I was shocked, shocked to learn that Bloggingheads.tv advertised my discussion with Rob Farley over gender and race in Foreign Policy / Game of Thrones by promoting only the clip where I discussed “nudity”:
Since that clip was not much more than a throwaway comment in a wide-ranging discussion, yet in fact touched on one of the most, er, much-trumpeted aspects of the show so far, I thought I’d take the time to expound a little bit since after all, many commentators disagree with me and find the nudity and sex scenes in the both gratuitous and somewhat exploitative. For example, Emily Nussbaum this week writes in the New Yorker:
From the start, the show has featured copious helpings of pay-cable nudity, much of it in scenes that don’t strictly require a woman to display her impressive butt dimples as the backdrop for a monologue about kings. (The most common fan idiom for these sequences is “sexposition,” but I’ve also seen them referred to as “data humps.”) These scenes are at once a turn-on and a turn-off. At times, I found myself marvelling at the way that HBO has solved the riddle of its own economic existence, merging “Hookers at the Point” with quasi-Shakespearean narrative. In the most egregious instance so far, Littlefinger tutored two prostitutes in how to moan in fake lesbianism for their customers, even as they moaned in fake lesbianism for us—a real Uroboros of titillation.
Although Nussbaum goes on to acknowledge that to some extent “Viewed in another light, however, these sex scenes aren’t always so gratuitous… “Game of Thrones” is elementally concerned with the way that meaningful consent dissolves when female bodies are treated as currency,” she concludes by pointing out that this message can be lost when it includes “the creamy nudity we’ve come to expect as visual dessert.” Here’s what troubles me about this whole discussion: the equation of nudity with sexuality (especially women’s sexuality) and more importantly with “nakedness,” that element of vulnerability and expoitativeness that we associate with gendered images of women (but not of men) on television. And the reason I’d like to see more nudity on Game of Thrones rather than less is precisely because the show is already using it to unravel some of these puritanical assumptions.
[Warning: mild book spoilers follow below the fold.]
To be sure, the sex scenes on GoT are sometimes over the top and they don’t always move the story forward. But they do something else: depicting sex so matter-of-factly is part of George R. R. Martin’s rather successful effort to unravel the gendered script of conventional fantasy. Adam Serwer writes:
While the genre of fantasy often veers between extremes of puritan chastity and clumsily written pseudo-pornography, Martin’s novels are blunt and unsentimental about sex and contain harrowing examples of rape and incest, particularly the widespread indifference to the former as a weapon of war.
More importantly, at least some of the nudity on the show is not actually sexual and definitely not about the subjection of women: quite the opposite. Consider Danaerys Stormborn in the denouement to Season One, rising nude from the ashes of her husband’s funeral pyre with dragon hatchlings crawling and groping her. While we might associate women’s naked bodies with the very absence of political power (and forced nakedness can be and is used later in the books at time to produce precisely this effect), in this context Dany’s nudity has the opposite effect of cementing her claim to command: standing before her followers with nothing but her will-power, superhuman fire resistance and game-changing technology, her nude female body is rendered irrelevant.
So when I say nudity per se doesn’t strike me as entirely problematic on the show, this is what I mean. Variations in portrayals of nude and/or naked bodies are not gratuitous but instead encourage a consideration of the relationship between bodies and power which is central to the show. Yet as I and pointed out, HBO could be doing even more of this and better, in at least three ways:
1) Delink nudity from sex. The books do this better than the series. In the first chapter, we see Catelyn walking nude across the bedroom in front of Master Luwin to burn her sister’s letter, reminding him that he’d delivered her babies and there was no need to avert his eyes. Similarly, there are various images in the books of random male and female nudity – like Ser Dontos running around drunk naked or Hodor forgetting to dress. If we must see graphic nudity on the show, let more of it be about random states of undress and less about sex.
2) Be as open about sexual violence as about ‘sex’ and ‘violence.’ It’s notable that in Season One particularly, the sex scenes were graphic but the rape scenes were sugar-coated. Feminists would argue this is problematic for two reasons. One, the contrast allows insufficient attention to how much of the ‘consensual sex’ is actually on the continuum to exploitation or violence. So while the “Joffrey’s birthday present” scene was disturbing, it was meant to be. And it was a useful counter-point to the happier depictions of of whoredom since it reminded the viewer of the ever-present threat of violence implicit in the sex industry. But second, to the extent that blunt depictions of violence are integral to the show, sexual violence shouldn’t be any different. Any show that can justifiably portray people burned alive or eaten by rats can surely provide a non-sugar-coated, non-pornographic depiction of sexual violence or its aftermath. This can be very progressive: a big step forward in the acknowledgement of sexual violence in international law was the shift in international judges’ willingness to hear war rape victims actually describe what happened to them, rather than soft-pedal it because it’s “too disturbing.” The trick is to manage these portrayals in a way that is horrific rather than lurid. But that’s true of all the violence in the show. And if Game of Thrones is to succeed at keeping its critical edge about sex and power, it needs to do more of this not less.
3) A little gender balance, please. It’s a fair critique that the wildest sex scenes involve women (and very pretty women at that) so the accusations of “soft porn” are to be pardoned. If we’re going to see constant and regular full frontal nudity of young, attractive women let’s see the same for older women and for men of all ages/body types. Let’s see male gay sex scenes as well as female-only scenes. Not only will this balance out the representations, but it would address Nussbaum’s argument about the political economy of the entertainment industry:
It’s unsettling to recall that these are not merely pretty women; they are unknown actresses who must strip, front and back, then mimic graphic sex and sexual torture, a skill increasingly key to attaining employment on cable dramas. Of course, not everyone strips: there are no truly explicit scenes of gay male sex, fewer lingering shots of male bodies, and the leading actresses stay mostly buttoned up.
She has a point.