Friday, July 19, 2024

Sansa Stark and Cinderella: Abuse and Empowerment

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At first glance it seems odd to compare two characters like Sansa Stark and Cinderella. Sansa lives in the world of George R. R. Martin’s Westeros, which is decidedly un-child-friendly. On the other hand, Cinderella exists in a Disney film (we are ignoring the Grimm’s Fairy Tale version). Upon closer examination, however, there are clear parallels between these two heroines.

Both are born into a place of privilege and wealth. Sansa Stark is the child of Eddard Stark and Catelyn Tully; one is among the most powerful men on the continent, the other is the daughter of one of the most powerful men on the continent. Cinderella’s parents are never named, but they are wealthy enough to maintain a chateau in the countryside and own a farm, neither of which is anything to sneeze at.

Both are separated from their families and forced to live with dangerous, wicked people. For all Sansa knows, she is the sole surviving Stark alive after the death of her father, the Ironborn capture of Winterfell, and the Red Wedding. Until very recently, she was trapped in King’s Landing with the Lannisters and Tyrells, and even now she is trapped within Petyr Baelish’s intricate web. After the death of her mother, Cinderella’s father married Lady Tremaine. After her father’s death, Lady Tremaine and her two daughters turn abusive on Cinderella, forcing her to become a servant within her own home and never permitting her a moment’s peace.

So we can see that these two are not really that different. Another commonality between the two comes from popular perception of the character. People often level the criticism that they are both too passive in their roles, that they are weak willed and anti-feminist. Cinderella in particular has been maligned and decried by many, saying that her actions tell young girls that wishing and hoping will make their dreams come true, rather than any action on their own part. I thought the same thing, but then I happened upon this series of tweets by author Melissa Grey on twitter:

1 2 3 4 5

All of this can be applied to Sansa as well. In a world where her betrothed was willing to strip her naked and beat her in front of the entire court, Sansa could not afford to be outspoken and brash. She remembered her courtesies, put on a brave face, and survived the horrors of living with the Lannisters.

In many ways, Cersei Lannister is a kind of Cinderella too. Her father abused her and her siblings to the point that all of them have become dysfunctional; Cersei finds herself capable of loving only her children, and even then her love for them is distorted by her ambition, using them as a way to further her own power within the court. All Cersei’s hopes of meeting a dashing prince who will rescue her are dashed, first by Rhaegar Targaryen’s lack of interest and again by Robert Baratheon’s drunken abuse.

Sansa has started down the dark road that could turn her into Cersei Lannister. Yet she chooses to hold on to hope that things might become better. Neither Joffrey’s physical violence nor Cersei’s cruel words can make Sansa violate her principles. Though she may allow herself uncharitable thoughts, she never seeks to hurt anyone, and she even tries to help people whenever she can, saving the life of a drunken knight that she did not know and risking the wrath of Joffrey because it was the right thing to do, or helping an injured Lancel Lannister—an enemy. It is beautiful and poetic that in a world so cold and violent a young girl can hold on to hope that things might get better.

Sansa is the last Stark, and all her family’s legacy sits on her shoulders alone. Sansa is brave beyond all measure by refusing to crumble. And she has a guiding empathy where even in the face of her abusers’ suffering (at someone else’s hands, mind you), she cannot take pleasure:

She had seldom ventured out on deck herself. Her little cabin was dank and cold, but Sansa had been sick for most of the voyage … sick with terror, sick with fever, or seasick … she could keep nothing down, and even sleep came hard. Whenever she closed her eyes she saw Joffrey tearing at his collar, clawing at the soft skin of his throat, dying with flakes of pie crust on his lips and wine stains on his doublet. And the wind keening in the lines reminded her of the terrible thin sucking sound he’d made as he fought to draw in air.

Which makes Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones just so wrong. After enduring King’s Landing, being sold to the men who murdered her family, and her rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton, Sansa Stark has been broken. She callously dismisses her last true-born brother, Rickon, and refuses to think that he might be saved. Her gaze stops Jon Snow from beating Ramsay to death, but then she brutally murders Ramsay with his own dogs, smiling as he is devoured alive by the ravenous beasts.

Finally, Cersei Lannister’s triumph is complete, and Sansa has become what she hates. She is as distrustful as the Lannister queen and as brutal as Ramsay. She has become everything that her father stood against, and certainly everything Martin wrote her not to be. The House of Stark is now a complete ruin.

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So empowering.


All images courtesy of HBO and Walt Disney Pictures

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