In defense of HBO's "unnecessary" nudity

Why a newspaper editorial about the naked bodies on the pay cable channel is a remnant of the Puritan mentality

Published July 6, 2011 2:07PM (EDT)

Ah, motherhood: According to the L.A. Times' TV critic, this scene with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is an example of acceptable nudity on "Game of Thrones."
Ah, motherhood: According to the L.A. Times' TV critic, this scene with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is an example of acceptable nudity on "Game of Thrones."

"Maybe it's time to tone down the tits," writes Mary McNamara, TV critic of the Los Angeles Times.

She's talking to HBO, a cable channel that she says is "once again in full stride...with Emmy-winning movies, a panoply of well-done documentaries, successful comedies and dramatic hits both popular — 'True Blood' — and critical — 'Boardwalk Empire,' 'Treme.'" And now it has another hit, "Game of Thrones" -- a series based on George R.R. Martin's fantasy fiction that happens to include female nudity.

No operation that's producing this much good TV needs to be airing so much female nudity; that's the specious starting point of McNamara's column, the notion that nudity is not one ingredient in an R-rated stew of elements on HBO series -- "Game of Thrones" in particular -- but something that a cable channel shows because the programs themselves aren't interesting otherwise. Really, now, HBO, you're better than this, she's saying -- conveniently disregarding the fact that HBO has been showing sex and nudity, along with graphic violence and profanity, since its creation in 1975.

McNamara's editorial is not the first strike against unclothed feminine pulchritude on cable dramas, and against HBO's "Game of Thrones" in particular. The series has sparked debate about nudity and sex on cable TV, and especially what some critics have termed "sexposition" -- a term coined by TV critic Myles McNutt that refers to the delivery of supposedly routine plot information while characters are getting dressed, taking a bath, having sex, etc. "Game of Thrones" had several scenes like that during its ten-episode run. Vulture ran a half-cutesy, half-censorious slide show highlighting them.

"This oft-discussed criticism is a valid one, in my opinion," wrote Winter is Coming, blogging about the first season of "Game of Thrones." "It’s not just the use of sex and nudity while giving exposition that is the problem. It is the fact that the writers went to that well a few too many times. And some of those scenes worked better than others."

But McNamara's piece is easily the highest-profile strike against nudity on HBO. The Los Angeles Times is the dominant daily newspaper in the industrial capital of popular culture, the metro area where the majority of U.S. TV shows are made. Her tone seems measured and her complaints reasonable. And yet when you examine her arguments closely, a different agenda reveals itself. McNamara distinguishes between supposedly necessary and unnecessary nudity, and it's interesting, to put it sarcastically, which examples she chooses to put in which category. 

"Breasts," she writes, "are what you see on cable during a lovemaking scene or when a character is caught unawares or when, as in the season finale of 'Game of Thrones,' the last of the Targaryen [family, Danerys Targaryen], rises, naked and miraculous, from her husband's funeral pyre with three baby dragons clinging to her....Tits are what you see in a strip club or a brothel, when conversations or action between men, which usually have nothing to do with said strip club or brothel, are surrounded by nameless and silent women lounging or gyrating about in various stages of undress...In one episode of 'Game of Thrones,' the upper frontals got so gratuitous — two women teaching themselves the tricks of prostitution while a male character, fully clothed, muses about his personal history and definition of power — that fans took to Twitter to complain. Even the fine finale included a young nude woman washing her particulars while her elderly john monologued about the nature of kings."

Let's start by admitting that not every single bit of nudity on "Game of Thrones" was so necessary that the show couldn't have done without it. There were indeed moments where the director of an episode cut away to a shot of some giggling half-naked woman during a scene set in a brothel, or had a semi-nude woman wander through the foreground or background of a shot while a couple of characters were conversing about whatever subject.

But for the most part, I would defend the vast majority of the nude and partly nude shots on "Game of Thrones" as, if not absolutely, totally integral to the plot, then at least imaginative enough pass muster as drama -- just not a drama that kids should be allowed to watch. Oh, hell, let's just go ahead and say it: most of them were as integral as TV scenes get.

The scene between Theon and the prostitute Ros, for example, starts by showing the final 30 seconds of their copulation, then quickly moves to Ros and Theon in conversation, with Theon carrying most of the scene's skin quotient; the point of the scene is to establish that they have a relationship founded entirely on sex and a power imbalance (he has power, she has none) and to deliver information about Theon's relationship to other characters. But the scene also reveals character. You can tell by their body language, facial expressions and tones of voice that Ros actually holds the upper hand in the relationship because, macho bluster aside, her john is smitten with her, and she's just doing what she needs to do to survive and get ahead. In a subsequent scene where Theon says goodbye to Ros as she's leaving the territory in a wagon, he seems to be trying hard to hide how bummed he is.

Another scene -- singled out by McNamara and other writers as gratuitous -- strikes me as one of the cleverest and most useful deployments of nudity on the series. It shows the character of Littlefinger, a brothel owner and power broker who still carries a torch for the widowed Lady Catelyn Stark, instructing Ros and another female prostitute on how to fake interest and enthusiasm during a tryst. Littlefinger's whole life is based on deception, on making people believe in whatever lie he's selling; he's also a personally very seductive character whose fortune is built on the flesh trade. Littlefinger is a fascinating yet ultimately pathetic man, and as I look back on this scene, I would say that it tells us more about him than any other single moment in season one of "Game of Thrones."

McNamara, however, looks at the scene and sees only "tits." And she finds it indefensible compared to the final shot of the season -- the slow pullback that shows the naked, symbolically "reborn" Danerys with the baby dragons, a shot that is deliberately framed and lit to evoke the decidedly non-carnal glory of a Renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary.

The other scene McNamara singles out as problematic  -- the scene where "a young nude woman wash[es] her particulars while her elderly john monologue[s] about the nature of kings" -- is even more defensible as drama. The character, Maester Pycelle, was set up with Ros specifically so that Littlefinger could glean where he stood on the issue of the young king Joffrey taking the throne. He tells Ros not what he actually thinks, but what he wants Littlefinger to hear -- that he thinks Joffrey will make a great king -- and when she leaves, he does a series of energetic squats which reveal that he's not the doddering, hapless old man others think he is.

Also: Littlefinger is a brothel owner (as in the literary source), and he is therefore ideally suited to dole out sexual favors and get information (his stock-in-trade) in return. McNamara's complaint that the "GOT" scenes set in brothels didn't need to be set in brothels doesn't track. So the brothel owner should have more conversations outside his place of business, the place where he feels most comfortable and is most in control?  The critic wonders if there is "some sort of private office where madams and menfolk could talk. I also wonder about all this free nudity — doesn't money have to exchange hands before the clothes come off?" Er, no and no -- not in the sort of establishment that Littlefinger runs. Her gripe also misses an important point, that Littlefinger is betting that the combination of liquor and carnal pleasure and flattery of heterosexual male fantasy will loosen visitors' lips and reveal information that he can use elsewhere -- and he's often proved right.

The fact that McNamara approves of the nudity in the dragon scene but not the Littlefinger "faking it" scene or the scene with old Maester Pycelle is telling. It's of a piece with a tediously moralizing strain in American criticism, one which insists that all sex and nudity must be dramatically "justified," even if it occurs on a TV series based on a highly sexual series of fantasy novels that take place in a male-dominated world in which women fight tooth and nail for power, and achieve it.

The phrase "sexposition," however catchy and cute, is a loaded one, and maddening. It concedes that the makers of a particular R-rated TV series have gone out of their way to blend theoretically prurient sex and nudity with actual storytelling, but are being taken to task anyway. Not once in any scene of the show's first season did the filmmakers show unclothed or copulating characters without some kind of necessary plot movement happening at the same time, always giving the narrative element prominence. And when you look at the total running time of season one of "Game of Thrones" -- somewhere around 600 minutes -- less than five percent of its running time featured sex or nudity of any kind. Viewed in its totality, "Game of Thrones" is a chaste show.  And yet the sex and nudity are constantly being scrutinized and judged for being "necessary" or "unnecessary."

Meanwhile, as I have noted elsewhere, neither McNamara nor other critics editorializing about supposedly excessive nudity and sex on "Game of Thrones" ever say so much as one measly word about the intensely graphic violence and raunchy language on the series.

For the record, I don't have a problem with any of the violence or language on "Game of Thrones," either; it's set in a Dungeons and Dragons-flavored version of Hobbes' State of Nature, and as such, we should expect to see elemental human activities depicted often, and with gusto, and if we have a problem with that, we shouldn't be watching. I just find it grimly amusing that, for whatever reason, sex and nudity must be handled with special care, and must always be "necessary" and utterly unimpeachable in their presentation, yet profanity and violence are rarely held to such such standards. This is America's Puritan mentality coming home to roost in criticism. Closeups of throats being slit and limbs being lopped off are an expected part of R-rated entertainment aimed at adult viewers, and not even worthy of comment. But nudity and sex must be "justified."

There's a useful discussion to be had here about the dominance of the male gaze and how it informs the programming choices of HBO and other cable channels. I agree with the implication -- and that's unfortunately all it is in the L.A. Times piece, an implication -- that HBO dramas such as "Game of Thrones" and "Boardwalk Empire" are too often set in a "man's world" filled with crime, violence and various sorts of exploitation, and that the producers' decision of whom to show in coitus and when tends to confirm that popular culture is still run by straight, white men, with every other sexual point-of-view getting served as an afterthought, if at all.  (Where are the editorials complaining about excessive sex and nudity on HBO's vampire soap "True Blood", by the way? Are copious amounts of sex and nudity OK on a series as long as it's not trying to be "serious"?)

As I said before in Salon, there is nothing wrong with the heterosexist-centered nudity on "Game of Thrones" that more male nudity and same-sex couplings wouldn't balance out. But that holds true only if that is, in fact, the problem that a viewer has with a series -- too much female nudity in heterosexual contexts, not enough nudity of other sorts.

If, however, the problem is that the viewer is "taken out" of the show by seeing naked people in general -- or that the sight makes him or her uncomfortable compared to graphic violence and language -- well, that's a whole other discussion, and probably not a productive one, because then we're getting into subjective matters of sensibility.

This whole argument is misdirected and misses the larger, more important picture: Whose fantasy is HBO indulging, why is it indulging it, and what other sorts of fantasies could it cater to? 

But that's not the takeaway from McNamara's piece. The takeaway is another remnant of America's Puritan mentality, which holds that female nudity is dramatically "unnecessary" and unacceptable unless it's divorced from sex.

It all reminds me of a Jack Nicholson quote from the 1970s, complaining about the hypocrisy of the MPAA ratings system: "Cut off a woman's tit with a sword, they give you a PG. Kiss it, and it's an R."

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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