First of all, the teaser trailer for the second season of Game of Thrones:
If you haven’t read the books or seen the show, then you should get on that. Game of Thrones is some terribly good storytelling. It’s also kind of hard to summarize other than to say that winter is coming.
Sorry, sorry. Game of Thrones is set in a gritty fantasy world where the seasons can last for years, and where winters are especially harsh; the action centers on a family of nobles in the North called the Starks and their often tense relationship with a fellow noble family called the Lannisters.
I’ve read most of the books and watched all of the show – and I have to say that one of my favorite parts is the handling of the female characters.
This is a somewhat controversial thing to say, as A Song of Ice and Fire (the television show is Game of Thrones, while the book series is titled A Song of Ice and Fire) has sometimes drawn criticism for what are seen as sexist portrayals and/or portrayals of violence against women, namely in a piece written Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown. I do not agree with these criticisms, not at all; in fact, for the most part, they are the exact opposite of how I read the text. Alyssa Rosenberg already gave a point by point response that I agree with wholeheartedly, and this was all a thing some months ago, so I don’t want to dredge up old crud or beat a dead horse.
No, today I want to talk about my undying love for the sisters Arya and Sansa Stark.
These lovely ladies
Graphics art by saltspray
Confession: when I was a kid, I wanted to be a tomboy.
Basically, I wanted to be Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird; later on, I wanted to be Lyra from His Dark Materials.
And if I’d read ASoIaF around this same time? You better believe that I would have been foaming at the mouth to be Arya Stark.
Like Scout and Lyra, Arya is just freaking badass.
Westeros (the continent where most of the action unfolds) is…not a progressive society. Society is divided along class and gender lines. As a female of a noble family, Arya can expect a life better than most, but her primary role is still to marry and produce children. Unfortunately, this does not gel with her vision of her life, and so Arya constantly experiences friction with the narrow roles set to her by her society, a conflict perhaps best exemplified by the following exchange with her father Ned:
Arya: Can I be lord of a holdfast?
Ned: You will marry a high lord and rule his castle, and your sons shall be knights, and princes, and lords.
Arya: No. That’s not me.
I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Arya does break away from this future in some big ways, kicking ass and taking names (oh boy, quite literally taking names) along the way. Her arc is gritty and dark but ultimately empowering, because this waif of a girl transforms herself from someone that everybody underestimates into a legitimate force to be reckoned with.
Fanart by Sue Ann Williams
In many ways, Arya’s character is reminiscent of the trope of the rebellious princess.
Literature is abound with spunky females who give up their higher station in life in order to pursue paths that are a better fit for them, by which I mean paths full of danger and intrigue and scandal. A large part of why these stories are attractive is because they function as a gigantic, collective middle finger to restrictive gender roles.
Why hello there, awesome rebellious princess movie that I cannot WAIT to see!
But what about those princesses who don’t run away? What about the characters who are fine with the gender roles set by their society?
Ladies and gentlemen – meet Sansa Stark.
Sansa is the opposite to her sister Arya in almost every possible way. This girl has a game plan. She will marry a prince – she has the particular one all picked out – and sonnets will be composed of their undying love. Of course, this is a dark dark dark story, chockfull of High Octane Nightmare Fuel, so that’s not quite how things work out.
Sansa is one of those characters much maligned by the fandom. Many people do not like her. Many people passionately do not like her.
I am not here to tell people who they should or should not like. Personally, I love Sansa. I want to have her over for tea to discuss boys and compare pretty dresses. But I understand where the dislike comes from. She spends a large part of the story being helplessly moony, completely oblivious to the fact that her favorite prince is the most unlikable character in the whole story – maybe the most unlikable character ever, period.
Which is why this scene is so satisfying to watch; also, Peter Dinklage
If the rebellious princess is a common trope, then so is the snobbish princess; they often co-exist in the same story, usually to show the rebellious princess what she could become and how she must avoid this at all costs. The snobbish princess is often the metaphorical hand of society, trying to hold down the rebellious princess as she seeks her own path in life.
And this is exactly why I love how George R.R. Martin handled these characters. Because he writes Sansa Stark as so much more than that.
To me, the narrative makes it abundantly clear that while Sansa has no interest in picking up a sword, that does not mean that she is not brave or smart or strong. I don’t want to spoil anyone, but in particular I’m thinking of a moment after Sansa has seen something horrible and she’s given a chance to push someone off a bridge, and she contemplates it very seriously. In addition, it is Sansa, more than anyone else, who comes perilously close to rectifying the entire situation at the end of the first book – something that Arya, while awesome, would never have been able to accomplish with her particularly blunt way of doing things.
Fanart by Sue Ann Williams
Remember how I said I wanted to be a tomboy?
I wanted it so bad that I’d convinced myself I was one – at least until the day that I informed my family of this fact, and they promptly laughed in my face. This is partially because my family is a collection of hapless ingrates, but also because I’m not a tomboy.
Here are a list of things I hated back then (and still do now): a) bugs, b) being outside, c) running around, d) getting dirty, e) touching worms (which I hated so much that when my father took me fishing, I coped by spearing the worm delicately with my fishing hook so that my fingers would not have to touch something so slimy and hideously gross). I’ve always been an effeminate person – it’s just part of how I walk, how I talk, something as ingrained as the color of my eyes. It’s not the right way to be, nor is it the wrong way, it simply is.
But when I was a kid? I’d internalized that being traditionally feminine was not a powerful way of being. I wanted to be Arya, but I was actually Sansa.
Which is why I love ASoIaF: because with Arya and Sansa, the narrative offers two polar-opposite ways of expressing female identity – yet ultimately, both girls are shown as strong and courageous, each in their own way.
I think that’s pretty amazing.
Also, Peter Dinklage.
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