Film / TVRace
yes, i hated sansa because of her (white) femininity
By Hari Ziyad
August 29, 2017
It seems like every few weeks another white woman writes an article about how women apologize too much. The reasons given are either that women have “a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior,” or that women apologizing is “a Trojan horse for genuine annoyance, a tactic left over from centuries of having to couch basic demands in palatable packages in order to get what (they) want.”
Either way, these apologies are understood to be a byproduct of sexist double standards, of women being forced by patriarchal systems to ask for forgiveness simply for moving through life.
But perhaps another reason white women apologize for so much is because they require forgiveness for everything they do—not just when it is unnecessary, but also when it is unearned.
In this season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, one of the main characters, Sansa Stark (played by Sophie Turner, X-Men: Apocalypse), has just escaped being married to a sociopath after being engaged to another, and the horrifying ordeals she experienced at the hands of both suitors, including rape, have made her character a lot more empathetic than she was in season one. But some of us still haven’t forgotten how Sansa actively overlooked the sadism repeatedly demonstrated by her first husband-to-be, Joffrey Baratheon, in hopes of fulfilling some fairy tale life, helping to get her father and two brothers killed.
In season 7, which debuted in July, her sister, Arya (Maisie Williams), is initially presented as though she still hasn’t let go of this history either, and repeatedly attacks Sansa for her relationship to “femininity.” Arguably, it was Sansa’s pursuit of what writer s.e. smith calls “feminine ideals” in “Don’t Hate on Sansa Stark’s Powerful Femininity” that led her to throw her kin under the bus just to marry into an evil ruling family. But for empathizing with Arya, smith chides viewers for the inherent sexism of disliking Sansa’s “very traditional performance of femininity,” a charge I have heard repeated in various iterations more and more as Sansa’s story arc continues to demand redemption.
But by “traditional performance of femininity” smith means a femininity that has been the standard put forth by whiteness—the standard of white male desire. And like all standards put forth by whiteness, white femininity is still reliant upon violent ideas of power, even if it also suffers from the patriarchy. White femininity, in Game of Thrones and elsewhere, is the power to oppress others in frills.
Before Arya’s disdain for Sansa and her “femininity” was even actionable, Sansa’s equal disdain for Arya’s non-conformity fell in line with existing power structures. Sansa had no qualms with abusing power when she had it, just like she had no qualms with betraying her family until it started to backfire. This is in line with how white feminists historically have had no qualms excluding both trans and Black women from their activism. The fairytales of white women are still predicated upon the abuse of power over others, even if they intend liberation for themselves.
If Sansa’s relationship to femininity is what caused her to seek out a murderous sociopath simply because he had the power she desired, if it caused her to defend said sociopath against her family just so she could have access to that power, if it caused her then to betray her family (in episode 2 of the first season, for instance, Sansa refused to defend Arya when she got in a fight with Joffrey), then yes, it is her relationship to femininity that should be disliked. But it is also this relationship to femininity, a white relationship to femininity, that ensures she is always defended by the smiths of the world, no matter how much violence she commits herself. White women are always victims.
“(Sansa’s) is typical white womanhood,” explained writer Émelyne Museaux to me on Facebook, “align yourself with white male supremacy until it turns on you, then use victimhood and presumed innocence to get others to do the grunt work for your liberation.” Embodying white femininity is still embodying whiteness, the same whiteness that white men embody, but only this time we are called sexist if we don’t defend it.
To be clear, the demand to protect white womanhood is not limited to the protection of “traditional femininity.” Arya, whom I empathized with for seeing her sister’s relationship with gender as a violent relationship, is a white woman too, and therefore is no less likely to rely on the oppression of others while occupying her gendered space. Yet a white queer lens pushes for Arya’s relationship with gender to be heralded and protected just as other white feminist lenses push to protect Sansa’s femininity, even though both relationships still rely on power and abuse over other marginalized people (in their cases, often each other).
White feminism, even white feminism that is queered, ultimately obscures the violence of whiteness by giving precedence to a white relationship with gender over whiteness’s relationship with power.
In fact, during yesterday’s season finale, Arya and Sansa finally banded together to show that their gender expressions are not ultimately antagonistic, but complementary, executing Sansa’s conniving advisor Little Finger after figuring out his slick game of continuously stoking the fires of their past feuds. “I was never going to be as good a lady as you,” Arya concedes to Sansa, “so I had to be something else.”
Here I am reminded of the fight between the wife-beating Black boxer Floyd Mayweather and anti-Black white MMA fighter Conor McGregor this past weekend. Mayweather won the fight relatively easily, and faced with the realities that Little Finger’s ideas about gender and McGregor’s ideas about Black people each add an additional layer of violence to their conflicts, both Little Finger’s death and McGregor’s loss could be celebrated as “hoorah” moments against the patriarchy and whiteness respectively. But to interpret them as such would be to forgive Sansa and Mayweather for the violence they’ve done in the name of white femininity and misogynoir, to reduce the importance of that violence to how “good a lady” or how good of a boxer they are, rather than acknowledge the harm they enact in their white and masculinist attachments (respectively) to those identities.
These fictional models of white womanhood have implications for political life as well. When Hillary Clinton was running for president, numerous Black women presented extensive arguments for opposing the former New York senator on the basis of her anti-Black history. In response, white feminists argued that any scrutiny specific to Clinton, even from the left, was rooted sexism. Rather than eliminating the demonstrable anti-Black violence Clinton’s access to power allowed, white feminism would prefer just that this violence be permitted for (white) women the same way it is for white men.
As I wrote previously, due to the special victimhood status of white women “even arguments against Hillary Clinton informed by feminist lenses become sexist attacks. Those who are not ‘with her’ become a bigger problem than her very real history of antiblackness. The victimization of her white womanhood obscures the victimizing power of her access to whiteness, only making it easier to go unaddressed.”
Because of this, it will be claimed that, as a non-woman, my attempt to address the violence of white womanhood in this piece is due to sexism. It will be argued that I hate the way all women embody femininity, as though white women are the universal women and Black women embrace the same violence alongside their gender that white women do.
It will be said that I do not care about the very real violence that white women like Sansa and Clinton and even Arya face at the hands of patriarchy, as if caring about this violence means that I have to excuse the violence they commit predating or that is mutually exclusive from those abuses. But I’ve learned from white women, and I am done with apologizing for not liking them any more than I like white men, for we have all apologized to white women more than we should.
For the record, white women do not apologize too much. There aren’t enough apologies in the world to make up for all of the Black people they helped and still help to enslave, lynch and incarcerate. I will not ask white women to stop apologizing, will not ask Black people not to hate Sansa, will not ask Black women to stop critiquing white female anti-Black presidential hopefuls, so long as this is the case.
*An earlier version of this piece mentioned Joffrey as Sansa’s first husband, when he broke off their engagement before they were married. It has been updated to reflect this.
This post is in partnership with BlackYouthProject.com
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