Game of Thrones Television

Does Cersei’s Walk of Shame deserve an Emmy?

The 2015 Emmy Awards take place next week, and Lena Headey’s nomination for her portrayal of Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones Season Five has got me thinking about a slightly old topic that I haven’t written about here before — her Walk of Shame in this year’s season finale.

Lena Headey is one of the favorites to win the Best Supporting Actress Emmy this year, and it’s easy to see why. Cersei’s Walk of Shame, where she is forced to walk naked in front of an increasingly hostile crowd as punishment for her sins, is as emotionally challenging to watch as it must have been to film. But although the scene has already become a well-known part of pop culture (try walking through the streets of Dubrovnik, where this was filmed, and listen to the number of people saying “shame, shame”), it has also faced a lot of criticism.

First, the scene has been criticized for being too long and too gratuitous, adding to the show’s history of sexually exploiting its female characters. But it has also been criticized for not being gratuitous enough, or at least not gratuitous in the “right way,” with Lena Headey’s use of a body double attacked as both a lack of commitment from Headey and a “deception” to the audience.

The second criticism is probably more troubling, but the first one feeds into it, so let’s start with that. The Walk of Shame scene is seven minutes long — seven minutes of full female nudity while a crowd throws things at her, threatens her and screams insults. When considered on its own, it’s a difficult scene to watch, but not necessarily a problematic one. The extended nature of the scene drives home the brutality of it, allowing us to see every moment of Cersei’s progression from defiance to fear to being completely broken to her vowing vengeance. The show has usually (although not always) portrayed Cersei in a fairly nuanced and sympathetic light, giving her more depth than she receives in the books, and although viewers may despise her, the extended, graphic nature of her Walk of Shame is intended to invoke sympathy and horror for the misogyny that this “evil” character faces.

But in the context of Season Five, the scene could be interpreted quite differently. Refinery29 described this season as the “rapiest season of a television show in recent memory,” and the show’s gratuitous use of rape as a plotline was discussed by several mainstream media outlets, including Vanity Fair. The audience is incredibly used to seeing rape, misogyny and gratuitous female nudity on the show, to the point that Cersei’s fate may no longer feel that shocking. Viewers are inured to this sort of violence and humiliation, so the scene must be made even more intense to stand a chance of making an impact.

Conversely, this context made the scene seem more shocking, but for the wrong reasons. The show has used female humiliation and sexual exploitation for “shock factor” entertainment so often that this scene blurs in with the others, and is damned by association. Another scene of full female nudity. Another scene where a female character is shamed for her sexuality while her body is displayed for viewers to enjoy. If this scene was intended to make us side with a villainous character, it seems to suggest that female characters must endure this sort of sexual violence in order to be sympathetic.

And it’s a perspective on the scene that some viewers have joyfully embraced. It’s well-known that Lena Headey worked closely with a body double to create the scene, and she faced a lot of criticism of fans who felt that she was not only failing at her job as an actress, but denying them their promised nudity. It’s been pointed out that Lena Headey was pregnant at the time of shooting, and that she has a lot of tattoos that would be difficult to cover up, but honestly, that shouldn’t matter. Even if neither of those things were true, the level of entitlement toward an actress’s body is extreme, with the most worrying criticism, perhaps, being that she did a nude scene in 300, so she has to be willing to do one here. The idea that she has to be willing to be naked in front of thousands of extras and on screen for millions of viewers in order to properly act the scene — despite the fact that Lena Headey claimed she used a double so that she could focus on Cersei’s emotion and give a better performance — has its roots in the commodification of female bodies throughout our culture, but it’s also a perspective that the show has encouraged.

Female nudity is so common on the show that it has become completely unremarkable, and it is always shot for the audience’s gratification. Even in scenes of violence and suffering, such as the rape of Craster’s Wives or Ros’s death, the nudity is clearly framed as a treat for the viewer. They’re entitled to see this, and they’re entitled to enjoy it. So when some viewers anticipated this Walk of Shame, they saw it not just as an incredibly emotional moment for Cersei, but also a chance to see Cersei naked, and to enjoy her humiliation. And this explains why it matters so much that it wasn’t Lena Headey — it’s not about Cersei and her story, but about the body itself.

All of these things are reasons to criticize the show, its writing and its direction. But none of them take away from the powerful work that Lena Headey did in that scene, and in this season as a whole. It was an incredible piece of acting, and it really deserves Emmy recognition, because, for once, vicious misogyny was treated with the empathy and depth it deserves. If only it wasn’t marred by the context of director-driven misogyny in the rest of the show.

10 Comments

  1. L

    September 11, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    I don’t think it deserves an Emmy because I’m so disgusted by everything about this show this last season that I don’t want them to think they got anything right. I mean, recognizing a good performance would probably just encourage more nudity, thinking that’s what people were responding to, rather than Lena/Cersei’s struggle.

    My problem with the body double has nothing to do with Lena’s choice to bow out, but that the double they chose was an actress/model whose body was firm and toned. Not that you can’t look fabulous when you’re of a certain age and had 3 (4 by show’s count) children, but it’s not like Cersei had a personal trainer and went to the gym to do pilates. I felt that the casting sexualized and romanticized her. I’d be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, that this was the best stand in, had they not shown with every opportunity that women are objects for straight men to leer at.

    1. Mila

      September 18, 2015 at 8:47 pm

      Exactly! And that’s not the first time we see unrealistic female bodies in the show. I still remember how Osha’s full Brazilian wax in the scene with Theon broke my suspension of disbelief. At the end I convinced myself that that’s just what contemporary actresses look like, and nothing can be done about it (much in the same way as, for example, actors portraying medieval characters have perfect teeth), until I saw an interview with Natalia Tena, where she claimed she found it unrealistic and wanted to grow her hair or at least wear a merkin, but the showrunners wouldn’t let her.

      In the rare cases when we see male nudity, it’s realistic – the wine merchant from Season 1, the random guys flashing Cersei, etc. But in all the numerous cases when we see female nudity, it’s designed to look like a porn film. It is even a point in the book that Cersei realizes she has aged and this adds to her humiliation, but we see none of that.

      Apart from that, I didn’t have a problem with the scene. I thought it was only problematic taken in the context of everything else that happened this season, but by itself the scene was well done and made viewers sympathize with Cersei. And, in any case, Lena Headey’s performance was magnificent and should not be punished because of someone else’s decisions.

      1. Ivana

        September 18, 2015 at 9:13 pm

        Actually, medieval people in general didn’t have particularly bad teeth, that’s just one of the popular misconceptions about the Middle Ages. Yes, their dental hygiene was on a lower level than ours (although it did exist, they did brush their teeth, for instance, with pieces of wood and such) but they were consuming far less sugar, so their teeth decayed less than the teeth of modern people do. Peasants, in particular, probably had healthy teeth, healthier teeth than the higher classes, because their food included a higher percentage of vegetable and low percentage of sugar.

        But other than that, I completely agree with this post.

  2. Courtney

    September 11, 2015 at 6:39 pm

    Ugh that scene was horrible, but Lena sold the hell out of it. So if you saw that scene, did you see the scene where Dant finally spoke with Tyrion? I thought that was an Emmy worthy scene!

  3. Ellesar

    September 12, 2015 at 9:55 am

    I haven’t seen it, and at 7 minutes long I certainly do not want to. Like L I am exceedingly weary of the way women’s bodies are used in GOT. When we think of a man being treated in the same way it just doesn’t work –

    Terrible things happen to male characters of course, but the terrible things that happen to the women in GOT still happen to women every day – not in war, not in desperate times, but in ‘ordinary’ circumstances.

  4. Rachel

    September 13, 2015 at 6:55 am

    I will say this for the show…as much as I hated what they did with other parts of that season, I thought they did the Walk of Shame really well. They did a good job of capturing the misogynistic hypocrisy of lauding women for their beauty above and beyond any of their other traits, but then being willing to tear that beauty to shreds when the woman doesn’t do what people consider appropriate. The viewers who are upset because they didn’t get to see Lena Heady’s naked body are being stupid and sexist, but that’s not necessarily the show’s fault.
    As for whether it deserves an Emmy….maybe? I dunno, it’s not like I’ve seen any of the competition. But yes, I do wonder if the nudity is what made it a candidate.

  5. voodooqueen126

    September 13, 2015 at 8:44 am

    they really should’ve cast a 34+ woman as the body double, not some nubile young thing. Another example of using women to titillate the male viewer.

    1. Ivana

      September 17, 2015 at 12:04 pm

      Forty year old. Cersei is 40 on the show, as we learned last season.

  6. Ivana

    September 17, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    Good article, but the link in it leads to some Youtube song, rather than the Refinery29 article, which I really wanted to check.

What do you think?