Like countless others, men and women alike, I have something of an obsession with Daenerys Targaryen, a central character in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, and in the HBO TV series based on it. The long-awaited sixth book in the series is still being, well, long-awaited, but the show’s fifth season swept last September’s Emmys in record-breaking fashion, and its sixth season is set to start next month. Dany (more formally, Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, Khaleesi, the Unburnt, Mother of Dragons, etc.) is one of the most popular characters among readers and viewers of the series. A Funko bobblehead of Dany sits on my desk; an image of her (often with a small dragon nestled on her shoulders) occasionally graces my computer as a screensaver. Small but fierce, and determined to “take what is mine with fire and blood” she fits neatly into the expanding niche of strong female heroines finally claiming their place in popular culture. Other fan favorites in the series similarly defy traditional gender roles: for example, Arya Stark, a feral tomboy who prefers swordplay to needlework, and Brienne of Tarth, a woman who is also Westeros’ noblest knight.
But I’m equally interested in another female character whose place in public perception has shifted over the course of the series (both books and show). I love Sansa Stark. Let me say at the outset that I do not intend to enter here into the broader debate about whether George R. R. Martin’s array of strong female characters are sufficient to help the books or show transcend their penchant for depicting violence against women (and, in the show’s case, objectifying female bodies). Nor do I intend to discuss the controversial scene of Sansa’s rape in the show’s last season. Plenty has been written on those subjects. Rather, I wish to use Sansa Stark as a way of thinking about patterns of female characterization more generally.
Sansa quite clearly does not resist gender roles; she’s conventionally feminine. She wants nothing more than to be a true lady to a handsome husband. Her template for life comes from the chivalric songs and stories she loves, and she is forced to face a brutal world to which that template is wholly inadequate. She’s compliant, gracious, well-mannered. A few years back, my friends who mentioned Sansa did so with slight distaste, pronouncing her “annoying.” They had a point. Sansa initially trusts people she shouldn’t, unwittingly betrays her father, and uses the word “tummy” like a four-year old. But the dislike of her seems to me emblematic of a larger trend. In a way, it’s as if we no longer know what to do with “good girls” in literature, TV, and film. The old idea of female virtue was so tied to sexual chastity that it seems archaic and irrelevant. And we’ve quickly grown uncomfortable with heroines who aren’t rebellious. We demand that our heroines be, if not badass, at least feisty. And I wonder if this might get in the way of our recognizing the full range of ways women can be strong. Continue reading “In Defense of Sansa Stark (and other “good girls”)”