This morning, the internet exploded with takedowns and defenses of the frequent sex and nudity in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ a show I’m mildly obsessed with based on a series of books by George R.R. Martin that I adore. I’m not really going to jump into that particular debate, mostly because I basically agree with Alyssa Rosenberg’s defense of the show, which I linked to. In short: if you’re watching the show without investing in the characters, then you are probably going to think the sex scenes are gratuitous and unnecessary. If however, you are watching the show and thinking about or caring about (negatively or positively) the characters, then you’ll recognize that the show really is doing things with the sex and nudity. In particular, the dark scenes of sexual violence in the fourth episode of this season, “Garden of Bones,” were justifiable in part because the sex workers we’re meant to feel sympathy for are actually characters who we’ve spent time with, and because Joffrey’s lust for violence and control is greater than whatever teenage hormones his uncle Tyrion thinks he’s suffering from. That’s information we need to know about Joffrey, and I’m not sure we could have gotten it any other way.
That said, I wanted to point out some of the interesting sub-veins of critique I’m seeing in this discourse. I’m not sure how fully-formed these thoughts are going to be, so I might come back to this and elaborate. Without further ado, though:
A Typology of People Who Are Talking About Nudity and Sex in Game of Thrones
1. Those who think HBO needs to braver and more egalitarian (read: more penis!) about the nudity on ‘Game of Thrones’. I agree with these people! A commenter on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ story who’s a fan of the novels points out that the sex Bran observes between Cersei and Jaime Lannister, a chance incident which sets off the entire series, was changed from Jaime performing oral sex on Cersei, as described in the books, to doggy style for the show. I don’t think this one scene can be read as a barometer for the exec producers & HBO’s outlook on sex in the series, as this commenter argued, but I do think it’s telling that, especially in the early going, HBO was being a little more conventional with their T&A. (I mean, they’re already depicting incestual sex, so…) The network can and should be braver and more egalitarian in showing more diverse sexual experiences as well as showing more male nudity. It’s not TV, after all, it’s HBO.
2. People who are misusing the Myles McNutt-coined term “sexposition.” Because it’s a very narrow category, according the coiner himself, and people have generally begun to use it dismissively to describe shows that have a lot of seemingly meaningless sex scenes. I’m of the opinion that ‘Game of Thrones’ is not this show anymore. Even the most frequently cited scene in the first season, Littlefinger teaching his prostitutes how to pleasure one another while waxing philosophical, deserves more credit for giving us insight into how Littlefinger thinks. To be sure, I think other scenes do a better job of this (like the thrilling showdown between he and Cersei early in the second season), but it should not be discounted. Especially in the early part of the second season, I don’t think I’ve seen anything that I would qualify as sexposition. Sex and nudity are part of this show’s world and worldview, because, as we’ve seen, it’s regrettably one of the major tools women have to gain agency in Westeros, and dismissing sex and nudity on the show outright as unnecessary shows very little engagement with the show and its world.
3. People who think literary sex is different from television/HBO sex. Here’s what I think is happening: televisual sex and the accompanying nudity share signifiers with pornography, and it’s hard to get past it. People who have read the books—which, by the way, have way more sex, nudity, and sexual violence than the show has engaged in thus far—seem most vocal in their opposition to the way the show is dealing with the sex and nudity on the show (see: the comment I analyze in point 1; the majority of the comments on the Coates piece linked to above). This could be because they’re responding the difference between literary depictions of sex and nudity and the visual depictions of sex and nudity. To be sure, there is a difference between words on a page and a visual depiction thereof, if only on the basis of industrial parameters. The author and the editor are basically the two voices involved in the production of words on the page, while there are many more voices contained in a single shot on a TV show: the executive producers’, the director’s, the costume designer’s, the set designer’s, the lighting designer’s, etc. But is there also something about the signifiers used by televisual sex and nudity that may bear an uncomfortable similarity to signifiers of pornography. But this is the question of the hour: does that mean we should dismiss this sex and nudity outright, or should we be interrogating this similarity to find out it can mean something for show?
4. People who think this semiotic similarity can be a way of creating meaning within the show. Count me—and, I think, Alyssa Rosenberg—amongst this group, because there is production in similarity as much as difference. Even if ‘Game of Thrones’ is using signifiers of pornography unintentionally, it has a profound—and important!—impact on the way we’re viewing these scenes. I think it can help our reading of the scenes. The scene when Theon is having sex with the captain’s daughter in the first episode is an example of this. The camera is focused on her face and her dangling breasts as Theon has sex with her and talks about how great his welcome is going to be back on Pyke. Here the signifiers of pornography work in the favor of this scene’s meaning, because Theon is degrading her. But Theon gets his comeuppance in later scenes, when it’s revealed just how inflated his sense of self is, and how ironic his posturing and the framing of that sex scene was. At the same time, in the world of Westeros, this sex scene is a microcosm of a patriarchal system writ large, one that will eventually run Westeros into the ground. This cannot be overstated. One of the largest ironies present in the series—and this is definitely true of the TV show, not just the books—is how the men continue to fuck up an entire world in a system controlled by them, and how women quietly make their own power through that system. Arya, Cersei and Dany have always been the best examples of this in the series, but this season has added Sansa, Ros, Margaery and Melisandre to that list.
Clearly this is not a fully fleshed-out theory, and not at all the last article filed on ‘Game of Thrones’. We should continue interrogating sex and nudity on television, and investigating the possible relationship between the signifiers used in televisual sex and nudity and explicitly pornographic sex and nudity.