I love Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire. My poor friends cannot escape from my obsession, as I eagerly dissect every episode and recommend (again, and again, and again) that they watch, and pick up the books, and join me in the madness. But among all my glee about the series, I have one very pressing, very annoying question: why do all the women have to be naked?!
The world portrayed in Game of Thrones is harsh and misogynistic. Many (if not most) of the male characters view women as little more than objects that can be fought over, manipulated, possessed and used as pawns to further their own agenda. Some female characters, recognising that sexuality is all they’re allowed to have, use sex to achieve their own ends. Others more often find that sex is used against them, either as an asset that can be sold by others or as a means to control them. It would be impossible to properly adapt the books, and portray this horrific world, without including these sorts of elements, and presenting them in the same harsh, unflinching light as the books.
However (and it’s a big however), HBO’s adaptation also uses female nudity for another, less noble goal: to prevent the viewer from becoming bored.
Although almost every episode features a significant amount of female nudity, it rarely involves named, developed characters whose stories we care about. Daenerys is fairly frequently topless, but only for important reasons for her character — she is being abused and sold by her brother, she is raped in her forced marriage, she steps out of a pyre, her clothes burnt away, as she brings dragons back into the world. It can’t be cut and have the same effect. The relationship between Jaime and Cersei is a huge part of the plot, but their one sex scene is pretty much fully clothed. The shows cuts out any scenes in the book between healthy couples, like Ned and Catelyn, cannot find enough time to fully develop all the novel’s complicated plotlines, but spends a significant chunk of several episodes in the world of brothels and prostitutes. For no discernable reason, characters have long discussions about politics and personal history with prostitutes, including one memorable scene where Littlefinger expositions about his background angst while two prostitutes “practice” on one another under his direction. The scene doesn’t say that Westeros is cruel, or that Littlefinger is a jerk, although both of those things are true in this moment too. It simply says that naked, faux-lesbian women are there, in the background, to entertain the viewer while all the boring exposition stuff is going on.
Far from highlighting how cruel and misogynistic Westeros is, this abundance of female nudity actually lowers the shock-value of the world due to overexposure. Should the viewer care that Joffrey is stripping Sansa naked in front of the court, when such things are just par for the course? For those many viewers who hate Sansa Stark, it possibly seems like a just punishment for her bratty behaviour. Not because this behavior is normal in the world we see, but because it has become normal to us. At a certain point, Game of Thrones’ representation of the abuse of women crosses a line to include the viewer in that exploitation. The nudity isn’t there to say anything about character, or developing the plot, or even reveal insight into the world of the TV show. When a bunch of nameless prostitutes are just chilling out because the viewer needs something to look at while learning Westerosi history, it does not say something about the world of the show, but about the disturbing nature of our own. It’s included for the eyes of the viewer, for their gratification. We are forced to become part of the exploitation, not as a kind of deep performance-art “this is how much Westeros sucks,” but because that is what the show believes the viewer wants and needs to enjoy the show.
And as much as I love the show and this world, I’m not exactly comfortable being forced into that role.