thinking about the spectrum of female characters in asoiaf is so fascinating especially the way they relate to their femininity because they all respond in such wildly different ways
i mean the character with the most anger and resentment about her gender, who frequently out-and-out wishes she was a man and seems to loathe most women is not one of the more ‘masculine’ female characters like arya or brienne but cersei, who of all the female characters is probably one of the most overtly feminine and sexual in her appearance and the way she manipulates people around her.
whereas brienne, one of the most ‘masculine’ female characters in appearance and stereotypical behaviour, doesn’t seem to resent her gender the way cersei does. she wants to be a knight, but her internal monologue doesn’t have the same resentment towards her gender as cersei’s, she doesn’t try to ‘pass’ as a man and she dislikes it when people call her ‘ser’. she never expresses a wish to have been ‘born a man’ like cersei does. she also lacks cersei’s powerful internalised misogyny and has a certain amount of respect more traditionally feminine women (see her line about catelyn having ‘a sort of woman’s courage’).
speaking of catelyn, she’s fascinating to me because she’s one of the few (if not the only?) female characters who accept their prescribed societal role almost entirely, and find that fulfilling it comes to them naturally. she never resents or questions her assigned role as a wife and mother. in fact, she’s wholeheartedly committed to it, and many of her thoughts in her pov, mostly about brienne but also about arya, show the extent to which she has internalised the patriarchal westerosi view of women (‘is there any creature on earth as unfortunate as an ugly woman?’, having dresses made for brienne).
dany’s gender is used a certain amount in her political rhetoric, (‘mother of dragons’, ‘i am only a young girl’), but her struggles as a ruler come more from her cultural alienation from meereen, and she doesn’t tend to struggle as a military leader explicitly because of her gender. asha uses her gender in her own rhetoric as well (‘i am a woman wed…and here’s my suckling babe’), and she doesn’t seem uncomfortable with her gender the way cersei is despite being one of the more ‘masculine-acting’ women in the series. and like dany, she is able to command the respect of men and act as a military leader.
arya, another ‘masculine-acting’ female character, also identifies herself as female to the point of frequently correcting people who misgender her. her issues with her gender don’t direct themselves outwards at women in general like cersei, but manifest internally as feelings of inadequacy for failing to fulfil her prescribed role. she doesn’t hate feminine women, she wishes she could be like sansa and worries that her family won’t want her because she isn’t a ‘proper lady’.
idk i find it really interesting that none of the ‘masculine-acting’ female characters seem to out and out dislike women or femininity (let’s just quietly ignore the show in this regard because why have subtlety when you can have bullshit like ‘most girls are idiots’ and ‘you sound like a bloody woman’).
yeah there isn’t really a point to this i’m just so excited about the diversity of martin’s women it’s almost like women in this series are separate characters and not a monolith
Let me first say this:
- Arya Stark is a traumatized preteen on the run for her life who has faced threats of sexual abuse and is being trained as an assassin.
- Sansa Stark is a traumatized teenage girl at the mercy of a malicious, overgrown, pedophiliac man child who’s basically responsible for the War of the Five Kings.
They are both suffering more than anybody, let alone two orphaned little girls, ever should and the struggles they go through after their father’s death cannot be minimized in any way.
But that being said, I want to discuss their portrayal more under the cut.
I definitely think that the narrative favors Arya more than it does Sansa in AGOT which sets up their arcs in the series. Prior to Arya being understandably traumatized by her status as a child on the run during a war, she was given nothing to really regret doing, or nothing the reader could blame her for. She was insecure yes, and faced massive issues with the rigid gender roles of Westerosi society, but those are societal issues to be corrected, not character flaws in Arya. In fact, I think Arya’s story is more about how much the world is unfair, more than about how Arya as a character responds to the world being unfair and has to account for her own character flaws.
Sansa at the beginning, is naive, admittedly shallow, spends a lot of time in her own head telling stories about handsome princes and jousts, enjoys “princessy” classically feminine activities like sewing, and has a tendency to trust absolutely terrible people, which is why she runs to Cersei when she learns Ned plans to take them away. Arya on the other hand, is capable of seeing through the facade Joffrey and Cersei put on, she is extroverted and enjoys spending time with everybody from small folk to her bastard brother, and she’s a tomboy; she likes classically “male” activities like sword fighting and doesn’t mind getting dirty and roughing it, even if she distinctly identifies as female.
I’m not saying that GRRM is being intentionally sexist with his portrayal of Arya and Sansa, but the fact that the “feminine” character is given (very understandable) character flaws that need to be shed in order for her to survive and thrive and the more “tomboyish” character is perfect the way she is but the world is shit for not accepting her uniqueness is just a bit… discomforting to me. This all is probably because of my own character biases and the fact I have a very hard time relating to Arya because of major personality differences but the fact is that she makes no real mistakes in the narrative; threatening Joffrey doesn’t count because Joffrey is an awful person and Cersei is very clearly responsible for Lady’s death and Sandor/Cersei for Micah’s and even if Arya blames herself, there’s no way the reader is ever going to as they do Sansa.
So I almost understand why Sansa was so much more hated than Arya outside of Tumblr for the longest time. I don’t think they were handled with an even hand, and to be honest, the same goes for a lot of other “two sides of the coin” in the novels, characters who go through similar arcs or hold similar roles in the series. If we take Ned/Catelyn, Jaime/Cersei, Cersei/Tyrion, Jon/Dany, in all four of those pairs, there is one character that faces much more criticism and in all four cases, it’s the woman. For instance, Cersei and Tyrion are two sides of the sexism/ableism intersectionality debate but we don’t get Cersei’s perspective until her son’s been murdered in front of her and father’s been murdered by her brother. Tyrion murders a sex worker and his father in ASOS so what if we didn’t get his perspective until ADWD? Would he be as likable? I doubt it.
But anyway, I think this is more an issue with the author instead of the character themselves. It’s sort of a very nit picky thing but it’s been bothering me for a while so have at it.
#this is me calling out the author #i don’t mean this as hate towards arya because i do legitimately like arya #her narrative seems to me to be more about her responding to the world than the world responding to her if that makes sense #her arc is fascinating and heartbreaking the way it unfolds for this little girl #but it’s not as much about arya as a person if that makes sense #I hadn’t seen a Sansa in fantasy literature as a heroine before I have encountered many many Aryas which is why I attached to Sansa so quickly #and the same goes for Cersei and Dany because like how many teenage girls are the messiah? and have to actually deal with it fully #and Cersei is heartbreaking for what she becomes and I don’t know if I’m supposed to sympathize with her but I can’t help it
I don’t deny that’s a good point, and I do think Arya was written to be immediately more sympathetic than Sansa. But I also think that was a conscious narrative choice, that I personally liked.
Arya is a sympathetic character in AGOT, and easier to relate to than Sansa. But the plot drives Arya into becomind hardened, and although she keeps her basic personality intact (loyal, brave, generally moral and kind), it becomes a lot harder to relate to her as she turns into a murderer and trains to become an assassin. It’s interesting to follow her plot, and you still sympathize with her and feel for her, but it’s harder to relate to a child soldier than it is to a carefree girl.
Sansa, on the other hand, becomes more relatable than she was. She becomes kinder and more self-aware. She sees the world as it is, finally, and it’s when she suffers that she starts to think about some of our other favorite characters with kindness (Arya, Jon, etc). She’s always been kind, but it’s as she suffers that we see it more clearly. And I truly believe that was a narrative choice, to make Arya harder to relate to and Sansa easier to relate to. To switch their parts that way, so to speak.
I’m not explaining everything away though, because I think GRRM isn’t perfect in his choices of writing typically feminine characters, but I genuinely think it’s interesting the way he chose to develop Sansa and Arya.
#yeah I think there’s also something that goes on in asoiaf worth mentioning regarding ‘favorability’ #which is that favorability tends to align with traditional fantasy tropes #but martin wants to get to the human underneath the trope #or the favorability #and see the darkness and light in all his pov characters #which means #in my opinion #that this original favorability is not an extremely helpful lens through which we judge the characters #I don’t think he necessarily wants us to favor or relate to most of the characters #but to love them and see them as fully expressed human beings #and while I don’t want to object to that sort of interpretation #if martin’s not writing for the sake of favorability #or if readers don’t read for that lens either #it becomes a weird sort of criticism #like #the human heart in conflict with itself doesn’t necessarily make for likable characters #and fandom’s reaction to characters isn’t really indicative of a good or healthy relationship to the text