HBO’s Game of Thrones has become something of a forerunner in the current television renaissance. Up there with Breaking Bad and Mad Men, it’s an intelligent, well-plotted and gripping show, with an impressive following beyond cult status; critics and audiences love the show and it’s easy to see why.
The series, based on George R. R. Martin’s sprawling seven-story epic, is cinematic in scope, political and complex, but what’s perhaps most striking about Game of Thrones is how progressive it is. For what could have easily been a male-dominated genre show, Game of Thrones has a fair few surprises. The show has received a considerable amount of praise for its portrayal of women, but also shines in its treatment of homosexuality. A recent season three episode, ‘Kissed by Fire’, contains a fairly explicit gay sex scene between characters Loras (Fin Jones) and Olyvar (Will Tudor). It stands as an interesting insight into homosexuality and modern television culture.
This isn’t the first sex scene in the episode – HBO are renowned for being fairly gratuitous with nudity – and it isn’t even the first gay sex scene in the show. What’s striking about the scene however, is just how casual it is – literally, it falls into the plot, treated no differently to any of the show’s numerous straight sex scenes – and how the writers chose to include it when they didn’t need to. George R. R. Martin has stated that several of his characters are gay, but the medieval language of the novels keeps homosexuality suggested, implied between the lines. The show’s writers could easily have done the same, and yet decided instead to include such scenes. There’s a sense that if straight characters are worthy of gratuitous sex scenes, then the gays have to be involved too. In a sense this is pretty progressive, at least in terms of character equality.
The problem with most television shows – especially older ones – is that when they use gay characters, there tends to be a reason to do so. If a character is gay, then generally, there has to be an issue that the writers want to explore. Perhaps the show’s main character meets a gay man and has a problem with it (more common in the 80s and 90s), or if the main character is gay, then there has to be issues regarding prejudice, or coming out. Gay characters in television are often treated as catalysts for Big Issues, and whilst the intention is pure – the writers want to make a positive, gay-friendly message – the fact remains that it’s hard for television to put gay characters in non-gay plots. Gay characters often exist to explore gay storylines.
What’s refreshing about the Game of Thrones portrayal is that there is no gay storyline. There is no problem related to Loras and Olyvar’s sexuality; it is treated, by the writers and the characters, as a simple, matter-of-fact situation, no different to a man having sex with a woman. It comes and goes no different to any other sex scene. There is no coming out, no drama with a dad finding out, nothing usually seen with gays on television. The scene has no political agenda or point to make; the only machination behind it is that of the complex plots of the show’s characters.
Crucially, what’s so progressive about the scene is that it could easily have been written straight with very little in the way of re-writes. And vice versa, most of the show’s straight romances could be switched to gay quite easily. The sexuality of the characters is not important to the plot. Loras and Olyvar are gay but it’s a sidepoint; they exist as any character should, to serve and influence the overall storyline. This is not to say gay characters should be sidelined, but the sad case is that most gay characters are defined utterly by their sexuality. Being gay is their purpose to exist within the story. Game of Thrones manages to be progressive by taking away the focus – essentially, straight characters and gay characters are on the same playing field, and it’s this normality, this lack of attention, which makes the show progressive.
The sex scene in ‘Kissed by Fire’ is brief, but positive, and like Willow and Tara’s relationship in Buffy, a good example of a sci-fi/fantasy show portraying homosexuality in a realistic and natural way. Hopefully moments like this will stand to make the medium yet more progressive, by almost ironically, taking gays out of the gay storylines.