Why not have a bunch of sex on HBO?

By Amanda Marcotte
Friday, April 27, 2012 15:19 EDT
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Anna Holmes and Alyssa Rosenberg are in disagreement about the aggressive nudity on “Game of Thrones”. I agree with both of their points, to an extent. Alyssa defends it, arguing that it’s rarely just prurient, especially in the second season. 

I’d say I think they’re being somewhat more thoughtful in season 2. There are scenes in season 1 that are just ludicrous—Littlefinger’s yammering around his prostitutes, the Dothraki wedding sequences. That said, I feel nudity is a driver of personality more the show gets credit for in Season 1. I really like the good cheer of the prostitutes bursting in on Tyrion in our introduction to the character. I rarely feel like it’s okay to use female nudity solely to advance our impression of a male character, but given the show’s very impressive investment in Peter Dinklage as a sex symbol, I thought that scene was kind of remarkable. I also liked the scene of Ros flashing Theon as she leaves for King’s Landing, a moment that showed her comfort with her body as a commodity while also reinforcing Theon as kind of a randy idiot. And Dany’s nudity at the end of the finale felt powerful to me for the same reason Margaery’s does: her femininity is as exposed as it can get, which should make her vulnerable, and instead it’s a moment of triumph and dignity for her.

Anna has a different take:

These scenes seem not only forced but exploitative. As Huffington Post television critic Mo Ryan put it in a review: “Sometimes ‘Game of Thrones’ uses sexual scenes to shed light on character. But quite often, it shows naked women because it can.” It is telling that few, if any, of the series’ most fully realized and complex female characters — and there are many — are ever shown naked, with the exception of Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen and the just-introduced Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). And it’s probably no coincidence that as the character of Ros — a titian-haired prostitute played by Esme Bianco — becomes more nuanced the less the series requires her to disrobe.

She adds:

Like the writers of “SNL,” I’m trying to have a sense of humor about “Game of Thrones” — or, at the very least, look on the bright side of all the breast-baring. It’s a great source of unintentional humor, for starters. I can often tell by the sort of dress a female character is wearing whether she is likely to disrobe. (If it has buttons, they will come undone.) I marvel at the semi-medieval society’s standards for personal grooming, which seem to anticipate the Brazilian waxes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: I call the pubic hair pattern so often seen on Westerosi women “the King’s Landing Strip.”

The fact that no one has a medieval-style bush does suggest that Anna wins this one on the evidence. But I agree with both of them, to an extent. Anna is right that it’s basically there for gratuitous reasons, and you could cut it in half, easily, without missing a beat. But I also don’t mind it, albeit for a slightly different reason than Alyssa. I remember what John Waters wrote about Russ Meyer in his book Shock Value:

Russ Meyer is the Eisenstein of sex films. He is single-handedly responsible for more hard-ons in movie audiences than any other director, despite the fact that he has refused ever to make a  hard-core feature. Married couples have flocked to his films for twenty years because they know Russ delivers and feel that the erotic images he is so famous for give them fodder for fantasies and actually add a little zing to their dull sex lives. 

So there you have it: HBO can be congratulated for saving marriages. Isn’t that more important, strictly speaking, than whether or not all this sex can be justified as non-gratuitous? It’s downright pro-marriage to have so much bumping and grinding on TV. That said, there are shows that absolutely make the sex stupid and tedious, but I don’t think “Game of Thrones” is one of them. “Game of Thrones” usually stays inside the line by, as Alyssa says, combining the gratuitous nature of it with attempts to advance the plot and characterization. “True Blood” also gets a pass, because they aren’t pretending to be anything but a really strange soft core porn.

I’m actually happy that Americans have an appetite for titillation in fiction. The accessibility of porn online does carry the threat of dulling our national erotic imagination. Porn has its place, don’t get me wrong! But if that’s where our entire erotic imagination is housed, then it becomes kind of soulless and mechanical. What’s awesome about putting hot sex in shows that have pre-existing characters and plots is that it explores another angle of eroticism, the kind that is a tad more whole-person oriented, instead of the nameless people that populate porn. (I mean, I realize they play characters and have names, but basically the only people who care are those who are kind of obsessed with porn.) The reason the sex doesn’t seem that out of place to me on “Game of Thrones” is that the show is so much about how these people live on a day to day basis, and sex is a major and important part of that. In life, people spend a lot of time naked, so why not on TV? I actually am more distracted when shows have scenes where people in real life would be naked, but characters are wearing clothes because they don’t want “too much” nudity. For instance, TV characters have a lot more sex with clothes on than people in real life do. “Game of Thrones” manages to avoid that problem. 

Well, sort of. They do need to show more dudes naked. They really need to take a hint from “True Blood” on this front. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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