Setting the Stage:
Sansa Stark is a female character featured in the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones. Sansa is the daughter of Eddard (Ned) and Catelyn Stark, and sister to Robb, Arya, Jon (half-brother), Bran, and Rickon. In season one, Ned is appointed “the hand of the king” and so Sansa and her younger sister Arya are taken from their home of Winterfell to the southern kingdom of King’s Landing. Sansa is betrothed to Joffrey, the (illegitimate) son of Robert Baratheon and Cersei Lannister.
Sansa seems to enjoy what would traditionally be considered “feminine” things and activities. She has dolls, she wears her hair in complicated braids and up-dos, and likes to talk about boys. She is soft-spoken and generally tries to avoid conflict. Her character almost seems to be a foil of her sister Arya, who enjoys sword fighting and beating her brothers in archery, in addition to being outspoken and controversial. The dominant reading seems to be very clear. But while Sansa may appear to be delicate and weak due to her rather traditional performance of femininity, with the application of an oppositional gaze, one can see that she bends the gender binary in other unconventional ways, and makes one reflect on what it really means to be a “strong female character.”
The Dominant Reading of Sansa:
The dominant reading of Sansa is that she is a weak, helpless victim. Sansa is taken from her home without choice and betrothed to a young man she hardly knows. In the end of season one, Sansa’s father is betrayed and eventually beheaded. As a result, Sansa is alone, with Arya nowhere to be found, and is held prisoner by her future husband and mother-in-law. Now being held against her will, Sansa is forced to claim her father as a traitor, and must swear allegiance to the very people that murdered him. While hoping that she will be rescued, her older brother Robb along with her mother Catelyn are also slaughtered with the blessing of her captors. All poor Sansa can do is stand idly by and shed a few tears in silence. She pretends that she is in love with Joffrey, her future husband, in order to stay alive in King’s Landing. In many ways it appears that Sansa has given up, that she is helpless and weak. It is easy to label her as such because she does not outwardly/physically fight for her father/family or her own freedom.
Why the Dominant Interpretation is Flawed:
The dominant reading of Sansa as a character is flawed because it fails to recognize different forms of courage and strength. It follows the also dominant narrative that femininity equals weakness, the emotional, the irrational, and docile. Sansa may find herself in many situations where she is viewed as completely powerless, but the mere fact that she is surviving while so many people want nothing but her dead— that is a huge feat in and of itself. Not to mention all of the pain and suffering that she is put through on a daily basis. She constantly lives and breathes with the fear of death. This constant threat of death is not only held over her own life, but her loved ones’ as well. When Sansa is hit with the news of yet another member of her family or someone close to her dying, she must hold in her true feelings of sorrow and despair. Instead she must show little to no emotion, in order to prove her devotion and allegiance to her captors. This kind of non-stop policing of her own emotions every day is absolutely and utterly exhausting. While it would be easy for her to scream and cry and lash out, it is incredibly difficult and takes unfailing strength for her to simply not. With virtually no one to trust or even talk with freely, Sansa must endure horrific amounts of torture and suffering on a daily basis. While many may read her as nothing more than a foil of her sister Arya, and as a helpless and weak victim, with an oppositional gaze it is possible to see Sansa in a more complex light. In many circumstances she is definitely a victim of horrendous instances of abuse and violence, but her victimization does not define her.
In this clip, Sansa is shown after making a speech to Joffrey, essentially begging for her father Ned’s life. Joffrey claims to be moved by her speech, and proclaims that her father must confess. When going along with the dominant reading of this clip and Sansa, one may find her act of begging on her knees as weak. However, with the application of an oppositional gaze, one can understand that Sansa fighting for her father’s life with her speech takes an enormous amount of courage and vulnerability. She may not be fighting with a sword, but her words do have an impact in this moment.
Here Sansa is shown being forced to look at her father’s severed head on a spike. While she is forced to look, she does not however give Joffrey the satisfaction of crying or screaming out in agony. She simply asks, “how long do I have to look?” as if it does not phase her to see her father’s head on a spike. This scene is loaded with tension and the rage of Sansa is incredibly intense, but by the end of the scene she manages to fight off her urge to push Joffrey to his death. She survives another day so that she can continue living a lie for the sake of her survival.
How I Employed The Oppositional Gaze:
When I discuss this series with other women, I often find that we end up mentioning how dynamic the portrayals of female characters are. There are so many strong female characters! However, I have noticed that when thinking of what constitutes a strong female character, Sansa rarely makes the cut. Why is this? What makes Arya, or Brienne, or Cersei any “stronger” than her? I am reminded of a quote from hooks’ “The Oppositional Gaze” where hooks states that, “Subordinates in relations of power learn experientially that there is a critical gaze, one that ‘looks’ to document, one that is oppositional” (hooks, 116). It was in my conversations of Sansa, or lack-there-of, where I realized I needed to look at her character more critically and ask questions. My sisters are also active viewers of the Game of Thrones series, and while viewing some episodes together, we have been able to critically discuss its plot and certain characters. This act connects to another quote of hooks’, pointing out that, “Critical discussion of the film while it was in progress or at its conclusion maintained the distance between spectator and the image” (hooks, 117). By actively discussing the episodes as they are in progress, my sisters and I are able to take a step back from the dominant gaze, and form more oppositional critiques.
We must be careful to not dismiss female characters like Sansa as being weak and helpless, for in doing so we may find ourselves upholding harmful and problematic notions of gender… Next time someone asks me who my favorite character is on GoT, I just might have to say Sansa.
hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” Black Looks: race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. 115-131.