When I was little, I was very much like the young Arya Stark in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011 -), often with mud between my toes and my hair flying unruly and unbrushed. Like her I wasn’t very good at sitting still, or listening, and I got into trouble for my temper. Yet, when I watch the show, and especially when I reread her POV chapters in the books, I don’t feel a kinship with this character. Hers is a narrative which eschews the status quo expected of her gender, which is invaluable and diverse as a character arc, and yet I don’t consider her among my favourite characters of the series. Perhaps because I am familiar with Arya’s thoughts and feelings, I don’t feel so intrigued by her. Whereas Sansa Stark, her older sister, fascinates me because she is is so drastically different; she acts with grace and is well-versed in etiquette, she enjoys love songs and romantic stories of ladies and knights. She is everything I never knew how to be as a girl, and for that I am more keen to hear what she has to say, and more interested by her tactics for surviving the harsh world of Westeros.

The hugely successful TV series Game of Thrones and the A Song of Ice and Fire novels it was adapted from tell a story set in a deeply patriarchal world of medieval feudalism. Its structure is key to understanding the behaviour of the prominent women in the series. Arya and Sansa Stark are the only daughters of Lord Eddard Stark (the Warden of the North and a powerful lord in Westeros). These two girls are living in the capital of Westeros, King’s Landing, the most dangerous place in the country to be a vulnerable young aristocrat, when their father Eddard Stark is unjustly beheaded for “treason” (he has actually discovered that all three royal children were born of incest). The realm immediately falls into chaos, and the two sisters’ lives change forever. Arya escapes the city and eventually travels across the sea to the adjacent continent, Essos. She had been dressing as a boy for most of her journey up until then. In this way she extricated herself from the patriarchal system that dominates her homeland, and, in also shrugging off her aristocratic background when she arrives in Essos, tailors a narrative for herself where her gender does not govern her destiny. She uses fighting skills and sharp retorts to avoid dangerous situations, and is prepared to suffer poor conditions in order to survive.

Sansa, on the other hand, becomes a ward of the royal court, the daughter and sister of a traitor. Not only is she a 14 year old girl alone in a dangerous city with one parent dead and the other on the other side of the country, she is still technically betrothed to the boy King, Joffrey, a monster who orders her to be publicly beaten and relentlessly humiliates her. She is constantly whispered about at court, constantly waited on by servants – and she is surrounded by enemies. And yet, she retains and uses the advice of her Septa (a sort of religious governess): “A lady’s armour is courtesy.” To modern ears it sounds so gender-normative, and defeatist, but, particularly in season 2 of the show, Sansa uses this motto to throw some pretty great shade. Especially because this becomes the only way for a vulnerable girl in her position to retain a sense of self-possession in the highly patriarchal environment. Look at this language used when the capital is under attack, and Joffrey requests that Sansa sees him off:

Sansa: So you’ll be outside the gates, fighting in the vanguard?

Joffrey: A King doesn’t discuss battle plans with stupid girls.

Sansa: I’m sorry your Grace, you’re right, I’m stupid. Of course you’ll be in the vanguard.

Sansa retains the power in this situation despite Joffrey’s horrendous sexism, because she subtly highlights how he’s a mollycoddled child who has never fought in his life, and will not be taking part in any actual fighting. Behind his adolescent bravado he is a coward, and she triumphantly knows it. Sansa maintains this front the entire time she is held in the capital, and it works to her advantage despite the constant trauma. The king’s uncle, Tyrion Lannister, at one point declares under his breath “Lady Stark, you may survive us yet.”

This point about survival is crucial: both Stark sisters adapted to their environment in order to survive. When the two are finally reunited in season 7 at their ancestral family seat, Winterfell, Arya admits to her sister “I never could have survived what you survived.” and it is true. Sansa’s was constantly toeing the line and saying or doing what was expected of her, something Arya would have found excruciatingly difficult. It was, of course, also time spent with the most scheming minds on the continent, which shaped and prepared Sansa for her own destiny – to be a shrewd politician, who knows her enemies’ faults and tactics, and who aims for fairness in her leadership. She emerges at the end of season 7 as a strong-willed and completely fearless character, perfectly primed to govern the North alongside her cousin, Jon Snow. All that was thrown at her has lead her to the power she now possesses, even if she is still technically second-in-command to Jon Snow as leaders of the North.

The idea of a great woman supporting a male leader is one that transcends history, but when you actually take a look at actual medieval history as well as Game of Thrones, it becomes clear that the idea of a male ruler is more often than not a formality, with true governance falling elsewhere, such as on a monarch’s wife or mother, when he is not fit to rule. Joffrey, and later his brother Tommen after Joffrey is poisoned at his own wedding, are essentially the conduits for their mother Cersei Lannister’s commands. She fights tooth and nail to retain power by governing her sons and keeping them on her side. Lady Olenna Tyrell, played by the effortlessly fabulous Diana Rigg, is often argued to be the true ruler of Westeros, through the power and gold her family possesses, the fact that her son is fairly idiotic, and that she successfully and secretly orchestrated King Joffrey’s poisoning. She is one of the most formidable and dangerous players in the game, and yet she presents herself as a feeble old woman with bad hips. Her granddaughter, Margaery Tyrell, plays a similar game to Sansa, albeit more conscientiously, in portraying herself as a romantic young girl who loves music and poetry. She has in fact been ruthlessly trained by her grandmother to subvert the will of governing men through seduction and charisma. Her mask never slips, and it makes her untouchable.

In medieval history, Margaret of Anjou stepped into the role of English monarch when it became apparent that her husband Henry VI was mentally ill, and unfit to rule. Eleanor of Aquitaine was for a time one of the most powerful people in the world through her marriage to the English king Henry II and her rule as regent for her son, Richard the Lionheart. These women all had the good grace and fortune of being born into the right family, as so many girls didn’t, but they proved themselves worthy of ruling through their political talent.

It is of course, exceedingly exhausting for modern women to feel they must keep playing ‘the game’ in order to get ahead. It’s also slightly depressing that the female viewership might find helpful life lessons in these characters, but we do after all still live in a patriarchal system. An entirely different world Game of Thrones may be, but perhaps clever subversion of toxic masculinity offers a chance of one-upwomanship in the battle against modern sexism.

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