There are a lot of truly evil people on Game of Thrones, yet the show's most hated character isn't the sadistic Joffrey or flay-happy Ramsay. It's Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), whose biggest offense seems to be that she's a teenage girl — and a girly one at that.
The polar opposite to her sister Arya, Sansa embodies everything a young Westerosi noblewoman should be. She loves lemon cakes, fairy tales and honestly believes in happily ever after (or at least she used to). But when people celebrate Game of Thrones for its depiction of empowering female characters, they typically point to Daenerys, Arya, Brienne and Cersei, all of whom actively fight against traditional ideals of womanhood and exhibit characteristics that are often associated with men. But where's the praise of Sansa's strength? No, she doesn't rely on dragons, a sword or aggression to get her way. She's polite, kind and a feminine, but none of those things make her weak.
"This is what frustrates me," Sophie Turner tells TVGuide.com. "People don't like Sansa because she is feminine. It annoys me that people only like the feminine characters when they act like male characters. And they always go on about feminism. Like, you're rooting for the people who look like boys, who act like boys, who fight like boys. Root for the girls who wear dresses and are intellectually very strong."
That's the double-edged sword for women in Game of Thrones (and often in our world, as well). When you follow the path society lays out for you, you're seen as weak and inferior. But when you act like "one of the boys," you face punishment for breaking the norm. Few can manage the socially acceptable balance between the two (though Dany continues to impress), yet why should they have to? Why does it seem so hard to appreciate the strength underneath Sansa's femininity?
Trapped in King's Landing for the majority of the series, Sansa was literally living in the lion's den. Yet she is often derided for her passivity and apparent obedience to the Lannisters, as though her desire to survive rather than rebel in the face of certain death implies a weakness of character. But Sansa isn't anyone's pawn, nor is she a coward. She's just playing the game — and far better than most of her family. (Can you imagine how long Arya would have lasted in the city if Yoren hadn't whisked her away?)
"If she had acted out in King's Landing she would be dead right now. But she didn't," Turner says. "She didn't rebel when Joffrey cut her father's head off. She tried to and then realized it was probably the wrong thing to do. And so she's kept her mouth shut, and now look: She's out of King's Landing. Sorry, who's the loser now," Turner jokes.
Instead of fighting her captor when the odds were against her, Sansa used the only weapon she had. "Courtesy is a lady's armor," Turner says, quoting A Song of Ice and Fire. Everything Sansa has endured destroyed the idealistic ingénue she once was, but Sansa strategically continued to play the part to assure her survival. She never forgot a 'thank you' or curtsy, even when surrounded by the people who brutally slaughtered her father, mother, brother and unborn niece or nephew.
"That's why she's one of the most intelligent characters on the show I think. She adapts so well and she has this thing where she's probably the greatest actor out of all of them," Turner says. "She deceives with the façade of her former self and that's what's great. She never breaks face of this innocent naïve girl and she's not that."
There are a few aspects of her former self Sansa has managed to maintain: her kindness, her honor and her "woman's courage," as Brienne would say. Each of these ideals were passed onto her from her beloved late parents, Ned and Catelyn. Yet these same characteristics fans loved in her parents become strikes against her. She's only kind because she doesn't know better. She has no courage, only mindless obedience.
More often than not, this vitriol against Sansa is spurned on by a disrespect of femininity. We praise when women subvert gender norms, but when a woman happens to be feminine, people tend to assume she's merely a naïve conformist sheep, as though no respectable women would choose to be girly. To assume such dismisses the idea that feminine women have agency, and, in turn, is as sexist as punishing women who break from traditional gender roles.
We need to stop seeing femininity as worthy of ridicule, weak or cowardly, and Sansa is proof of that. She may not fight with swords, but she is strong. She endures and survives, even when everything is set against her. Sansa grew up believing everything her parents and society told her — that if she acted a certain way, her life would turn out a certain way. Of course, it only took one sharp whack of Ser Ilyn's blade to shatter those ideals, but when Sansa's entire world came crashing down she didn't break or kneel (literally, in the case of her wedding to Tyrion). She put on a polite smile and bided her time. So don't be fooled by her complaisant demeanor. Just because she might not recite her hit list every night, doesn't mean she isn't as strong or determined as Arya. She's simply better at hiding it.
"That's why people should fear Sansa more than Arya I think, because no one knows what Sansa's thinking. And it's all up in here," Turner says, tapping her head. "People don't know that she wants to go around killing everyone. She would love to be Arya for a day just killing everyone, but she can't because she knows that would just get her killed quicker."
And now that Littlefinger, arguably the best player in the game, has taken her under his wing, it seems Sansa finally has the tools to get the job done. So, the next time you're ready to bemoan Sansa, consider this: She is still a Stark and the North always remembers.
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO. Catch up on episodes here.