As we approach the always-excellent penultimate episode of Game of Thrones — this Sunday’s episode, “Battle of the Bastards,” promises a showdown between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton — it’s worth taking a closer look at Sansa, a character often decried for her passivity but one who’s had a big hand in raising an army to fight for the north, thus shaping the events of the episode to come.
Game of Thrones has always gotten a lot of backlash from viewers and critics over its use of nude women as set dressing, particularly in its early seasons. This season in particular has featured a few notable dick sightings, but for the most part it’s women who disrobe on the show, and when they do it’s not meant to be funny or gross but titillating. For me, the show’s “strong female characters” — your Aryas and Danys and Briennes — often feel like stopgaps against a tidal wave of tits and ass.
But Sansa is different. From the beginning, Sansa lacked Arya’s spunk; while her younger sister sparred with her sword-fighting instructor, Syrio Forel, Sansa was happy to swoon over her betrothed, Joffrey. She was the Disney princess who had fully bought into her role in society as a future queen who will give birth to powerful, purebred babies.
Then Ned Stark was beheaded, and everything changed. Separated from her family, Sansa was left to fend for herself amongst the Lannisters at King’s Landing. She then wound up in the clutches of Littlefinger, who she trusted — until he married her off to Ramsay Bolton. In one of the current season’s most satisfying scenes, she confronts Littlefinger and sounds bolder and more self-assured — and jaded — than we’ve ever heard her. “Would you like to hear about our wedding night?” she asks. “He never hit my face. He needed my face, the face of Ned Stark’s daughter. But the rest of me? He did what he liked with the rest of me.”
Sansa isn’t a trained warrior like Brienne; she’s not handy with a sword like Arya; and she doesn’t have Dany’s fireproof shield or brood of dragons. She’s just a girl raised to believe her life will be a fairytale, and instead finds herself in a waking nightmare. While fans cheer Arya or Brienne or Dany’s latest badass stunt, Sansa has been held captive with not one but two brutally violent men, one of whom she’s forced to marry.
When Ramsay raped Sansa on their wedding night in the Season 5 finale, a lot of viewers decided they’d had enough. At the very least, they decided to declare that they’d had enough: On Twitter and entertainment blogs, viewers and critics announced that the scene — in which Ramsay makes Theon, who was raised alongside Sansa like a brother, watch while he forces himself on her — was the last straw.
Game of Thrones has been dogged by accusations of insensitivity and exploitation in its rape and torture scenes from the beginning. But of all the sexual violence depicted on the show — Dany’s wedding night; Joffrey torturing and then murdering Ros; Ramsay castrating Theon; Cersei and Jamie’s so-called consensual sex beside their child’s corpse — Sansa’s rape was both the least exploitative and the most necessary.
We were spared the actual sight of Ramsay raping her, instead watching Theon’s horrified reaction. Some viewers took that to mean we were supposed to sympathize more with Theon than Sansa, but as a viewer and a woman, I would much rather see his expression and intuit the rest than watch the lovely young Sophie Turner pantomime being raped. Most importantly, of all the show’s rapes — there are a lot; just look at the length of the “rape” entry on the show’s wiki — Sansa’s experience is the most ordinary: A princess is married off to a prince. They have to consummate it. Her willingness, let alone pleasure, is simply not part of the equation.
When people criticize Game of Thrones for its excessive violence, there’s always someone ready to stand up and declare that the brutality on the show is “realistic”; that the fantasy world George R.R. Martin created has enough signposts to make it a recognizable allegory of our own medieval history. Sansa’s lack of agency makes her the female character whose arc most resembles the kind of life a (terribly unlucky) highborn lady could expect for herself in the Middle Ages. And yet when it comes to the women on Game of Thrones, Sansa is often considered the most passive, least interesting of the bunch.
Given the amount sexual violence we’ve seen on the show over nearly six seasons, on top of the tits and ass, it’s understandable that viewers have an easier time getting on board with a woman who wields frightening physical power than one who wields power by making alliances with unpopular characters like Littlefinger (Hillary much?). But it’s also disappointing that the one woman on Game of Thrones who feels truly “realistic” is so often bashed for the very trait that makes her so convincing — her lack of agency.