Suffering does not equal strength. Period.
There was a lot to hate in last week’s Game of Thrones, from the fact that they killed off the only WOC in the show, to the show-runners apparently committing to the least surprising ending ever for Daenerys, to Brienne being reduced to begging Jaime not to leave, and yet, in an episode full of insulting and nonsensical choices when it came to their female characters, there was one that was so egregious that I find myself stuck on its significance, days later.
I’m talking about that conversation between Sansa and the Hound, you know, that lovely one where he remarks that he heard she’d been “broken in rough” to the fucking Lady of Winterfell in her fucking Hall while she’s providing his food and drink, and then she, instead of walking away, or hell, calling Brienne to shop his head off (Brienne was otherwise engaged, I get it), just basically shrugged and went, you don’t get it, those experiences made me strong.
Now, I don’t want to dismiss what she tried to say here, even if the way the whole scene came off was very different than what I’m sure the men behind the scenes, who after all have never experienced trauma of this kind, and clearly didn’t consult anyone who did, intended. She was trying to say, hey, I survived. I made it. I’m here and I’m fucking strong, so your words cannot hurt me.
What she said, however, was basically this: I’m only strong because I’ve suffered.
And that is utter bullshit.
Look, strength comes in many forms, and the moment we start trying to put restrictions on who is strong and which the approved ways to manifest said strength are, we run into problems. Strength is not something that can always be appreciated outwardly, and it’s almost impossible to measure what another person is going through and what it takes them to do even the smallest things.
Moreover, having Sansa state with pride that she’s only strong because she was RAPED implies not just that she was never inherently strong to begin with, but also that the act of being raped was somehow, what, positive? That she not just forgives her abusers, but somehow thanks them for making her strong? That she couldn’t have gotten to where she is without being assaulted?
And that’s not just insulting, it’s repugnant.
When Ramsay raped Sansa, back in season 5, the show took great pains not to show her own face as she was being raped – instead, they focused on Theon’s pain at seeing Sansa hurt, a very odd and disrespectful choice, to rob a victim of their agency and to try to make such a heinous act even more palatable for the viewers.
I stopped watching the show then, for a bit. I’m not sure I would have gone back had I known the same act they thought was too horrible to show would then be turned into a moment of empowerment for Sansa, had I understood that that particular rape wasn’t a choice dictated by anything other than a desire to break a character down.
Had I realized these writers honestly thought suffering was the only valid path to strength for women, or, at least, the only path to strength for Sansa. Arya and Brienne have been spared the sexual assault, if only because the showrunners have very carefully made them into more “masculine” type characters, and for that reason, have thrown more “masculine” challenges their way.
Women can only be inherently strong if they act like men, after all.
You see the pattern here, don’t you? Of the main female characters that are actually allowed to act feminine, who hasn’t been raped? Cersei has. Daenerys has. Sansa has. And the show has gone out of its way to show that somehow, they persevered and they become strong women despite that, which is both a somewhat empowering message and a horrible choice when they make it seem like suffering caused their strength.
Like their pain was the thing that made them strong.
And yes, these women not just survived, they’ve thrived. Yes, assault is a terrible, horrible thing, but people do move on (rarely as straightforwardly and easily as the women on this show have, but that’s another issue all together). And yes, there’s a certain power to be had from the feeling of having survived the worst that life can throw at you.
But that isn’t the only way to be strong, and Sansa herself – the one we’ve seen grow through these 8+ seasons – has enough experience at this point to understand that strength comes in many shapes and forms, and that pain didn’t create something, if anything, it revealed the strength that was always there.
Or at least, she should have.
Maybe if she were written by women.
That’s the thing, isn’t it? When you frame a show around “strong,” powerful women, and yet never allow strong and powerful women you claim to respect and love a chance to put their own experiences – which are diametrically different to the experiences of men – into those character, you end up with shallow characters that sometimes say the right things, and sometimes can give us satisfying moments, but in the end, will never be the true role models they could have been for women.
Instead they’ll forever remain a man’s idea of what a strong woman looks like. Just as Game of Thrones will forever be a white man’s vision of an edgy story: surprising at times, interesting at others, very rarely nuanced and never, ever truly groundbreaking.
What a damn shame.
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.