Gay Representation in Game of Thrones: the Problem with Renly and Loras

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Hi! I’m Violetta Vane, writer of urban fantasy slash m/m romance. You might know me (and my cowriter, Heidi Belleau) from such novels as Hawaiian Gothic, but if not, don’t worry, because I’m not going to talk about writing. For my first post on this neat new blog, I thought I’d write something fan-oriented instead. So let’s hop aboard the spiky pedicab for a journey into Westeros!

I’ve read the first four books of ASOIAF and watched both seasons of Game of Thrones. I’m a fan. That doesn’t mean I’m not also a critic. My enjoyment is tempered with frequent bouts of groaning, hissing, head-shaking, and extending the middle finger at the screen.

Gay representation in Game of Thrones is a fascinating subject, because it’s actually quite groundbreaking to have an explicitly gay relationship in a mainstream, big-budget fantasy. I’m speaking of Renly and Loras. For those who don’t know the plot, Game of Thrones is structured around the quest for power after the death of King Robert Baratheon. He has a son and heir—Joffrey—but people are concerned that Joffrey is the product of an incestuous affair between Queen Cersei and her brother, and therefore illegitimate. Joffrey can’t help that, but just as importantly, he’s a smarmy little dickbag that every viewer loves to hate. The actor is young, but he does evil so well. Robert also had two brothers, Stannis and Renly. Stannis is off on an island for most of the first season, and all we know is that he’s not as bad as Joffrey, but he’s still kind of a dick. And then there’s Renly, Robert’s younger brother. Everyone thinks he’s a nice guy, and he has a nice smile (although I’m not a fan of the beard). His gay lover is Loras, the son of the powerful and wealthy Tyrell family. Loras is  known for his skill in battle and looking pretty. He’s called “The Knight of the Flowers”.

Once the claimants start gathering their forces—there are many many other claimants I haven’t mentioned—viewers are given a scene where Renly and Loras plot during sexytimes. We don’t get that in the book, because neither are POV characters, but everything that’s said between them politically makes sense in terms of the book. They have only that one scene; in contrast, the show contains double digits of heterosexual scenes of what I call exposition-by-whore, in which sensitive political details are discussed during, well, sex with whores. That’s one of my complaints, actually: since prostitution assumes more importance in the show than in the movie, then I wanted an actual prostitution arc that shows these women with agency, not just as exposition tools and victims. But I digress. Back to the gay… the gay which mightily disturbed many fanboys, who flooded the boards the day after that episode aired in order to complain about the Renly/Loras scene. Their biggest complaint was that the scene cuts right after Loras goes down on Renly—you could hear the “slurping” noise, and this nightmarish sound greatly traumatized their shell-like ears. Let’s spare a moment of silence for their suffering, okay?

Now let’s wipe away our tears and move on to the manscaping:

This scene was a little weird because Loras shaves Renly’s body but he doesn’t shave his beard, which I would imagine should be the first thing to go. But other than that, I didn’t have a problem with it. It made sense. It advanced the plot and gave us some understanding of the characters. The relationship was shown as important not just because of sex, but like all the other relationships in the story, because of power. Loras pledges his family’s support of Renly’s bid for the throne. They’re both shown as ambitious and scheming, but compared to other characters, relatively sympathetic. Renly honestly thinks he’d be the best person for the kingdom.

There’s nothing in this scene about being gay as an identity. We can, however, intuit that this relationship is against the rules sexually, but not socially. In a world where women are very much second-class citizens with limited access to power, segregated from men, relationships and allegiances between men are tight and long-lasting, sexual or not. And they’re often made by choice, whereas relationships with women are arranged.

There were some other same-sex scenes involving women in both seasons, but they were all crap, and really insulting. The two women were always performing for a man. It seemed like pure fanservice for straight fanboys. That’s especially enraging because it’s possible to cater to this audience while still including genuine attraction and relationships between women. An example is Spartacus, which is loaded full of plot-relevant lesbian sex and UST.

The dynamic of the Loras/Renly scenes in the second season—now that, I had a lot of problems with. Renly has declared himself a contender, gathered an army, and married Loras’ sister, Margaery. This is all according to Loras’s plan. The marriage cements the powerful alliance that should all but guarantee Renly the southern throne. He’s doing pretty well for himself. Yes, it sucks that he’s gay and has to marry a woman and have a baby with her ASAP, but compared to all the horrible things that happen to other characters who pursue power (torture, rape, mutilation, death, not necessarily in that order) he’s got it good. Loras, who’s in bed with him, reminds him of that, and lays down the law: no more sexytimes unless Renly starts seriously trying to impregnate Margaery. Here’s a link to the resulting scene.

Margery gets down to business right away. She comes off as a sympathetic, pragmatic character in this scene. She speaks to Renly in a respectful and friendly manner, reminds him they need to get an heir, and says she’ll do whatever it takes to make this as easy as possible. She gets naked and mentions soothingly that he can think of her brother while he does it. In fact, they can even bring Loras in, if that would help… Cut to Renly, looking scared. Then cut scene. That’s it. We never know if he successfully does it or not, but he very likely doesn’t.

My problem is that with this scene, Renly stopped being a character who happens to be gay. Instead, he became “the gay character”. And gayness is defined as not being able to have sex with a woman. This is unrealistic, first of all. It shouldn’t be so hard. He could have it over in two minutes. No one is asking him to compromise his emotional integrity, and the value of maintaining some kind of sexual integrity is dubious in the context of a show where sympathetic characters are constantly being forced into transactional relationships and have to make the most of these bad situations. This scene does a good job of characterizing Loras and Margaery, but by defining Renly’s gayness as lack and weakness, it does an awful disservice to his characterization. We’re told he’d make a strong king who could make difficult decisions, but this scene directly contradicts that.

It might not be a problem if there were other gay people and relationships on the show, but there aren’t. This is it.

I won’t go further into this storyline in terms of spoilers. But there might be spoilers in the comments, if we get a lot of comments going. I’d like to ask readers: what did you think of Loras/Renly in Game of Thrones, including the casting? Do you agree with my criticism or disagree? Do you think it could have been portrayed better while still staying true to the books? Or do you think the showmakers did a decent job? What did you like most about the relationship portrayal, and least?

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21 responses

  1. I haven’t actually watched Game of Thrones, largely because I started reading the first book and decided after the first 5 chapters that it was already too grim for me & likely to get worse. And I didn’t think that atmosphere of women under sexual threat would be any more fun to watch on TV (less, probably.) So I speak from a position of ignorance. But I suppose I’d say that it’s still rare enough to get a plot important on screen gay relationship – particularly in fantasy – that I wouldn’t want to object too much lest it go away altogether. But on the other hand you’d certainly think that a king would know the importance of having an heir and would have figured out some way to get one. It doesn’t have to be physically his, really, as long as his wife and her lover are prepared to be discreet about it.

    • Oh boy, does it get worse! You were right.

      I like the fact that the books, and show, have so many women characters. The portrayals are pretty diverse, and the women have different relationships to power and how they go about holding on to it, either through men or on their own. It’s refreshing in comparison to the stats of Tolkien’s LOTR: wordcount 500k, woman character count 2.

      I’m so mixed between cheering on the show and sighing. The funnest part was observing the enraged homophobic reaction afterward on the message boards… because that side came off so poorly, and got so little traction. I think a certain segment of the fantasy audience is realizing that they are not entitled to have their phobias catered to—and that’s a good, progressive development.

  2. Actually, I despise the series because it’s nothing but grim and cynical. (Says he, a writer of pretty gritty military stuff). I managed to get through the first season (largely because my dude watched it), but I dropped out and don’t feel like I’m missing anything (apart from torture, gore and the rape and sexuial molestation of every woman EVAR). I don’t like using the word “exploitative” and “sensationalist”, but for me, that’s exactly what the series is (which is a totally subjective thing and I know other people love it). I was struck by the fact that the two guy guys are not “manly” and represented as pretty camp, like that’s the only way to be gay, and the het-marriage scene sopunds like it’s played for laughs, which I’m not okay with.

    • I wouldn’t argue about it being exploitative and sensationalist. It’s both of those things, for sure.

      I like the grimness of it. My personal take is that I tend to react strongly against typical high fantasy heroic narratives. I don’t like aristocrats. I don’t like members of elite warrior castes (knights, samurai, etc.). I don’t like Chosen Ones. So I like Game of Thrones because it shows all these typical high fantasy types as raving psychopaths who gain their power by violently oppressing their social inferiors—peasants, slaves, women—as their real-life historical analogues would have. But I totally understand that many people are not at all interested in having their faces shoved in brutality on a weekly basis; they’re looking for something a bit more uplifting.

      As for the campiness, I’ve read other people who had the same critique. I do think casting Loras as such a waif was a bad decision. In the books, he’s renowned as a great swordsman, but the actor has so little muscle development I find it hard to believe he could lift a sword while wearing full armor.

      • I like the grimness, too (I’m SO over “little boy finds magical artifact and kills Dark God/Dark Lord – though one day I really want to twist that narrative and fuck with it”), or did when I was reading the books, oh, ten years ago. As a medieval historian I’m always weirded out when I see the “Didney take” on the European Middle Ages – because, wow, lack of research, depth/critical thinking. So Martin has that going for him. But the thing is, if he wants to show how grim and dark and horrible everything is, one book would have been plenty. How many women do you need to rape, how many naive heroes broken, how many scheming politices murdered to drive one single message – that all people are either victims or assholes and all idealists can hope for is getting betrayed, executed and defamed? Personally, I thought he made the poi8nt well in the first book (or: first season) and after that, it got repetitive. Also, the lack of editing displayed in the books (mostly content editing) just means I cant’ enjoy it. He’s not THAT strong a writer to pull me inregardless of the massive flaws.

        • A few books in, I really started reading it more as horror, what with all the torture, including weird medical torture. And I own the fifth, but I lost interest after about 50 pages. There’s definitely a lack of depth, and that wears me down.

          • I stopped in the middle of the second book and rue the money, even though I got them cheap. I’m so not exposing myself to more of the same. I mean, at some point, when a new character was introduced, my response was “I’m supposed to care about him/her until the point they get needlessly killed/crushed/broken/raped, at which point, I imagined, Martin laughs gleefully at me, the stupid reader, who actually cared about that character.” So I stopped caring, and hence stopped reading. In other words, I’m simply not the plaything of an author who clearly has some psycholoigical issues. I don’t trust him anymore.

  3. I may be wrong – it’s a while since I read the books – but I seem to recall a conversation where someone who was present when Renly and Margery were put to bed after the wedding, explicitly says that Renly was very much up to the task. They make the joke that they weren’t sure whether it was Margery’s charms or the fact that her brother was there.

    Something I don’t recall from the books, and again I may be wrong, is Loras being flattened by Brienne. I found that bit of the TV show very annoying. Loras creamed the Mountain, he shouldn’t have been beaten by Brienne. That he was suggests that the script writers were trying to have their cake and eat it again – Brienne beat the best knight in Westeros, so she’s REALLY good, on the other hand he was gay so she’s no threat to the ‘real men’. That made me growl a lot.

    • I didn’t like that match either. I loved the fact that Brienne was cast as someone with the physical size to look like a realistic medieval-type warrior, but Loras… was not. Height and weight and reach would have REALLY mattered in these types of heavily-armored fights, and Loras was at a huge disadvantage. He wasn’t characterized weakly through his actions… but visually, it’s a different story.

      • I thought hat first he was a riff on Legolas. Then I saw he was supposed to fight in full armor. Which, err, breeds a certain body type. He’d be OK in no-armor swashbuckling. In Middle-Ages-type heavy armor, I wouldn’t expect him to be able to move.

        (But then I moaned about how Scarlet Johansen simply doesn’t have the body tone to project the concept of “kick-assness” as “Black Widow”, whereas Haywire was in part a good (B-) movie because, while the main actress can’t act worth a damn, at least she, as an MMA fighter, can believably kick ass and moves like it, too.

      • They have cast Brienne very well and I’ve enjoyed her story arc in the books while finding that they have edged way out of my comfort zone for violence and the TV show ditto for the constant “exposition by whore” [a terrific term for it].

        Wearing armour comfortably is something you can learn. I have a friend who can do acrobatics in full plate and he’s not a tall man, but he’s built – not a lissom slender lad. I wonder if the Tower Armouries have any statistics on chest size ratio to height from their collection? It might be interesting to find out.

        • I think the body-type for heavy armor would tend towards “the barrel” (broad kind of everywhere, with very good core strength), which seems like the most efficient type (I picture the “brawler” type more than the “runner” type, but body types are individual. A noble would be trained from a young age to move in armour and to do crazy stuff (like jumping on a horse while wearing armour). Loras is emphatically not the type. Even the tournament things he does would require good upper-body strength, rather than the “elf boy” look they are pulling off on screen. (But yeah, just one of many fails there…)

          • Henry V could vault his horse when armoured, couldn’t he? And that when a mere lad.

            Armour is filthy stuff. I loathe cleaning our set of mail.

          • I’ve worn armour, and I’m smaller than the Brienne character, (which btw, I’m so happy about her, as we never see anything but swimsuit model type women on t.v. Ever!). Loras seems to be more of a jousting-type knight. For that you need to be able to ride, but it’s the weight of the horse that counts. Historically, most battles were finished from the saddle.
            Yes, he seems out of step with the rest of the books and world.

            At least we haven’t seen any swimsuit models in thongs and chainmail bikinis. That makes it a major plus for me. (Not that I’ve read the books or watched the series. I, too, am not a fan of grim, gory Geschichtenwelts.

  4. I’ve only read the first book and have watched TV season 1, and pretty much agree with your interpretation of the scene (though, I dunno, the beard and then getting rid of the rest…that’s kind of weird, but weird can be hot, plus there’s something subversive about having the beard remaining as a blind, a bit like wearing kinky underwear…okay, I think I’m missing the the point here. But I like overthinking these things ;)) I had no idea about the complaints, though. I guess I shouldn’t be too shocked!

    I actually got kind of bored with the books, so I’m waiting for the TV to make judgement, but you’re argument makes grim sense!! wtf about not being able to impregnate a woman !?!

    • Weird but hot! I like the way your brain works!

      I’m a big fan of MMF, so if Loras and Margaery weren’t brother and sister, I wouldn’t have minded if that last scene had gone in a totally different direction…

  5. @Elin – Yes. I read it was one of the core skills of a medieval knight. The poor horse! (And I’m with you. Helped friends clean (and oil) their chain mail. Oh dear gods, the filth.

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