I recently wrote a piece about Sansa Stark, the GOT character a lot of people hate beyond all reason, even though she never actually did anything so terribly wrong. For some reason, people will forgive every other Game of Thrones character for doing just utterly evil things, even going so far as to totally stan incesters and rapists and cold-blooded murderers – even making a meme hero of a person who murdered children and joked about it.
But despite GoT being a veritable extravaganza of anti-heroism, a little girl who was simply caught up as a victim of circumstance is an UNFORGIVABLE SINNER.
I thought I spelled out the reasons why this attitude was dumb pretty thoroughly in my piece, but I got a pretty interesting comment and since I hadn’t tackled this particular incarnation of Sansa hate, I figured I’d do that here, where I tackle things where I think I may swear a lot more than normal whilst discussing them.
The comment was something along these lines: “The real reason I dislike Sansa is because she was unkind. She was unkind to Arya, she was unkind to Jon, and she was unkind to Tyrion.”
I covered Arya and Jon mostly in my piece, but quickly just to get it out of the way – Arya and Sansa were “unkind” to each other in equal parts because they were sisters and they fought like sisters. People overlook Arya’s unkindness to Sansa because they’re brainwashed by Hollywood to always take the side of the “Plucky Girl” over the Damsel in Distress type like Sansa. That is, as they say, a personal problem y’all need to work on. Suffice to say, just because Hollywood says it over and over again that traditional femininity is bad and was the product of patriarchal oppression, thus anyone who rejects traditional femininity (even when they are a cold blooded murderer who kills an entire family for the sins of a few of them, like Arya) are by default brave and amazing, that isn’t always or even usually the case.
And Sansa was only “unkind” to Jon because Sansa’s mother Catelyn (who, last I checked, was a goddamn fucking adult) had set the example since Sansa had emerged from the cradle to be unkind to Jon. Even Catelyn is not completely to blame here; after all Ned Stark (an adult) failed to tell his wife the truth about Jon’s parents for reasons we can only guess at (muh honor, most likely, or maybe it was that he didn’t trust Catelyn to keep it quiet), and he was only in that position because Rhaegar Targaryan (also an adult) ran off with a 14 year old Lyanna Stark (not an adult) and married in secret, starting a war that killed thousands of people because he couldn’t resist the urges of his throbbing genitals even tho he already had a wife and kids. That’s right, Rhaegar Targaryan’s pedophilic boner was by far more responsible for Sansa’s “unkindness” towards Jon than a fucking CHILD who simply did as her mother showed her and hated the guy she was supposed to hate.
I mean, like, I don’t know, I was a little cunt when I was 13. I teased a boy so much one day I made him cry, with far less justification than Sansa had (as in, NONE). I still to this day, 37 years later, have huge regrets over that, so much so I’m getting red in the face with mortification and self-loathing just thinking about it. I’m sorry, Dennis. At the time I felt like I was taking the pressure off of myself by focusing it onto you, but now I would give anything if I could go back and take the tease instead. Thanks, public school.
So set Jon and Arya aside. That was just kid stuff, and if you can’t differentiate between kid stuff and a legit reason to hate a character, maybe you shouldn’t be reading fiction at all.
This being a feminist blog and everything, what I really want to talk about is the notion that Sansa was “unkind to Tyrion”. Just to refresh your collective memories, Tyrion’s family had tricked/beguiled Sansa into betraying her father, killed all her family’s employees including the nanny she had been raised by, beheaded her father in front of her and made her complicit in that act, forced her to look at the severed head and her nanny’s severed head, kept her prisoner, abused her, ripped off her clothes in front of a room full of people, played all sorts of other psychological games with her, then, as the capper, made her get married against her will. By the way, because there seems to be some confusion about this, in the books this is very clearly done WITHOUT ANY WARNING, they take Sansa to get some new clothes, and then to get married in the span of a couple of hours’ time:
After all this, Sansa was forced to marry – FORCED TO MARRY on a moment’s notice without even time to wrap her head around it – an untraditionally attractive guy who was not only 30 years her senior and practically a stranger, but was very much a member of the family that had done all these terrible things to her, a family so evil and demented that shortly thereafter then went on to kill her mother and brother too. And yet some would say Sansa Stark is an unlikeable character because she was unkind to Tyrion.
Brief aside – Another thing I didn’t do as a teenager was go out on a date with a very nice guy who I think liked me a lot, because he had alopecia (aka he had no body hair). Teenage girls are pieces of shit like that. I’m sorry, Larry. You deserved better, but of course I was a fucking child and only as good as I’d been taught to be by my moral education, which basically consisted of Seventeen Magazine and Tiger Beat at that point. Also, by the way, I was always secretly very happy that you got a girlfriend after that who was undoubtedly way better than me.
And how, pray tell, was Sansa “unkind” to Tyrion? Well, during the wedding ceremony, she did not kneel to assist him when he tried to put a cloak over her shoulders, leaving the short-statured Tyrion as the butt of the joke. Now maybe if Sansa had done that without all the stuff that came before, yeah, that would have been pretty unkind. But given everything that came before, it’s a miracle of forbearance that’s all she did. Yet somehow we’re not only expecting Sansa to be KIND in this situation, but judging her for being unkind?
There’s an underlying assumption here, and while I really do kind of hate belaboring the point since I probably already made it more than adequately, I feel like I need to make it crystal clear since it’s apparently been missed by some. The assumption is that it’s kind of ok that Sansa was abused in about a zillion different ways, she should have sucked it up buttercup, because it really doesn’t MATTER that much anyway, does it, I mean really, the medieval world was full of violence against women, dadt-di-dah, yadda yadda, just how things were back then, unfortunate and all that. But momentarily embarrassing a person with disabilities, well now, that’s a horse of a different color entirely! How DARE she do such a cruel and unbelievable thing! Now that, well that was ACTUALLY BAD!
Or to put it another way, it is known that women must continue to obey the social niceties no matter what happens to them, no matter how badly they are treated they should be good girls and shut their mouths and do their parts and lie back and think of England, er, Westeros. Women are never meant to have any non-culturally-approved feelings at all, and if they do, they should suppress them posthaste, and certainly never speak of them openly. IT IS KNOWN.
Later along on her wedding day, Sansa compounds her sin by saying words a man finds displeasing…
Tyrion tells Sansa “I won’t have sex with you until you’re ready” (last time I checked, this is merely how it SHOULD be, and not any sort of particularly noble gesture, so don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back there, Mr. Lannister) and Sansa says – honestly – “and what if that day never comes?”
But, is that being unkind? Is it being more or less unkind than faking interest, than making promises she had no idea if she would ever be able to keep? Because personally, I think stringing a dude along you don’t even like, letting him languish eternally hoping in the friend zone, is pretty much the shittiest thing a woman can do.
I know, I know, Tyrion didn’t want to get married either. He didn’t have much control over his circumstances either. Hey, guess what, I don’t fucking CARE. Poor Tyrion, waah! You and I can have sympathy for Tyrion because we are adults and we are removed from the situation. There was no way for Sansa to be able to understand and appreciate that, because she was a child, and because Tyrion was on Team Oppressor. Tyrion should have understood this, because he was a grown ass man. Maybe, just for this one day, because you are a human being capable of empathy, knowing that before you is a terrified child who has just had their life turned upsidedown and inside out, Tyrion, you could possibly deal with your sore feels on your own time?
But no, Tyrion puts the responsibility for his emotions onto Sansa too. “And so my watch begins,” he says, making damn sure that Sansa knows he is waiting, deprived, in the cold, all alone, with only his unsatisfied peen for company. Maybe not all readers are able to detect this, but in that moment Tyrion is tugging on Sansa’s heartstrings to deliberately make her feel guilty and bad for the terrible sin of not wanting to have sex with a total stranger against her will. He’s pressuring her. Just because he’s doing it in an amusing way doesn’t make it any less manipulative. In fact, it really makes it MORE manipulative since he comes off imagining himself a great guy in the process, and apparently a good number of people buy into that.
Am I supposed to feel sorry for you, Tyrion, you self-pitying fuck? Yes, yes, truly, it’s SANSA being “unkind” in that moment. (no it isn’t)
But let’s set all that aside too. Because it’s not that interesting. Parsing meanings out of books, while fun as hell for me to do, generally makes other people’s eyes glaze over.
The interesting thing is how and why people, even otherwise insightful and kind people, are sooo programmed to see any act of unkindness on the part of a woman as a sin right up there with genocide? (Genocide?? Surely you exaggerate, atomic!?! Ok, explain to me why it is people like Daenerys better than Sansa, even though Daenerys committed genocide and Sansa was just like, not always quite as nice as she should have been? Could it be that Daenerys was usually very very sweet to the men in her life and Sansa occasionally wasn’t? Because I kind of think that is what is happening).
Why is it that we seem to have a limitless appetite for handwaving away morally questionable, even violent behavior on the part of men, and handwaving away morally questionable, even violent behavior from women who play the parts men want them to, while holding a woman responsible in perpetuity for that day she once acted like kind of a bitch and/or didn’t do what a man wanted her to? Why is it that if kindness is ever withheld, even for a pretty damn good fucking reason, that renders a female character unlikeable in perpetuity?
Why is it that Tyrion, who in the books actually took his DICK OUT and showed it to a naked 12 year old girl with the intention of having sex with her against her will (but he changed his mind, tho! YAY TYRION WHAT A SAINT YOU ARE), who delighted in using a long string of women for cum dumpsters, who raped someone because his father told him to, who threatened on multiple occasions to rape his own sister, who strangled a woman with his bare hands, and who was, himself, on many, many occasions, brutally unkind so far beyond anything Sansa ever did or said, eminently, endlessly forgivable, but Sansa Stark is an irredeemable monster in some people’s eyes?
Why is it that not only Tyrion, but basically everyone else in this old world of Westeros has their every foible analyzed and explained away, except for feminine-presenting women, unless they are Daenerys because she seems like good fap fodder? Because I’m sure there were a good many people who read that above paragraph and thought, “but the woman Tyrion strangled BETRAYED him!” as if that justified it, “but Tyrion was DRUNK so he couldn’t control himself”, as if that justifies it, and a real whole lot of those people are the same people who think Sansa is an irredeemable meanie pants because she didn’t kneel down to let Tyrion put the wedding cloak over her shoulders. “zOMG she EMBARRASSED TYRION!! THAT’S UNCONSCIONABLE!”
Why is it that “kindness” (not just a generalized sense of being a kind person, but constant, unremitting, unfailing kindness, 24-7-365 from birth to death) is seen as not only a virtue, but a REQUIREMENT for vagina-havers with long hair, gentle ways, and a high pitched voice, or as I like to call them when no one is listening in to judge me for it, women?
Something that has really come into clarity for me over the last few years is this: when it comes to the differences between men and women, men’s foibles, despite being in many cases ghastly and terribly destructive particularly when it comes to female humans, are endlessly analyzed and contextualized in an attempt to explain them away, whereas women’s foibles, particularly when it comes to male humans, even when they are totally understandable when viewed with a scintilla of empathy, are invariably interpreted as being 100% pure evil. This tendency cuts a wide swath across cultures and belief systems – the immediate assumption that no matter what, it’s probably the woman’s fault, because she’s either too weak or too strong or too quiet or too loud or she’s a doormat or she sticks up for herself too much or she’s a martyr or else she’s selfish or she lied or she told the truth too much and men are just doing the best they can always and never have any bad intentions towards anyone nopity nopity nope nope nope cause all men are OBVEEOUSLEE saints, lies at the heart of misogyny.
This is why there are a whole lot of people walking around out there thinking beyond a shadow of a doubt that the real bad guy in Breaking Bad is Skyler.
I can sit here before you today and say with 100% confidence that George RR Martin could have skipped the paragraph about Sansa not kneeling and rewritten the line where Sansa says “and what if that day never comes”, and people would be sitting here saying “OMG I hate what a milksop Sansa is, she never stands up for herself! If it had been Arya I bet she would have refused to kneel for Tyrion!! That would have shown those darned Lannisters! What a hero Arya is! She never acts like a girl at all!! And I LOVE Arya not acting like a girl, because deep down inside, I hate girls and that is why I hate Sansa Stark!”
People hate Sansa not because of anything she did, because if she did something different they would have hated that too. They hate Sansa because she goes against the “You Go Girl” zeitgeist and they hate her even more because she’s too realistic to be a Disney princess, cause she has feelings and stuff. An unkind princess? That’s unpossible!
Some folks just cannot bear it when women don’t act the way they’re supposed to. Because women acting not the way they’re supposed to makes people, especially male people, feel very uncomfortable. Once a woman starts acting in a way that requires more than a cursory understanding of TV Tropes to comprehend her motives, that means she is less able to be controlled, and that’s what this all boils down to in the end – control.
You know what “kindness” is? It’s a brickbat to control women’s behavior. The kindness itself is irrelevant. Kindness is one of those amorphous terms that can always be defined in a way so the winner (aka the man) always wins and the loser (aka the woman) always loses.
(Helpful hint – The reason why Arya can do, like, IDK whatever, and people love her to pieces, is because in people’s minds, Arya codes as “male”. She constantly rejects everything female in favor of everything male. Thus misogyny doesn’t apply to her.)
Remember above where I mentioned Sansa above, telling Tyrion “and what if that day never comes”? Well, you can interpret that as being “unkind” or you can interpret that as being honest. (Honesty itself is another one of those amorphous terms that in many cases cannot comfortably coexist with “kindness”). Let’s say, for instance, Sansa – and personally I thought Sansa WOULD say this, I found that line as written rang untrue to me, because Sansa was desperately placating everyone beforehand and afterward – is “kind” to Tyrion and says “Maybe next week, maybe I just need a little time to adjust to all this”. Maybe she even means it when she says it; after all, it’s not unusual to be deceiving oneself unintentionally, or hoping you can talk yourself into feeling a certain way in the future. But then next week comes, and the next week, and she never does feel any better about it. Is that being unkind? Is it being dishonest? I don’t know, but what I DO know is, the people who hate Sansa would have hated it anyway, and would have been absolutely CONVINCED to the very core of their being that Arya would have handled it better.
Nothing a woman ever does will ever be interpreted positively by a person who is viewing her behavior through a misogynistic lens. Period, end of story. No matter what, if the person you’re dealing with is not treating you fairly, is trying to manipulate the situation to their advantage, they will always view your actions as being negative and theirs, and the people whom they support, as positive. The powers that be dangle “you must be KIND” above womens’ heads and watch us jump for it, and as we do, they are constantly shifting the definition of the term, so everything we ever do that doesn’t suit their purposes will be defined as “unkind”.
It takes most women a lifetime to learn that people don’t believe any of the bullshit they drum into our pink and sparkly little heads. Rules are methods of manipulation that the evil use on the stupid. Most women are stupid because we are raised from minute one to be stupid. We may even be BORN to be innately stupid, as we are uniquiely susceptible to following rules, like Hermione and Beezus and Sansa Stark herself. Sure, there may be female manipulators out there, but the WORLD ITSELF is out to manipulate women into behaving in whatever way their culture happens to value at the time, even if that means acting exactly like men like Arya Stark.
The world, who is out to get women in so many ways I would need to own infinity blogs to write about all of them, tell us “be kind” in addition to a thousand other rules like “be honest” and “be true to yourself” and “stand up for what is right” and “do what God wants you to do” not to mention things that are utterly fundamental to our very humanity like “protect your kids” and “survive” (the number of people I came across when researching this piece who said POINT BLANK that Sansa should have died rather than submit to the Lannisters was fucking disturbing).
Many of these commandments we are given are mutually exclusive. Being kind buts up into not only “be honest” but “be true to yourself” and “stand up for what is right” and “do what God wants you to do” ALLLL the time. Wait what? EVEN GOD? It’s true. Think of all those mean religious girls who refuse to kindly fuck the boy with the raging case of blue balls! Those bitches are stone cold cruel! How dare a woman put her eternal soul above the need of a man to empty his sack! And get this, when she DOES it, let’s judge her for that, too, the fucking slut!
No one ever tells us that bad guys are going to always define those things in ways that suit them, at our expense. Women are told “be kind” 1 million times before they turn three years old, but no one ever tells us that unless we wise up, we will forever be handing over control of every circumstance we find ourselves in, to people who very much do not have our best interests at heart.
And you know what, I suspect that’s the reason why I like Sansa Stark so well – her journey is the journey so many of us take where we learn all this. Realizing these truths is why so many of us older women are such unbelievable bitches, it’s because we have come to understand that “be kind” is in many cases merely an attempt by assholes to manipulate you into behaving yourself so they can exploit you. Ladies, at some point, you can’t continue to “be kind” to people who are trying to get you to violate those other rules you’ve been taught for their own benefit. At some point in your life, you must stop being kind and start being true to yourself, to stand up for what is right, to protect yourself, to draw lines and inviolable boundaries, like a 13 year old not wanting to have sex with a 40 year old stranger who is partly responsible for her father’s death.
BE KIND TO TYRION ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME WITH THIS???
I am a kind person, I like to think I am anyway (all evidence previously given in this essay to the contrary). But kindness has limitations. It took me a long time to realize this; like Sansa, when it came to kindness, I was a slow learner. The idea that we – particularly when that “we” is people who are uniquely vulnerable to predation, like young women, like ALL women – should go out into the world and assume everyone has our best interests at heart and behave accordingly, putting our needs and even our wants several places down the totem pole, is a toxic one.
3 thoughts on “On Being Unkind”
I have discovered of late that I enjoy the meta-discussion of cultural artifacts far more than the artifacts themselves. I think it’s because visual media pours itself into you and leaves little room for imagination, but then people (like you) bring a clarifying (and stimulating) perspective.
In the first season, the show tries to get you to dislike Sansa, and the subsequent seasons, IIRC, are just a series of punishments for, I guess, being a teen girl who lost her head momentarily at the thought of being a queen. (I mean, who can relate to that? Being a teenager tempted by fame and wealth? What a bitch!) I guess I’m not surprised people are still hating on her.
To no small degree, you are dealing with the charisma of the Dinklage. Cersei is another one who, as I recall it, is completely amoral and borderline psychotic.but it’s Lena Heady (Man, 300 was quite a breakthrough for her!) so people seem to like her no matter what.
I feel like there was a similar vibe (to Sansa) with Anne Popplewell in the Narnia movies. Maybe it’s that in their formative years, when guys are under the most sexual strain, these represent the girls that reject them and they never get over it? (In Neil Breen’s “classic” Fateful Findings, the 55-year-old Breen paints himself as a hero for rejecting a teenage girls advances, as if the audience wouldn’t know he wrote and directed himself into that position.)
Your emphasis on the role of parents and adults is interesting, and almost completely absent from the show, as I recall. I mean, what the hell was Ned thinking, taking his family to Knot’s Landing? Er…King’s Landing.
I had a little harder time relating to that part of the essay because it’s all so distant to me. The first thing my kids learned was that they were sovereign over their bodies and their possessions. The next was that seniority confers neither authority nor wisdom. Last, of course, they learned don’t trust whitey.
Wait, that was The Jerk. Never mind.
Anyway, looking forward to the next piece.
LOL – same. I know a couple people think I’ve gone round the bend with my Game of Thrones stuff lately but the truth is, there’s just a LOT here that is the stuff I want to talk about anyway. I enjoy the analysis and discussion far beyond I liked either the show or the books.
Somewhere in the melange of this topic I had referenced Susan Pevensie from Narnia. I can’t remember where, but yes there’s very much the same vibe. Susan is to be punished for liking lipstick and wanting to grow up instead of staying in Narnia (and of course there’s the religious element of that, being as a child before God, I get that, but it’s hard not to read a misogynistic thread there.)
The interesting thing about the Sansa hate, Tyrion love dynamic is that it predates the show, and Tyrion is vastly, vastly less likeable in the books than in the show. So people sticking up for him vs. Sansa after having read the books is even more insane to me. As I researched this piece I was reading forums dating from 2011ish where much the same sentiments were being expressed – before these characters ever even interacted on the screen. When I reread the books this last time (first time after watching the show) and I got to Sansa and Tyrion’s wedding night I literally became physically sick reading it, that’s how bad it was. But people were reading that and STILL having this opinion, pre-Dinklage.
I’m really, really thinking that we’ve been so coded by the fiction of the past 50 years to hate “the spoiled rich girl princess type” that it’s become a pathology. Makes me think this trope is wayyy overdue for rehabbing. I’m hoping that’s the case, because to be honest, the other case you’re presenting here – that some men are just fixated on hating this type of girl because they see her as whoever rejected them as a young man, is disturbing.
Even more disturbing would be if (as I am growing ever more fearful) we’re possibly dealing with some innate bizness that’s just manifesting itself in this particular way in the here and now.
I wonder sometimes who I’m really writing these for. My daughter, I guess, but honestly I’m hoping she never needs to know any of this.
Thanks for reading and your insightful comments, as always!
Wow, forgive the length. I’ll understand if you, uh, skim it. =P
||I’m really, really thinking that we’ve been so coded by the fiction of the past 50 years to hate “the spoiled rich girl princess type” that it’s become a pathology. Makes me think this trope is wayyy overdue for rehabbing.
Now, THAT’S an interesting challenge. One of the characters in my “White Worm” remake is kind of coming off that way. Everyone else is so damn polite and conventional, they’re unable to deal with antediluvian monsters. Actually, wait, TWO of my characters are going that way, since one is close to a literal actual princess AND an antediluvian monster (or at least in league with one).
I’ve been musing in this area because of The Eustace Diamonds, where the focal character is the epitome of a spoiled rich girl whose primary social virtue is her beauty. Someone on GoodReads asked the question if there was =anything= likable about her, and someone else responded with “straight up biatch”, which strikes me as an amusing comment in contrast with Trollope.
And yet…for her almost comprehensive flaws, I think we’re supposed to sympathize with the Lady Eustace because everyone says “return the diamonds” and she refuses. Yes, her motivations are entirely selfish but it’s not clear that anyone else’s motivations go beyond conformity and peer pressure. And her genuinely bad behavior will have its own consequences, but go-along-get-along would rob her of basically her only admirable trait.
Semi-related, back in the ’90s, I noticed that B-movie actresses (and A-movie actresses, really) could just not pull off that likable-bitch vibe. A Vivien Leigh or even a Susan Lucci is relatively rare. What a trick that is to be both bitchy and enjoyable to watch! (But there are a few men, like Carol O’Connor and Daniel Craig and R. Lee Ermey who built careers on it, to say nothing a multitude of character actors playing the grumpy police chief.)
||I’m hoping that’s the case, because to be honest, the other case you’re presenting here – that some men are just fixated on hating this type of girl because they see her as whoever rejected them as a young man, is disturbing.
It’s just a theory (and I’ll tell you my brief personal experience some time but this is WAY long already =)). Actually, If it were just a matter of rejecting, you’d see less of in recent years, right? Because women have been more “accommodating” since the Sexual Revolution. (In theory, anyway. Another theory has it that it creates a huge disparity in the men who get to have sex, which might fit some of the phenomena we see better.)
No, I think it’s more “sour grapes”, but with the fox not even trying to get the grapes.
Everything in our lives is more convenient except for love, isn’t it? Not sex, because it’s cheap and plentiful—and I think most guys are going for the cheapest and most plentiful form, porn, which has the added “benefit” of making a guy absurdly epicurean (e.g. “pointy knees”).
But somehow there’s no shortcut to the relationship part. Society happily gives you all the effects it can as cheaply as possible—this is called “progress”—but the only effects worth having are the ones that you on some level cause. And so men are doomed to failure who believe that they’re owed the affections of another person, who happens to be female, beautiful, porny, faithful and utterly devoted. And exchangeable at any point.
So the bitchy girl on screen becomes the stand-in for your imagination of what real women might be like, if you had the temerity to approach one.
||Even more disturbing would be if (as I am growing ever more fearful) we’re possibly dealing with some innate bizness that’s just manifesting itself in this particular way in the here and now.
If “innate” means “unchangeable” in this context, I’d say “nah”. I’ve been watching a lot of silents, e.g., and they while they present a rougher world overall—e.g., this one, “Phantom Carriage” (1921), where a drunkard leaves prison and goes home to find his wife has hidden from him even though he’s decided in his heart-of-hearts to reform and this drives him to even more drunken abusiveness—she’s not presented as sunshine-and-light but at no point are you expected to NOT sympathize with her.
Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, a man would strike or rape a woman, and that would bring her into line, and this was considered admirable. Now it’s considered more admirable to be covert, and to degrade—to attack her soul rather than her body.
I wonder sometimes who I’m really writing these for. My daughter, I guess, but honestly I’m hoping she never needs to know any of this.
I can’t stress enough how important homeschooling is in this regard. My girls put up with NO shit. (And they’re complete opposites in most regards.) It takes YEARS of training to get human beings to submit to arbitrary abuse.