Nudity and the heterosexual male gaze in Game of Thrones

Note: Contains spoilers for all aired episodes of the TV series but none for the books.

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a show that contained as much nudity as Game of Thrones (something not unusual for a show produced by HBO and something which also featured heavily in the books), a great deal of discussion has addressed the use of “sexposition” on the show. Though in many ways I feel this goes unsaid, I’m going to say it anyway: nudity, whether male or female, is not inherently exploitative. It can be used in order to make significant character or thematic points, a process which Game of Thrones uses very effectively in many cases.

For instance, in the case of the character Daenerys in the episode “Winter is Coming”, nudity is used to indicate vulnerability and her own lack of agency—she has nothing that protects from the world and, perhaps more importantly, it is used to show that those who you would expect to protect her (first her brother and then husband) are in fact the people she has the most to fear from. Her discovering her sexual agency—in taking charge of her sex life with her husband—is used to indicate her increasing overall agency in her own life. At the very end of the first season, in the episode “Fire and Blood”, Daenerys’ nudity is meant to indicate emancipation and rebirth. There is certainly nothing exploitative about any of that nor do any of the scenes seem to me to pander to the heterosexual male gaze.

Ros, a sex worker who worked in both Winterfell and Kings Landing, is a wonderful character, liberated and funny and comfortable in both her own skin and in her profession. (In case it isn’t clear: no, there isn’t anything inherently exploitative in sex work.)* In a scene between her and Theon in the episode “The Wolf and the Lion”, they have had sex and are discussing Theon’s position in the household. She is funny and confident and deals with Theon’s ridiculousness very effectively. This is certainly a case of “sexposition” and it works fine. The camera does not pan over Ros’ body or linger on her nakedness in any obvious way and her sexuality is her own.

There are many other instances in which nudity is used in a way that is neither exploitative nor offensive, such as in the scene in “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things” between Viserys and Doreth in which they are in a bath, relating information while having sex. The scene ends jarringly, knocking the viewer (and Doreth) out of the sexy way the scene had gone those far and nailing home the difference between the situation of Doreth (a slave) and Ros (who isn’t a slave). The scene also emphasizes how horrific a person Viserys is, as later in the episode he drags Doreth violently into a scene by her hair.

The instances in which the heterosexual male gaze is used strongly—unavoidably—is in the two lesbian scenes in the series. One is between Daenerys and Doreth, who is teaching Daenerys about the best ways to have sex. The scene is heavily charged with sexual tension, as one would expect such scene to be. However, the scene does not appear to be between two women with same-sex attraction. These are not queer women or, at the very least, they do not appear to be to this queer woman. They are straight women, one teaching and the other learning, not how to please another woman but how to please a man.

This scene is relatively mild, especially in comparison with the lesbian scene that follows in  the episode “You Win or You Die”. This scene has a very strong connection with lesbian porn aimed at straight men. Like the scene between Daenerys and Doreth, these are not queer women. No doubt this time, these are straight women (when the other woman in the scene is going down on Ros, and Ros is moaning, it is implied that she is faking it for her imagined audience) who are performing for a literal male audience, in this case Petyr/Littlefinger. There are many problems with this scene and I’m going to start with the least egregious: Aidan Gillan, who plays Littlefinger, isn’t great in this scene. I wouldn’t go as far as saying he’s terrible but he can’t carry what is basically a monologue.

This, however, is hardly the worst thing about the scene.  As mentioned above, it has a very strong connection with lesbian porn aimed at straight men. Unlike in the previous “sexposition” scenes, one of the participants—Littlefinger—remains fully clothed. He instructs the women in what they’re doing and, in an aggravating show of heterosexism, declares Ros should this time “be the man”. The majority of the scene is designed to mimic sex between a cisgendered man and a cisgendered woman. In the other scenes described the camera lingers on faces and eyes and you certainly don’t get the types of shots you get in the scene with Littlefinger, which occasionally lingers on bodies without heads and the camera panning down the woman’s bodies.

Game of Thrones actually manages to be quite progressive in general in terms of how it deals with nudity—female nudity in particular—and the use of the male gaze. However, in the way it deals with nominally lesbian scenes and sexuality is extremely problematic. I would love more queer ladies on my television. Funnily enough though, I actually want them to be queer, not there for the enjoyment of men who happen to like girl-on-girl.

 


* Though as she is the only sex worker mentioned in relation to Winterfell it could lead one to believe that it is a town with only the one person employed in sex work or, as a friend of mine assumed while watching, that “Ros” was just the standard name given out by sex workers in Winterfell.

 

Disclaimer: The treatment of queer sexuality is not the only problem Game of Thrones has, merely the one I wanted to discuss right now. In particular, the treatment of race and people of colour in the narrative is extremely problematic, and I hope future posts can deal with this. 


10 Comments on Nudity and the heterosexual male gaze in Game of Thrones

  1. blinvisible says:

    I think you need to be careful about casting things as exploitation that are not necessarily so. There are fetishes that closely resemble the scene with Ros you described above. These are entirely consensual and entirely okay.

    While the gaze\cinematography of this scene is worthy of criticism, the act itself is not. There is more discussion on this sort of thing in the specific example of bondage around on the internet.

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      Good point, but I don’t feel like this post condemns the act you’re talking about (which I guess is broadly “a man directing two women on how to have sex with each other for his enjoyment”) on an individual level. I think it rather places it in the broader context of the male gaze in this show and in society in general and finds it problematic in that context.

      This is the kind of thing where I think it’s useful to say that this scene is macroproblematic, rather than microproblematic. It skeeves us out because of existing cultural tropes about the primacy of male desires over female desires, and existing power imbalances. That’s my view: of course I can’t speak for the rest of the SJL.

    • Connie Connie says:

      I basically agree with Rachael. I have no problems with individuals enjoying any consensual sex acts. But in the context of a television show, the narrative is controlled and every act and scene is meant to appeal to audiences in a certain way. When the method of “appeal” is by reinforcing hurtful and mistaken narrative of queer female sexuality, I think the issue of exploitation certainly crops up.

      As an aside: I think what is interesting macroproblematic amateur media gets broadcast in the mainstream, because then condemnation of those particular individuals does get problematic. So there is overlap, but I don’t think that’s the case here.

  2. Scott says:

    I think the scene in “You Win or You Die” is pretty deliberate. The monologue Little Finger gives not only directly describes (the way he sees) a prostitute seduces a client, but also the way he himself seduces his enemies.
    I can’t recall the exact wording, but it was along the lines of a client knowing you were a whore, but that somehow they were different, for once you were changing – the same trick Little Finger plays on Stark.
    The way the scene treats the sex act as gratuitous reflects the gratuitousness of the Game of Thones – the one which you win or die trying, not the series of books :P.
    The gratuitousness of the Game is a running theme in the books and the TV series, with the impending threat of the North and the maybe-threat of the Dragons, and this scene – I feel at least – draws a nice metaphor, with Little Finger instructing the prostitutes in a game he knows very well indeed.

    Note that I am not saying the scene is not gratuitous… just that maybe there was a reason for that.

    • Lena says:

      This! Exactly what I was trying to say in my comment below, but I think you explained it better.

    • Clare Clare says:

      Well my point wasn’t that the scene was or wasn’t gratuitous, my point was that the scene was offensive. Mainly what I was saying was that it was a misuse of queer female sexuality not for the first time in the series but the second. As a queer woman I found it offensive, particularly because there weren’t any other representations of queer female sexuality in the text.

      Whether it was deliberate or not was not the point I don’t think. I don’t think I would say that gratuitousness was one of the themes of the series, I think that it was a more violent time with less protection for the weak from the powerful and not what we would refer to as rule of law, hence the great deal of violence in the series. Characters have sex in ASOIAF because, well, most people have sex and that was what had been missing in a great deal of fantasy when A Game of Thrones was published. Sex and violence are not the problem and I wouldn’t watch Game of Thrones or read ASOIAF if I objected to those things.

  3. Lena says:

    To me it felt like that scene was intended to be unpleasant and confronting rather than sexy – it was the first scene that showed how much of a complete bastard Littlefinger is. He doesn’t see the two women as people at all, they are just objects to him. And that makes it clear that he thinks of all the other characters in the same way, however much he may pretend to be everyone’s friend. It was quite a while ago that I watched it, but I think the plot-related things he said in that scene also reinforced that impression of selfishness and contempt for others. I definitely got the feeling that this was the scene that was supposed to change Littlefinger from a more-or-less likeable character to a thoroughly unlikeable one.

    • Connie Connie says:

      Disclaimer that I haven’t seen the scene and have only watched three or four eps of GoT (and not read the books either). BUT in general terms, I feel the same as Clare in her above comment. When you’re presenting something that is a problematic representation and is not commonly viewed as problematic in the mainstream, even if the intention is to portray a character in a bad light, the audience is not going understand that unless you’re very, very explicit and condemn it in the narrative.

      This is going a little off topic, but if anyone’s watched 500 Days of Summer (bear with me here), the protagonist acts extremely privileged, douchey and is emotionally manipulative. I can still (guiltily) enjoy the movie because my interpretation is that they’re employing an unreliable narrator technique.

      However, many many feminist critiques of the movie have pointed out that because the protagonist is never punished by the narrative for being an ass, people who view his behaviour as acceptable continue to do so and blame the female character for the relationship breakdown.

      Similarly, I can imagine with this scene that people who understand why this portrayal of queer sexuality is problematic will read the text as an example of how terrible X character was. But those who don’t understand why this portrayal is problematic will view the scene as neutral at best. And from what little I know of GoT every single character is grey, so there’s unlikely to ever be a clear message about why that particular scene was problematic.

  4. Grima says:

    I remember the author S.M. Stirling saying once that “ALL his [George R. R. Martins] sex scenes are character development. That is what he uses sex for.”

    While he was talking about the books, I believe it carries over to the TV series to a certain degree.

  5. Heather says:

    This comment contains mild spoilers for the books.

    The treatment of queer sexuality is one of the biggest problems I have with ASoIaF/Game Of Thrones. I actually think the TV show has done slightly better with it so far with regards to the gay male characters, who are treated less dismissively IMO, but clearly not with female queerness. The scene with Littlefinger and the two sex workers did not appear in the books.

    There is another problematic scene in A Feast For Crows (I believe) with yet another female character falling prey to the “straight woman has sexy sex with another woman and it is sexy” bull, and this scene is framed as part of her losing her agency and perhaps her mind. It’s not quite clear whether or not the other woman does in fact find her attractive, or if she’s just deflecting and the first character is falling for it because she is, as mentioned, losing her grip. Probably that’s cleared up in A Dance with Dragons, but given what I’ve heard about it I have no intention of ever reading it, so I’ll never know.


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