Game of Thrones: Oberyn Martell

The popular HBO series Game of Thrones, written for television by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss is well known for creating a buzz among its viewers. This is not solely because of its renowned writing and production, which is based on the famous fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin. Throughout its run the show has featured many characterizations of today’s society’s ‘taboos’, which are meant to get viewers talking. One character in particular who has stood out in my mind is the Red Viper of Dorne, Oberyn Martell.

Oberyn is portrayed on screen as a macho, pansexual man with a love of lust and violence. Within seconds of his introduction to the show (already notorious for its sexually explicit content) viewers were thrust into a brothel bed where Oberyn was sexually engaging multiple men and women at the same time. Naturally his presence has created a stir in both the straight and queer communities and many have developed differing opinions on his portrayal.

“Then everyone is missing half the world’s pleasure. The gods made [women], and it delights me. The gods made [men]… and it delights me. When it comes to war I fight for Dorne, when it comes to love — I don’t choose sides.” – Oberyn Martell

Pedro Pascal, the actor who plays Oberyn, has expressed his own interpretation of the character:

“I think that he gives no explanation and makes no apologies for the way he lives his life, and I think that was very exciting and important to portray, that he has no hang-ups around the experience of pleasure, and he will take any opportunity to experience something beautiful, and I think he finds that in lovemaking. He doesn’t see the sense in limiting oneself of experience and pleasure, and I think that is very cool.

However, individuals from the queer community have expressed disappointment over the lack of label associated with Oberyn’s sexuality. While many simply do not like labels, others argue that Oberyn never definitively declaring the nature of his sexuality makes it seem like he is in some way ‘half-closeted’ and not truly willing to be associated with the bi or pansexual community. Many sources have him listed merely as gay, despite his clear attraction to women in addition to men. The bi and pan communities are seeking visibility and perhaps Oberyn’s on-screen actions are not enough to legitimize his (or their) sexual identity.

There has also been criticism over Oberyn’s characterization. He is not only incredibly masculine and hot-tempered (he is widely considered as one of the best fighter’s in the world), but he is very promiscuous with his sexuality. Many argue he is only two-dimensional for this reason. On top of this he is from a nation that has far different cultural values than that of most of the character’s on the show, and is viewed as an outsider. Again, bi/pan visibility may not be the same as promoting bi/pansexual identity, and to many the inclusion of Oberyn’s sexual tendencies might feel like a gimmick.

Alternative to these criticisms, a positive queer-centric dialogue has definitely been started by the introduction of his character. In my personal experience I can point to many of my straight, male friends who have fallen in love with his character despite their disconnect from queer culture. A community titled “GayForOberyn” has even formed on the website reddit and is filled with straight men discussing how Oberyn is making them question their sexuality. Well many in the community might be there out of mere appreciation for his suave personality and badass moves, I have perused the forum and even found a few posts were people have confessed that their crush on Oberyn has helped them come to terms with their bisexuality. When asked how he feels about his portrayal of Oberyn leading countless men and women alike to reconsider their sexual orientation, actor Pedro Pascal replied:

“That makes me feel wonderful. I think that that’s key to Oberyn. That he is the kind of person that is attractive and sort of breaks boundaries. He doesn’t play by the rules, so the fact that anyone would be attracted to him, no matter what their sexual orientation is, is very in line with the kind of character that he is. So I think that’s great.”

I think these conflicting viewpoints relate well to some of our in-class discussions about Caitlyn Jenner’s representation of the transgender community. Even if Oberyn doesn’t perfectly reflect the community’s struggle, he’s still an important presence. Shows like Game of Thrones thrive on being edgy and relevant (other examples in the show include cannibalism, zombies, incest, etc.) and while they may play up certain aspects of sexual identity, the visibility they allow for is not inherently good or bad but allows for a dialogue. Personally, Oberyn is one of my favorite characters, and at least in my own experience I cannot point to many other bisexual characters in any medium who have caused such a fan frenzy. At the end of the day everyone is different, so not every person in any of these communities is going to be completely satisfied by how an individual character represents their community as a whole, but the representation alone is a step in the right direction.