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.