The Problem with Sansa Stark: In Defense of One of the Most Hated Characters in Game of Thrones

Sansa Stark

Nobody wants to be Sansa. This is what I learned from (what else?) taking the BuzzFeed quiz “Which Game of Thrones Character Are You?” and by discussing it with, oh, anyone who would let me talk about BuzzFeed quizzes and GoT with them. Acceptable results on this quiz (for women and men alike!) include Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Brienne of Tarth, and Jaime Lannister. Even Cersei Lannister was a fine character to get because, well, mainly because of Lena Headey. But there was one character with whom not a single person wanted to be associated, one Westerosi for whom there was nothing but contempt and dismissal, and that was Sansa Stark, about whom most people with whom I’ve spoken have this to say, “She’s the fucking worst. She should have died instead of her dire wolf.” (Oh, right. Some light spoilers ahead, I guess, though nothing past the third season of the television show. But also, you should really be caught up by now.)

Sansa Stark, eldest daughter of Ned and Catelyn Stark, is a beauty. She loves to do needlework, has impeccable manners, and—for a time anyway—wants nothing more than to be married to Joffrey Baratheon, future king of Westeros. Sansa represents everything to which a highborn young woman of Westeros should aspire: she is lovely to look at, obedient to those in positions of authority, and, well, nothing else really matters because those are the two main qualities prioritized for young women in the Seven Kingdoms, and Sansa embodies them completely. In contrast to Sansa, her younger sister, Arya, is willful, brash, drawn to swordplay, and described as being “horsefaced.” In “The Women and the Thrones,” his essay on feminism and Game of Thrones, Daniel Mendelsohn sees the two sisters as representing “two paths—one traditional, one revolutionary—that are available to Martin’s female characters, all of whom, at one point or another, are starkly confronted by proof of their inferior status in this culture.” Mendelsohn continues, “all the female figures in Martin’s world can be plotted at various points on the spectrum between Sansa and Arya Stark. It’s significant that the older generation tend to be less successful (and more destructive) in their attempts at self-realization, while the younger women, like Arya and Daenerys, are able to embrace more fully the independence and power they grasp at.”

Sansa, of course, while not being from the older generation, is clearly of it, and suffers greatly for her adherence to the code of behavior that has been instilled in her from birth. Of course, Sansa is not alone in her pain. None of the women (or, for that matter, men) are immune to the exigencies of survival in the Game of Thrones world. But whereas characters like Arya and Daenerys face their trials (which are sometimes, literally, by fire) head-on, and then frequently triumph where almost all others—female or male—would fail, Sansa shies away from rejecting the system in which she has long thrived, the one which she thought would always provide her a safety net.

In doing this, Sansa differs from other women of prior generations who tend to recognize the limitations inherent with being a woman, yet attempt to work within those constraints to secure power in any way they can. And so whether it’s Cersei, who curses the fact that it’s her twin brother who gets all the glory (“When we were little, Jaime and I were so much alike that even our lord father could not tell us apart… We were so much alike, I could never understand why they treated us so differently… He was heir to Casterly Rock, while I was to be sold to some stranger like a horse, to be ridden whenever my new owner liked, beaten whenever he liked, and cast aside in time for a younger filly. Jaime’s lot was to be glory and power, while mine was birth and moonblood“), and so grasps for power through her most potent currency, her children; or Catelyn, who needs to invoke the name of her lord father in order to (misguidedly) arrest Tyrion Lannister for the attempted murder of her son Bran, the women after whom Sansa models herself might appear more “traditional” than Arya or Daenerys, but are still not meek and powerless in the manner of Sansa. Yes, both Cersei and Catelyn are hobbled by an entrenched patriarchal world, but because they attempt to work within those boundaries to achieve power on their own terms—while Sansa, emphatically, does not—it’s far more common to hear fans of GoT (especially those who are only familiar with the television series) to defend Cersei as being evil mainly due to the fact that her ambitions were stifled because she’s a woman, and Catelyn for doing foolish and spiteful things (most notably to Jon Snow) because she acts out of a strong, fierce love for her family.

Sansa, meanwhile, is seen as being achingly passive, or even, at times, as someone who naively (or perhaps stupidly) acquiesces to the wishes of the evil people around her (like Cersei and Joffrey) at the expense of her loved ones. Sansa is despised for having no agency, and she is condemned for prioritizing the needs of her future family over that of her birth family. But most of all, Sansa is hated for being a woman. Oh, not just any kind of woman, but a specific kind of woman. There are, of course, some women in Game of Thrones who are admired and even revered, though many of them do possess characteristics more frequently associated with men. But it is not only the gender-subversive Arya or Brienne who are beloved by fans of the series, but also Daenerys, who leads with strength, and yet is most definitely feminine who is adored as well. Sansa is thought to be a different type of woman, though, one whose passivity signifies weakness, one whose obedience means cowardice. But this is patently unfair to Sansa, whose greatest flaw is that she had a slower learning curve than we wanted her to once her world fell apart.

Sansa Stark is the ultimate example of how precarious the positions are of even the most privileged woman, and why relying on patriarchal institutions for protection holds little benefit for women and only serves to strengthen their oppressors. For Sansa’s entire life, she was taught that if she acted a certain way and looked a certain way, her life would turn out a certain way. She had no reason not to believe this, and because her nature and her talents and her physicality aligned so perfectly with what the ideal Westerosi woman was supposed to be, it was easy for her to play that role. Except that, for Sansa, it wasn’t just a role; it was who she was, and who she wanted to be. In contrast, Arya never could have been another Sansa. Arya was not cut out for afternoons of embroidery or bearing children or being admired. Arya is feisty and Arya is a rebel, and while that’s admirable and interesting and makes for a fascinating character, it is not representative of any type of norm, and so it is harder to draw any greater lessons from Arya’s narrative than that she is exceptional, and would probably thrive no matter the situation because Arya is as nimble in a turmoil-filled world, as she is when she wielding  her sword, Needle.

Arya’s rebellious nature serves her well, because even before Arya learns for certain that Joffrey and Cersei are sociopaths, she doesn’t trust them based on her instinctive disdain for everything respectable. But for Sansa, Joffrey and Cersei represent everything that she has been told (by not only society, but also her family) she should aspire to be. In fact, despite the fact that Ned and Catelyn Stark know that Cersei is not to be trusted, they still willingly endorse the betrothal of Sansa to Joffrey. And because Sansa has been brought up to value loyalty and family and obedience to those in power, is it really any wonder that it takes time and having to bear witness to her father’s death (a direct result of Joffrey and Cersei’s betrayal and manipulation of Sansa’s trust) in order for Sansa to reject everything which she has ever known? Sansa Stark is, after all, like every Stark, a wolf. But a lone wolf is an anomaly, and Sansa is the ultimate pack animal. It’s just that she finds herself suddenly and cruelly without her pack, alone in a tumultuous world, in which every privilege with which she was endowed is newly revoked.

Perhaps if Sansa had responded to her father’s execution and the immediate branding of the rest of her family in a more ambivalent way, it would be easy—and even right—to condemn her. But Sansa—despite being surrounded by enemies, brutally beaten by her captors, and wedded to a member of the family responsible for her own’s downfall—does not waver in her hatred for her former heroes. Oh, Sansa continues playing the part of loyal subject, but inside she rages against the injustice and takes every opportunity she gets—even when those opportunities only take her further and further from the idea she once had of who she should be—to escape Cersei and Joffrey, and reunite with her family. And yet, despite her shattered dreams and despite having to rid herself of the world view she’s always held, there remains in Sansa an inherent humanity and an ability to relate to other people that few of the other, more-loved characters have. This is what gives us hope for Sansa and demonstrates a resilience that is essential to survival. Sansa has long known that it is a woman’s job to yield, and while that might not seem like the most powerful tool (certainly not in comparison to dragons!), it is a quality which benefits Sansa as she is entrenched in the enemy camp, with no apparent allies at hand. Sansa might not—and indeed must not—exhibit external strength for now, but that is fine, because she can use this time to gather her resources and plot her next move in a terrifying world.

The problem with Sansa Stark is not that she’s weak or sniveling or that her more traditionally womanly attributes put her at a disadvantage compared to the other characters. The problem with Sansa Stark is that she bought into a world that was nothing more than an illusion; she was born into a position of privilege that turned out to have a crumbling foundation. The problem with Sansa Stark is that she is just like most of us, and so we hate her. The reality is, most of us live entrenched lives, relying on foundations and systems that we’ve been familiar with since birth, trusting that the institutions will stay strong, hoping that we will never need to start all over. Most of us aren’t iconoclasts like Arya, combatting the injustices of the patriarchy from day one. Most of us aren’t dragons like Daenerys, possessing inner gifts that allow us to transcend any limitations that the rest of the world endures. Most of us are trying to do the best we can in an ever-changing world while also trying to uphold the values and ideals we’ve always held close. Arya and Daenerys are who we want to be, but Sansa is who most of us are. And that’s just fine. Sansa might not ever be queen. Sansa might not ever exact revenge on those who killed her father and mother and brother. But Sansa is doing something just as remarkable for the world she navigates: she is surviving. And every day that she lives, she learns more about herself and about what is important and what is superficial. So, no: Sansa might not be a hero, but the Seven Kingdoms has enough heroes. Most of them die. And yet Sansa survives.

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22 COMMENTS

  1. Well written article, however I think a lot of the dislike of Sansa comes from being inside her head, which isn’t steely resolve, it’s like 99% confusion and little girl fantasies even after watching her dad executed and the world crumble around her.

    It’s not that she started dumb, that kind of makes sense given that she starts the series as a sheltered child, it’s that she has stayed so dumb.

    Compare her to Bran (who is learning to be a magician), Rob, who learned to be a king (maybe not completely), Arya who learned to be an assassin – despite being surrounded by cunning and ruthless people, Sansa has not learned how to be either cunning or clever – she remains simply lucky, nice and pretty.

  2. The problem of Sansa is not that “she is like me” and lives “with foundations that are crumbling”. No, it is that repeatedly she puts her trust with the most heinous characters in GoT, always misjudging and full of prejudice , while rejecting those who truly love her. That is what makes her unbearable.

    One can have the fantasies they want, but even after knowing the true behavior of Lord Baelish, she still protects him attracted by his money, power and looks I assume. While the “imp” she hates with a passion, despite the fact he saved her. She rejected her father as well selling him out to the Lannisters. What a b***h.

  3. I dis like Sansa because of how she is portrayed in the novels; I dislike Sansa because her family loyalty … her loyalty to her father who clearly loved her … was either non-existent or of little value in comparison to her desire to realize a fantasy. She betrayed her father and it got him beheaded and she NEVER, EVER, EVER acknowledged her role in her father’s death. Never. She never even tried to think back to her actions and then, realizing that it was leading to her own culpability, fall into denial. She just blithly moved on wondering if her father’s death would somehow affect whether or not she got to marry Joffrey. Ugh. I get the survival instinct of every other character and cannot (when it comes down to it) find fault with the women who do what they need to do to survive storm of death and disease and war and abuse that is a part of their daily lives. But Sansa CHOSE to betray her father: she did not make a stray comment that from which the others extrapolated potential courses of action that they needed to avoid. Sansa took damning information about her father to the very people she knew he opposed. I dislike Sansa and will continue to never shed a tear for her plight until she anknowledges that SHE helped create the familial upheval that destroyed hers and her family’s lives. She got her father killed and never even muttered, “I’m sorry for what I did, father.” Ugh.

    • She didn’t cut off his head. Ilyn Payne did. She did what was asked of her to save his life, she believed Cersei and Joffrey would be honorable, and then Joffrey did his usual satanic thing. Blaming Sansa for Ned’s execution is ridiculous.

  4. I enjoyed this. I have said the same thing in defense of Sansa on sites like i09, where she is pretty much universally despised. Well stated.

  5. I feel the same way about the the self-centered asshole who loses the money at the beginning of “It’s a Wonderful Life”. There is fair precedent for weak but ‘good’ character in literature.
    These sort of characters are an emotional entry-point for a lot of people: the ‘person’ in the story that is really the most relatable, both to people who feel like Sansa, and to the people frustrated by real life Sansae.

    That said, I would be really alarmed if I identified with Sansa’s character.

  6. It will never get through some people’s skulls that Sansa is NOT ¨hated” because she’s a “woman”.

    I shall try to clarify: Sansa is unpopular – at least unpopular with me – because she’s unintelligent, disloyal, uninteresting, superficial, unsympathetic, ungrateful, mean and a liar. Among other charming qualities. I understand that you believe all of these to be the usual characteristics of a female, but – surprisingly – it is not so. Sticking with GOT, there’s Margaery, Olenna, Daenerys – all “womanly” woman, and I dare say very popular. The “womanly” Melissandre or Cersei might not be popular, but I don’t think their respective vaginas are to blame.
    I don’t know why Brienne shouldn’t “count” as a woman. Because she’s loyal? Tall? Or because she wields a sword? I didn’t know you grow a penis when you become good at your dream job (whatever it is).

    Sansa is basically mere teen in a difficult situation. She couldn’t save her father. She couldn’t fight Joffrey or the queen. But she could and should have become a better judge of character, take interest and play a more active role in her own life, learn the real values, try to make at least one friend, understand that she isn’t the only important person in the world, and generally be less of a cow. For all I pity her for the hard moments at King’s Landing, her life is far from the hardest ones in GOT, and she doesn’t come across as a very good person.

  7. I couldn’t agree more and have definitely analyzed the character in a similar fashion. While I had some issues (for the first time) in season 4 with pretty substantial changes from the books, it seems they are definitely developing Sansa with a bit more edge. I also find it impossible to hate any Starks.

  8. Very thorough analysis. I agree that Sansa survives well and she’s learning slowly, and I agree most people are like her but what’s the fun in reading about the average person? 😛

    The problem I see with Sansa she has no goal in life besides survival. She had a goal that turned out to be an illusion and now she’s floating around with no purpose. Her entire family’s headed somewhere as described: Kinghood, assassin, Warg, commander of the Wall, it’s not clear what Sansa wants to do with her life. She’s not introspective, she doesn’t try to figure her world out, she is *merely* surviving. I agree that it’s better than most other characters in that world, dying off like flies, but it’s not much fun to read about is it? But I think GRRM has plans for her still, her character is definitely not done.

  9. Excellent article and most of this I have said for ages. The Sansa character is one of the best character because she is actually growing and changing on every page – a number of the other women characters already have their character type preset when they enter the story and they act according to their character.

    Sansa on the other hand, has lost EVERYTHING she has thought her world was, made a stack of mistakes on the way, but she is changing, learning and slowly learning to adapt to the “real” world that isn’t black and white, and set to a specific pattern. It makes for brilliant reading, yes a little frustrating at times, but that makes the satisfaction all the better when you read something where Sansa “gets it right” or uses her new found knowledge to avoid some situation – like sticking up and covering for Baleish, realising she needs him to protect her, at least for now, and also realising that if she covers for him, then he owes her.

    I think most people who read GoT are already strong personalities and usually want their characters to be the same. Sansa is weak at the beginning and so she is written off by the reader, but she’ll never probably pick up a sword ‘cos that’s not who she is. She’ll use her mind to become a survivor, which is a strong skill in itself, and everything she learns makes her stronger. Yes, she is slow to learn, but a lot of people are, particularly when they lost everything but she IS learning. I think she’s a magnificent character.

  10. This article is just full of, what i call, a feminist defense to the idea that women are always oppressed. The article has some valid points but then it takes a turn towards what i hate about feminism. This war between men and women. And showing men as some evil creatures who are just looking to bring women down. If feminists have a problem with men being stronger than women, they can go complain to nature.
    Also, if Sansa’s problem was the system that she grew up in that made her “act in a certain way, and liver her life in a certain way, so she can have a certain future” then how come that system didnt do the same to likes of Arya or Brienne? They were not cunts (go ahead feminists, sue me for using that word) like Sansa was. Sansa’s problem was not dominance of matriarchy or a system that molded women in a certain way. Her problem was more personal, she had no self esteem, she had no self respect (even though her father, her brothers, all the men around her that she grew up with, they all treated her well and with respect) she was too eager to take Joffrey’s cock in herself because she would always be overcome by her heat. If she was a real person, she would have been a waste of life. What she endures through out the GoT series was well deserved. Given that people around her always adviced her to “Grow the fuck up” but she didn’t. Stupid woman!

  11. Hi

    That was such a beautiful worded article?e. Very nice:)
    Can I share it on my blog, with credits to you? I have mentioned my blog link above.

  12. I agree with what you say in this article. I believe that there’s no one likes Sansa, and if there is, only a very few people. And I do like Arya and Daenerys. In fact, Daenerys is the character I like the most in GoT. Not only because she is the dragons, but she has leadership in her, and lead her people with empathy and kindness. She doesn’t like the slavery and wants to wipe it off. She embraces her people and provides them with dignity. Meanwhile, Arya keeps stay in what she believes in and never stops thinking of her family (not just thinking, but trying hard to find a way to get back to them). She’s never afraid of what kind of the world that surrounded her. She learn how to survive in her wonderful rebellious way. While Sansa, too afraid to to fight for her family and chooses to bow down to those who has power. She’s not responsible for her father’s beheaded, but the way she stands and act for it, prove that she is nothing but a beautiful coward. And she is the image of who we are – too afraid to act right above wrong. (Perhaps i’m included in this Sansa’s character – that’s why I don’t like her)

  13. beautiful words but i still hate sansa… i particully can’t stand sansa because she just want to survive and do not have any desire for revenge after all she accept the system and even want to learn it by the one who betray her father she follow her ideal over her own familly the principal argue for her defense is “she have only 14” good but at 9 arya already see the reality of the world each tile i read sansa chapters i have the feeling that “whatever you doing its useless you can’t fight it run for your life” i simply can’t accept that because that exacly the human nature like you said she is like us and that is nit what i want to see in a fantasy each time sansa is bullied by geoffrey or others she have a even more pessimist vision about the world “there is no heroes only monsters” everyones can be a hero its inside of any us you can be hero like we could be monsters.

  14. I don’t think people really *hate* Sansa, even the ones who say they do. I think what they hate is her *storyline*, because, from her father’s murder onwards, it’s a never-ending succession of situations where she’s utterly helpless and can’t hit back. And after umpteen thousand pages of that, it becomes irritating and boring to read. GRRM appears to be using her POV to show us the adventures of *other* characters _ Cersei & Joffrey, the Hound, Tyrion, Baelish. Not of Sansa herself.

  15. I too used to dislike Sansa for the same reasons you’ve stated as well as some in the comments. I realized I was wrong about her and now she is my favorite character in the series.

    As stated above, we expect a ‘strong’ woman to be all badass like Arya or Dany yet…Arya, for one, is doing her best to become No One. She is willingly surrendering her identity and memories of being a Stark. She’d rather be brainwashed into losing herself than deal with the pain of losing her family. Sansa, on the other hand, is learning to embrace her Stark identity. I find this incredible since in the beginning she was the farthest from identifying as a Stark and Northerner. So yes, Arya can kickass but isn’t mentally nor psychologically strong. Now, Dany…Dany I honestly don’t understand. Yes, she’s strong,intelligent, and has dragons. But I find no depth in her character or personality. There’s no genuine kindness or compassion for anyone besides herself. Yes, she freed slaves and that’s not a bad thing. Yet to me it seemed like she did it for her own gratification and a need to be a hero. She imposes her own values and morals on others and if not followed then destruction follows. That’s not a good ruler in my eyes. This shows how much she actually is like her father. But, Sansa genuinely cares about other people. Because of what she’s been through her natural empathy, compassion, and kindness are more evident. Being all these things in a world as harsh and violent as is the ASOIAF world is, takes a lot of strength and balls.

    Thanks for such a well written and beautiful defense of my favorite character in this series. I enjoyed reading it! 🙂

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