George R.R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones, recently said that he was “a feminist at heart.” You might roll your eyes at that. Sometimes on HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones we might lose track of that feminist message. That oversight might be because there are always gratuitous lesbian sex scenes in the background while people discuss the nature of power. But then, George R.R. Martin also inserts female characters who are very smart and dignified and competent, even if they do… sometimes engage in completely gratuitous lesbian sex scenes.
You know who makes the strongest case for feminism and its importance on Game of Thrones? Sansa Stark.
I love Sansa. I love her.
I know, I know, she’s probably not your favorite character. People tend to prefer her sister, Arya, who is plucky and traveling the roads dressed up as a boy. Or Cersei Lannister, King Joffrey’s mother, who, well, seems like a fun drunk and also pretty unyielding. Or Daenerys Targaryen, who is the mother of dragons and played by the insanely lovely Emilia Clarke. And now that Margaery Tyrell is on the scene and has taken Sansa’s place as Joffrey’s fiance (and seems better suited to the position) Sansa appears even less relevant.
So why are we even talking about her?
Even when she seemed to be a major character, she was reviled. Why? Well, mostly because she was the most typically feminine. Over at Feminist Fiction they write:
Sansa Stark must be one of the most hated characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. The vitriol levelled against her is often frightening in its intensity, surpassing that for actually horrific characters like Joffrey and Ramsey Bolton. Her crime? The unforgivable fact that she is a pre-teen girl.
As a massive fan of Sansa, even I must admit that she is difficult to like at first. She’s spoilt and a bit bratty. She fights with her fan-favorite sister and trusts characters who the reader knows are completely untrustworthy. She is hopelessly naive and lost in dreams of pretty princes and dashing knights. She acts, for all intents and purposes, like the eleven year old girl that she is.
One of the aspects of Game of Thrones that I find fascinating is that, while the women in it may dress in medieval garb, all of them seem to be exploring a modern take on gender roles. Rob Stark’s wife is a surgeon. Brianne is a knight. There are plenty of women on Game of Thrones who don’t seem to have been held back by the fact that they were born female.
If there is a glass ceiling in Westeros it seems one that can be ruptured by dragons.
The only character who may have a completely traditional (by our standards) concept of gender roles is Sansa Stark. She, like many, many girls, believes that if she is pretty and well behaved, a prince will ride up and marry her and she will live happily ever after.
And she is pretty. And she is well behaved. And a prince does come and take her away.
And wow, that does not work out.
The prince turns out to be a sociopath. A really horrible person. And Sansa is in a position where she cannot do anything about her situation. Whenever Joffrey does something terrible – forcing Sansa to look at her father’s severed head on a wall, beating her in front of the court – and someone asks her about it, she repeats as if by rote, “Joffrey is my one true love.” In a heartbreaking scene Margaery Tyrell invites her over for lemon cakes (lemon cakes are Sansa’s favorite) and asks Sansa to tell her the true nature of Joffrey’s character; at which point she weeps that he is a monster.
If seeing Sansa Stark’s condition doesn’t make women rethink their Disney notions of happiness then nothing will.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with accepting traditional roles. There’s nothing wrong with being pretty and well behaved. But, if nothing else, Sansa Stark is a reminder that it is important to have the freedom to walk away if the Prince who rides up turns out to be King Joffrey.
In a very fantastical show, Sansa may be the character who most grounds it in reality. She represents the ideas with which many of us grew up. And that’s terrific. Otherwise, Game of Thrones would just be a show about women with dragons and sexy, superhuman willpower (or, at least, pluck). And it’s her, certainly more than any of the other characters, that make me fully believe that, yes, George R.R. Martin is a feminist.