Sansa Stark was a character that I hated for most of Game of Thrones. She complained about needing to be married, she put a wedding above her family, and she reminded me of my cousins who put me down for being a tomboy when she put down Arya. From the beginning of the series, I gravitated towards Arya because she was different than the rest of her family. For Sansa, like all of the Starks, her naïveté was overwhelming. But she isn’t that girl now, and she hasn’t been for some time. In fact, she has grown, she learned, and she has lived beyond what many characters in the show and fans watching thought her capable of.
In season eight, episode four, Sansa Stark is confronted with the idea of an alternative path, one where her trauma didn’t exist, and she rejects it, noting that had she not been through the terror and violence she was subjected to, she would not be who she is now, she would have still been the world’s little bird. While some take issue with this, and in some ways rightfully so given the history of bad writing the character has been subjected I saw myself in that moment.
In truth, I stopped watching Game of Thrones in season five, on the episode “Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken.” Sansa’s rape at the hands of Ramsey Bolton and the camera’s focus on Theon Greyjoy in that moment removed Sansa’s agency in more than one. It removed her agency physically by having her subjected to sexual violence, it removed her claim to Winterfell in marriage, and by focusing on Theon, it removed her presence in her own trauma.
Having started falling in love with Sansa’s character before this, I had to walk away. It was too much happening to one character for multiple unnecessary reasons. I’ve spoken at length on the matter in both an episode of But Why Tho? the podcast and on my recent guest spot on Pod of Thrones.
But, like other fans who chose to exit that season I came back to the show. The teasers for season seven were exciting, and the women I had loved throughout the seasons were completely different characters than I remembered. So, I rewatched from season one, episode one and when it came to Sansa, I saw her arc fully forming over the seasons. And while I still believe that Sansa’s rape and more specifically the handling of it was unnecessary and gratuitous, the trajectory of her character afterword has been one that I see myself in, filled with fire and belief in herself in spite of the trauma she experienced, and in some ways because of it.
Trauma, in whatever shape, impacts us, it affects, and for some, it changes us. For Sansa, she entered the world of King’s Landing naïve and has returned to the North with a mindset on self-preservation and the preservation of the Starks. Having watched her family scattered, made to see her father’s head on a pike, abused in front of an entire court, raped, and almost murdered multiple times, she has had to harden herself. She has had to change and she has had to leave who she was behind, she had to get stronger to spite those who harmed her and to not allow it to happen again.
We see this clearing in season seven of the show when she conspires with her sister to kill Little Finger, a man who although did not physically harm her, manipulated and gaslighted her to suit his own needs. In parts of season seven and in season eight so far, Sansa is not a woman defined by her trauma but informed by it. The decisions made by others are not made by her, instead of keeping her father’s loyal optimism she turns to her mother’s pragmatism and fights for herself. All of what she went through led her to that moment, to be the woman she is and that has allowed her to put herself, her family, and the North first, while others swoon over the new Dragon Queen.
In episode four of season eight, “The Last of the Starks,” the Hound says that she would have suffered none of the men had she just gone with him. Had she left with him instead of staying in Kings Landing, she would have been safe. But Sansa isn’t interested on looking backward. Instead, she says “Without Little Finger, Ramsey, and the rest, I would have stayed a Little Bird all my life.” She is a woman with no intention of dwelling on what could have been, on what pain she could have avoided, and instead is looking ever forward.
However, there is a duality in this line. She isn’t just commenting on her growth, but also on what she has lost, her blissful ignorance of the world in season one would be welcome now, but from evils put against her, she sits the Lady of Winterfell, and she will keep looking forward. When the lines are delivered there isn’t a cold strength that Sansa has turned to since returning to Winterfell after the Battle of the Bastards, there was sadness.
As someone who has had to rebuild herself after trauma, I understand this and I feel seen by this. Now, given the fictive nature of the show, I have not lived in Sansa’s shoes, but I have dealt with my share of hardship and damaging experiences. The things in my life that have made me who I am. They have shaped my resolve and strength even though shouldn’t have all happened, but they did and looking towards the road I didn’t take did nothing but send me spiraling into depression. Thoughts about the one choice I could have made that could have changed things, the massive amounts of “if I had just” I uttered to myself were enough to fill a novel. But now, I accept who I am and I move forward. Stronger from my struggle and not debilitated by it.
To see Sansa Stark refuse to humor the Hound and instead live in the reality of the path she has been on versus the one she could have chosen shows her deep growth in character. A kind of character progression that takes time. The type of coping with trauma that took me years to get to, was laid in front of me by a character who has been through so much and remains standing. She was not thankful for her trauma, she was stating the fact of it and her agency in moving forward from it, something she has done she released the hounds and got her revenge on Ramsey Bolton.
I know that some do not like using the term broken to describe themselves, but I have no other word to describe the process of being traumatized and having to rebuild your sense of self and self-worth from the ground up, with small cracks remaining even after you put yourself together. For me, looking at Sansa, you see those cracks, but you see where she has reinforced them too, you see where she has learned how to keep them from opening back up, you’ve seen her grow.
Did Sansa Stark need her trauma to progress as a character? No. But at this point in the series, there are no main characters that you can name that hasn’t been through their own damaging experiences, the Starks especially. And while she didn’t need to go through it, and certainly not in some of the ways the showrunners wrote it, the growth of her character is in her acceptance of her trauma and the road she has walked, and by refusing to turn back and wish for another path. Instead, she keeps moving forward. Pushing towards a life where she is no one’s subject. As staunchly as she advocates for the North, she is truly advocating for herself.
Sansa Stark will not be ruled. She will not have her agency stripped again. And all of that is because she has emerged from her trauma on the other side and will not let it happen again. I feel that. I see myself in that. I may not be fighting to save a kingdom, but every day I make the choice to move forward instead of looking back and I am stronger than I was the day before. I don’t know who I would have been without the pain in my life, but I know I wouldn’t be me.
Everyone experiences and recovers from trauma differently. My love her progression and agency through her story doesn’t negate those who don’t see themselves in her journey or those who critique it. We all have our own paths and identify with different representations of them, for me, I see myself in her.
Sansa Stark’s journey isn’t a pretty one, people fail her, abuse her, and for the vast majority of it she isn’t in control. But when she finds her voice, when she grows from her trauma instead of being reduced by it, it resonated with me. Now, when I rewatch Game of Thrones, I see myself in her from episode one. We are made through our experiences, they leave marks on us. Sansa Stark has accepted hers as I have accepted mine, and instead of being a little bird at the will of those around her, she’s now a wolf moving powerfully forward into the cold, when no one thought she would survive.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime.