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Breast Practices: Too Many Boobs in Game of Thrones?

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Thrones' majestic final nude scene (SFW version) /HBO

Game of Thrones has ended its first season on HBO, but a debate rages on. Namely, if winter is coming, why don’t the women put some damn clothes on?

In the Los Angeles Times, TV critic Mary McNamara used Game of Thrones, with its many female nude scenes, as a launching point to make a larger criticism of HBO: “Maybe it’s time to tone down the tits.” More specifically, she argued, between Thrones and other shows like Boardwalk Empire (that showcase of Prohibition-era frontal nudity), HBO was loading its shows up with too much flesh for the sake of eye candy, as opposed to the sake of story. (“HBO has a higher population of prostitutes per capita than Amsterdam or Charlie Sheen’s Christmas card list.”)

In Salon, meanwhile, TV critic (and my Brooklyn neighbor) Matt Zoller Seitz responded that McNamara—and other critics who have dinged Thrones for its frequent nudie scenes—were being typical American prudes: “This is America’s Puritan mentality coming home to roost in criticism. Closeups of throats being slit and limbs being lopped off are an expected part of R-rated entertainment aimed at adult viewers, and not even worthy of comment. But nudity and sex must be ‘justified.'”

The uses of nudity, and the line between using it to tell a story vs. using it because you can, is a fascinating subject. (And not, I think, just because I’m a heterosexual male.) I don’t have time to do the longer answer post that I wish I could, but on balance I agree more with Seitz here, especially on the series Game of Thrones in particular. (Again, I think, not just because I’m a heterosexual male.)

I would not write off McNamara’s argument entirely. She makes a useful distinction between “breasts” and “tits”–the latter, essentially, being breasts deployed solely to, well, titillate the viewer. HBO is not entirely innocent of that.

Still, there’s a difference between women being used as objects in the world of a show and women being used as objects by the show—a big difference. The Sopranos, say, showed a lot of topless strippers gyrating sadly in the Bada Bing. I’m sure there were viewers who liked that simply because—hey, boobs!

But those boobs were made for talking: that is, they, just as much as Tony’s crimes or his messed-up family life, made a point about the emptiness and cheapness of his world. The Sopranos depicted women being used as sex objects because it was about men who made money using women as sex objects. I’d contrast that with a lot of the nudity in, say, Entourage, which frankly does often feel like it’s there largely to get the viewer off—it makes a narrative point, but often that narrative point has been that it’s awesome to be famous, because girls will show you their tits.

Seitz–who focuses mostly on Thrones in his response post—makes the point that the notorious “sexposition” scenes (usually involving a man giving a long background-info speech after/while banging a whore) have narrative and even thematic purpose. (And, he notes, some of them are there because a major character, Littlefinger, owns a whorehouse.) He’s right in most individual instances: Theon’s conversations with Ros tell us something about him, Littlefinger’s sex-coaching of his recruits reveals his views on power and deception.

The problem is that, in aggregate, the device is just used so often—not just in Littlefinger’s brothel—that it becomes a crutch, and eventually, distracting to the point of being unintentionally funny. And whether the scenes are meant this way or not, put together they play is if the producers decided that the only way to keep viewers awake during expository scenes was with T&A. I’ll grant Seitz’s larger points about how our culture treats sex vs. violence, but a crutch is a crutch (is, in this case, a crotch).

The ironic thing to me is that the whole “controversy” McNamara raises obscures the fact that George R. R. Martin’s books, on which Thrones is based, are actually highly conscious of gender and sex, and take them very seriously. It’s not just that there are strong women characters, though there are. It’s that Martin is clear-eyed that he is writing about culture in which women are not (usually) equal to men, and honest about the consequences of that.

I don’t want to get into spoilers for those who have not read, but as the books go on, there are more and more strong female characters, and a sophisticated awareness of how they have been shaped by their societies’ strictures on them. (Very mild spoiler alert: we also encounter one particular society in which women are treated much differently, and with more equality, than in the Seven Kingdoms, and Martin does a great job delineating the different circumstances and mindsets that produce such a culture.) There is also, yes, a lot of rape, prostitution and objectification—and Martin doesn’t treat it glibly in the least.

So I don’t want to write off what McNamara says altogether (and for her part, she notes that the season’s final scene “may be the best use of female nudity on television ever”). But at least as far as Thrones is concerned, the charge is fairly skin-deep.