Caricatures in Game of Thrones

With the return of Game of Thrones this week, I was inspired to write something less policy-oriented and more media-oriented. Instead of talking about queer people being disenfranchised and treated as if they’re not real people, I’ll talk more about how they’re frequently written as if they’re not real people. 

I mention Game of Thrones because it’s one of my favorite shows. Actually, it’s one of my favorite fictional universes, period. I’ve read the books, bought the merch, groaned at the memes, etc. I’ll be the first to admit that the series has its problems, however.

Before launching any critiques of Game of Thrones, though, it’s important to distinguish between the books and the TV show. As of this year, the show has caught up to the books, so there is no longer a book canon/show canon split. This puts showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (colloquially known as D&D) in an interesting, if precarious, position. Whereas before, they were drawing plot and characterizations from extensively descriptive fantasy novels, now they’re reliant on author George R.R. Martin’s incomplete next installment and his potentially unclear vision for how things will proceed.

Here’s where the trouble starts. Although Martin has come under fire before for his portrayals of women, none read so egregiously as D&D’s inventions. They bizarrely exercised some created control and changed a consensual sex scene to a rape scene. This wasn’t enough though, as the director of the episode claimed that it “became consensual by the end.” What?

The quote is especially damning, given that the show has been accused before of using sexual violence (and sex in general) as a prop for shocking viewers, rather than for plot development. It’s hard to read this as anything other than a confirmation of that (artistic?) vision. Why else change the story so drastically?

I shouldn’t have to give a reason to not use rape as cheap, unimaginative attempt at drama. But I will anyway. It destroys the characterizations of the two characters involved in the scene. They simply don’t make sense anymore.

In this same vein, D&D take the series’ only gay romantic pair and manage to mess them up, too. In the books, they’re politically savvy. They’re complex. And they’re in love. When one of them, Renly, dies, the other, Loras, joins a celibate order because, as he puts it, “once the sun has set, no candle can replace it.”

Sure, it’s cringey and contrived. But it’s also romantic. So when, in the show, D&D turns Loras into a petulant and brazen sex addict rather than a grieving lover, it’s a bit jarring. In a show where political intrigue and manipulation is the name of the game, it’s a shame to reduce Loras from a cunning player to someone who gets manipulated every time some pretty boy gets dangled in front of his face.

This reductiveness speaks to a general trend in queer portrayals. They’re frequently so defined by their queerness that they lack personality outside of it. Show Loras is gay, we get it. It begs the question: why are Game of Thrones' producers so insistent about reminding viewers? Are they looking for brownie points? Why can’t queer characters be incidentally queer? Or at least not have all of their actions be somehow referential to or related to their queerness?

It’s usually just bad writing. To be fair, there are plenty of incomprehensibly written straight characters on TV as well. But whereas there are plenty of overdone character tropes for them, queers overwhelmingly fit into two or three.

There’s the tragic queer trope, the coming out trope, and the promiscuous gay trope. I’ll focus on the last of these in this discussion. Gay men, like Loras, are often written (or rewritten) to fit this mold. D&D even invent an entirely new gay character (who also has about as much personality as a brick) to seduce Loras, just to capitalize on this hackneyed trope.

Not that there’s anything wrong with promiscuity, of course. There’s definitely political value to using queerness as a means of accessing non-normative conceptions of partnership. But, does every gay man have to subscribe to this? I doubt it. When it’s someone like Loras, whose very nature as a complex individual was changed to fit an essentially pre-written type, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s boring, and it’s lazy.

The kicker is that for all of the failings in the portrayals of gay men, there are orders of magnitude more for portrayals of other queer people. Intelligently written gender non-conforming characters are even harder to come by. And if showrunners like D&D can’t even write straight cisgendered women in an emotionally realistic way, you can forget about queer women.

I guess the takeaway is that Game of Thrones is going to have to confront these failings, especially now that D&D are completely ahead of their source material. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are not appropriate to use merely for their shock value, and doing so vastly cheapens the show. Also, some attempt to salvage Loras as a character couldn’t hurt.

Spencer Campbell PO '19 is an intended history major from New Rochelle, New York. He enjoys hiking, queer politics, and Frank Ocean.

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