Skin is wearing thin on HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’

April 26, 2012

“Game of Thrones,” HBO’s hit drama based on George R.R. Martin’s much-loved “Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy series, can be counted on for a few things: severed heads, insider intrigue, mythical creatures, and a huge and confusing cast of characters. Oh, and naked women. Lots of them.

Frequent and often outlandish, the show’s eroticism often overshadows or distracts from the actual story. It’s not just me: After the copious amounts of T&A during the show’s first season reached a nadir of absurdity with a now-notorious scene involving two prostitutes pleasuring each other, Onion AV Club television critic Myles McNutt was moved to coin the term “sexposition” to describe the way the show’s producers often arbitrarily shoehorn sex into the narrative as a way to cover up potentially snooze-inducing exposition.

The second season isn’t much better. April 8’s episode, “The Night Lands,” depicted a three-way peep show of sorts that seemed to serve no purpose except to show as many kinds of heterosexual sex in as short a time span as possible. And on April 14, just two weeks after the new season began, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” ran a faux promo joking that “Throne’s” success is partly attributable to the involvement of a creative consultant named Adam Friedberg, a fictional 13-year-old boy.

HBO is by no means the only cable channel to traffic in gratuitous nudity, but it may be the most notorious, what with a backlist that includes “Rome,” “Deadwood” and “The Sopranos.” But unlike those shows, “Game of Thrones” is based on a much-loved and closely analyzed series of books, which means that fans can — and do — compare the scenes Martin imagined with the ones that show-runners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff often arbitrarily insert.

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.

Television critic Alyssa Rosenberg, a writer for the political and pop culture Web site Think Progress, disputes the proposition that sex and nudity that don’t appear in the book serve no purpose in the series. “I feel nudity is a driver of personality more than the show gets credit for” in Season 1, Rosenberg says. “And I guess I don’t mind seeing women naked at the same time that the show is giving them personality and humanity they don’t have in the novels.”

One could also argue that the series’ creators are only trying to communicate Westerosi society’s disregard for the lives of women or trying to establish a connection between the way they are objectified and the accompanying, constant threat of assault, but the show’s softly lit and erotic staging of any scene involving a naked woman evokes Playboy of the 1960s and ’70s more than it underscores sexual politics or a culture of violence. “While readers wade through sex, violence, and even sexual assault as part of the ruthlessness of Martin’s fictional world, television audiences can seemingly only handle two out of three,” wrote the Daily Beast’s Jace Lacob last June.

As for the men, well, they aren’t asked to bare all very often, if ever. By my count, it has happened only once, to actor Alfie Allen (brother of pop singer Lily) who plays the turncoatish and arrogant Iron Islander Theon Greyjoy. But Allen’s nude body is not presented as pleasurable eye candy; viewers are not persuaded to desire him but to despise him. And the man straight female fans are arguably most likely to want to see disrobe, Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow, is likely to remain bundled up in the animal skins and iron armor favored by his military brotherhood, the Night’s Watch.

Said one Twitter user, @Aurelia_Nicole, “I understand sex as a currency in Westeros but I need it to be a bit more egalitarian.”

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.”

Yet there is something wearying and numbing about the series’ relentless oogling of the female form. It’s a constant reminder and reinforcement of the fact that pop-culture creators make content mainly for heterosexual men and then, maybe, for everyone else. They get tiring, these continued nods to the male gaze. (The implication is either that women aren’t watching or that the women who are watching have no interest in erotic eye candy of their own.) They’re also alienating, particularly when the sex seems to serve no purpose other than to titillate. My cluck-clucks of disapproval are as much about the situating of women as sex objects as they are my own sudden and reluctant prudishness.

To read previous columns by Anna Holmes, go to wapo.st/anna-holmes.

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