“We both wanted to be other people when we were younger,” Arya Stark said to her sister Sansa in the sixth episode of Game of Thrones’ seventh season, “Beyond the Wall.” “You wanted to be a queen, to sit next to a handsome young king on the Iron Throne. I wanted to be a knight, to pick up a sword like Father and go off to battle.”
Few storylines are as revealing of the show’s gender politics as this one: Arya, the tomboy, fighting her way across Westeros, and Sansa, the lady, enduring her disastrous marriages. The show’s writers, frequently criticized for their treatment of female characters, have in the past seemed to favor Arya over Sansa, masculinity over femininity. But as the sisters came back together in season seven, the show began to develop a more nuanced view of female strength. And rather than privileging one way of being a woman over another, the show closed out the season with a portrayal of two very different heroines, as Arya and Sansa used their complementary powers to fight those who would drive them apart.
At first, Game of Thrones seemed to pit Arya against Sansa
In season one, Arya told her father that she didn’t want to be a lady or marry a lord. Sansa, meanwhile, couldn’t wait to marry Joffrey and have “sons with beautiful blond hair.” Soon enough, Arya was learning about swordplay and Sansa was learning exactly how terrible a marriage to Joffrey would be. In this early period, Game of Thrones seemed to favor Arya over her sister — Arya was kicking ass and taking names (literally, for her list), while Sansa was a silly girl, buffeted by forces she didn’t understand.
The woman who fights like a man is common across genres, and has been for hundreds if not thousands of years. There’s nothing wrong with a female warrior; who doesn’t love Eowyn removing her helmet to proclaim, “I am no man,” in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King? But when writers present female fighters as inherently stronger or better than women who care about, say, their appearances or relationships, they’re expressing a particular kind of gender stereotype. Here’s how sociologist Lisa Wade explained it at Sociological Images in 2008: “When women do masculine things, they’re awesome. This is sexism: Masculinity rules, femininity drools.”
A lot of people have observed this stereotype at work in Game of Thrones’ portrayals of Sansa and Arya. “For male writers, women tend to gain strength through being raped or by eschewing femininity and embracing masculine traits,” Ira Madison III wrote at the Daily Beast after episode six. “Arya is a ‘strong female character’ because she’s abandoned her femininity.”
But as Sansa grew up, her strength became clear
Sansa started to get better treatment from Game of Thrones around the time of her marriage to Tyrion. When she helped him brainstorm ways to get back at people who made fun of him, she was turning from a naive girl into a young woman with a sense of humor who was starting to think of ways to punish her enemies (even if she didn’t totally understand curse words). From there, Sansa went through hell — an abusive marriage to the sadistic Ramsay Bolton — and emerged strong, self-possessed, and with a moral authority that Arya, by then a remorseless killer, lacked.
Along the way, a strain of pro-Sansa feminist criticism reminded viewers that the elder Stark sister had her own kind of heroism. “Sansa may be girly, but she's not weak; she just finds her strength within femininity itself,” Julianne Ross wrote at Mic in 2014. Sansa’s strength was most clearly on display in season six, when she made Littlefinger guess what kinds of violence Ramsay inflicted on her after Littlefinger set up their marriage.
“I can still feel it,” she told him. “I don't mean, ‘In my tender heart it still pains me so.’ I can still feel what he did in my body, standing here right now.”
To some degree, Game of Thrones fell into the trap Madison identifies — it portrayed Sansa as a character who becomes strong through being raped and abused. But Sansa’s strength isn’t just about what happened to her. It’s also about the way she gives voice to the trauma she’s experienced and explains exactly how it’s affected her, forcing Littlefinger to reckon with the consequences of his actions. Her act of bearing witness isn’t necessarily feminine — men, too, are vulnerable to sexualized violence both in Westeros and in reality — but it’s deeply feminist, and it’s an implicit rebuke to the idea that the only way to fight is with a sword.
Now the sisters have come together
Season seven saw the sisters come together in more ways than one. They even started to dress more similarly. Sansa continued to embrace dark colors and severe fabrics (Tom and Lorenzo offer a more detailed analysis of her look), and Arya abandoned her tunics and britches for a more feminine look, complete with what looked to be a version of Brienne’s battle skirt in episode six.
Brienne is a useful comparison here. She’s a fighter, but she knows strength reveals itself off the battlefield, too. She decided to serve Catelyn Stark, the girls’ mother, because she recognized Catelyn’s courage: “not battle courage, perhaps, but, I don't know, a woman's kind of courage.” As Sansa and Arya have shown in the years since, “a woman’s kind of courage” can mean lots of things.
Nowhere was this more clear than in the season seven finale, which saw Arya and Sansa team up to get rid of Littlefinger. Arya wielded the knife, but it was Sansa who passed the judgment, and who listed Littlefinger’s crimes much as she once listed the crimes committed against her. She’s never seemed more queenly than when she sat before the lords of the North and meted out justice; Arya never more knightly than when she carried out the execution, killing not for herself but for her family.
Should anyone doubt that this episode is about cooperation, Sansa noted that one of Littlefinger’s sins was his penchant for turning “family against family, sister against sister.” And after the execution, Sansa and Arya expressed their mutual, if grudging, admiration. Sansa called Arya “the strongest person I know,” and Arya admitted, “I never could’ve survived what you survived.” The sisters remembered their father’s maxim: “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.” Arya and Sansa are now a pack again — as different as they are, they complement rather than oppose each other.
Game of Thrones has been the target of justified criticism over the years for the way it’s treated its female characters: It’s frequently crossed a line between depicting a land that’s brutal to women and reveling in that brutality. And especially in its early seasons, the show seemed to imply that the best response to the injustices of Westerosi womanhood was to act like a man and cut some throats.
But the show has, at least to some degree, grown up with its characters, and where it once showed a one-dimensional view of female strength, it now makes clear that there are many ways to be strong.
“The world doesn’t just let girls decide what they’re going to be,” Arya said in season seven’s sixth episode. But she and her sister have come very close to becoming the people they always wanted to become. And their story is no longer just about a tomboy and a lady — now it’s about two girls growing up in a world that hates women, and about how they’re working together to get what they want.