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Why Sansa’s new plotline is NOT about empowerment

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This post contains spoilers for The High Sparrow and for A Dance With Dragons.

I don’t think this can be said forcefully enough: Sansa’s plotline this season is not about empowerment. It’s about the idea of empowerment being used to manipulate her, while she continues to be a victim of an incredibly dangerous situation.

Yes, there’s something intriguing about the moment she meets Roose Bolton, when she visibly hides her feelings and switches on her courtesies. And yes, there are hints of a rebellion in Sansa’s favor, especially in the servant’s comment that “the North remembers.” But she’s still a victim, still a pawn, just under a different guise.

No one can claim that Sansa’s decision to marry Ramsay Bolton was an empowered one. We can hardly claim that it’s a decision at all. Her pure hatred of the Boltons is clear the moment she states that “the Boltons have Winterfell,” and that hate turns into panic and grief the moment she realizes what Littlefinger has planned for her — another alliance with people who killed her family, another marriage against her will. Even with her ignorance about Ramsay Bolton’s sadistic nature, she has every reason to completely refuse to ally herself with them. And she does, fiercely, desperately. She will refuse to go, she will starve herself, she will die before she takes another step toward that castle that’s no longer her home. And although she cries, although she’s not crafty or manipulative or any of those other things that players of the game of thrones need to be, she does show strength here. A determination to express herself, defiance, self-preservation… she knows what she’s willing to do and she will fight to stop anyone from taking advantage of her again.

And then Littlefinger takes advantage of her. Not because she’s weak, but because he uses the very idea of strength and empowerment against her. People have been calling Sansa Stark weak and taking advantage of her ever since her father was arrested, and now here is somebody telling her she can be strong, someone telling her that she should want revenge, and seeming to present the perfect way for her to get it. When Littlefinger tells her that he won’t force her to marry Ramsay, that they will turn around as soon as she says the word, he creates the illusion of choice necessary for Sansa to feel that this marriage might be “empowerment,” and then he twists her feelings back on themselves, so that standing up for herself isn’t strength but weakness. It’s weak to run. It’s weak to weep, to be “a bystander to tragedy.” It’s strong to agree to Littlefinger’s plan and be married into a family that killed almost everyone she loved.

I want to say it again. This is not empowerment. This is manipulation, where the idea of empowerment is the trap. It’s presenting the idea that a girl must always be active, that passivity is awful, that she should put herself in danger instead of weeping over others. Any thought Sansa has of defying Littlefinger will be presented as weakness or naivety. Any idea of Littlefinger’s will be presented as the only way to fight. And so Sansa will be convinced to stumble on with him, to let him use her as a pawn while pretending she’s in control, to marry Ramsay Bolton and face potentially unimaginable horrors in the name of strength.

I had thought, in my own endless naivety, that this might have been intentional on the part of the writers. The choice to give this storyline to Sansa is stomach churning, however you consider it, but there is always the possibility that she will escape from Littlefinger’s manipulation and truly become a player later on. But the writers talk about this latest episode as though Sansa is already a player in control of her situation:

Sansa started as such a naive innocent,” he said. “She’s been traumatized by what she’s seen and she spent almost a couple years in shell shock. At a certain point she’s either going to die or survive and become stronger. She’s chosen the latter option and she’s learned from an incredibly devious teacher in Littlefinger.

But Sansa hasn’t chosen anything when she walks into Winterfell. She’s been manipulated into a “choice” that is incredibly dangerous for her, without knowing the true extent of that danger, with her imminent abuse being presented as something that she could control. And so the story of growth from naivety to strength is turned upside down, with victimhood and manipulation presented as “girl power,” as long as the victim wears an illusion of choice and empowerment. Sansa’s (unwittingly) accepted abuse in exchange for revenge, and so facing that abuse is somehow “empowering” in and of itself. Or so the argument will go.

I can imagine how her storyline will go from here. There are two options, as I see them: either Sansa will kill Ramsay and claim Winterfell for herself, in a “badass” move that feels more fitting for Arya’s character, or the season will follow the books and Theon will rescue her before they run, meet Stannis’s army, and cause a huge moral conflict for Brienne in the meantime. I’m not a fan of either option, especially as the first one will be proclaimed as Sansa taking power for herself, ignoring how she was manipulated into this situation, ignoring the trauma it would undoubtedly produce, and suggesting that choosing to be a victim can somehow make someone a “strong female character.”

Sansa’s instinct to run was strength. Her defiance was strength. Her capitulation to Littlefinger’s wishes, her agreement to play the part of an elegant lady and marry Ramsay Bolton after all? That’s a struggling girl trapped in other people’s games, and it’s no different, no “stronger,” than Sansa’s attempts to survive Joffrey, or Cersei, or anyone else who has used and abused her before.

Rhiannon

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

18 thoughts on “Why Sansa’s new plotline is NOT about empowerment

  1. Is it wrong that I’m still hoping that Sansa’s new plotline will give her the opportunity to get revenge on the Boltons? Littlefinger telling her to “avenge them” must mean there’s a bigger plan going on here…with this show’s track record of weddings, Sansa’s could prove to be another Red Wedding…or maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

    1. Yes, that’s one of the many things about this plot that doesn’t make sense…

      Sansa’s marriage to Tyrion is not a big issue I guess. They could argue the wedding wasn’t consummated and is therefore invalid.

      Sansa’s status as a fugitive wanted for regicide is a bigger problem. The Boltons have a pact with the Lannisters. Roose claims after Tywin’s death the Lannisters won’t help him, but if he marries his son to Sansa, they not only won’t help him, but will do all they can to overthrow him. They may be too far away to do much, but they are his only ally. Everyone in the North hates the Boltons and marrying Ramsay to Sansa won’t really change that. And now they commit an open treason and everyone in the South will hate them too. Roose has the north only because Tywin gave it to him. Now the Boltons are openly opposing the Crown, and no one is backing them up.

      There is also the question what Littlefinger gains from all this. Does he pursue an alliance with the Boltons? Does he hope Sansa will destroy them and take over WInterfell, so he can rule through her? In any case, there are less dangerous and more efficient ways to form alliances. I don’t see a single person in this plot acting logically. Of course, it’s possible there’s something major we don’t know, but it doesn’t look like it.

  2. This plot development lacks all of Petyr Bealishs subtility and strategical thinking. Instead of increasing his own power base, he put himself and the asset he has in Sansa at the mercy of the Boltons. In the books, he is the teacher whom’s example make Sansa a player of the game. Now everything is upside down, and Sansa will learn less. Probably because the show wanted to connect to the plotline of Jeyne Poole in ADWD.

    1. That is what I understand the least about this episode…how this makes sense logically for Littlefinger. He’s supposed to be a scheming genius, and this is the best plan he could come up with?? Heck, Littlefinder marrying Sansa himself would make more sense. Or, y’know, Robin Arryn. The only way I see this working out at all is if Sansa uses the opportunity to assassinate the Boltons, but as has been pointed out, that’s more of an Arya characteristic than Sansa’s.
      Though I really would be relieved to see Ramsey bite it. Really really.

      1. Ramsey is the most evil character of them all, not even Joffrey or Gregor Clegane did what he does. If there is someone I hope to see dead, it’s him, perhaps second to Walder Frey. I guess that he will murder his own father, to get his heritage faster. Then he will most likely muck things up and make the lords of the North rebel against him, like Joffrey provoked the northmen into rebellion by beheading Eddard Stark.

    2. What if Petyr is planning to kill the Boltons? I can’t stop thinking that he’ll make Sansa marry Ramsay, then Petyr will find a way to kill them (maybe manipulating Sansa to defend herself, maybe tricking Reek into killing him for her) and then Petyr could marry Sansa as her savior, getting the ultimate revenge: the girl and Winterfell.
      It all sounds awful, but I think it makes sense in context of the show.

  3. Even though Sansa’s self-control when she curtsied to Bolton was admirable, it was nothing new. She has been smiling at people she hates ever since Season 2. And now she is trapped in exactly the same situation as before – at the mercy of people who have hurt her family and who wouldn’t hesitate to hurt her too, betrothed to a sadistic man, with no friends or allies nearby. If now Stannis attacks the castle, while she is inside hoping for him to succeed, the deja vu will get too much.

    Sansa had no choice in the matter. She didn’t come up with the plan and didn’t really agree to it. In fact, she very actively opposed the idea, before Littlefinger convinced her to go. And his arguments made no sense. So she should stop running and hiding, and should instead surrender and become a prisoner again? Give herself to the mercy of cruel and powerful people? Give up all her control and all her power? How does any of that help her?

    I see some hope that things might turn out fine. Perhaps Sansa will use her new position to undermine the Boltons’ power from the inside. She could create a support network among the household staff, and send people to spy on the Boltons or to deliver messages, until she is ready to organize a rebellion. Perhaps she could befriend the Maester and secretly send ravens to the Stark bannermen. Unfortunately, I doubt that’s what we are going to see.

    I think it’s more likely Sansa learns to manipulate Ramsay. Perhaps she’ll manipulate him into killing his father, so she can get revenge. And now that I think about this scenario, I’m getting terrible thoughts. Margaery got Joffrey’s interest by pretending she liked killing things as much as he did. Will Sansa have to follow a similar path? What if she is set up to be the abuser, not the abuse victim? What if we get a repeat of the scene where Ramsay and Myranda are chasing a girl in the woods, but this time it’s Myranda running, and Sansa and Ramsay giving the chase? Before Myranda dies, she asks “Why?” and Ramsay responds, “You made Lady Sansa jealous.” I hope I’m wrong, but we did see Myranda looking unhappy when Sansa arrived, so I expect something bad involving her.

    Probably the most likely scenario is Ramsay abusing Sansa , and Theon saving her like he saved Jeyne Poole in the book. We saw Theon looking at Sansa, so it’s likely they’ll interact in some way. But then what is the point of this storyline at all? More Sansa abuse?

    Or maybe Brienne will play a role in the rescue? That wouldn’t make things much better. Sansa wouldn’t have needed a rescue in the first place if she had followed her instincts.

    The most disturbing thing to me is that the writers seem to think they’ve made Sansa a player already. How exactly is she a player? She may have some potential to become one in the future (though I’m starting to lose hope), but so far this season she has done nothing but listen to Littlefinger.

  4. As far as ‘making her believe she has agency to manipulate her’ goes, that seems to be consistent with the books (judging by Alayne 1). I’m expecting both the book and the show to follow the same arc–Sansa escapes King’s Landing, terrible things happen to her because of Littlefinger’s (and others) machinations, she regains some influence during these terrible things and manages to pull herself out of the situation and becomes a reluctant player. And Sansa honestly has more allies in Winterfell and the North (as showcased by the old woman) than she does in the Vale, but… Ramsay, yeah.
    Honestly, what offends me most about this plot is the sheer stupidity involved by Littlefinger (which I should be expecting at this point, I know). At least with Roose, he knows his power base is collapsing (the Lannisters) and the Northern lords aren’t likely to tolerate him and Ramsay for very long without some leverage (in the books, Arya, in this case, Sansa). Littlefinger is just giving up his best pawn to an unknown and precarious situation in the hopes Sansa can **episode 4 spoilers** 1) usurp control of Winterfell and become Warden of the North (with Stannis’s help–Stannis’s, Littlefinger must know Stannis enough to know Stannis will never tolerate him in a position of power) and 2) use that influence to further his power, as opposed to throwing him under the bus as soon as she can (noting, she isn’t totally reliant on him as Warden of the North, unlike in the Vale, and he has had considerable less time to try and win her over, which he is trying to do in the books). It’s dumb. He’s dumb.
    Of course, as far the direction of Sansa’s character–it does feel more of the same. She does have friends and allies though (notably, she’ll probably win over the household staff, and after the fate of the Cerwyns spreads, every single noble house in the entire North), but she has to go back to smiling and adhering to people who betrayed her family and tiptoeing around a psychopath. As far as bad things happening to Sansa in general (specifically, one’s that undermine her agency), I feel like that will happen in the books anyway. The path will end the same, hopefully–she regains her agency and becomes a player. Of course, that path would be preferable without flaying and torture, and just the expected attempted rape/sexual assault/kidnapping/Littlefinger manipulation. Yay for ASOIAF standards!
    Also, random thing that annoyed me. In the writer’s quote you used, he said “She’s been traumatized by what she’s seen and she spent almost a couple years in shell shock. At a certain point she’s either going to die or survive and become stronger”. This highlights exactly how the writer’s haven’t understood her character. She HAS been surviving and getting stronger for the past couple years–from silk, to ivory, to steel. The fact they didn’t realize this fact while writing her character just shows how much they missed the mark, and continue to fumble with Sansa. At this point, I’m completely convinced the only reason Sansa isn’t a complete wreck of a character at this point is because of Sophie Turner and how well she understands the character.
    Sorry for the rambling XD The rage catches quickly. I do love your criticism, and it highlights what makes the entire situation so frustrating.

  5. I totally agree with you. But I have great expectations for the outcome of this storyline. I do believe in a great relationship between Theon and Sansa, in which they do not take turns as savior or pawn, but act together to cast Ramsay and have a great role in the battle of Winterfell.

    I do expect Sansa to use her courtesy armor to unite the northman around her (starting within Winterfell, remember how the women looked at her? I hope they take the spear wifes role in the rescue of “fake Arya”). And adress Jon Snow (instead of Alys Karstak), leaving Littlefinger to deal with Oath Keeper (Brienne knows Littlefinger is full of shit).

    We’ve seen Jon saying that Winterfell belongs to her (even tough he knows Bran and Rickon are alive), and in the last book she thinks a lot about her brother and how she wishes she could talk with him. It’s high for us to see Sansa becoming like her lady mother and Elizabeth I.

    So yes, so far the storyline is dangerous. But we can hope, and dream. =)

  6. I agree with everything you say here. But I can’t help but feel that it would be so satisfying to see Sansa kill Ramsay. I hate him so much and he scares the living daylights out of me. It would be so satisfying to me if Sansa were the one to end the one person that’s possibly more evil and cruel than Joffrey.

  7. I am glad you have seen and analysed this (I watch GOT but not paying that much attention). As you say, even the writers believe that Sansa is empowered! Which tells us quite a lot about how they see women’s autonomy. I find it a bit strange that they have missed it, so maybe they haven’t, maybe they know exactly what they have done but do not want to admit to it.

  8. Thank you for this article! I think many of the media articles are looking at this the wrong way. They all seem to think this means Sansa’s in control, but it seemed pretty clear to me that Littlefinger was manipulating her into believing she had control. Really, what would have happened if she continued to refuse? Something tells me Littlefinger would have changed his demeanor instantly and told her the same story he told Ros in season 2, about the young girl who wouldn’t stop crying at the brothel and how he sold her to a terrible man because she was costing him money. Littlefinger would reveal his true nature and make sure she remembered that he holds all the cards. Sansa is being put in a terrible situation where she has no known allies, yet at least. I feel that Littlefinger is doing something completely out of character by giving up his most powerful pawn in the game to the Boltons. Why wouldn’t he keep her hidden until he knew who was the victor? Also why the hell wouldn’t he know about Ramsay Bolton? Littlefinger supposedly knows everything about everyone but he doesn’t know that Ramsay is a sadistic nutjob? Sloppy writing and very little logic has gone into this storyline all so that Dan and David can do something horrifyingly shocking to Sansa’s character. I am under no illusions that she will not be harmed. Why else bring her there than to have her suffer some of the treatment Jeyne experienced. They think those kinds of scenes are edgy, but really it just shows lack of imagination and a weird interest in torture porn.

  9. Remember how (according to Jack Zipes in his “Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion”) the original oral form of Little Red Riding Hood:
    the heroine is smart, confident and uses teamwork with laundry women to destroy the big bad wolf/sexual predator.
    and how Charles Perrault changes that to “Little Red Riding Hood was eaten by the wolf”.
    Maybe it’s the same here: D&D want the anti-feminist message that attempts at agency will only get you raped by a psychopaths and mean that you will need to be rescued by a man as unfortunate as Theon.

    1. I totally agree with you. I said something similar on the review for Sons of Harpy. I feel that this is a very cynical story arc. The creators think it’s edgy but I think this will turn off a lot of viewers. I am dreading seeing this traumatic scene that Sophie, Alfie, and Iwan alluded to for midseason. If it is the wedding night scene from the books then I don’t think I will watch anymore. It’s just gross the stuff they choose to keep and foist on a character that isn’t even going through this in the books.

  10. I am not skilled in manipulation and power plays, but she almost made me cheer for Ramsay in these episodes. She seemed to be stupid, baselessly smug rather than badass. It’s not like she could grovel her way out of danger, true, if this is her way of thinking ‘well, if I must die anyway, at least I’ll go down fighting’, okay. But I’d at least lay low until I have clear physical advantage (or at least a rapier to kill him in his sleep after I played naive enough for him to lower his guard), because I won’t be able to TALK – much less mock and condescend – a psychopath into submission, nor will my bluer blood make me immune to torture. I wouldn’t rage if I were Ramsay, at her snottiness about his bastardry. I’d just sweetly ask “oh, now that you mentioned, where is YOUR family? At least my father is alive, sweetheart.” Besides, I found her choice at suitors pretty stupid, too. She runs screaming from Tyrion and Robin Arryn, but she is perfectly willing to marry psychotic torturers like Joffrey and Ramsay? I’d rather run away to be a smallfolk (or a Faceless Woman) if I were her.

  11. After one year of waiting, we got to know how Sansa slowly starts to empower herself.

    Now we know that she triggered Ramsay to kill his father and two Freys. She killed Joffrey by informing Olenna about his true nature and she killed Roose Bolton by convincing Ramsay that his legalization is not secure, because declared by a King whose Status is dubious. and whom the North doesn`t recognize.

    And now she has her first sworn followers. And as Long as she is free, Ramsay cannot kill Rickon, because after his death, she will be rightful Lady of Winterfell. I hope, Ramsay will be as reasonable as Bloodraven was, when he spared the life of that Blackfire prince in Mystery Knight.

    Maybe the Umbers just used Rickon as an entry to Winterfell to get an opportunity to kill Ramsay. The North remembers and the Umbers have lost many men in the red wedding. Maybe the killed direwolf is not Shaggydog. How should Ramsay know the difference?

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