‘I’m a stupid little girl with stupid dreams who never learns,’ Sansa Stark says in anguish at one point, describing everything that has happened to her and what she found when she reached King’s Landing. Not, it turned out, a fantasy city filled with texture, light, and colour, fantastic food and fascinating things, but instead a living nightmare, where a boy king would toy with her like a mouse as his indulgent mother looked on and the entire court cowered in terror. She is forced on stage to watch her father beheaded right in front of her eyes, taken to the battlements and forced to view his head on a spike, and, trapped in King’s Landing, she learns one by one of the deaths of her family members, leaving her seemingly alone in a world that hates all Starks.
Sansa is one of the most complex, fascinating, and well-realised characters on Game of Thrones, but she’s also among the most hated. Entire memes about how much people hate Sansa have arisen, and she’s one of the most trashed characters; fans of the show routinely wish fates on Sansa that are even more horrific than the usual violence we’re hardened to in Westeros. Why so much hatred for one character, and what does all that hate tell us not about Sansa, but about fans of the programme?
One of the reasons Sansa is hated, of course, is because she’s a woman. Female characters tend to attract more hatred period, no matter what they’re doing, and Game of Thrones has set up a comparison between Sansa and Arya that creates a very heated contest between the two sisters. Viewers see Arya striking out on her own, learning to use weapons, and becoming a warrior, and they absorb this as a model of what a strong female character looks like — Arya kicks ass, Arya is great, Arya’s out for vengeance, Arya doesn’t depend on anyone to survive. Sansa, meanwhile, is encased in fancy dresses and covered in jewels, cringing in the corner of the throne room and tiptoeing through the gardens at court. She’s a troubled, terrified young woman who seems helpless, contemptible.
Of course, Arya has tantrums and moments of utter terror and relies on the people around her, including both friends and foes. With the Hound as protector, she plunges into fights she knows she can’t win, and that’s not the only time we see her drawing strength from the adults around her and her confidence that they’ll intervene on her behalf. Arya’s interdependent and complex relationships with others are often sketched out of profiles of her, however, with a focus on Arya as a sort of lone warrior.
Meanwhile, a deeper engagement with what is really going on with Sansa isn’t happening either. The Sansa of King’s Landing isn’t a passive, meek young woman. She’s a witness to brutal violence, and she’s a victim of continual abuse. She’s gaslighted, genuinely believing that the abuse she endures is her fault, and she’s trapped inside layers of court protocol and threats. Sansa is trying to survive, and while she’s desperate for a way out, every possible opportunity is viewed as a trap. Sansa has many comparisons to real-world women trapped in abusive relationships, who are also hated and misunderstood for their inability to leave.
The characterisation of Sansa is so spot-on that it’s almost painful, and so is her evolution. For viewers sensitive to Sansa’s evolution, she’s a character to watch with painstaking care, because from the moment she sees her father’s head on the battlements, we see a major shift in her character. That’s when Sansa decides to survive, by any means possible, to lie and play the good girl, and after that, we see that come through in every scene. Sophie Turner is a brilliant actress who manages to capture the nuances of Sansa Stark brilliantly, and she’s also an extremely subtle actress.
Sansa isn’t a flashy, bold character who stands out in the landscape of Westeros, not like her siblings. Instead, she accomplishes by stealth and deception what they would struggle to do by other means. As Arya hacks her way across the landscape in search of a destination where she’ll be safe and Jon struggles for recognition at the Wall, Sansa is scheming, and that’s never more apparent than when she sweeps down the stairs at the Eyrie, looking every inch the queen.
Petyr Baelish may think he has a compliant little girl in Sansa Stark, but he clearly doesn’t. This is a woman who has been tested by, well, fire and ice, and she’s come out on the other side of events that would have killed or severely demoralised other people. Sansa, on the other hand, has found survivor’s ways of coping, adjusting herself continually to meet new threats while maintaining an outward appearance of being the same terrified, demure girl who parrots the words of others and plays the roles assigned to her by the adults around her.
In the long run, it’s clear that Sansa has a talent for intrigue, intelligence, and deception. Baelish should be viewing her as the substantial threat she is, rather than a harmless girl who’s fun to play with — because someday, his reckoning will come, as will those of the others who harmed Sansa. When it does, things are not going to be pretty, and Sansa will be the one coming out on top.
Intriguing that two women victimised by the Lannisters should be viewed in such different ways. The one who performs the model ‘strong female character’ is beloved, while the one who works within her abusive relationship to subvert it and run the long con is viewed with such scalding hatred.