There was a time when it seemed like a Stark reunion was the best thing that could ever happen in Westeros — the one thing that would make everything alright. But of course, the writers can never let us have it that easy. The Stark sisters are together at Winterfell at last, but not in the way we'd always hoped. Arya and Sansa are fighting on Game of Thrones, and unless the theory that Arya is playing Littlefinger is true, the series' escalation of the tension between the sisters could reinforce a harmful stereotype about powerful women.
There's long been a problematic notion in society that women don't work well together. It's evident in rumors about feuding (usually female) celebrities on movie sets; in the idea that "you're not like most girls" is a compliment; and in the troubling stereotype that women love drama and are catty, ready to stab each other in the back at the first opportunity. Somehow, it is difficult for society to believe that women can actually support and uplift one another, and work together to achieve common goals.
Sadly, we are watching this stereotype play out on Game of Thrones, as Sansa and Arya slowly descend into a game of cat and mouse. Though their reunion was certainly more tepid than that of Sansa and Jon, it wasn't devoid of genuine happiness. The reunion even included a moment of true sisterhood, as the Stark women proclaimed that though their lives had been anything but easy, their stories were far from over.
But now, a man is dividing them, playing on the age-old notion that women in power view each other as enemies rather than allies. What's worse is the way Episode 6 boiled down the Stark sisters' differences: One girl likes to sew, one likes to fight, both want power, so it's no wonder they're fighting. Leave it to Littlefinger to ruin a good thing. During the episode "Eastwatch," the ever-scheming Lord Baelish planted Sansa's coerced letter to Robb (in which she was forced to ask Robb to bend the knee to Joffrey) for Arya to find, then whispered in Sansa's ear until she began to really believe that Arya might be out to kill her. Trouble is brewing, in exactly the manner that Littlefinger wanted.
Allowing Littlefinger to deftly exploit tensions between the sisters reinforces the notion that powerful women can't work together, while simultaneously working to undercut the cunning Sansa and Arya have developed over the years. Sansa was explicit earlier this season about her mistrust of Littlefinger, so why would she suddenly turn to him now for advice about her sister? Arya is a trained assassin with incredible lie-detection skills, so shouldn't she be able to see that Sansa is telling the truth? Shouldn't they both be able to sense the trap they're walking into?
The whole situation betrays our knowledge of the characters. Sure, Littlefinger was able to easily dupe Ned Stark, but that was largely due to the late Lord of Winterfell's naive tendency to assume the best of people. Arya and Sansa do not share this folly. It would be out of character for them to be so easily manipulated into breaking their familial bond. Furthermore, it's simply not in character for Arya to jump to conclusions and not accept logical explanations with so little empathy. Her empathy is the reason she left Braavos and Jaquen Hagar in the first place.
The writers' apparent assumptions about these women, their motivations, and their susceptibility to Littlefinger are both an insult to their intelligence and their characters, as well as a tacit reinforcement of sexist stereotypes.
This presents a huge problem for a series that seems to be righting its past wrongs against women in Season 7 — unless, of course, the Stark women have really been pulling the strings all along. One fan theory suggests that Arya knows what Littlefinger is up to, and has deftly fooled him into believing his plan is working. Arya is far from stupid, and she's had extensive training in the art of deception: both enacting it and detecting it. It's quite possible she knew that Littlefinger would try to divide her family, and is frightening Sansa knowing that she would turn to Baelish, providing what he would see as proof that his scheme was playing out as planned.
Then there's the fact that Arya gave Sansa the Catspaw Dagger. The dagger was used by a hired assassin to attack Bran in Season 1, and Littlefinger told Catelyn Stark that it was his dagger that he had lost to Tyrion in a bet. Catelyn captured Tyrion, and the rest is history. Littlefinger recently bestowed the dagger upon Bran, in a symbolic move with an unclear motive. Bran gave the weapon to Arya, who has now, in a moment that felt particularly fraught with meaning, handed it to Sansa. Though the exchange of the Catspaw Dagger occurred at the end of a strikingly menacing speech by Arya, it seemed to be a gesture meant to symbolize that the two were on the same side, an invitation to take up arms against their real enemy: Littlefinger, and anyone else who might try to pit the Stark women against each other for personal benefit.
So it would seem that this potentially stereotypical plot and borderline character assassination may have a real point with this theory. Perhaps Littlefinger has finally committed a fatal mistake by underestimating Sansa and Arya. He's certainly not the first person to have done so.
Plus, in a series that has increasingly focused on the triumphant rise of women to power, it would seem counterintuitive to undercut the power of Sansa and Arya by allowing Littlefinger to easily pull off a malicious scheme by tricking two of Westeros' most shrewd and cunning players. But if this theory is wrong, and Sansa and Arya are truly headed for a showdown as Season 7 draws to a close, the writers have too easily fallen into a trap set not by Littlefinger, but the patriarchy.
And the last time I checked, the patriarchy wasn't faring too well in Westeros.