A (Partial) Defense of Nudity in ‘Game of Thrones’

My friend Anna Holmes wrote her column for the Washington Post this week about the nudity of Game of Thrones in which I’m the main voice speaking out in the show’s defense. I ended up writing her some long thoughts on the subject, far more than she needed, so I thought I’d condense them here because it turns out, though I’ve written about almost everything else when it comes to the show, I haven’t written about nudity and its uses. So here we go…

When my friend Myles McNutt popularized the term sexposition last year to describe scenes in Game of Thrones where one character explains a concept while other characters have sex unrelated to that conversation in the same frame, he came up with something really funny and useful. But I think people have ended up suggesting that all the sex and nudity in Game of Thrones is prurient rather than relevant. And I feel really strongly that isn’t true.

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.

This season, there have been a couple stand-alone examples that have felt particularly important to me. When Theon has sex with the daughter of the ship captain who’s bringing him back to his childhood home on Pyke, the show spends a lot of time lingering on her face and body, neither of which are particularly conventionally attractive. But Theon ends up complicit in our judgement of her. He tells her to shut her mouth so he won’t have to look at her teeth. He ignores her requests to go with him when he leaves the ship, and ignores her when she says her father will punish her for sleeping with him. He’s using her, and assumes that because she’s an ugly girl, she ought to be sexually available to him and grateful for the attention. The whole scene, including her nakedness, is about explaining Theon’s sexual entitlement, his voraciousness, the inflated sense of self that will later lead to his spectacular humiliation.

I felt the same way about Margaery Tyrell’s scene with her husband, Renly Baratheon. The scene starts with him acknowledging how beautiful she is. But he’s profoundly uncomfortable with her naked body, repulsed by the sexual attraction he knows he’s supposed to be feeling. The contrast between her beautiful body and his reaction, which I thought was a really beautiful piece of acting, is part of what makes the scene. The other part of what makes the scene great is her utter comfort in her body, in her nakedness. Margaery may be a woman, and she may be in a situation where most of us might feel sexually vulnerable. But she’s better equipped than her husband to talk about the fact that they need to get pregnant, and quickly, and she’s more at home in her body, what her body craves, and what other people want her body to be used for than Renly is.

Even Melisandre’s sort of cheesy seduction of Stannis Baratheon bears literal fruit in the terms of a quick-gestating smoke monster.

And I thought the scene where Joffrey orders Ros to first beat Daisy and then rape her with a scepter was the perfect example of why people shouldn’t dismiss nude scenes and sex scenes as they come up in the show and forget that they might pay off later. We meet Daisy when Ros is giving her a tour of Littlefinger’s brothel, including scenes where she’s instructing other prostitutes on how to fake pleasure with clients more convincingly. We see Daisy naked in an interrupted tryst with Pycelle, huddling naked on the floor as her client gets his beard cut off and sent to prison, and we see Tyrion pay her off, adding a tip and a smile. These scenes, as well as non-sexual ones like Daisy crying over a colleague’s murdered child, give us a relationship with these small characters (neither of whom exist in the books, by the way). And then we see these women turned against each other, one forced to torture the other at pain of death. Without those previous scenes, Joffrey would be torturing anonymous whores. With them, he’s torturing people. That arc gives Game of Thrones a lot of credit with me. I’m hard-pressed to dismiss a silly sex scene now, because how do I know it’s not going to pay off painfully later down the road?

And we actually don’t see a lot of the female characters nude. Two of them are children. Catelyn is a widow deep in mourning. On a factual note, Lena Headey may be naked less as Cersei because she has significant tattoos and covering them up would be a lot of work, so it may just be a tech thing. Brienne is a knight. Interestingly, we haven’t seen Shae naked at all this season, though she is Tyrion’s lover and a sex worker. 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. The show may make Ros and Daisy naked, but Ros is literally a line in the novels and Daisy doesn’t exist at all. Now, they’re people to us, and hurting them makes us feel pain.