The critically acclaimed HBO series, Game of Thrones, has been lauded for a great many things, and rightfully so. But amongst the few criticisms that this Golden Globe winning television series has attracted is one of irrefutable cogency – the show features an exorbitantly inordinate amount of female nudity. In her polemic against such indiscretions, Mary McNamara, TV critic for the Los Angeles Times, quite succinctly said, “Maybe it’s time to tone down the tits.”
Many make the claim that it somehow adds to the seedy atmosphere of the depicted era or that it accurately captures the rampant misogyny of the times, but there are even more, including McNamara, that believe that the show is taking advantage of HBO’s notoriously lax nudity restrictions and revels in gratuity in order to give the male viewer (pun intended) “more bang for the buck”.
As a heterosexual male, I readily, and sheepishly, admit that the show’s alleged nudity for nudity’s sake mantra doesn’t really bother me, but with the overwhelmingly copious amount in Game of Thrones, I can understand the distaste. If the gender roles were reversed, I know I’d feel more than a little unease.
In fact, McNamara writes about how, “There are no male brothels, no scenes of clothed women, or men for that matter, sitting around chatting in a room filled with naked men”. To her, the show’s nudity is fairly one-sided to say the least, and I find myself agreeing with her.
But, pulling one example from McNamara’s column, I feel like some of her anger, although superficially justified, may be a bit specious. Although I cannot claim to justify all of the show’s naked truancies, there is one scene that she mentions where I feel I can. I am talking, of course, of the show’s most notorious use of nudity and lesbianism; the one in season one, episode seven, You Win Or You Die.
For those not privy, McNamara describes the scene as, “two women teaching themselves the tricks of prostitution while a male character, fully clothed, muses about his personal history and definition of power”. Judging by her sophistic summation of the events, it can be concluded that her misremembering of the scene is a direct result of its devious intentions, with its licentiousness clouding its small, yet integral, details.
Not to be pedantic, or insolent, the scene actually begins with prostitute-on-prostitute cunnilingus. The clothed male in question is Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baellsh (Aidan Gillen). Overlooking with dissatisfaction, Littlefinger stops the carnal charade, and proceeds to lecture them both on the intricacies of the art of seduction.
Filled with themes of betrayal, deception, and masquerades, Littlefinger’s pontification is really just a thinly veiled attempt to foreshadow his forthcoming duplicity. In it, he also reveals his lust/yearning for one Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), and his aversion for her husband, Lord Eddard (Sean Bean). At the end of his speech, he summarily says, “I’m not going to fight them, I’m going to fuck them”.
On the surface, the scene’s nudity can be justified as an excuse for Littlefinger to expound – but barely. In what’s known as ‘sexposition’, routine story exposition is often elucidated through sexually conspicuous means – such as showering, getting dressed/undressed, having sex etc. While they do serve a dramatic purpose, it can be rightly scrutinized for being a shtick.
Furthermore, the over-the-top nature of the ‘performances’ and the sexually graphic motives of the camerawork make the whole thing borderline gratuitous. But this is not lubricity for lubricity’s sake. This is lubricity with a purpose.
This is because a subtler, more understated version of this scene would’ve made Littlefinger’s intentions ostensibly clear. Let’s say, for instance, the two women were relegated to the background. The entire scene is focused on Littlefinger’s lecturing, sporadically interrupted with obligatory moans and groans. Or let’s say, for the sake of argument, the women were absent altogether.
If this were the case, the viewer would’ve ascertained his convictions almost instantly. With a spotlight firmly fixated on Littlefinger, our undivided attention would certainly be able to discern his scheme. This facile and obvious approach would’ve betrayed the show’s history of complex and methodical character development, making the episode’s eventual twist jarringly inevitable.
But this is not what the show does. Instead, it chooses to make the scene as pornographic as possible, seemingly provoking the viewer with a cornucopia of “upper frontals”. Naturally (at least for me), one’s attention is unquestionably diverted. We’re no longer paying attention to what Littlefinger’s saying; we are too busy being discomforted by the scene’s overtly sexual display. I’m willing to bet a lot of people felt the same way, and judging by her inaccurate précis of the scene, so did McNamara.
Essentially, the show uses its extreme nudity to cloak to the scene’s central conceit, so that when it passes, we only have a vague, seemingly nebulous recollection of what’s been said. When the twist does eventually happen, we are surprised insomuch as it’s surprising, not because it’s inherently unfathomable.
Subconsciously, our hazy memory of Littlefinger’s speech indicates a small possibility of this happening, but, when we look back at it, all we really remember, at least vividly, is the ‘gratuitous’ lesbianism. In a sense, it’s the equivalent to talking to a girl wearing a t-shirt that says, “My eyes are up here”, and then being precipitously asked what she’s been talking about.
Whether or not you were actually distracted by the scene, or whether or not you disagree with the validity of the motivations, is another point altogether, but it’s important to note that it does have a purpose – to conceal, to veneer. Ergo, it isn’t really that gratuitous.
But maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m still blinded by the gratuity.
– Justin Li