Watching Game of Thrones is an interesting undertaking if you’re a woman who likes women. One the one hand: hey, a fantasy series with lots of distinct female characters who are, on the whole, about as developed as you’re likely to get in a mainstream franchise set in a world that draws a significant amount of inspiration from ye olde chattel days. On the other hand: seven hells, does a lot of woman-hating happen on this show. You can argue about whether it’s a misogynistic series or just a series set in a misogynistic world (or both), but the fact is that the majority of the female characters’ storylines involve dealing with the worst dudes you can imagine. Like, would-literally-be-twirling-their-mustaches-if-both-hands-weren’t-busy-committing-all-this-sexualized-violence dudes.
So how to give these fabulous women the storylines they deserve? The answer is, as always, for them to give it to each other.
A disclaimer: these may be George R.R. Martin’s characters, but we don’t play by his rules. All characters who are minors in the storyline as it stands should be understood to be shipped only once they have reached an appropriate age, because just because GRRM thinks it’s chill for people to get married at thirteen doesn’t mean it is. Moving on.
The beauty of having so many female characters in the series is that the possibilities truly are endless. You want some femme powerplays? Can I interest you in some Sansa/Margaery?
Are you imagining me opening a trenchcoat to reveal innumerable pockets full of tiny women making out? I hope so.
You like femme powerplays just fine, but you prefer them with more fire and murder? Allow me to introduce you to Daenerys/Melisandre.
Think of your own “hot” pun, I’m not going to do everything for you.
You’re down with murder, but prefer more of a scruffy boi-ish vibe? Yara/Ygritte is here to fulfill your every desire.
These two already have the “lesbian merge” thing going on. Meant for each other!
We’ve got something for almost every taste (assuming your taste runs to white women, because this series remains a bastion of white patriarchy and weird, racial crowd-surfing). Try to stump me. You can’t. You’re in the market for blonde monarchs with arranged marriages, dead husbands, and incestuous histories who want each other dead? That’s pretty niche, but Game of Thrones gives you Daenerys/Cersei and doesn’t even judge you for it.
Their accessories are all pointy, so it’ll be convenient for them to try to stab each other post-coitally.
Have most of these women met in canon yet? Nope, because Game of Thrones has a thousand storylines and also because patriarchy. Is that important to my fantasy life? Not in the slightest. You could spend your time arguing with me, or you could spend it thinking about Ygritte and Yara having filthy sex by a fire they built after slaughtering a thousand dudes. Your priorities are up to you.
I’ll be honest with you, though, friends: I come here with an agenda. I want to show you the light of Game of Thrones femslash, yes…but I also have a particular pairing in mind. A beautiful pairing. A pairing that deserves its own series of seven thousand-page books. I speak to you of the power and the glory of Sansa/Brienne.
Nothing matters to me but this.
If the epic butch/femme vista you see before you is not enough to convince you in and of itself, don’t worry. I went to a liberal arts college, y’all, and I’m about to unpack some goddamn text.
Sansa Stark is the character most hated by dudebro fans, which is how you know she’s actually the best. She starts the series as an idealistic believer in fairy tales (“All she wanted was for things to be nice and pretty, the way they were in the songs.” – an actual quote from the first book). The eldest daughter of a noble family, she idolizes knights and queens and life at court. Until, you know, all the murder. And manipulation. And being forced to stay engaged to this walking, talking frowny face:
This is Joffrey. You know that creeping sense of dread you get when you see a group of leering, shouting teenage boys out in public? Joffrey is the embodiment of that, only much worse.
Nothing good ever happens in Game of Thrones, especially not to Sansa or anyone in her family, and the other characters make sure to remind her of it.
“Sansa had no choice but to explain about heroes and monsters. The king’s councilor smiled…’Life is not a song, sweetling. You may learn that one day to your sorrow.’” — A Game of Thrones
That councilor ends up being a sexual predator who’s obsessed with her because she reminds him of her mom, so, you know, he’s not wrong.
WHO HURT YOU? Just kidding, I already know, it’s everyone.
Sansa watches her family members executed, is forced to remain engaged to an abusive blonde wig, narrowly avoids sexual assault, loses even more family members, and finds herself with absolutely no one she can trust. Her body, marriage, and life are used as poker chips by more powerful people, and she isn’t even allowed to sit at the card table. By the second book, her disillusionment is complete, displaying a lack of faith in the men around her that many of us may be familiar with:
“Knights are sworn to defend the weak, protect women, and fight for the right, but none of them did a thing… the Hound hated knights … I hate them too, Sansa thought. They are no true knights, not one of them.” — A Clash of Kings
“They are children, Sansa thought … They’ve never seen a battle, they’ve never seen a man die, they know nothing. Their dreams were full of songs and stories, the way hers had been before Joffrey cut her father’s head off. Sansa pitied them. Sansa envied them.” — A Storm of Swords
That “Hound” she mentions is a warrior who hates knights so much that he refuses to be knighted himself. He is violent and cruel, but he still earns a small amount of sympathy from Sansa, because Sansa is the best and also too traumatized to know better. You can see him lurking ominously in the background three pictures up. They have conversations like this:
“True knights protect the weak.”
[The Hound] snorted. “There are no true knights, no more than there are gods. If you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way of those who can. Sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don’t ever believe any different.”
Sansa backed away from him. “You’re awful.”
“I’m honest. It’s the world that’s awful.” — A Clash of Kings
Some (generally male) fans like to deride Sansa as “boring” and “stupid,” because they have terrible opinions and also (as previously discussed) because of the patriarchy. Many of them compare her negatively with her little sister Arya, a tomboy who solves her problems using edged weapons.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I too worship at the alter of Arya, because nothing warms me to a person like watching them dress in drag and go about stabbing haters. But Sansa’s struggle to stay alive matters just as much, at least to me. Trapped in a court where intrigue has killed off people older and wiser than her, Sansa can’t afford to pull out a knife when her life is in danger. Her resistance has to be more covert. Her survival is all the resistance she can afford, and the quiet, tightrope tension of it makes it no less heroic.
Cersei, the mother of Sansa’s pulsating boil of a fiancé and his partner in ruining Sansa’s life, gives the series its title: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Sansa’s not dead, so she must be winning. God knows I’ll raise a glass to that, and wait patiently for the courteous and well-dressed hellfire she will eventually rain down upon all those who have wronged her.
If this doesn’t wind up endgame I will buy a house, gift the deed to GRRM, and then burn it to the ground.
Here’s Brienne being better than a dude. This happens a lot.
Brienne of Tarth, who first appears in the second book of the series, is a female knight, frequently called “freakish.”
“A lady, is it? Armed and armored? Illy, gods be good, the size of her.”
“I took her for a knight as well,” the older knight said, turning the trout.
Had Brienne been a man, she would have been called big; for a woman, she was huge.
Freakish was the word she had heard all her life. She was broad in the shoulder and broader in the hips. Her legs were long, her arms thick. Her chest was more muscle than bosom. Her hands were big, her feet enormous. And she was ugly besides, with a freckled, horsey face and teeth that seemed almost too big for her mouth. She did not need to be reminded of any of that. — A Feast for Crows
GRRM says “ugly,” I say “masculine-of-center dreamboat of my heart.”
If we dated she would totally kill all the spiders for me.
Throughout the series, Brienne shows herself to be more than capable of beating the realm’s most powerful and famous knights, despite being only eighteen in the books. She first appears in the series having won a 180-person tournament held in honor of Renly Baratheon, a would-be king to whom she is absurdly loyal. The prize she requests for her victory? The chance to pledge her life to him as a member of his Kingsguard. Renly’s knight (and lover) Loras Tyrell, one of the many Brienne beat that day, says as much: “[Renly] said that all his other knights wanted things of him, castles or honors or riches, but all that Brienne wanted was to die for him.”
That’s right: Brienne doesn’t just kick ass. She’s also a better person than ninety percent of the other characters in the books, despite dealing with bullshit like this at every turn:
“’I came to fight,’ [Brienne] insisted. ‘To be a knight.’
‘The gods made men to fight, and women to bear children,’ said Randyll Tarly. ‘A woman’s war is in the birthing bed.’” — A Feast for Crows
“’This was not chivalrously done,’ said Brienne when they were close enough to see it clearly. ‘No true knight would condone such wanton butchery.’
‘True knights see worse every time they ride to war, wench,’ said Jaime. ‘And do worse, yes.’
Brienne turned the rudder toward the shore. ‘I’ll leave no innocents to be food for crows.’” — A Storm of Swords
You know those women who out-gentleman every man you’ve ever met in your life? The ones who take the weird toxic masculinity of our society and refine it into an art form that involves less misogyny and more pocket squares? Brienne is that woman. Brienne will insist on holding the door open for you when you leave the gay bar together and then will lay her jacket down over the puddle outside. Is it overkill? Yes. Is it gentle and endearing? Absolutely.
Unfortunately, the other characters are less easily won over than I am. Brienne receives little in the way of decent treatment from those around her. At best, she’s laughed at; at worst, she’s regularly forced to defend herself against attempts at sexual assault. Through all of it, she remains committed to the ideals of chivalry, despite the fact that none of her fellow knights seem interested in them, least of all Jaime Lannister, with whom she travels for a significant portion of the series. “Old or young, a true knight is sworn to protect those who are weaker than himself, or die in the attempt,” she reminds herself at one point. Hmm. Who does that sound like?
Brienne’s focus on chivalry is admirable, but it also comes from a place of insecurity. In a rare moment of vulnerability, she tells a holy man that she is her father’s only living child, her brother and sisters all dead.
“Galladon drowned when I was four and he was eight, though, and Alysanne and Arianne died still in the cradle. I am the only child the gods let [my father] keep. The freakish one, not fit to be a son or daughter.” – A Feast for Crows
And therein lies the crux of why my heart belongs to Brienne; she may be seen as a freak, but if she’s all her family’s got left, then she’s going to be the best damn freak this world has ever seen. She may not always be happy about it, but she’s sure as hell not going to do anything by halves.
Her story is also one of finding new kinds of family. When she falls in with Catelyn Stark, Sansa’s mother, she recognizes her integrity and courage and swears allegiance to her.
I’m not saying this show would be better if you removed all the dudes but that’s exactly what I’m saying.
Catelyn, who has been separated from her daughters since the first book, commands Brienne to go in search of Sansa. Brienne faces a truly ludicrous number of obstacles along the way, including one incident involving a bear, but still finds time to think dreamy thoughts like this one:
“She wondered whether Sansa Stark was cold as well, wherever she might be. Lady Catelyn had said that Sansa was a gentle soul who loved lemon cakes, silken gowns, and songs of chivalry, yet the girl had seen her father’s head lopped off and been forced to marry one of his killers afterward.” — A Feast for Crows
Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be able to warm her up just fine if you ever find her.
First off, Brienne looks like half the women I’ve ever crushed on, and Sansa looks like the other half, so this pairing has the aesthetics on lock. How often do we actually get to see butch/femme relationships onscreen? They’re hardly the be-all-and-end-all of lady relationships, but I’ll be damned if they don’t hold a special place in my heart. Plus, the sexual dynamics would be fascinating. Do I prefer Brienne as a stone top or a power bottom? Would Sansa ask her to sometimes leave the armor on? I’m not sure, but I am absolutely certain that I’d like to see all of those options explored in depth.
This pairing isn’t just pretty, though. These two characters complete each other in ways that make me want to drink a bottle of wine and then refill the bottle with my queer-ass tears.
Brienne centers her entire identity around chivalry, because it’s her only chance to be taken seriously; Sansa is desperate for a protector who is uninterested in using her for his own ends. Sansa has shown herself able to see the value of non-normative “knights” like The Hound; Brienne longs for someone who recognizes her true worth as a warrior, no matter her gender. Sansa used to believe in the existence of true knights; all Brienne wants is a chance to prove herself to be one.
I’m a sucker for most femslash pairings, especially ones that could be cosplayed at a Renaissance Fair. But Sansa/Brienne has a special place in my heart because of their uncanny ability to shore up one another’s weakest spots. The girl with no allies gets the most loyal warrior the world has ever seen, but not one you’d ever hear about in the songs. The woman with only her moral code for company gets someone who will neither laugh at her ethics, nor think she’s unworthy of them. They both get a space to be the versions of themselves they would have been if the world hadn’t been so relentlessly shitty. Everybody wins, everybody cries, especially me.
It would seem, tragically, that I am among the minority in my undying loyalty to Sansa/Brienne. As of this writing, the fanfiction website Archive of Our Own boasts a grand total of seven works featuring Sansa/Brienne. Meanwhile, the relationships of Sansa/The Hound and Brienne/Jaime Lannister have several hundred each. You may remember those two gentlemen as being the ones quoted above as deriding Sansa and Brienne’s beliefs in the possibility of good existing in the world.
And you know what? I can see where that’s coming from. Good things don’t tend to happen in GRRM’s world, after all, especially not to women. A murderous shadow-demon slithered out of a sorceress’ vagina at one point. Maybe the best outcome for a lady one could reasonably fantasize about would be settling down with the murderer with whom she has had the highest number of civil conversations.
But I’m fairly certain you already know what I think of that, friends: it involves me sticking out my tongue and making a variety of rude and untranscribable noises. If I can suspend my disbelief enough to accept magic and dragons, then you are overestimating my restraint if you expect me not to smuggle happy ladies along with them. Fantasy breeds fantasy, and if we’re building worlds than I’m going to build myself into them. No caveats, either. No lesbian pulp novel tragedies. No Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. Just women making each other happy, with occasional breaks for swashbuckling and horseback rides. Cynicism and skepticism and an assumption of the worst-case scenario for people like myself is for every other waking moment of my life, thanks.
Sansa and Brienne will likely not wind up together in A Song of Ice and Fire, and I can accept that. Fire cannot kill a dragon, and lack of representation cannot kill a lady gay, only gradually chip away at her self-esteem. But just know that however this series really ends, in my heart of hearts it closes on a knight and her lady riding off into the sunset, blood behind them and safety ahead. Clap if you believe, children.
And write me more goddamn fanfiction.