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.