[Persephone] was filled with a sense of wonder, and she reached out with both hands
to take hold of the pretty plaything. And the earth, full of roads leading every which way, opened up under her.
It happened on the Plain of Nysa. There it was that the Lord who receives many guests made his lunge.
He was riding on a chariot drawn by immortal horses. The son of Kronos. The one known by many names.
He seized her against her will, put her on his golden chariot,
And drove away as she wept.
By Angela Sells
In many ways, discussing Sansa Stark is more complicated than listing the groundbreaking merits of her sister, Arya. Sansa brings with her memories of pain, violence, and assault. She also brings with her the fact that when a female character is left in the hands of two (white) male showrunners who have run out of source material, plotlines (and dialogue) may begin to suffer. In Game of Thrones, Sansa is an “innocent,” a sacrificial bride, the bleeding heart of the series. If Arya’s battle with the Night King injects into the myth of Persephone clear female agency that reflects back to us a necessary cultural shift (by her choosing to descend), Sansa reflects Persephone’s narrative as it is: survival through sheer endurance.
To recount, in brief: Persephone, as a resurrecting goddess, descends to the underworld after being abducted in the bloom of her youth by Hades. In her absence, her mother, the harvest-goddess Demeter, curses the land with perpetual barrenness (winter); the myth often is interpreted as metaphor for vegetation in the tradition of life/death/life gods, since Persephone’s ascent signals the return of spring.
The Rape of Sansa was one the most controversial single acts in Game of Thrones history. Why?
In season one, before Sansa is separated from her mother, she is a naïve, somewhat vain adolescent girl who falls in love with Prince Joffrey, a truly evil and entitled young prince destined to become King of the Iron Throne (and the seven kingdoms). Sansa appears in denial of his nature and in love with the ideaof living happily ever after as Joffrey’s princess. But that fairytale plot is soon dismantled when she is abducted by his family and used as a pawn amidst political upheaval. Joffrey becomes uncontrollable and, in his megalomania, kills Sansa’s father and forces her to watch. By the end of the season, Sansa is alone in a world of chaos, and her body is a battleground at the mercy of the king. She is expected not only to marry Joffrey, but also to bear his children at the first sight of menstruation. Understandably, she is terrified by her own blood.
During one of her many truncated escapes, Sansa is attacked, her dress torn open, and she is nearly raped, saved at the last moment by The Hound, an otherwise feared man who harbors a soft spot for Sansa, whom he calls “little bird.” Mirroring Persephone’s abduction in Ovid’s “Rape of Proserpina,”“The frightened goddess cries out to her mother, to her friends, most of all to her mother, with piteous mouth. Since she had torn her dress at the opening, the flowers she had collected fell from her loosened tunic, and even their scattering caused her virgin tears.”
After her father is beheaded, Sansa learns how to smile, move, and speak for the pleasure of the king, in order not to be killed herself. She is routinely humiliated, abused for sport, and threatened at every turn: she is married to Joffrey’s uncle—the “dwarf”—as a joke; she is manipulated by Littlefinger in his own treacherous game; she is married to and raped by “the bastard,” Ramsay Bolton. This latter episode faced harsh backlash by critics, and many feminists claimed to be finished with the series altogether. So, rather than enter into the fray of whether or not the rape “should have” happened (because the obvious answer is no), I’d like to examine Sansa’s narrative from the sheer objective fact of the show that it happened.
The problematic scene caused an outcry due to the fact that Sansa is not pictured on screen during her assault, but we can still hear her torture as the camera pans to Theon Greyjoy, another victim of Ramsay who was castrated and beaten into submission. The showrunners’ choice was viewed as an ill-conceived plot device to quicken Theon’s emotional and mental redemption rather than depict Sansa’s anguish. I, for one, was relieved not to watch Sansa abused on screen. Rather than further Theon’s plot, I felt that we were supposed to be Theon: his sadness and anger mirrored our own.
A critique by Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair notes that Sansa was exploited at the height of her autonomy and that Ramsay’s attack undermined her agency. But that’s what rape is: a weapon of power and control. Does her assault necessarily undermine her strength in every season thereafter? Do powerful women not also get attacked? Do family members not also suffer? Once we begin asking such questions, we stray from the crux of the issue: the reality of senseless violence. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with its depiction, the scene raises an uncomfortable reckoning with the myth of Persephone; it highlights the depth of abuse experienced by Sansa in the arms of a “Hades” who offers her no choice in descent.
Additionally, what happened to Sansa reflects an all too common truth: she was not an assassin like her sister, Arya, nor was she the 6’3” Knight Brienne; Sansa was a young woman left alone in the hands of monsters, in a medieval kingdom. Yet let us not lose sight of Sansa’s tenacious spirit. Over the course of eight seasons, many attempt to break Sansa, but she always persists. By the end of season eight, she has triumphed. She learns how to navigate her underworld and become its queen.
Sophie Turner, the actress who portrays Sansa, said she enjoyed playing a character who survived and thrived, and more so that “the rape is absolutely not a plot device to make the character seem stronger…. The sexual assault made her resilient, but by no means [did] it make her this wonderful character that we see today.… It absolutely broke her, and we saw that on screen. But seeing her thriving is so wonderful to see.”
One of the other most publicly criticized moments of the show came from the fourth episode of the final season. While Sansa speaks with The Hound, who still calls her “little bird,” about how she could have avoided all of the bad things that happened to her by escaping with him years ago, she answers: “If I’d done that, I would have remained a little bird all my life.” Social media erupted in anger with claims that this line was written to justify assault and to imply that Sansa became a powerful woman as a result of her abuse.
Some argued, understandably, that by having a woman writer on staff, the show could have avoided such a semantic blunder. But another meaning may be found, echoed by SNLcast member and Game of Thrones superfan Leslie Jones: [edited for obscenities] “Everyone needs to realize it’s a journey that makes you who you are, even if it’s a messed up one.” Sophie Turner agrees:[The line] was that she was strong in spite of all of the horrific things that she’s gone through, not because of them. She’s had resilience since the very beginning, and despite all of these awful things that happened to her, she’s kept that resilience. Sansa to the core is resilient and brave and strong, and that had nothing to do with her abusers.
Sansa’s resurrection and ascent to power is all the more glorious—as seen in the video below—after years of her endurance. Over time, we witness Sansa escape Ramsay and reunite with her siblings; we also see her get revenge on her rapist by pitting his own dogs against him. She was not fighting the undead like Jon, or learning how to change her face like Arya, or gaining omniscience like Bran; she was simply a girl in an unknown world, surviving human horrors. During the last three seasons, she transforms into a self-composed, strategizing, and noble woman when surrounded by liars, traitors, and murderers. By the last episode of the series, as winter comes to an end, Sansa is the only suitable choice for the position of Queen of the North, an independent kingdom apart from and in defiance of her brother’s rule. She is strong, fierce, and capable, “the wisest woman” her sister has ever met. She is a changing goddess, evolving from a young and naïve girl to a confident sovereign, who will rule with grace in a house of honor.
[Y]ou will be queen of everything that lives and moves about,
and you will have the greatest honor in the company of the immortals.
(Sansa as Queen of the North, Season 8)
Downing, Christine. The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. Authors
Choice Press, 2007.
Jung, C.G. (1938). “Psychology and Religion.” In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West
and East. p. 131
Hesiod, Theogony. Trans. Norman O. Brown. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953.
Hibberd, James. “Sophie Turner.” Entertainment Weekly. May 21, 2019.
“Homeric Hymn to Demeter.” Homeric Hymns. Trans. Apostolos N. Athanassakis.
John Hopkins University Press, 1976. Lines 15-25; 365-6.
Ovid, Metamorphoses5. Trans. A.D. Melville. 462 ff.
Pond, Steve. “Sophie Turner and Game of Thrones.”The Wrap. May 24, 2019.
Zeisler, Andi. “Is Game of Thrones‘Feminist’?” Bitch Magazine. June 7, 2013.
Photos, HBO, courtesy WikiCommons
Angela Sells, Ph.D., is a women’s studies professor at Sierra College and Meridian University. She is the co-founder of the Open Book Press, Chair of Goddess Studies for the American Academy of Religion’s Western Region, and a book reviewer for the Journal of Popular Culture. Her book Sabina Spielrein: The Woman and the Myth was published by SUNY Press in 2017.