyrion fan – yes, he’s smart and he’s an underdog, but he’s hardly blameless – and I would much sooner see him portrayed as a morally grey character (like in the books) than this unlikely hero, ostensibly born into the wrong family.

  2. The overriding concern of the writers in adapting the Sansa/Tyrion wedding to the screen was quite obviously to sanitize absolutely anything that might make the characters look bad; particularly Tyrion, who is a much more effortlessly heroic figure than in the books, but also the Tyrells (Margaery and co. don’t throw Sansa overboard once the marriage plot falls through), and even Cersei. Once the writers approached it from that angle, removing the refusal to kneel is probably necessary to avoid the audience hating Sansa, since Tyrion is the most popular character on the show (even in the books, there’s a rather vocal part of the readership that thought she was being mean to Tyrion, because people are stupid).

    And, of course, Joffrey, the only character the writers seem willing to intentionally make less sympathetic than he was in the books, steps up to be the one responsible for Tyrion’s uncomfortableness at the wedding by removing the stool — much like he, for instance, ordered the killing of Robert’s bastard children, instead of Cersei, so that Cersei could look better.

    1. Addendum: Of course, Joffrey in the books was never sympathetic to begin with, but the writers have piled on more stuff, and reassigned the actions of other characters to him (particularly Cersei).

  3. I totally agree, the writers completely lost the plot with Sansa this season, but I thought at the very least she would have that one moment of humiliating the Lannisters. But they made her kneel because it was much more sympathetic.

  4. Words cannot describe how furious I was when they made her kneel.
    They ignore her character because she is supposedly ‘boring’ for tv audiences…
    and then they deprive her of agency to make her nice…
    So furious.

  5. I think they did the wedding well. I can see both sides of this argument. They didn’t put in the kiss where Sansa DOES choose to kneel without being asked so I guess they just condensed it. I wish they had done it exactly as it was in the book but I have no problems with the way they did it. At least Tyrion DID have to ask.

    My one issue is that they showed too much of Tyrion’s feelings and too little of Sansa’s. This was her chapter, it should have been all about her.

    I also wish at the bedding they had kept in Tyrion’s original line “That is why the gods made whores for men like me.” It would have added a nice touch especially with Shae coming in the next morning. The Night’s Watch inspired comment felt a little off to me though I suppose it could be interpreted as Tyrion watching for Sansa to change her mind…

  6. There’s really no winning for Sansa. People dislike her for not “fighting back” against her captors and then accuse her of being cruel to Tyrion for refusing to kneel (i.e. one of the most tangible instances of her defiance). And what’s more is that people aren’t suddenly going to like Sansa more in the light of HBO’s attempts to make her more sympathetic. So they might as well stick to the original character, instead of removing all of her complexities.

  7. For what it’s worth, I think we book readers are reading this differently than non-readers are, since we expected her not to kneel *at all* for the cloak. Over in the thread at TwoP, the non–book readers are talking about why did she *wait so long* before kneeling, and people are concluding “I think that was the only way she could be defiant.” So perhaps Sansa’s non-kneeling still “reads” to the audience after all?

    1. (And, in fairness, other people are saying “I didn’t see her not kneeling to be an act of defiance”—but in either case, the non-readers seem to share this understanding that “not kneeling” is something Sansa did.)

  8. I’m on a road research trip, i.e. driving in a car or working, and I’m so tired when the day is finished — it starts at 7 AM and usually doesn’t finish until 11:30 and is absolutely jam-packed all day long — that I can hardly stay awake to take a shower. So I haven’t seen this ep yet. Maybe I’ll wait until I get home next week sometime, since there’s not another ep this coming weekend.

  9. I remember that in the book, Sansa also does not kneel because she always dreamed of her perfect marriage, like in the stories. She is horrified and can’t accept that Tyrion can’t proceed to the ceremony properly. She is not supposed to kneel, he should be tall and handsome, probably…
    She is after ashamed of herself, because she didn’t mean to humiliate Tyrion. (sorry for the grammar, 2nd language)

  10. “When Sansa turned, the little man was gazing up at her, his mouth tight, his face as red as her cloak. Suddenly she was ashamed of her stubbornness. She smoothed her skirts and knelt in front of him, so their heads were on the same level.”

    1. Yup. I thought I mentioned this moment explicitly, but looks like I only referred to it vaguely by saying that Sansa tries to make amends to Tyrion in the books by being courteous. This doesn’t change the fact that this happens after he puts the cloak on her shoulders, after she stands stubbornly for quite a long time while everyone laughs and he must use Dontos as a footstool. She doesn’t kneel to make things easier for Tyrion. But she does kneel for a later part of the ceremony.

  11. “…but her one way to fight back was taken away and blurred into niceness.” – I agree with your opinion here as well, although I later though: well, in books you can have tons of pages to ‘soften’ the relationship between two ‘victims’, to make Sansa nicer to Tyrion, so here George R.R. had time on his side; whereas in TV series you only have one or two episodes to do that. I mean, there is a lot stuff coming for both characters so I would think that they had to ‘speed-up’ some things, including Sansa’s niceness.

  12. Is it so awful for them to want to make her “nice”? I’m not necessarily in agreement with your analysis, but even so, she’s the only female in the story they’re really making “nice”. I know this is a feminist site but isn’t part of celebrating women the idea that womanhood should be celebrated no matter what kind of woman you are? Yes, I love the defiant fiery and brave women, but there are also amazingly wonderful women out there who are more passive in life or who are “nice” or maybe continually naive. I think it makes for a nice array of characters. There are so many strong and defiant women in this series that I just can’t get upset about Sansa…

    1. If womanhood should be celebrated no matter what kind of woman you are, then surely Sansa’s character was fine as it was and didn’t need to be made “nicer.” The show has changed many of the female characters from the books (Brienne is less naive and more gruff warrior woman, Cersei is no longer responsible for pretty much any evil thing), and it bugs me to say the least that the writers thought that was necessary. Sansa is already “nice” in the books. In fact, she’s far less bland than “nice.” She’s kind and generous and thoughtful and empathetic. She is also defiant, in whatever small way she can be, and by taking that defiance away, the show has reduced her to a blander, more two-dimensional kind of “niceness.”

    2. Even nice people in real life aren’t always nice. Sansa is nice like 99% of the time. This ONE LITTLE act of defiance does not change the fact that she is generally very nice.

  13. I’ve read two of your blog posts so far, and I love them. I’m definitely coming back for more. I love Game of Thrones, both the books and the show. I’ve always been very happy with the female representations. But I also really agree with your conclusions. It is some of these subtle, smaller things that give us a glimpse into the real complexity of these characters. And the complexity of many diverse female characters is what makes George R. R. Martin so great!

    Brilliant post! Please keep analyzing Game of Thrones!

    1. Thank you! Glad you liked it. :) I’ll definitely be posting more Game of Thrones-related stuff when we get closer to the new season next year.

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