|By Bob Case
on Mar 17, 2017
Feminism can be a touchy subject – I doubt many will disagree with that.
Some think it’s good, some think it’s bad, some think it’s mostly good with some bad, some think it’s mostly bad with some good, some think it’s about half and half, and some (or even most) reject the entire idea that it can be quantified into a one-dimensional value judgement. Regardless of what you think, I’m not going to try and argue for or against you at the moment. Instead, I think there may be some consensus to be had on the following statement: bad feminism is bad.
In this context, “bad feminism” refers to a story that attempts to play up the strength and agency of its female characters but botches it somehow. Often such a story is in such a hurry to reach a certain dramatic conclusion that it never stops to check its dramatic premises – one whose empowering rah-rah moment doesn’t make up for its various troubling habits. Sansa Stark’s season six story is, in my opinion, a classic example.
I should point out that I don’t think it’s terrible, or a crime against equality, or anything like that. In fact, it has its moments. But it also follows two of the most familiar patterns this show imposes on its women:
1. Female agency exists primarily as a reaction to male agency, and
2. Female empowerment is consistently associated with violence and only with violence.
I call these two things “patterns” on purpose. A single instance of either or both would not, by itself, be that bad. It’s when it starts to repeat and reinforce itself that it becomes a problem. If we ever get to the other season six storylines we’ll see other instances of these patterns, but for now we’ll confine ourselves to the North.
The Highly Obedient Sansa Stark
The first of the two patterns listed above is “female agency exists primarily as a reaction to male agency.” The first part of Sansa’s story follows it to an almost comical degree. Starting with her last moment in season five and continuing through her first moments in season six, we see the following:
Sansa doesn’t want to jump off the walls of Winterfell, until Theon encourages her to. While running away, Sansa stops, exhausted. “We can’t stop,” Theon says, pulling her onward. They come to a river, and Sansa doesn’t want to cross. “I can’t,” she says, until Theon talks her into it. He holds her hand and guides her across the river. Theon guides her to an uprooted tree – “Over here! Come on!” The dogs track them down, and Theon convinces her to hide, and then to go to Castle Black if he doesn’t make it.
I`m not an expert on color filters. But Sansa`s hair is supposed to be red, right? It`s recognizably red when she`s in, say, King`s Landing. It`s just a little jarring how much they washed out so much of the footage that takes place in the North.
Sansa doesn’t do a single thing in this entire sequence that isn’t Theon’s idea. Now maybe you think I’m being too harsh – after all, Sansa has just escaped from a decidedly unpleasant captivity. So maybe she’s not exactly on top of her game right now. But I can’t hear this explanation without noticing that it’s Theon dragging her around as though she were a reluctant cocker spaniel. Theon, the character who the show has spent several seasons reducing to a physical and psychological wreck, is the one who’s brimming with initiative and can-do spirit.
It doesn’t stop with him, either. Later, Brienne offers her services to Sansa, and it’s Podrick that has to literally dictate Sansa’s lines to her – this despite the fact that Sansa, a highborn lady of a great house, ought to know the words for accepting an oath of service like the back of her hand. And right before that, there’s a moment – a single, sublime moment. There is a Nod of Male Approval.
The Nod of Male Approval, or NOMA, is familiar to the remote corners of the internet that traffic in Game of Thrones snark as their primary currency. Like many things that come from the internet, I have no idea where the term originated, though it’s enough of a no-brainer that many people may have coined it, or something very close to it, independently.If I had to guess, I would guess that it came from a podcast called “The Fanwankers,” which doesn’t quite exist anymore.
In any case, the phrase’s meaning is probably obvious. It refers to the moment when, on the brink of an important decision, a woman will suddenly need male guidance, and look with uncertainty to the nearest man, who will give her a comforting nod. This time it’s Theon, reassuring Sansa that Brienne and Pod are trustworthy, even though Theon has never met them and Sansa has. It’s a small thing, but demonstrative despite it.And if you like nods of male approval, you’re in luck, because you’ll definitely be seeing more of them this season.
In case you think this is a collection of isolated incidents, it’s not. Hit either rewind or fast forward on Sansa’s storyline and you’ll see the same pattern. Coming north? Littlefinger’s idea. Marrying Ramsay? Littlefinger’s idea. Asking the Blackfish for help? Take a guess. The army that showed up and saved the day in “The Battle of the Bastards”? That was Littlefinger’s army, and it was Littlefinger who suggested she use it.
See? Red! The shots look so much nicer when they turn the filter up to to ten instead of eleven.
That’s not to say there are no good Sansa bits. In the scene where Jon is reading Ramsay’s letter, he stops halfway through out of misguided delicacy – only to have her take the letter out of his hand and finish reading it herself. That was a nice touch, but moments like that are the exception, not the rule. Her main conflict in season six was her decision not to tell Jon about the army she had in her back pocket – a decision that still has me scratching my head, because we’re never given a coherent reason for it.
“We have to trust each other,” Jon scolds her afterwards. So apparently she didn’t trust him – despite insisting to Brienne that he was on her side. But didn’t trust him how? What was she afraid he would do if he knew? Betray her somehow? How? Why? To what possible end? Winterfell? He was the one insisting after the battle that she was the rightful Lady of Winterfell, and she was the one who wasn’t interested.This despite the fact that she’s actually heiress to Winterfell in two different ways and has a much sounder claim to it than Jon does. When first watching I thought that Littlefinger must have had some condition for the use of the Vale Knights that she didn’t want to meet, which they wanted to conceal from the audience until later. But they talk afterwards and neither of them mentions anything of the sort.
I know people have come up with explanations for why Sansa does this, but I have yet to read one that I found convincing. Basically, I think the writers wanted a dramatic last-minute charge in their big blockbuster episode nine battle, and didn’t really care if they had to abandon plausible character behavior to do it.
Lather, Rape, and Revenge. Always Revenge.
There is one thing that Sansa definitely does do this season, and that’s kill the bejeezus out of Ramsay by feeding him to his own dogs.
He died as he lived: shorn of every last scrap of body hair.
In doing so, she follows the second of the two patterns I mentioned above: female empowerment is consistently associated with violence and only with violence.
Now at this point you may be thinking that I must be the weeniest liberal weenie that ever weenied my way to North Weenieville, Weeniechusetts. After all, Ramsay was a thoroughly horrible person. Horrible enough that even those of us who don’t usually condone feeding people to starving animals might concede that this time they kind of had it coming.
But I want to reiterate that the effect of a negative pattern is found not in any specific instance but in the accumulation of them. And boy, does this pattern ever accumulate. The writers seem almost constitutionally incapable of respecting their own characters unless they demonstrate their ability to either be violent themselves or incite others to violence.
Expanding on this the way it deserves is outside the scope of this post. I just want to mention it now so I can come back to it if and when future examples come up. To be honest, Sansa’s storyline specifically is difficult to criticize – not because there’s nothing to object to, but because the problems are a little further below the surface than usual. But we’re done with Sansa for the time being. It’s time to wrap things up and get to the endgame.
 If I had to guess, I would guess that it came from a podcast called “The Fanwankers,” which doesn’t quite exist anymore.
 And if you like nods of male approval, you’re in luck, because you’ll definitely be seeing more of them this season.
 This despite the fact that she’s actually heiress to Winterfell in two different ways and has a much sounder claim to it than Jon does.