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.