Like countless others, men and women alike, I have something of an obsession with Daenerys Targaryen, a central character in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, and in the HBO TV series based on it. The long-awaited sixth book in the series is still being, well, long-awaited, but the show’s fifth season swept last September’s Emmys in record-breaking fashion, and its sixth season is set to start next month. Dany (more formally, Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, Khaleesi, the Unburnt, Mother of Dragons, etc.) is one of the most popular characters among readers and viewers of the series. A Funko bobblehead of Dany sits on my desk; an image of her (often with a small dragon nestled on her shoulders) occasionally graces my computer as a screensaver. Small but fierce, and determined to “take what is mine with fire and blood” she fits neatly into the expanding niche of strong female heroines finally claiming their place in popular culture. Other fan favorites in the series similarly defy traditional gender roles: for example, Arya Stark, a feral tomboy who prefers swordplay to needlework, and Brienne of Tarth, a woman who is also Westeros’ noblest knight.
But I’m equally interested in another female character whose place in public perception has shifted over the course of the series (both books and show). I love Sansa Stark. Let me say at the outset that I do not intend to enter here into the broader debate about whether George R. R. Martin’s array of strong female characters are sufficient to help the books or show transcend their penchant for depicting violence against women (and, in the show’s case, objectifying female bodies). Nor do I intend to discuss the controversial scene of Sansa’s rape in the show’s last season. Plenty has been written on those subjects. Rather, I wish to use Sansa Stark as a way of thinking about patterns of female characterization more generally.
Sansa quite clearly does not resist gender roles; she’s conventionally feminine. She wants nothing more than to be a true lady to a handsome husband. Her template for life comes from the chivalric songs and stories she loves, and she is forced to face a brutal world to which that template is wholly inadequate. She’s compliant, gracious, well-mannered. A few years back, my friends who mentioned Sansa did so with slight distaste, pronouncing her “annoying.” They had a point. Sansa initially trusts people she shouldn’t, unwittingly betrays her father, and uses the word “tummy” like a four-year old. But the dislike of her seems to me emblematic of a larger trend. In a way, it’s as if we no longer know what to do with “good girls” in literature, TV, and film. The old idea of female virtue was so tied to sexual chastity that it seems archaic and irrelevant. And we’ve quickly grown uncomfortable with heroines who aren’t rebellious. We demand that our heroines be, if not badass, at least feisty. And I wonder if this might get in the way of our recognizing the full range of ways women can be strong.
We need to be careful not to devalue certain personality traits—gentleness, soft-heartedness—just because they have been traditionally cast as feminine. There’s a lack of nuance in the way every action movie or comic book adaptation tries to establish feminist credentials in the laziest way possible—by showing the (often sole) female character kicking or punching someone, generally in her first scene. Even period-piece literary adaptations have felt the need to update their heroines. I first noticed this years ago watching the 1999 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. If ever there were a non-feisty heroine, it’s the textual Fanny Price. I’ve heard a lot of my fellow graduate students proclaim her “annoying” as well. She’s delicate in health, shy and retiring, a “goody-goody.” In the movie version, perhaps inevitably, Fanny is willful, vivacious, and outdoorsy. But why must we make Fanny Price into Pride and Prejudice’s Lizzie Bennet for her to be palatable? Mansfield Park the novel has its own Lizzie Bennet: Mary Crawford, witty and lively and fun. But (unlike Lizzie) she’s ultimately cold-hearted and scheming. The reader’s realization of this allows the value of Fanny’s quieter virtues to come to the fore. And they do so without Fanny needing to experience the unpleasant self-realizations or humiliations that Lizzie Bennet and Emma Woodhouse undergo. So why shouldn’t we root for the good girl? This needn’t mean a regression to Dickensian disembodied angels in the house. After all, even Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, who as a child is a prototypical feisty heroine, as an adult is scrupulously conscientious, as unwilling to compromise her conscience as she is to compromise her heart. And she is certainly no less inspiring a heroine for that.
Of course we do need to see women kicking ass in traditionally male roles—hello, Scandal’s self-proclaimed “gladiator” Olivia Pope, or even Homeland’s brittle but ruthless Carrie Mathieson. But we can’t make the qualification for female heroism an ability to play or fight like the boys. Concentrating just on contemporary fantasy, I can’t remember the last time I read about a character like Sansa in a central role. Historical fiction and young adult fantasy novels alike inevitably proclaim on their back covers that the central character is “not like other girls”—as if being girl-like is clearly a bad thing, disqualifying a character from being worthy of interest. There are some rare exceptions to this trend; turning to movies, Disney’s live-action Cinderella in 2014 sought to remove the doormat-stigma attached to the titular character, but did so without rendering her unrecognizable. Her kindness and her courage are equally emphasized. This is important because girls who—like me—grew up playing princess, not soldier, need to know there’s a place for them in feminism too. Sansa in particular illustrates the crucial importance of feminism for all women because her story shows the cruel toll patriarchal society exacts even on women who conform to gender norms.
Girls who aren’t tomboys still need to see characters like themselves being strong in the face of such pressures. And while Sansa may not breathe fire, literal or metaphorical, she is not a weak character. She brings nuance and complexity to the damsel in distress; she seizes agency where she can. She learns quickly and adapts, every bit as much a survivor as her sister Arya. And slowly, people seem to have come around to her. Partly, it’s the sheer weight of her suffering that has won her sympathy. But I believe their sympathy, and eventually even admiration, is grounded not just in what she endures or how much. It’s in the fact that she endures. If it were just her suffering that moved us, we’d feel only pity for her, as we do for Theon, a bad person who has been through terrible things. But Sansa’s resilience makes her more than the sum of what happens to her.
By believing courtesy is a woman’s armor, Sansa manages to navigate the treacherous waters of Westeros society. There is a distinct turning point early in both the book and the TV series (Season 2, Episode 1) in which the reader/viewer—and, one almost feels, G.R.R. Martin himself—first glimpse Sansa’s potential for her own kind of heroism. Joffrey orders a drunken knight to be executed, while sneering at the “fool.” Sansa expresses fear that it is bad luck for Joffrey to kill someone on his “name day,” and praises Joffrey for his cleverness, for seeing what a good “fool” (court jester) the knight would make—and thus ends up saving the man’s life. Similarly, in the TV rendition of the Battle of the Blackwater (Season 2 Episode 9), when Queen Cersei and Sansa are huddled with the other women in Maegor’s Holdfast, Cersei ends by abandoning them all, while Sansa shows leadership, reassuring them and praying with them. In that moment, we realize: Wait a minute. Sansa would make a really good queen.
As a girl of twelve or thirteen—roughly Sansa’s age—I would have liked to have seen more characters that showed me I didn’t have to choose between being kind and sensitive and being strong. As someone with all the emotional armor of a bruised peach, I may adore the Mother of Dragons, but I’m not a tough person myself. When I first read the young adult novels in the Twliight and Hunger Games series, I admired the fiercely independent Katniss Everdeen, but inwardly knew my teenage self—honestly, even my now-self—had more in common with Bella Swan’s sentimental mushiness than with Katniss’s gimlet-eyed single-mindedness and ability to compartmentalize her emotions. Trust me, I am not asking for more Bella Swans on our pages or screens (God forbid). But I would love to see more Sansa Starks.
One of the things I love about A Song of Ice and Fire/ Game of Thrones is that it shows there to be as many types of female strength as there are women, and as there are characters to represent them. There is more than one way to be a heroine. As Dany’s Dothraki friends would say, “It is known.”