A Song of Ice & Feminism, Part Two: In Defense of Sansa Stark

I know I said I wasn’t going to post a big long thing about “A Song of Ice & Fire,” but in email conversation with my dear friend Patrick Barry (who is, like, 80% responsible for the existence of this blog in the first place), it came about that I have Lots of Thoughts about the person who seems to be pretty universally least-liked among all of the series’ point of view characters: Sansa Stark.  P-Bar suggested a blog post, and… here we are.  (Spoilers are mostly for the first and second book/season.)


Because the thing about Sansa is this: at first, I thought she sucked.  She was just so dumb and girly and useless, doing needlepoint and daydreaming about boys while her little sister Arya was running around being a troublemaking badass.  But there’s a couple things at work, in both the story and in feminism, that gave me pause and made me reconsider, just as I reconsidered my opinion of my Cuban grandma fifteen years ago: I never thought my grandmother was dumb, exactly, but I did think most of what she cared about – table manners and social etiquette, fashion and femininity – was dumb; and it wasn’t until I was old enough to think hard about the facts of her life, growing up privileged and inculcated in a worldview rewarding femininity and then abruptly cast from all that, exiled in a foreign country where she was poor and barely spoke the language and had to survive independently, without male guidance – well, when I thought about it, I realized that my grandma was really kind of a badass, that her femininity had actually been an asset (after migrating to the US, she worked in high-end retail), and that the problematic conflation of “femininity” and “weakness” was, in fact, my own projection, separated from the narrative of her life by my own bias.


But my bias is also a cultural one.  One of the big issues that remains in feminism is the marginalization of the feminine: girls wearing pants is highly acceptable but boys wearing skirts is not at all, because to a boy, being in any way “like a girl” is an insult.  (“You throw like a girl.”  "You cry like a girl.“  "Quit acting like such a girl.”)  "You’ve got balls" is a compliment, but “You’re a pussy” is a terrific insult – value is *directly tied* to male (positive) or female (negative) genitalia.


And as it happens, the Arya/Sansa duality is a perfect encapsulation of that.  Arya is a fan favorite right out of the gate because she’s a tomboy – she’s a girl, but she’s not LIKE a girl, and in the first book she actively and repeatedly rejects “girly” things.  Sansa, on the other hand, is all things feminine, and my reaction – which, from internet perusal, seems to have been pretty universal – is somewhat instantaneous dislike.


Now, Sansa’s femininity comes in two parts: aesthetic femininity, and passivity.  (There are arguments within feminism about whether or not these two can ever be fully pulled apart, and I used to think they could not be at all – that to be aesthetically feminine, to wear dresses and makeup and all that shit, was to inherently buy into passivity and objectification – but again, thinking about grandmother has helped to shift my opinion on this, and I think the scenario GRRM presents as unfolding around Sansa is an absolutely fantastic exploration of the idea that aesthetic femininity, when working properly, doesn’t preclude active agency but it does work very particularly to obscure it.)  The aesthetic feminine encompasses her sense of courtesy, her love of songs and dancing and dresses, all of that “frivolous” stuff.  Her passivity is her initial sense of dependence – that so long as she is properly attached (generally to a male figure), Westerosi culture will reward her; she need not be responsible for her own decision-making, because dependency IS the right decision (or even state of being – I don’t know that Sansa ever made a conscious choice about the matter, as this was the attitude she was raised with), and all proper consequences will flow from that.


The thing is, although aesthetic femininity and passivity are not identical, they do work in tandem – and again, we see this with Arya and Sansa.  Sansa is good at needlepoint because that is where she devotes her time and attention; Arya is shit at needlepoint because she’s running around and learning how to make independent decisions.  To a certain extent, one does impede the other, just because time is a finite quantity, and time spent on one thing means less time to spend on another.  The tools of aesthetic femininity are not tools for active decision-making and leadership, and so devoting so much time to cultivating aesthetic femininity does promote a certain degree of passivity, simply because one is devoting so much time to NOT cultivating active, independent attributes – and aesthetic femininity requires a very high degree of cultivation to execute properly; for all of its “frivolity”, things like applying makeup or styling clothes or hair are also skill-intensive enough that not-insignificant numbers of people pursue them professionally.


(Lengthy aside: one of the things I love the most about Sansa and Arya is that they are presented as being in an either/or situation about this, not a both/and.  The strange mash-up of feminism and cultural mores has led to a contemporary situation in which women are expected to display both high-level aesthetic feminism AND be active, independent, “masculine”-style leaders, but that’s absurd, because pretty much nobody outside of a comic book has enough time or energy in life to conform fully to beauty standards and also kick ass.  Which is something I dislike about ‘Buffy’, and the whole mantra of ‘Women can be strong without sacrificing their femininity!’ – because while that’s true in some ways (“strength” need not be defined purely as a traditional masculine trait), in other ways, it’s bullshit.  You can’t be both a supermodel and also the president; the tools to succeed at one of those are in direct opposition to the tools needed to succeed at the other.  Which brings us back to Cersei, actually, whose greatest delusion is that her ambition for masculine-style leadership is enough on its own to compensate for the fact that her entire life has been devoted to developing the skills of the aesthetic feminine; she wants to be president, but she’s a supermodel, and that’s the core of her failure (although of course it is layered with many, many other things, which is why I find her so damn compelling).)


But back to Sansa…


In the first book, Sansa does some stuff that we, the well-informed readers, know to be dumb, but that is perfectly consistent with what she’s been raised to believe about the world.  There’s nothing dumb about that in the moment; she’s not experienced anything yet which challenges her sense that what she’s been raised with is stupid, and in fact, IF Joffrey hadn’t been such a dick, her actions WOULD have been rewarded – Cersei really was planning on sparing Ned’s life, but for the sake of political theater, she needed somebody to ask her (very publicly) first.  It was an instructive moment for both Sansa AND Cersei: Cersei is far more cynical than Sansa, and she’s learned how (to a certain extent, and at a personal cost) to manipulate desired results from the men upon whom she is dependent for action, and she certainly expected her own son to be more pliable than her belligerent husband – but Joffrey’s independent decision-making renders the passive women who depend upon him absolutely helpless.  Both Sansa and Cersei take that abrupt lesson to heart, but given the norms of Westerosi culture (especially noble culture), it’s also a lesson that neither one could really have anticipated.


And that’s because the norms of Westerosi culture lie in the notion of honor, and the reason that honor is so important is, indeed, because of this inherent dependency of women: honor is, essentially, culture’s way of recognizing that men act on behalf of women dependent upon them, and that it is incumbent upon those men to act in the best interest of those women.  (This is chivalry in its purest, most idealized form; one of the great things in the books is that so many minor female characters have no expectation of this whatsoever, and are very much in charge of their own lives, my favorite example Fat Lannister Aunt Gemma.  But anyway…)


The other “dumb” thing that Sansa does in the first book – going to Cersei when Ned decides to leave King’s Landing – is also not-so-dumb in this context; Sansa isn’t upset just because she’s leaving her precious Joffrey, she’s upset because, as Joffrey’s betrothed, running away is treasonous.  Ned hasn’t given her any information about why they’re going, about why her entire worldview – the worldview which her honorable father has bequeathed to her! – is being proven wrong; and so instead she makes a decision, to act on her own behalf where she perceives her father to have abandoned her best interests.  She perceives Ned to be acting treasonously, and so goes to Cersei.  This is, of course, a miscalculation, but it’s one based on a lack of information – a huge, gaping, black hole of almost no information at all – not on inherently bad logic.


And Sansa – like my grandmother, like millions of other women throughout history who have found that reliance upon the chivalry of others can only go so far – wises up, fast.  As soon as Ned’s head is off, all her illusions about Joffrey are shattered; she recognizes pretty immediately that she, and only she, is fully responsible for her own self-preservation.  But of course (and realistically so), she still doesn’t have the tools to be like her sister and run away from it all – she’s still working within the framework that she knows, that she’s been raised with, the skills that she has.  She uses politeness and aesthetic femininity as a shield while beginning to seek active solutions, and what proves more than anything that Sansa is not even a little bit dumb is that it works.  She is not killed.  She is not jailed.  She is not, despite being in greater danger of sexual violence than any other character in the entire series, raped. She manages to survive as much as Arya does without ever touching a weapon and while living the entire time with enemies, including Joffrey, a sociopath who, as king, is beyond legal reproach.  I love Arya, I think Arya is awesome, my own attitudes on femininity in my life have been closer to Arya’s than Sansa’s – but in the situation Sansa has been in since Ned’s death, Arya probably would not have survived.  She would not have kissed Joffrey’s ass or navigated court properly, and she would most likely have been thrown in jail or killed for it.


Arya has to go on adventures outside the normal structure of society, because she herself – who rejected the aesthetic feminine – is outside the norms of society (same thing with Brienne).  Sansa is inside the belly of the beast, and she has learned from Ned’s death that passivity can’t be her only strategy; but her toolbox is the aesthetic feminine, so she has a pretty steep learning curve to marry the skills that she can actually bring to bear on her situation with her newfound realization that she must be actively complicit in her own survival, that she can’t simply rely on it as a natural consequence of being a good girl – which is just a great, great storyline, because for many women of the female persuasion, this remains a huge part of growing up in contemporary society.  Being a “good girl” is very powerfully rewarded up until the age of twelve or so, but  after that?  All bets are off, and the tools and norms that girls are often still raised with cease to offer any service or protection or guidance.  (Which is a whole ‘nother can of worms that we’ll save for another time, at which point I will talk a lot about “Gossip Girl.”)


So there it is: my official Sansa Stark defense.  Really, it seems that when people say “SANSA IS SO DUMB”, what’s really being critiqued is Sansa’s worldview – but that’s the worldview that this child has been raised with, and what we see over the series is how her experience of reality, outside of Winterfell, erodes that worldview, and how she adapts to new and unanticipated situations with the narrow skill set that her initial worldview – the one, again, promoted by society and her parents – allowed her to develop.  The real indictment isn’t against Sansa, it’s against the gender politics of Westeros, and bullshit ideas about honor and chivalry; and these things persist in different forms today, and attacking individuals for being dumb is the wrong way to create change when what’s really at fault are idiotic systemic norms.


Lastly, I am going to leave y’all with a great jam from Nas:

The relevant point to Sansa, the Starks, and “A Song of Ice & Fire” is the song’s central tension: Nas is grappling with the fact that, as his daughter has grown up and is nearing adulthood, he is being confronted with the notion that however much he might have tried to be a good parent, his own attitude and worldview – the example he himself set – has given his daughter a set of tools and beliefs that he wished to avoid.  It’s a very powerful conflict (with a great beat) and it’s also applicable to Ned and his eldest daughter.  Eddard Stark, lord of Winterfell, was known to all as a man of honor, but the honorable world he built and inhabited – the behavior he modeled for his children, especially Sansa – has consequences he did not foresee, consequences which endanger the precious daughter he raised to inhabit something different than her reality.


Nas and Ned Stark certainly have different parenting styles.  But what I love the most about the video above is the final shot, which suggests that in spite of so much parental grief and not-entirely-irrational worry, in spite of adolescent stupidity and the inevitable mistakes we all make on the journey into adulthood, this young woman – like Sansa – is a real and capable person, in the driver’s seat of her own life, figuring things out.  The process is not easy or straightforward, but it is ongoing in Sansa’s character, gradualist but no less powerful for it.


Not all strong male characters need to wield swords.  The same thing is true of strong female characters; the challenge of Sansa Stark is to the readers, that we might recognize strength when it dawns wrapped in dresses and pretty songs, that we might broaden our own ideas of the active and the badass to also include the frivolous and the girlie.

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