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small screen sirens: on nudity

A few months ago, a group of friends and I marathoned the second season of Game of Thrones. I’d been distracted whilst it was airing on Showcase by work and reality and had had to resort to IQ’ing the suckers. It worked out well in the end as we piled onto my couches and watched the season through. We bore witness to all the corruption, tension and deceptions that make Game of Thrones such addictive television, and sat there edge-of-our-seats a lot of the day

Of course, marathoning the show like that also meant that we saw the HBO title card ten times. The static background and bold letters are synonymous with the network itself and are almost as iconic as the show that follows. Seeing it that many times though was this sort of penetrating thing and on the sixth or seventh go-round my friend — let’s call him Tom — said, ‘Home Box Office is kind of a shitty title for a network though.’ We agreed. The next few episodes were spent watching the show whilst tossing around increasingly ridiculous titles that fit with the HBO acronym – names like Hella Bad Opiates or Horny Blow Outs. After a particularly vigorous and athletic scene in a brothel on the show though, Tom threw his hands up, triumphant. ‘Heaps Boobs Out,’ he said, and it stuck. I can’t watch a HBO show anymore without referencing Heaps Boobs Out, made better and more relevant each time by the fact that it’s exceptionally rare that an episode of anything created or endorsed by the network doesn’t feature full breasts and erect nipples. From Game of Thrones to Entourage, Girls, Sex & the City, True Blood and Hung, HBO likes it’s stars front, centre and naked (to be fair, it also likes them from behind, tressed-up and spread eagle).

I feel like I should add a disclaimer here that I enjoy nudity in TV and film. I’ve never really been the type to shy away from it or get embarrassed. That aside, man do I love it when it’s relevant. I love my televised nudity narrative and character-centric, instead of just gratuitous. The problem is the latter is far more prevalent as a device than either of the former, especially in recent years. A study by The Parents Television Council earlier this year found that between 2010 and 2012, full-frontal nudity on network television rose 6,300% (read the full study here). Regardless of whether you’re for or against some T&A (tits and arse for those playing at home), that’s a pretty huge spike. HBO is far from being the only network going full-frontal though; Showtime, AMC, NBC and ABC have all been utilising explicit scenes in humour, in shock factor and in fan service.

Unfortunately there are no solid figures on the ratio of how much of this full-frontal is female over male, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of tracking to realise that for every flaccid penis you see on a show like Game of Thrones you’re sure to see a dozen pairs of breasts or shaved vaginas (the latter I find interesting, because surely that’s a modernisation of what is essentially a historical drama? Sure, historical fantasy, but historical none the less. Also, that’s a whole other thing.) The gap is pretty blatant and pretty reflective of a society that caters more to male gaze than it does to female. Think about Showtime’s Californication – a show about male sexuality that spends far more time sexualising every fleeting or long-standing female character than it does exploring Frank’s relationship with that or with his own body.

Like I said, I do like nudity in television and in film. I think it can be such an incredibly powerful plot device, because television is a visual medium and nudity in it is rarely just nudity. It can be used to flesh a character out (no pun intended), and explore his or her relationship with their body, with other people’s bodies. It can represent power or the loss of it, births and rebirths, absolutions and revelations. It can represent the right choice or the wrong. In many ways, it’s more a matter of treading that line between what is pornographic and what is telenarrative – what is a narrative at all. To bring it back to Game of Thrones, the season one finale has a prime example of nudity done right, as Khaleesi steps out of the fire, out of the burning bodies, nude barring the three dragons curled around her body. This scene is already close to iconic, and her nakedness is integral to the character’s rebirth, to her strength of character and her resolve to pursue the title owed her. It’s a Heaps Boobs Out moment for sure, but it transcends that and shows the power nudity can have in television. With the increased regularity of full-frontal in the medium, I really do hope that it means we get more of these sorts of moments, instead of the ones where a naked body is just another naked body.

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4 thoughts on “small screen sirens: on nudity

  1. I enjoyed this show and like you, dont mind nudity. Movies and tv shows are a visual story-telling art. Its the language the men used to talk about women is what really bothered me and made me uncomfortable. I honestly felt bad about myself after watching the show sometimes. I find it unnecessary. Its this reason why i doubt ill purchase the next season. Just my two-cents. Good article

    • That’s a really interesting point, Polly. I got to say that the scene early in the show with Daenerys and her brother made me horribly uncomfortable, but I felt her character arc really turned that subjugation into a display of power and control which I loved. The language can be pretty awful though, especially the attitudes with the younger men like Theon or the brothel owner Little Finger. That coupled with the sense of entitlement they tend to have over women of lower socio-economic class can be a little cringe worthy too. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it’s very true.

  2. I agree on most points you made, except that full frontal male is way more frequent than full frontal female. I rarely ever, ever see an actual female vagina on tv. It’s always covered in insane amounts of pubis. I’ve seen way more dongs on mainstream TV than vaginas. As for boobs, I’m sure you can see just as much, if not way more amounts of shirtless men on network TV even. It’s pretty equal, if not favoring women over men when it comes to being exposed.

    Also gotta point out about Californication, the show is geared about 96% towards adult males and displays sex in a frank and uncensored fashion. You see boobs and butt, but you see just about every inch of the male body except the penis.

    When it comes to discussions about televised (and film) nudity, the popular opinion seems to be it’s mostly gratuitous and sexist, but I find it’s always the opposite. Barring films like the American Pie spinoffs, which use female nudity to sell their films, a lot of the nudity we see today is very well spread between women and men.

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