‘Game of Thrones’ and the HBO Nudity Controversy

Courtesy of HBO

While it wasn’t really something I noticed while watching the show the last few months, “Game of Thrones” has apparently ruffled some feathers with its rampant use of nudity. The hubbub started with an editorial by Mary McNamara, the TV critic for the LA Times, where she stated that “Game of Thrones” was a great show with the exception of its overuse of female nudity, specifically in what critics have been calling scenes of “sexposition,” a term coined by TV critic Myles McNutt from a great blog called “Cultural Learnings.”

McNamara essentially accuses HBO, but particularly “Game of Thrones,” of using female nudity for gratuitous purposes rather than narrative ones; the way she distinguishes between the two are in terms that are familiar to most people, between “breasts” and “tits.” Daenarys rising from the ashes of her husband’s funeral pyre with three baby dragons strategically covering her lower (but not upper) half constitutes “breasts.” Scenes where the traitorous Littlefinger teaches new prostitutes how to fake pleasure while extolling on the injustices of being born poor is “tits.”

The editorial sparked a number of responses, but it was Matt Zoller Seitz over at Salon who most scathingly refuted McNamara’s argument. He argued that every use of breasts had its purpose in “Game of Thrones,” revealing something about the characters in the scene. He even said that McNamara was a “prude” for not wanting to associate female nudity with sex, only with power. And James Poniewozik over at Time points out that though Seitz has a point, the frequency with which writers use nudity as a placeholder so viewers won’t get bored during heavy exposition has indicated that it’s a weakness in the writing. In short Poniewozik believes that the writers use nudity as a crutch when they’re afraid their audience is too ADD to concentrate solely on characters talking to one another.

It’s a difficult argument because HBO has definitely exploited the female body, not just in “Game of Thrones,” but in some of its most famous shows — “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos,” “Rome,” “Deadwood,” to name a few. And while maybe once upon a time people tuned into HBO to see what they couldn’t get on their regular channels, it’s not necessarily true that they need the multiple shots of nudity per episode. However, it has become an expectation of normal viewers that when you’re watching HBO, there will be mature content; that’s just become part of the HBO bargain, so much so that when I watched the pilot episode of “Treme,” I was shocked and, to tell the truth, put off because it was so chaste for HBO’s normal fare. However, people don’t stick around for sex. They stick around for great storytelling.

Courtesy of jezebel.com

I can say that I have read all of the books, and plan to read “A Dance with Dragons” when it comes out next week. Martin’s use of sexual content (always in a respectful and tasteful manner) does not abate. There’s even one section where Daenarys is trying to gather army forces, and in order to do so, she dresses in the garb of the people: beautiful gowns that happen to expose one breast. Will it be gratuitous by the costume department not to just cover her up? I guess we’ll find out. What I love about most of the nudity is that it all becomes part of this world of the Seven Kingdoms, where we see that women, even the powerful ones, are not prized by men for their intelligence or their strength, but their beauty and bodies. Now, in the course of Martin’s tale, this drastically changes for many of the female characters (especially as we get introduced to new ones like Brienne of Tarth, Asha of the Iron Islands or Arianne Martell of Dorne).

What I would like to see is that now the powerlessness of women has been established as a theme, and as the intrigue moves more towards war and the courts (and less towards the separate households and their daily lives), I think the nudity will appear less and less. However, the subjugation of women to men, especially physically and sexually, is a theme that continues through Martin’s saga as far as he’s written. I don’t think that the writers will cut out the nudity, but now that viewers are going to come back to see what happens, I think that invented characters like Ros can be discarded. I do see how writers and producers would’ve seen “Game of Thrones” as a hard sell, even to a enlightened audience like HBO followers, and hedged their bets by overstuffing scenes with sexual content.

I have no problem with nudity in the show; if anything, I was more bothered by the gratuitous violence Seitz mentions (especially towards animals). But again, this all comes from Martin’s original text, so how much can be the blame of HBO and how much is Martin’s intention in creating this world? I have pointed out that HBO writers created Ros, the prostitute involved in many of these sexposition scenes, and though she’s a throw-away character, she often reveals things about the male characters that we might not otherwise see.

I think that critics and viewers bothered by the nudity in the show should be a little more patient. As McNamara points out, the closing shot of Daenarys, naked, covered in her dragons, could be a portent for the future. I think the series finale is saying that women are going to be taking control of the Seven Kingdoms, as well as their bodies and spirits.

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