I wasn’t much interested in Game of Thrones when it premiered; I had written it off very quickly as, basically, Lord of the Rings, but with more boobs and rape. Mere months before the fourth season premiered, however, when I was laid up in my apartment following an appendectomy, I decided to give it a shot. And, naturally, I immediately got hooked, as I have a thing for big-budget, multi-narrative, sexy soap operas. I don’t use that term as a pejorative; as soapy and ridiculous as Game of Thrones is (and it is very soapy and ridiculous), it’s a rare kind of mainstream genre show that brings a variety of gender and queer issues to the forefront, and they have become the most interesting aspects of the show.
There has been much valid criticism of the series’ propensity for violence against its female characters, particularly the scene earlier this season when Jaime Lannister raped his sister, Cersei, next to the dead body of their child — a scene that became more controversial in the days following the episode’s airing, when its director claimed that the moment wasn’t sexual assault. The way the show treats its female characters is brutal — the world in which these characters live is formed by violence. Which is why, I’d suggest, the women of Game of Thrones are the most interesting characters: they are the most at risk, not just at the hands of their enemies but at the hands of their loved ones, as well. They must find creative ways to survive. In the cases of Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth, and Yara Greyjoy, that involves assuming masculine roles.
Brienne stands out from the other two women, as her physical appearance — tall, muscular — essentially determines her personality. Mocked throughout her life for her stature and features, she has rejected the notion that she is a lady — in both the physical and social senses. Instead, she takes advantage of her powerful body; she is not aggressive, nor does she share the quick temper and masculine obsession with violence that runs rampant throughout Westeros, but she does fight when necessary to protect herself and others. And that she has strong romantic feelings for the men she protects, first Lord Renly and later Jaime, makes her personality more complicated and realistic; a lazier treatment would have her pining for other women, as her physicality would also define her sexuality. But the fact that she assumes a masculine role as protector partially because of her attraction to those she serves proves that, as a character, Brienne is complicated and has a rich inner life.
Arya Stark and Yara Greyjoy could be written off as tomboys, two girls who, like Brienne, found swords and combat more intriguing than dresses and dolls. Arya, of course, is in hiding; her family is split apart geographically and has nearly been eradicated. She disguises herself as a boy (albiet unconvincingly) and, through her travels with the Hound, learns how to physically protect herself. Yara, of course, is not a young girl hiding under boys’ clothes but rather a grown woman who leads an army of men because she’s the only one present to defend the Greyjoy name. Her brother, Theon, first serves the Starks; then, proving his incompetence and lack of true leadership skills, he finds himself the prisoner of Ramsay Snow, who castrates him and then subjects him to a variety of homoerotic torture. Theon quite literally loses his masculinity and his ability to serve the Greyjoy name, and Yara takes control. What makes her stand out is that, unlike Arya, she is respected by her male peers — the major reason being that she’s an adult, but also that she’s proven her strength and power.
While these women are breaking out of the typical gender roles they are expected to fill, the show also has plenty of male characters who exhibit, both openly and in secret, queer sexuality. The most recent, and most radical, example is Oberyn Martell, who was a rarity in mainstream American television: a bisexual man. His cultural identity allows him to express his sexuality without shame or fear of judgement, although he gets plenty of the latter from nearly everyone in King’s Landing. And his overt sexuality, displayed with great fervor by the actor who plays him, Pedro Pascal, is both over-the-top and completely believable — a testament to both Pascal’s performance and the writing on the show. (The character has even inspired a hilarious subreddit for and about straight men — and I use that descriptor liberally here — who are questioning their sexuality after developing feelings for Oberyn.)
There is also, of course, Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell, star-crossed lovers who cannot possibly express their love for each other openly; Renly is, after all, married to Loras’ sister, Margaery. I found myself taken aback by the unapologetic depiction of sex between Renly and Loras in earlier seasons, especially in light of the relatively sexless and timid Looking, which premiered years later on the same network and was intended to constitute a “realistic” portrait of gay men. I wouldn’t dare call Game of Thrones realistic — there are dragons and snow monsters, for Christ’s sake — but at least the show doesn’t shy away from non-heterosexual sex, the male bodies lit as romantically and erotically as the female ones. That’s the one thing I can commend the show for embracing: there’s plenty of male eye candy on display.
Of course, both Oberyn and Renly were killed, quite barbarically; Loras is intended to marry Cersei Lannister, meaning his fate isn’t looking particularly pleasant, either. Yara Greyjoy seems immune to any violence outside of typical combat, whereas both Brienne and Arya are bullied and mocked for their identities. And, of course, there is Lord Varys, an asexual eunuch who stirs the pot in King’s Landing, villainously scheming to screw over everyone for his own power and gain. One could claim these queer characters are either broken down and beaten or, in Varys’ case, display a certain evil nature. Is this just business as usual when it comes to writing queer characters, only to have them be punished for their queerness?
I’d say no, just as I wouldn’t suggest that the show is misogynistic for the brutal treatment of its female characters. The world that Game of Thrones depicts is not unlike our own — it is violent and mean, scary and rough. It is, after all, under the control of men who assume their roles as leaders because it is the norm. These queer characters are realistic in that they struggle and fight to survive, some doing so by openly bucking social norms, others in secret because that is the only way they can safely express themselves. It is, then, an honest depiction of queer life and all its complications and various identities. That we get so many different queer identities each Sunday night, on what HBO has just announced is its most popular series ever, is not just a joy to see as a queer viewer — it’s also an important milestone.