Welcome back to our ongoing analysis of sex and gender issues in HBO’s Game of Thrones. After being away for a couple weeks, we’re eager to get back into it; this show keeps getting better and raising great issues for discussion. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out the first two articles in our [italic|Game of Thrones series, on Arya Stark and prostitution in the world of the show.
Call me naïve, oblivious, hetero-centric or even just thickskulled, but I was completely taken aback by the television version of Game of Thrones’ decision to explicitly depict Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell as lovers. Not out of any quasi-bigoted idea that knights and hopeful kings in the world of Game of Thrones couldn’t be gay, but because it seems such a drastic departure from George R.R. Martin’s novels, which of course, serve as the source material for HBO’s version.
Thus far, Game of Thrones has exhibited some deviations from the novels, but they have by and large been very slight. In fact, the television series is almost slavish to the novels in terms of characterization, ascribing thoughts, feelings and inner lives to characters in a medium that normally doesn’t allow for such expansive introspection. This made a scene in which Loras shaves Renly’s chest and armpits before fellating him all the more jarring.
Almost immediately upon seeing that particular scene I took to the internet to find out whether Renly and Loras, as lovers, was something new to the television series, or if I was just too dense to pick up on it in the prose version of Game of Thrones. As it turns out, it was a little of column A and a little of column B. Close readers of the series have uncovered a wealth of passages that could possibly point to the two characters being gay. In addition, Martin himself has even admitted that he intended both Renly and Loras to be gay in the novels as well.
All of Martin’s writing that might point to that fact, however, is extremely subtle to the point of vagueness and ambiguity. So it should come as no surprise that to an average reader – such as myself – it’s completely possible for those particular passages to go unnoticed. Even with all of the hints and insinuations, however, there are certainly no scenes of Loras-on-Renly fellatio or body shaving.
So, what’s the big deal then? A couple charismatic, powerful characters on a hit genre television show are gay. Taken alone, that fact is pretty bracing, even exciting, as sword-and-sorcery fantasy fiction traditionally hasn’t been extremely queer-friendly. The problem, I think, comes from how the two are portrayed outside of their sexual relationship.
In the novel Game of Thrones, Renly is described as handsome and charismatic, able to inspire love and devotion in those that serve him, but at the end of the day, he is still a Baratheon, and with that comes a certain level of…well, machismo, for lack of a better word. Keeping that characterization while making Renly more explicitly gay, could have been a fascinating, compelling, even controversial choice. Unfortunately, the television version of Game of Thrones took the easier route, turning Renly into a boyish, effete character, sitting in stark contrast to his burly, absurdly masculine older brother Robert.
Part of the problem comes from the casting. While there’s nothing wrong with Gethin Anthony’s performance, he looks extremely young when compared to King Robert. While he’s probably right on point in terms of the character’s age in the books, the rest of the cast, from Robert and Ned Stark all the way down to the children — especially the children — have been aged up.
Anthony’s boyish appearance, when coupled with the way in which he plays the character, has Renly fit neatly into modern real-world stereotypes of how a gay man would act. Renly hates hunting and marching about the wilderness, dresses extremely fine, and in his responses to King Robert, often appears practically mincing.
Finn Jones’ Loras Tyrell is even more stereotypical, with his narrow, effeminate features and preening mannerisms. Loras is one of the finest knights of Westeros’ Seven Kingdoms, not a character on a Bravo Reality Show. Even if the character is made explicitly gay, there’s no reason to have him perform such a modern conception of gayness. In fact, such a performance would fly in the face of Loras’ characterization as a champion jouster and respected warrior.
As if the two’s mannerisms didn’t put a fine enough point on it, Loras shaves Renly’s chest and underarms completely smooth in episode five, “The Wolf and the Lion.” At the very least, this is profoundly metrosexual and seems more like an opportunity to show viewers how fey these two are, as opposed to any kind of natural, organic plot or character development.
There’s no reason a respected gay warrior in 2011 couldn’t exhibit stereotypical gay behaviors, but there’s no logical reason for Loras or Renly to possess them, as “gay” is a modern concept and identity, and there has yet to be any indication that it exists in the world of the Game of Thrones books or television series. Like Achilles and Patrolclus, Loras and Renly aren’t gay — they just happen to have sex with one another, and that’s an important distinction.
Throwing out Martin’s hints and insinuations in favor of stereotypical gay mannerisms and slurping blowjob noises doesn’t just deprive the television version of Game of Thrones of subtlety. It also stands as a problematic depiction of men who have sex with men, as it insinuates that even in a completely different world and time, if you are a man who enjoys the sexual company of other men, you’re going to act gay.
Renly and Loras’ relationship in Game of Thrones should be more Brokeback Mountain and less The Birdcage. The television show is smart, subtle and provocative in most every other aspect, especially when it comes to exploring gender, sexuality and the power that comes with both, so there’s no reason for the show’s producers to have taken the easy way out here.
Game of Thrones seems to have no problems depicting Daenerys Targaryen having dalliances with her servant without taking on stereotypical lesbian traits, and even shows two prostitutes “practicing” for Peytr “Littlefinger” Baelish. Unfortunately, two men who are sexually linked could not be given the same even-handed, stereotype-free treatment.
This choice could be on account of the fact that contemporary audiences are so much more comfortable with female homosexual acts than male, and presenting Renly and Loras as gay could make the whole scene go down more smoothly (no pun intended). More’s the pity, however, as the show had an excellent opportunity to confront societal stereotypes of “gayness,” but instead chose to simply reinforce them. With three more episodes in this season, and plans for a full second one, hopefully Renly and Loras will be allowed to grow beyond their easy characterization.
Do you have something from the show that you’d like to see discussed? Then let us know in the comments below. Then, make sure to check back in the coming weeks as we continue to look at sex and gender in Game of Thrones, airing Sunday nights at 9pm on HBO.