Game of Thrones: Don’t Judge a Boob by its Cover
When one thinks of Game of Thrones, some themes that come to mind are fantasy, dragons, violence, death and nudity. The show has a very complicated relationship to its use of nudity. It can be very gratuitous and vulgar and it obviously caters more towards the male audience. This adheres to Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze” theory, in that both male and female viewers view female characters from a male’s sexually objectifying viewpoint. The term “sexposition” (coined by Myles McNuff), specifically because of the show’s sex scenes. “Sexposition” is a plot device used to give additional information about the story while characters have sex. Game of Thrones has been criticised a lot for the pointless use of nudity and for their distasteful rape scenes (specifically those involving Khal Drogo). However, there are instances where the show has perhaps not been given enough credit for a particularly good use of nudity, or even lack of.
Tyrion and Sansa’s Wedding Night
Much to the credit of Game of Thrones, they have often deviated from the A Song of Ice and Fire books, whether they combine characters, give certain characters completely new storylines or kill off someone who is still alive in the books. They have also done so a few times regarding nudity, when they could have so easily just stuck to their source material. The scene following Tyrion and Sansa’s wedding is just one example.
In the eighth episode of season 3, “Second Sons“, one the most awkward weddings in television history occurs. Both Tyrion and Sansa are forced into the marriage and neither can do anything about it. Of course, the whole debacle is made even worse with the presence of King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) who gives Sansa away and by genrally antagonising his drunken uncle during the wedding feast. Tyrion does eventually snap angrily and violently at Joffrey. Although he plays his threat off as a mere joke, his father, Lord Tywin (Charles Dance), bails his son out and agrees that there should be no bedding ceremony and the two newlyweds take their leave to their chambers.
When in their bedroom, Sansa has accepted the fact that she will have to commit to Tyrion physically. Both drink a glass of wine for courage and Sansa starts to undress. Fortunately, Tyrion stops Sansa and tells her that they will only do the deed when she is ready. Sansa asks if she is never ready, Tyrion replies with “And so my watch begins.”
This scene is remembered for Tyrion’s empathy towards his new wife, but it was not him that stopped Sansa from undressing, it was the writers. It is true that this is probably a case of not allowing to show nudity of a character below an underage girl (a girl under the age of 18) naked. Nonetheless, in the books Sansa does fully disrobe. If she had done so on-screen it would have removed her innocence, her virtue, and her sweetness. As viewers, we have grown with Sansa and she has become a sister or a daughter to the audience. To watch her undress fully would have become incredibly un-watchable (and why the Black Wedding events were all that more upsetting). Nudity can be a sign of weakness, of having nothing to shield you, but Sansa, having been through so much already, cannot get much lower. It would’ve become unbearable to watch. It may have been easy to have Sansa get naked in the scene, but it demonstrates a strength from the writers to decide against it.
Another show deviation from the book that decided to not portray nudity was during Daenerys’ time in Qarth. In the books Dany wears clothing that exposes her breasts. This seemed fairly unnecessary and the show, to its credit, did change this, but had it not, Dany’s plot arc for season two would have had unnecessary costumes to match her almost irrelevant storyline.
This sort of deviation from the book should be applauded. Although, these deviations do not make all other examples of “sexposition” and pointless nudity on the show acceptable or defendable, because there are a lot of degrading scenes, but it still shows nous on behalf of the showrunners and writers.
Jaime and Brienne Take a Bath
When Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) ordered Brienne of Tarth to escort Ser Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing in exchange for her daughters, few would have thought that this could blossom into a friendship. As well as there being some mutual love and respect for each other. Jaime saved Brienne from getting raped by promising Locke (Noah Tayler) sapphires from Brienne’s home of Tarth, although he lost his hand for it. He also went back to Harrenhal for her, when she was forced to fight a bear for the amusement of Bolton’s men. Brienne has also protected Jaime along their journey, although she was doing it because of her oath to Catelyn.
The relationship between the two really evolves into more of a friendship when the they become “prisoners” of Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) at Harrenhal. Brienne is taking a bath, when Jaime enters and rather rudely, joins her. The Kingslayer acts rather nonchalantly and arrogantly, as always, and antagonises Brienne, to which she reacts angrily and she stands up, fully naked. Brienne is not the traditional woman on Game of Thrones, she is a knight by nature (if not by name) and she doesn’t expose her feminine side all that often. However, she literally shows this side of her, that she feels so uncomfortable and out of touch with, to the one person that annoys her more than anyone else. Jaime apologises to her, persuades her to stay and tells her why he really killed the Mad-King Aerys II Targeryen. He then becomes light-headed and collapses into Brienne’s naked body
Both characters are obviously nude, but we see nothing really; the camera doesn’t show anything below Brienne’s neck line. The weakness she has allowed Jaime to see, is specifically, only for Jaime. The audience are not meant to be privy to Brienne’s womanhood, it is something only meant for those in the scene. Brienne shares with Jaime her vulnerability and, in return, Jaime shares his with Brienne.
This scene from “Kissed by Fire” (season 3 episode 5) is beautifully acted and directed, but it does not get the credit it deserves for not showing any full frontal nudity when they so easily could have. This scene, then, is an example that the nudity in Game of Thrones is not always meant for our eyes.
In the BBC collection of essays, Ways of Seeing, John Berger states that there is a difference between being naked and nude. Nakedness is purely the human body without any clothes on or anything else covering the body, whereas nudity displays an artistic element, which may or may not completely show a naked body. A body may be naked but it may not be considered nudity and likewise, nudity may not encompass a completely naked body. The two terms are definitely not synonymous. This scene is an example of Berger’s nudity; it does not solely show the naked bodies of Jaime and Brienne, it exhibits some artistic integrity without the need to actually present to the audience, any fully frontal naked bodies.
The Red Woman Shows her Power
Melisandre, a priestess of the Lord of Light and advisor to King Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), is one of the characters on Game of Thrones who is a serial undresser. It is not often that a scene in which Melisandre exposes her breasts is not considered “sexposition” or just being done for the sake of it. The shere number of scenes however, does mean that there will, most likely, be more of a statistical chance of her nude scenes having greater significance, more often than one would initially think.
For instance, there is a scene in the season 4 episode, “Mockingbird”, in which Melisandre’s bathing is interrupted by the Queen Selyse (Tara Fitzgerald). The Red Woman reveals to the Queen that not all of what she does is by divine intervention; there is some deceit, some cloak and dagger elements to her magic. For the entire scene, Melisandre addresses Selyse completely naked.
it is visible in Tara Fitzgerald’s performance that Selyse is quite clearly uncomfortable by Melisandre’s naked body. Equally, in Carice Van Houten’s performance, it is also easy to see how little Melisandre cares for Selyse’s awkwardness and embarrassment. This is a character whose family supports Stannis’ claim to the throne. Someone who could become Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and if she had just said the words, Melisandre would have surely covered up. But the Queen’s power seems insignificant to those Melisandre holds. Forgetting that this is a woman who can give birth to shadow/smoke creature that can, in turn, assassinate a king (Stannis’ brother, Renly) her opinion is sorely coveted by Stannis and is perhaps only matched by Liam Cunnigham’s Ser Davos. This is something that Queen Selyse will never have. During several other scenes it’s clear to see that Stannis wants Melisandre as his most trusted advisor as well as a lover, much more than his own wife and Queen.
This scene is an epitomisation of the power Melisandre holds in Stannis’ court, by actively expressing her independence from the Queen has any hold over her. Selyse also holds Melisandre in such high regard, too. She believes Melisandre is as much their saviour as Stannis is. From what is portrayed on-screen, it seems that Selyse is her most avid supporter. She doesn’t bat an eyelid when her brother is burnt on a beach at Dragonstone, such is her converted faith for the Lord of Light and Melisandre. While nudity is often something that represents weakness, it is then somewhat strange to see it as a sign of strength and how one character holds power over another. You would not, for example, expect to ever see Missandei naked while addressing Daenerys, because it would represent conflicting traits of power between the characters. While the audience may be well aware that Melisandre holds more authority than her, Selyse’s various reactions show that this may be the first time that she has contemplated this herself and their relationship is never quite the same since.
There is another aspect of nudity that is somewhat overlooked, regarding this scene and, indeed, the scene featuring Brienne and Jaime. This is the importance of authenticity. During a sex scene in a film or television programme it is, more often than not, a moment killer when a male or a female is not fully naked while in the act of having sex. It reminds the audience that this is just fiction and these people, are just actors. The two aforementioned scenes in Game of Thrones, being both bath scenes and are in the same vein as these sex scenes. If a character was wearing clothing it would feel somewhat odd watching someone bathe while wearing a tunic. If nothing else, Game of Thrones’ nude scenes do follow this “rule” of authenticity, whether they are sex scenes or scenes where characters bathe themselves, some credit must be given to the show for this, at least.
Cersei’s Walk of Shame
SPOILER ALERT: If you have not caught up to season 5 episode 10, it would be wise to avoid this final section.
This final scene which should receive some praise because of its creative use of nudity, is also the most recent, having occurred in the season 5 finale “Mother’s Mercy”, a title that refers to Cersei’s storyline directly. For an episode that left so many cliffhangers ready to be picked up next year in season 6, arguably the best scene in the entire episode concerned Cersei and her walk of shame.
As atonement for her adulterous and incestuous relationship with now Sparrow and cousin Lancel Lannister (Eugene Simon), Cersei is made to walk from the Great Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep, after confessing to the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce). Before the walk, Cersei’s hair is cut extremely short and is then forced to complete the walk with no clothes on, with the walk ending at the Red Keep. During the walk, Cersei is guarded by a few Sparrows and followed by a Septom (this world’s version of a Catholic nun) shouting “Shame.” It is clear in an earlier scene with the High Sparrow, that Cersei has only confessed her guilt to see her son, King Tommen Baratheon.
Cersei’s motivations are all that more meaningful during the walk, as it shows her commitment and love for her children. In an earlier season, it is Tyrion who says that one of Cersei’s redeeming qualities is her love for her children. This walk, while naked, having curses, rotten food and faeces thrown at her, just shows the amount of pain and suffering she is willing to put herself through to just see her son. Every so often the camera cuts to the Red Keep (where the King resides) to remind us as to why Cersei is putting herself through this torture. What is seen here is a very human side to Cersei that has so rarely been evident on the show.
This is another scene that has some narrative and artistic point to the nudity of Cersei. We have seen something similar to this before, earlier in the season, when several sparrows stripped the High Spetom and forced him to walk through the streets King’s Landing. Therefore Cersei’s scene is a callback to this scene and, therefore, something that we (as an audience) know the Sparrows do when one goes against the Seven Gods. The artistic aspect is that, again, this shows Cersei at her weakest and with nothing to protect herself. Yet at the same time, it demonstrates her strength and will power. It would have been easy for Cersei to have just stopped and fall down in the middle of the streets, defeated, but she carried on through this torment. Even during her weakest moment, Cersei’s character and will power is still incredibly strong.
What is incredibly interesting about this particular scene is that the actual nudity was not provided by Lena Headey, but a body double. Actor Rebecca Van Cleave has said in interviews (such as her interview with EW) that it was actually an incredibly gratifying experience and one she was immensely thankful for. Van Cleave has now worked on the biggest television programme in the world, even earning a credit as “Naked Cersei” on IMDb. She does not see her performance as an objectification or degradation, but rather as an opportunity to showcase her acting talents, which is refreshing take on an actors views on nudity.
This is Not a Defence
Despite these scenes representing good examples of when the show has exploited nudity in an artistic and meaningful way, here is still plenty of pure nakedness (if we are conforming to John Berger’s view point). There are so many female characters that have stripped off for pointless reasons or purely for “sexposition” and it has rightly earned the show a stigma.
It is also significant to acknowledge that the amount of female nudity vastly outweighs male nudity/nakedness by such a huge margin. This is something that needs to be addressed by the showrunners. However, as opposed to upping the male nudity count, the show should, instead, reduce the amount of nudity altogether. Game of Thrones sometimes loses sight of what it is all about when some gratuitous, vulgar and pointless “sexposition” scene comes on; scenes which have not benefited in any way because it features nudity and the point of the scene would not be any different if the characters were clothed.
The nudity and naked bodies have also heavily affected some characters and how we view them, too. The character of Daenerys, for example, in season 1 had a lot of scenes where her character was naked, scantily clad or was having sex (consensual or otherwise) and because of that, she has been objectified ever since and her character has not been allowed the same development as other strong female characters. Characters such as Cersei have only appeared naked sparingly and because of this, the audience are able to get invest their time into her character and storyline. Whereas, with Daenerys, because of the first season there most likely always be a portion of the audience that are consciously watching just for the chance to see Emilia Clarke naked, which may have been the major reason why the actor’s decision to no longer to full frontal nudity on the show.
These scenes are not a defence of the amount of or of certain uses of nudity, but rather just a plea for viewers to not judge a boob by its cover (or indeed, lack of). Not every use of the naked body is distasteful, in fact many pieces of artwork and sculptures revolve around the naked body and these scenes somewhat embody that artistic element. We, as a collective audience, then must somewhat remove ourselves from these moments and stop assuming that all of these types of scenes in Game of Thrones are distasteful and ask ourselves whether there is, in fact, a reason for the nudity.
Berger, John. 1973. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corp.
Mulvey, Laura. 1975. Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema. Screen 16: Oxford University Press. Pg. 6-18
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