Gratuitous Female Nudity and Complex Female Characters in ‘Game of Thrones’

Written by Lady T
Ros from Game of Thrones. Full frontal nudity in 3… 2… 1…
[Yes, I have read the books.]
Game of Thrones, the HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, premiered in April 2011. Since then, the show has received attention for its sprawling scope, large cast, morally complex characters, strong acting (particularly the performance of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister), and the numerous shots of prostitutes and naked boobs in almost every episode.
Yes, Game of Thrones is a show that loves its nudity. HBO is known for gratuitous displays of naked ladies in many of its show, but Game of Thrones might as well exist on a network called HBOOB. The series premiere alone had more boob close-ups than a Girls With Low Self-Esteem video (yes, that was an intentional reference to Arrested Westeros!) Numerous feminist writers have commented on the gratuitous nudity of the show, with Melissa McEwan at Shakesville and Madeline Davies at Jezebel nicknaming the program “Game of Boners.” (I prefer Game of Tits, myself).

 

Doreah: not nude in this scene, but give her a minute
Now, Game of Thrones is hardly the first show or film to show a lot of gratuitous female nudity, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. What I find interesting about the criticism of Game of Thrones’ gratuitous female nudity is that it’s not limited to feminist outlets and blogs. Mainstream television critics and humor outlets are talking about the soft-porn quality of the nudity and sex scenes:
  • Myles McNutt, critic and academic blogger, coined the term “sexposition” to describe the nudity on Game of Thrones, a term adopted by Alan Sepinwall and used in other criticisms of the show.
  • Someecards came out with a Game of Thrones-related “romantic” card that reads, “I want to get you as gratuitously naked as a Game of Thrones character.”
  • The Onion wrote about the season premiere with an article entitled, “Game of Thrones’ Season 3 Opens with Every Character Getting Fingered While Discussing the Arrival of Winter.”
  • Saturday Night Live did a sketch last year about Game of Thrones and its two creative consultants: author George R.R. Martin, and a 13-year-old boy who adds naked women in the background of every scene.
Apparently, all this talk of sexposition displeases and even offends the producers:

“A frustrated Weiss responded to a question about the amount of sex and nudity on the show, and the commentary about it, by saying, ‘We put in the show what we think belongs in the show. There are going to be people who think there’s too much of something, or not enough. If you create a show with a committee of a million people, you’re not going to make a very good show. We do what’s right to us.'”

Well. I’m satisfied. *cough*
Still, even though I’m glad to read these criticisms, I can’t help but wonder–why this show? Why is Game of Thrones unable to escape the “sexposition” jokes when other shows with gratuitous nudity are praised for grim dark realism?
I have a couple of theories about that, but I think the main reason Game of Thrones‘ nudity has become a popular punchline has to do with the show’s wide array of complex female characters.

 

Daenerys Targaryen, between one nude scene and another

 

Game of Thrones is not like Lord of the Rings or other popular fantasy series that forget that women exist. Women are prominent in the society of Westeros, whether behind the scenes or fighting on the fields.
Game of Thrones has traditionally feminine characters like Catelyn and Sansa Stark, Cersei Lannister, and Margaery and Olenna Tyrell, queens and noblewomen who exist mostly in the domestic sphere but also show keen shrewdness about the way the world is stacked against them.
Game of Thrones also has female characters who break traditional gender roles, who would rather fight with a sword or a bow and arrow than get married and have children: Arya Stark, Osha, Yara Grejoy, Ygritte, Meera Reed, and Brienne of Tarth.
Game of Thrones has Daenerys Targaryen, a woman who combines traditionally feminine traits and a fierce warrior spirit by coining herself as the Mother of Dragons. (She’s also one of the few female characters who has had nude scenes that actually served a purpose.)
Game of Thrones even allows some of its female characters more complexity and development than they received in the book. Shae, a prostitute and Tyrion’s paramour, is a giggly non-entity of a character in the novels. On the show, she is a sharp observer of human behavior and compassionate to Sansa.
Game of Thrones has a scene where a female knight pledges fealty to a woman. How many times has that occurred in television history?

 

 

Considering the presence of so many complex women in Game of Thrones, it seems like critics might save their nudity-related complaints for other programs that populate their shows with mere ciphers (if they cast any women at all). So why are we still talking about nudity on THIS show?
I think our culture has become so accustomed to seeing naked women used as props in advertising, film, television, and in other forms of media, that we don’t always notice objectification anymore. Those of us who are actively feminist will notice unnecessary boobage in a show, but more casual consumers of media and popular culture might not pick up on the objectification in such displays of nudity, because the objectification is everywhere.
Game of Thrones, however, gives us scenes with characters like Cersei and Catelyn and Arya and Brienne and Daenerys, shows them as complex and complicated and morally gray as any male character on the show–and two minutes later, gives us a scene where a male character talks to a woman who exists as nothing more than a naked giggling prop.
The shift is jarring, as if the show is saying, “Women are complex, just like men–now here are some more boobs in soft glowy lighting, brought to you by The Male Gaze™.” It’s jarring enough that even a casual viewer is more likely to notice. You can’t be oblivious to the naked giggling props when there are so many fully-clothed, complex human beings around, reminding us that women are people.
Or maybe the most casual of viewers can look at a scene where a man exposits all his schemes and dreams to one prostitute finger-fucking another prostitute and think, “Okay, that’s a little too much, even for me.”

———-

Lady T is an aspiring writer and comedian with two novels, a play, and a collection of comedy sketches in progress. She hopes to one day be published and finish one of her projects (not in that order). You can find more of her writing at The Funny Feminist, where she picks apart entertainment and reviews movies she hasn’t seen.

  • Bang on. (No pun intended.) In the scene with Littlefinger and the prostitutes all I could think was, “What the fuck is he saying?”

  • This is an excellent observation – thank you! The most recent episode seemed to really smack us over the head with The Male Gaze after a pretty fantastic few episodes for women in the show [spoiler for S3E3 below, but it’s not plot-relevant]

    The loooong scene with Podrick, Tyrion, and Bronn in Littlefinger’s jolly house o’ ladyparts, which gave us serious close-up crotch shots of three women, two of whom were full-frontal, which was then followed up on by Pod (the virgin!) getting his money back from the women because, purportedly, he was just so damn good at sexytimes. I…I can’t even unpack that, it’s so ridiculous.

  • It is extremely jarring! It honestly seems like the writers feel threatened by and resentful of the Daenerys and Aryas and have, therefore, colluded to sight bomb the audience with tits as a reminder to women and men that women can still be readily slotted into the consumable goods category. Lest the ladies get too uppity and start thinking of themselves as equals, or some other nasty business. There’s definitely a virulent misogyny at the root of it all and I’ve very nearly given up on GoT numerous times because of it.

  • So
    what seems to be the problem, because I cant’t understand how people
    prioritize the levels of interpretation on this show… If the article
    has a problem with gratuitous nudity maybe just maybe it should have a
    problem with the gratuitous violence,
    and child abuse and slavery and so on… And maybe viewers who only
    have boob issues are quite shallow in a way, as shallow as people who
    actually enjoy the series and books
    I
    think the viewer has to choose… because the book and the movie is a
    mainstream fantasy story which is so widely spread amongst other things
    because of the shock value that the author brings to the story… or
    better yet GRR Martin’s perception of the dark ages is that of
    gratuitous violence and nudity, so I think that you can enjoy the show
    or deny it but not because of the boobs but because
    of the general nature of the human condition.

  • Good post, and I agree with all of it except your characterization of Shae as “a giggly non-entity of a character in the novels.” I think that sells her short, even though you’re right that the show adds a new dimension to her by having her help Sansa. (I loved that.) Another thing I liked that they added was the let-me-guess-your-life-story drinking game between Tyrion, Bronn and Shae. I thought that was a great way to convey just what a canny character Shae is while also having her in fewer scenes.

    But I thought Shae was every bit as acute in the novels as she is in the show, even if she is less heroic because she never sticks her neck out for Sansa and (SPOILER) ultimately betrays Tyrion. I think she has quite a bit in common with Bronn, whom Tyrion likes because he’s intelligent, funny and Tyrion can be assured of his loyalty as long as he’s paying him. Both characters are frankly mercenary, but both also have a rapport with Tyrion that goes beyond that. They really like him — and I got the impression Shae really loved him — even if not enough to stick with him once he becomes persona non grata.

    But you are absolutely right about the jarring disconnect between the scenes of well-realized female characters and the scenes where women are there just as scenery. It’s weird.

  • The nudity in this show is tacky and jarring, but this show just isn’t that good, so what do you expect? Contrast this with Rome, a deeper, more intelligent show, with more believable and interesting characters, and with nude scenes which, though often still somewhat unnecessary, generally seem more natural and less jarring.

  • This does not seem “jarring” as all of the naked scenes are either consensual sex between a couple, or by prostitutes, both of which happen in real life. And don’t talk about how prostitutes are not necessary in the show. The reason they are there is because a lot of plot-changing stuff goes on in there between important characters.

  • I think that you may have a severe illness known as chronic retardedness.

  • Okay, first things first: If when you see a naked woman and instinctively think “that’s sexist against women” then you have a problem. Secondly: they put the naked scenes in there because having anything even remotely hinting at sex makes people more interested. Thirdly: Consensual sex and prostitutes both happen in the real world. Deal with it.

  • I was just seeing tonight the 4th episode (and boy did I like it) and I was reflecting after how the series is more and more clearly painting the portrayal of a decadent civilization prisoner in its carcan of traditions, and the opposition with Danaerys, who after she rebuilt herself, is reborn almost litterally from her ashes, and starts rebuilding a new army before (hopefully) rebuilding a new kingdom. On one hand a noble warrior princess, intelligent, fierce with her enemies and kind to all the others, but who fought every bit to get there, including with sex, on the other a court where everything is cunning treachery and low secret intrigues… You may have noticed that Danaerys was naked a lot with Drogo, then no more, and on the other side you see a lot the whores naked, but not that much of the high ladies. Women are prisoners of traditions and society as much as men, and fight with what weapons they have. Nudity does sort of come with sex, unless someone keeps their socks on, and sex here is clearly depicted as a weapon to the women who have neither titles, fortunes or kingdoms to offer, nor dragons on their side. It is explicit with Danaerys when she asks her servant to teach her how to make a man happy; she gets first to Drogo’s heart through his cock, sorry to put it bluntly. But it goes with every other woman who is not member of a powerful family in the series. It is quite clear that what the prostitutes don’t know how to describe is an orgasm, which they have never known because everywhere in the series sex is either work, arm or both.

    I would say maybe, on the contrary, that’s why you have “boob jokes” ((we don’t, in France I haven’t read much critics on that part) and not about other films or series. Might feel more natural to some when it’s in comedies about Spring breaks with a lot of dumb blondes and wet shirts, or an action movie where the woman is soooo madly in love with the hero she gets naked a lot before she dies so he can remain a lonesome hero. I would say that must sound more reassuring for some than watching with a slight and not-so-clear unease women using sex to manipulate their way through life.

    I’ve read some of the articles on this site, and I’m a woman, I can get very upset on the question of women objectified, feminism, the place society leaves us, but seeing everything through a prism of “naked boobs” or symbolic rapes as I read here in a preposterous critic of Avatar, verges on the ridiculous and blinds you to most of the real meanings of the work, for nudity has never been as little gratuitous as in Games of Thrones, I’m pretty sure of it. As you rightly noticed, you have powerful and quite unusual figures of women in Games of Thrones, so why not go a bit further and ask yoursefl WHY some of them are so blatantly naked and sexual, while the show is quite unconventional in the place it gives women generally?

  • Daenerys’s sex scenes start super rapey and only turn consensual with a heavy dose of Stockholm syndrome. Did you leave the room when Joffrey forced one prostitute to literally beat the other under threat of being beaten herself? There’s also a scene or two where Theon takes his assholery out on a prostitute (not the scene with Ros; she doesn’t put up with his shit) The only sex scenes I can think of where both parties are enjoying themselves equally and one isn’t working are Renly and Loras (mostly clothed) and Cersei and Jaime (interrupted by an attempted murder).

  • The problem is that all those other things generally advance the plot, whereas often naked women are just used (I choose that word deliberately) as decoration. At least one director has reported that he was told by producers to include more naked women for no reason other than he could (that’s how we had so many naked women with the soldiers before the Battle of Blackwater).

  • Did you even like…. watch the show? Or read the books for that matter?

    Or are you just going off of Wikipedia information and shit you heard from your shitty whiny friends?

    Because you just came across as a full-on retard. You never go full retard.

  • It’s the PORTRAYAL of nudity rather than the nudity itself, a plain old unclothed female body is one thing, but one short ala porn style “in soft glowy lighting, brought to you by The Male Gaze™” is quite another. It’s meant to titilate, and therefore rather undermines whatever thoughtful message they were trying to get across, or theme they were attempting to honestly explore.

  • Nice rationalization. Prostitutes, sure, they’re needed for certain scenes, but what purpose does their nudity serve? Movies and TV shows in previous decades did a fine job utilizing brothels for scenery without a single naked boob. If it isn’t necessary for plot development, if it doesn’t contribute to the emotional weight of a scene, it’s gratuitous.

    Not to mention, have you bothered to note the tits:men’s asses and dicks ratio? I sure have and it’s remarkably one-sided.

    Gratuitous female nudity has become the weapon of choice in the resentful dudebro screenwriter’s war on women.

  • Another thought: If the powers that be wanted to authentically reflect medieval-ish era prostitution, in the same manner they’ve attempted to portray medieval-ish culture in every other aspect of the show, they wouldn’t hire exclusively young, nubile actresses with cookie cutter porn boobs. I guarantee that even most modern-day prostitutes don’t resemble the bikini models cherry-picked for these roles.

    It’s not only gratuitous, it’s an insult to men – misandry!! – to insinuate that their sex is functionally incapable of developing an interest in a complex storyline without the addition of hawt naked babes.

  • Have you read the books? A lot of rape scenes are replaced by consenting prostitution scenes. Patriarchy is a major force in the books (on par with politics and black magic), which these strong, complex female characters battle in their own ways to varying degrees of success.

  • I am in general agreement with this article. One thing that it doesn’t mention is a matter which Lady T and others have addressed elsewhere. There is a considerable difference between the books and the HBO series when it comes to nudity and sex: This is not so much a matter of what is shown but what is not shown.

    I’m a heterosexual male. I assure you that I’m not offended by pictures and videos of good looking women wearing little or nothing. However, I do not accept the idea that HBO is giving us a gritty and realistic portrayal of sex in Martin’s world. For example, a pivotal development in Dany’s evolution was her reaction to the rape of the Lhazareen. A remarkable fact about the HBO scene is that all the females are fully clothed. Even Mirri Maz Duur, who later makes a strong point about how many Dothraki riders had raped her before Dany intervened, is not missing any clothing. She scarcely looks disheveled. Now, why is that? The answer seems clear enough to me: a “gritty, realistic” portrayal of middled-aged women and flat-chested girls being taken forcefully would lack something; it wouldn’t be, um visually interesting. The idea is this: a woman has to have great boobs to be “realistic.

  • we aren’t talking about gratuitous nudity, we’re talking about gratuitous objectification of women’s bodies to tittilate men. show me some gratuitous cock shots and you can say “nudity” all you want, but until men are being used in a similar manner it isn’t an accurate word to use.

  • OH, i see, the naked women are just in there for interest? we can easily double the appeal with naked men. WE DEMAND COCK SHOTS!

  • Yes. All of that. All my friends just think I’m being a prude when I complain about it.

  • Lord of the Rings forgets women exist? Seriously? Eowyn slayed the king of the Nazgul when all the men ran away in fear. Galadriel was as powerful as Gandalf and provided gifts to the Fellowship that were vital to the success of their quest. Arwen gave up Eternal life to stay with Aragorn.

  • no one cares to talk about the gore or gratuitous violence. Of course that’s not nearly as damaging to our society as a few titties.

  • Of course there is no objectification of men, that would be utterly absurd in the society it describes. This is a society where everything is about power and war for men, they don’t get naked, they get killed, beaten, mutilated or tortured a lot (I grant you most of the time with their clothes on, but what would be the point? It wouldn’t serve the brilliant depiction of a society this also is). Women are objectified because in this society they are little more than objects, it is totally coherent with the story.

  • You’re right – I should have phrased that differently. LOTR (which I love) has three noteworthy female characters, and they’re all pretty great, especially Eowyn. But all three come across as “exceptional” women. Middle Earth still feels like a world mostly populated by male characters with the occasional, rare, strong woman. Westeros feels like a world where women are as active as men. That’s the comparison I meant to make, though it didn’t exactly come across in the original post.

  • “Sexposition” as a word? Seriously? Couldn’t its creator – and especially those who are passing it along – have come up with anything better?

    I mean, c’mon, “sex position” is what you’ll find an abundance of in books from the Kama Sutra to The Joy of Sex. “Sexposition” just looks like someone was typing fast and didn’t hit the space bar between words.

  • My personal head-cannon is that he didn’t have sex with them. He wasn’t ready for it, and he didn’t want to have sex with someone he didn’t love. So he asked to just sit and talk with the prostitutes instead, who gave him back his money and made up this ridiculous “Oh, he’s just SO good” because they liked him and didn’t want to harm his reputation.

  • Men wouldn’t be used in a similar manner because guess what, men aren’t women. If women were into porn and visual sexuality as much as men you’d get what you want, but they aren’t, and theres just no point denying this anymore. Sometimes reality doesn’t fit “theory” , and then that happens its best to stop the contortions trying to force something that won’t fit.
    There is a reason homosexual men enjoy porn more than straight women, and its not because they are “objectifying” men in a sexist way. If there were as many gay men as straight women, yes you’d get all the cock shots you want, but since that’s not true, you get something different.
    Put it simpler, dick is free, its why women don’t pay to see it, lets not pretend this isn’t true. Its why gay men can use something like grindr for quick hookups, and straight men can’t.

  • If only that were true. Its like with the WNBA, reality kind of sucks because it doesn’t support feminist theory;) No amount of talking about equality in sports actually made women want to watch the WNBA, and its no different from the whole naked man thing.
    Men are whores really, if you want to see a man naked, you need only ask much of the time. Theres a reason why male models get paid so much less, and women just don’t bother with male prostitutes for the same reason, Btw that’s kind of why the whole “feminist” title has been so tarnished as of late, because its just become too obvious the theories don’t match any recognizable reality people can see, and so you just see people shouting argument based on dogma which denies reason.