Harper’s Bazaar recently labelled the feud between Daenerys Targaryen and Sansa Stark as “gendered and regressive”. Another publication, Buzzfeed, criticised Sansa Stark for the “dagger eyes” she had levelled at Daenerys Targaryen. A series based on political intrigue quickly became branded as anti-feminist following the showdown between Sansa and Daenerys despite the two characters significantly incompatible political aims. Their ultimately conflicting political interests which raised legitimate concerns as to the regency of the North and Westeros was a narrative denied in favour of decrying the lack of feminist solidarity between Sansa and Daenerys. The great expectation for Sansa and Daenerys to support each other simply for being women is not only gendered and regressive, but also undermines their ability to be recognised as equals as well as the credibility of their contrasting political aspirations.
It is important to question whether, if both Sansa and Daenerys were male characters, the same conversation would be taking place. In Season 7 of Game of Thrones, Jon Snow refuses to bend the knee to Daenerys Targaryen in their first meeting which took place in Daenerys’s ancestral home, Dragonstone. Jon was neither dubbed sexist nor condemned as “catty”. Just as Jon Snow initially displayed misgivings with respect to accepting Daenerys’s rule, Sansa Stark, likewise, is skeptical of Daenerys. Another key factor that must also be considered is that Sansa Stark’s character arc begins with her naively placing trust in the beautiful and golden Lannister’s, her trust ultimately proving to be misplaced in the penultimate episode of Season One, ‘Baelor’, when her father, Ned Stark, is executed by the Lannister’s. It would be an immense disservice to the character growth of Sansa Stark should she replicate that same blind faith in Daenerys Targaryen.
Sansa Stark reserves the right to carry out an independent appraisal of Daenerys Targaryen separate to Jon Snow. Though Jon Snow is the King in the North, Winterfell ultimately belongs to the Stark’s and the North of which Sansa Stark fought tirelessly to take back. Sansa, also, suspects that Jon’s judgement has been compromised by his relationship with Daenerys packaged with the Dragon Queen’s notorious beauty and the power of her dragons. It becomes all the more important for Sansa to exercise her own agency to form a judgement unaffected by Daenerys’s beauty and any possibilities of developing a romance with Daenerys. The denial of this exercise of agency and independent thinking is rooted in anti-feminist ideology.
However compassionate Jon Snow is, his stinted ability to accurately judge others has often created serious trouble for him which his cousin, Sansa Stark, would have likely considered. This is demonstrably evident in Jon Snow’s short-lived reign as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Subsequent to Jon’s controversial and momentous granting of refuge to the Free Folk south of the Wall, he fails to unify and repair the relationship between the Night’s Watch and the wildlings. Jon Snow heedlessly assumes, despite the objections of the Night’s Watch to cooperate with the Free Folk, that his decisions will be followed purely because he is the Lord Commander. Consequently, Jon is marked as a ‘traitor’ and murdered by members of the Night’s Watch. Jon Snow’s failure to anticipate severe consequences and discern possibly dangerous characters, two areas Sansa Stark has received ample tutelage in from her time in King’s Landing, more than qualifies Sansa’s right to analyse and identify possible threats to not only Northern independence but, also, the security and livelihood of the Northerner’s.
Questions were raised as to the justification of Sansa’s lack of trust in Daenerys Targaryen and doubts as to Sansa’s own trustworthiness herself based on previous events. One such event brought into question was Sansa Stark’s decision to not inform Jon Snow about the Knights of the Vale in Season 6 which had led to a great deal of scrutiny of Sansa’s underlying motives. However, if Sansa had informed Jon Snow about the Knights of the Vale, who’s to say that Jon would not have made the same significant error of attempting to rescue his brother, Rickon Stark? Rickon, as the last living male Stark heir, was unofficially dead the moment Ramsay Bolton captured him as Rickon’s existence was a challenge to his claim as the Lord of Winterfell. Sansa warns Jon: “[Ramsay is] the one who lays traps… he plays with people.” Jon dismisses Sansa’s advice. He subsequently fails in his rescue mission and finds himself alone on the battlefield as Ramsay had planned. This renders any knowledge of the incorporation of the Knights of the Vale into their army futile as Jon was always going to fall for Ramsay’s trap. The only difference, a vital difference, is that the incorporation of the Knights of the Vale in their army at the start of the battle could have potentially resulted in higher casualties. The Knights of the Vale’s last-minute arrival is the sole reason Jon and Sansa won the Battle of the Bastards. In light of this, it is important to note the clear distinction between Jon and Sansa in their abilities to read other character’s well.
In the first episode of Season 8 titled ‘Winterfell’, Daenerys Targaryen delivers Sansa ample reason to distrust her. Sansa Stark raises legitimate logistical concerns, albeit rather curtly. She asks Daenerys how she is supposed to feed this huge army that Daenerys has brought to Winterfell, adding: “What do dragons eat, anyway?” Daenerys issues a veiled threat by smugly and unhelpfully retorting: “Whatever they want.” Though this could be easily dismissed as verbal sparring, it possibly exposes Daenerys to her own shortcomings concerning her administrative capabilities. Daenerys may have been recalling her actions in the Field of Fire 2.0 in Season 7 during which she torches the loot train notwithstanding the pressing concern of feeding her army. Her failure to apply caution and sound logic ensures the loss of much needed stock which may have alleviated the burden placed on Sansa’s existing, but limited, stock that she had diligently collected. Daenerys’s lack of effective planning for the harsh conditions of winter sows a seed of concern as Daenerys had clearly delegated heavy administrative responsibilities to Sansa illustrating her reluctance to shoulder the responsibility of feeding her army herself, and an unwillingness to take accountability of her own actions.
In the same episode, Daenerys is, later, troubled upon discovering that her dragons are “barely eating” having merely consumed 18 goats and 11 sheep. Such an amount would hardly qualify as “barely” any food for the Northerners as it could potentially have fed a considerable number of families. So, what else do dragons eat if they cannot locate livestock? In Season 4, Hazzea, a Meereenese farmer’s four-year-old daughter, is killed by Drogon. Daenerys is grief-stricken for a lengthy spell, going so far as to cage Viserion and Rhaegal in the catacombs. However, by the end of the fifth novel, ‘A Dance with Dragons,’ Daenerys no longer remembers the child’s name. In that same POV, worryingly omitted in the television adaptation, Daenerys’s inner monologue reveals her decision to discard notions of peace and diplomacy in favour of unleashing her inherent ‘Fire and Blood’ nature in her pursuit for the Iron Throne, and, thereby, willfully ignoring the possibility of innocent children becoming collateral damage. Though Sansa is not privy to Daenerys Targaryen’s inner monologue, some readers shared their concerns of a peaceful rule under Daenerys.
Sansa is right to question Daenerys; she understands what ruling entails, whereas Daenerys’s frequent succumbing to her ‘Fire and Blood’ nature palpably demonstrates a shirking of administrative responsibilities central to ruling a kingdom which Daenerys, in the book series, is aware of, but plans to resolve through violence. Unfortunately, it appears that Daenerys, in the HBO series, believes in her full might to feed her army through ‘witty’ quips. That’ll feed ’em.
In the second episode titled ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,’ Daenerys spins the Lena Dunham, ‘girl power’, white feminist spiel on Sansa (that smile said it all). Daenerys presumptuously interprets Sansa’s grievance to be rooted in misogyny failing to comprehend the threat that Daenerys, herself, poses to Northern independence. Daenerys attempts to bond with Sansa by shining a light on their commonalities:
- Both are powerful women who have ruled ‘successfully’
- Both of their ancestral homes were stolen by the Lannister’s
- Both love Jon
Daenerys adopts a patronising tone to placate Sansa’s foreboding that Jon bent the knee for love by terming ‘The Great War’ as “Jon’s war.” This fails to earn Daenerys any brownie points as it indicates that Daenerys doesn’t view Sansa as an equal by reducing her concerns to that of a sentimental premise (though she ran the girl power spiel). Nor does Daenerys recognise, in this scene, that as Westeros’s self-proclaimed Queen, the major threat to the lives of the citizens she wishes to serve is not merely “Jon’s war”, but hers too. So, who is being misogynistic to whom?
Daenerys hadn’t ruled successfully in Meereen. During the time Daenerys spent in captivity with the Dothraki, Tyrion Lannister was left to deal with the political backstabbing in Meereen, and to stabilise the economy by reestablishing trade. Though her abolition crusade is well-intentioned and more than justifiable, she left a number of cities in ruin without an effective system in place leading to various collapses of economic systems, and, in Meereen, this, inevitably, leads to freed slaves returning to their masters. In defence of Daenerys, overthrowing a system to build a new and better one is a gigantic task and enormously difficult to achieve especially for a young woman with a shortage of political nous. When Hizdar points out that “politics is the art of compromise,” Daenerys responds that she is a “Queen, not a politician.” She fails to recognise that the two positions are not mutually exclusive to ruling. Daenerys’s reign in Meereen is hard-hitting evidence of Daenerys’s limited understanding of the role and qualifications required of a queen, and as such, solidifies the harsh reality that audiences, perhaps, should not be too surprised that Sansa Stark is, very rightly, mistrustful of Daenerys’s ruling capabilities, doubts which aren’t formulated on gendered grounds.
Daenerys is supposedly the “Breaker of Chains,” so, shouldn’t the Breaker of Chains be more open to the idea of granting independence to the North? This, in no way, classifies the Northerners’ as slaves, but rather alludes to the concept of freedom. The North has assiduously laboured for independence since Season 2 where Robb Stark was crowned ‘King in the North.’ The Northerners’ values, mannerisms, faith and traditions greatly differ to the rest of the Kingdom’s and this is clearly depicted in the way both Ned Stark and Sansa suffered in King’s Landing. Sansa’s resentment of Daenerys Targaryen is entrenched in the tremendous threat to the independence that the Stark’s strenuously fought to secure.
In Season 7, episode 4, titled ‘The Spoils of War,’ Daenerys demands the Tarly’s and the survivors of the Field of Fire 2.0 to “bend the knee or refuse and die.” Their choices are limited to two, fealty or death, and as one choice is death, it’s not really much of a choice, is it? Demanding servitude, as one Twitter user pointed out, is still shackling people to chains, even if the ‘chains’ are invisible. Therefore, it stands that “Mhysa is a master” too. We can infer that Sansa was raised listening to stories of how the Mad King burned her uncle and grandfather alive. That Daenerys began her campaign in Westeros by threatening death by fire to defeated soldiers should they fail to acknowledge her as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, Sansa’s mistrust of Daenerys was only a natural consequence.
Daenerys demonstrates her lack of compassion in ‘The Last of the Starks’ where her desire for the Iron Throne overshadows the needs of an exhausted army. Sansa Stark reminds Daenerys that the Dothraki and Unsullied will also suffer should Daenerys refuse to grant the armies sufficient rest. This further solidifies and justifies not only Sansa’s doubts as to the sincerity of Daenerys’s wish to treat her subjects fairly, but Arya Stark’s too.
Coupled with the threat to Northern independence that Sansa had fought and bled for which Daenerys’s ultimate political aspirations, to rule over the Seven Kingdoms, directly conflicts with, Sansa’s immediate mistrust in Daenerys is consolidated as the final season progresses with each new encounter strengthening Sansa’s misgivings concerning the sincerity of Daenerys’s wish to serve the people well added to Sansa’s rising skepticism of Daenerys’s potential to rule effectively. Though it is arguable that Daenerys’s beauty and the potential power it holds over Jon Snow could raise grounds for gendered suspicion of Daenerys, it is quickly dissipated by Daenerys’s increasingly apparent incompetence and lack of sincerity in her wish to serve the realm well.
What are your thoughts on the Daenerys v Sansa conflict? Who are you rooting for and why? What did you think of the conversation between Daenerys and Sansa? Do you think the show’s portrayal of the two is ‘gendered’ and ‘regressive?’ Do stories need to be all about ‘girl power?’ Let me know in the comments!
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