Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Princess Mary Sue: Sansa Stark's Surprising Defender

A Facebook friend alerted me to an amazing piece at, purporting to tell us all about the "powerful femininity" of ... Sansa Stark. My friend Linda and I share very similar views of what female agency is and what it is not, and so the core thesis of this essay elicited a gag reflex in both of us. Long on assurances and disturbingly light on actual badassery, the author informs us of why we hate Sansa:
Kristin Iverson at Brooklyn Magazine has a theory to explain why Sansa attracts so much hate, and it carries a note of bitter truth: “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 most of us, and so we hate her.” Viewers expect the women of pop culture to be iconoclasts, as Iverson puts it, but the fact of the matter is that surviving is iconoclastic in itself.
 That this couldn't be less true is almost beside the point; she's selfish, mawkish, and worst of all, deeply stupid. Arguably, no other Stark had more to do with her father's death than Sansa, who gives up Ned for the hope she can continue to be queen. Earlier, she lied to match Joffre's story about Arya and her direwolf Nymeria embarrassing and lightly wounding him, with the result that it backfires on her, upon which her direwolf Lady is assassinated to appease Cersei Lannister. Repeatedly, she pursues status and ease, and in doing so, has it backfire; most notably, her assumption that she would have any value to Joffre once her father was out of the picture was a very bad miscalculation. Arguably, the first intelligent (if highly dangerous) thing we see her do is to cover for Lord Baelish at the Eyrie.

So we do not hate Sansa for no reason; we hate her because she is willing to endanger those she loves in order to achieve her own selfish ends. Iverson comes in my estimation perilously close to identifying with Sansa as a sort of reverse Mary Sue, in which the writer identifies with a character written by another author. And here's why I think this might just be the case:
Sansa stands out by being a survivor. In her own way, she is perhaps a more of a parallel to the strong women of the real world than the other women on Game of Thrones. Most women in the real world don’t pick up swords. More commonly, hardship forces us into survival mode. In a world of abusive relationships, everyday sexism, and misogyny, we can’t just lop off peoples’ heads like Prince Joffrey does. Arya Starks of the world certainly exist, but there are many more Sansas quietly wearing their pretty dresses and pushing teacakes around on their plates as they maintain a fa├žade, refusing to break character and betray themselves. Haters, it seems, have missed this nuance of her character, taking her seeming innocence and compliance at face value, when it’s clearly evident that she’s anything but either of those things—she’s just willing to fake it until she can reach safety and start dealing out some revenge.
I note here that the "pretty dresses" passage sounds disturbingly like ... oh, I don't know, a surprisingly traditional view of female risk aversion? And the unmistakable plaint of "everyday sexism" that I have to believe the author thinks makes her a perpetual victim -- presumably a few notches below death and disfigurement?
Compared to the other women of the show, Sansa is in some ways the strongest. She endures unimaginable torment and it’s sustained. She can’t easily escape her abusive situation. Instead, Sansa lives in conditions that would break some people, as at first glance they appear to break her, as Joffrey hopes they’ve done. Her ability to rally her resources for survival makes her an impressive and outstanding character, even if she doesn’t meet the oft-vaunted standard of a “strong female character.”
So, in other words, female agency doesn't actually consist of doing things, as Arya Stark or Brienne of Tarth or Catelyn Stark do (and must); it consists of mere survival. What, exactly, is "badass" about this? What actions of Sansa's are we supposed to be impressed by, especially when so many of them are traps she laid for herself? There's a lot of people on this show, even women, who endure a great deal. That does not make them "badass", or remotely admirable.

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