image: feministfiction.com

Strong Female Characters: Sansa Stark

Happy 2015, blog-followers! Now that I’m finished with the business of Christmas, New Year and slowly but surely getting older, let’s get back to business.

For those of you that don’t know, Sansa Stark is one of many principal female characters in George R. R. Martin’s phenomenally successful series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Set in the fictional kingdom of Westeros, the series chronicles several warring noble families as they fight to seize the crown (or just not get beheaded). Think of it as a fictional parallel to the Wars of the Roses – except with considerably more dragons, ice zombies and (in the case of the HBO adaptation) gratuitous nudity. Sansa Stark – a young noblewoman – is in the centre of all this, and is frequently the topic of much debate among fans of the series, some of whom do not consider her to be a strong female character.

But is this a fair criticism? Let’s find out! Watch out for spoilers of all four series of HBO’s adaptation of the series – but I’ll do my best to keep any potential season 5 spoilers under wraps!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

For the majority of A Song of Ice and Fire – and HBO’s Game of Thrones – Sansa does very little to actively shape her own destiny. Most of the big decisions in her life are made for her, whether by her father, the monarch, or other important noblemen. They are the ones who decide where she lives, who she sees, who she will marry, and how she must act.

However, there are some mitigating points to consider. First and foremost is that Sansa is a very young girl – in the first book, she is eleven years old; in the first series, she is about thirteen. It’s not unusual for girls her age to have little control over their destinies, and in the world of Westeros – where even grown women can be married off as their relatives see fit – this is perfectly normal. Secondly, for the majority of the series Sansa is little more than a hostage in the royal court at King’s Landing. Guarded and watched throughout most of her time in King’s Landing, if she didn’t behave herself her head would quite literally end up on a pike.

Case in point. (image: freerepublic.com)
Case in point. (image: freerepublic.com)

But this does not last for the whole of the series. As both the books and the TV series progress, Sansa learns to manipulate the people around her into behaving the way she wants them to. At first, she mainly does this to Joffrey, using flattery and carefully-times lies in an effort to stave off some of his cruelty. Later, when she has been smuggled out of King’s Landing by Littlefinger under a false name, she reveals her true identity in an effort to get them on her side. As she grows older, Sansa does her best to retain control of her own destiny, but is often forced to rely on manipulating others in order to do so (mainly because she hasn’t got a dragon). With that in mind, I’m giving her half the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

Sansa’s beliefs and goals are the results of the people around her. Her desire to be a perfect lady is a product of her upbringing in Westerosi society, where this is the only acceptable lifestyle for many noblewomen. She wants to escape King’s Landing and be reunited with her family; this is the result of the cruel behaviour she experiences at court (as when the royal family were kind to her, she begged them to stop her father from sending her back home).

However, as the series goes on her own interests start to develop. Westeros has two main religions (her father Ned believes in the Old Gods, her mother Catelyn believes in the Faith of the Seven) and unlike any other character in the books, Sansa believes in both. She has a very strong interest in stories and songs, particularly those about chivalry and love, and a special fondness for lemon cakes. Crucially, in the season four finale, she demonstrates that she has her own goals (not simply an extension of Littlefinger’s master scheme) and has her own plan for achieving them – although the details of this are yet to be seen. Because it occurs so late in the series, I’m giving this development another half-point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Sansa’s skills remain constant: she is always shown to be good at singing, good at embroidery, and good at remembering her courtesies. Her personality is not quite so static. Over the course of the series, she loses her naivety, stops believing in songs and stories and learns to be a more guarded person. However, she still remains a kind, ladylike girl with a strong attachment to her family all throughout the series.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A naïve young noblewoman learning to survive in both the vicious royal court and the dangerous political climate.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Most of Sansa’s decisions in the first book/series are influenced by her desire to impress the young prince Joffrey. This is a terrible idea.

What a catch. (image: winteriscoming.net)
What a catch. (image: winteriscoming.net)

Once she realises this, most of her decisions are influenced by the need to GET AWAY FROM THAT MONSTER. I suppose at a stretch you could say that wanting to run away from that little hellspawn is simply another way in which her love life influenced her decisions, but given Joffrey’s predilection for abuse, torture and murder, I’d say that survival plays a much bigger part in her motivations. Sansa doesn’t always get to make many decisions for herself – particularly when she is under guard in King’s Landing – but those she does make are primarily influenced by the need to survive. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the scenes where Sansa believes she will be married off to one of the Tyrells. While in the show, it is established that she already fancies her prospective groom, in the books she has not even met him, and only agrees to the match because it would take her out of Joffrey’s reach. With that in mind, I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

I touched on this earlier, so apologies if I repeat myself.

Over the course of the series/books, Sansa grows up – we quite literally witness her going through puberty. Aside from the physical changes this entails, this also involves Sansa losing her naivety, learning to keep her true emotions and thoughts hidden from those around her and beginning to take control of her own destiny – all while maintaining the appearance of being a perfect noble lady (which is incredibly difficult when you are a teenager, and all you want to do is yell at your parents and eat more pizza).

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Sansa’s main weakness is her naivety, which leads her to make many poor decisions over the course of the series, but she begins to grow out of it as the series goes on. However, she has also been shown to be impatient, petty, and judgemental – and above all, easily manipulated by others. These are very realistic weaknesses which she constantly has to struggle against, so she passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Due to Sansa’s status as an attractive young noblewoman who’s also the heir to a bunch of really important land and titles, she can influence the plot simply by being in the story and doing nothing. Her high status means that other characters will always try and get her on their side by one way or another, and the plot will generate itself. But I’m not going to count that, as it’s not an active influence in the slightest.

Once you put Sansa’s status aside, she doesn’t actually have that much direct influence on the plot. Most of the decisions she makes are reacting to the circumstances she’s in, which are usually created by other characters. She doesn’t get captured or killed, but for most of the series she’s moved around like a chess piece by other, cannier characters. While in the series four finale she shows that she’s not willing to be manipulated, as of yet this hasn’t really translated into a tangible impact on the plot, so I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

One of the key criticisms levelled at Sansa’s character is that she is a ‘typical teenage girl’. In some ways, Sansa does conform to a lot of stereotypes about teenage girls: she can be very superficial and petty, she places a lot of emphasis on being traditionally feminine, and she develops ridiculous crushes on some frankly awful boys.

I could watch this forever. (image: giphy.com)
I could watch this forever. (image: giphy.com)

However, this is not the only aspect to her character; she is also adaptable, kind, and a quick learner. Furthermore, as the series develops, we see Sansa using people’s perception of her as a stereotypical teenage girl as a kind of shield. In constantly professing her love for Joffrey, she is able to convince people that she is loyal to the crown. While she is still engaged to him, she uses this influence as a means of moderating some of his cruelty, most notably stopping him from having Ser Dontos Hollard killed while maintaining an outward aspect of innocence and naivety. This is a very subversive treatment of traditionally feminine stereotypes, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Sansa has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters. She looks up to her mother, Catelyn. At first, she also looks up to Queen Cersei, but when her true nature is revealed Sansa’s opinion of her changes dramatically. She has a brief friendship with Margaery Tyrell – although Sansa is too naïve to see that this is motivated by the Tyrells’ openly political ambitions – and she looks on Septa Mordane with the strange mix of admiration and frustration that teachers often inspire. Most interesting of all is her relationship with her sister, Arya. The two are polar opposites and frequently argue, but despite their fighting Sansa still loves her sister and wants to be reunited with her.

This range of relationships are all realistic, complex and well thought out, and so Sansa passes this round spectacularly.

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

Sansa is a naïve young noblewoman who spends the series learning to keep her true plans a secret, and is beginning to take hold of her own destiny through whatever means are available to her. She has well-developed weaknesses, grows up over the course of the series, and realistic relationships with a wide range of other female characters. She is not always in control of her own destiny, but due to her circumstances, this is actually a very realistic plot choice. While she’s often described as one of the weakest characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, she’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be looking at The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel Lancaster, I’m coming for you.

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2 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Sansa Stark”

  1. I support your praise of Sansa Stark, who I feel has a lot of potential, but also has often maximized what she had the ability to do, based on her circumstances.

    I always enjoyed the amount of sass she could get away with with Joffrey, cleverly phrasing things in such a way as to avoid reprisal (or her comments would go over her inbred head.)

    My favorite example was in Blackwater when she managed to negatively compare Joffrey to her brother Robb, to his face.

    Thanks for sharing this, and your detailed observations.

    1. Thanks very much, I’m glad you’re enjoying the series! Sansa’s subtle Joffrey-sassing is definitely one of my favourite parts to her character, but I had such a lot to cram into this post I had to leave it out!

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