Game Of Thrones knows a thing or two about patriarchy. Not only is the battle over which ruler will sit on the Iron Throne a literal manifestation of it, the show also smartly observes that female contenders have to fight twice as hard to even enter the race. By exploring the ways women push back against the limitations of a male-dominated society, Game Of Thrones has created some of the most compelling female protagonists on TV. Some like Catelyn Stark try to stick to a moral code; others like Cersei Lannister, Margaery Tyrell, and Sansa Stark rely on political and social cunning; and some like Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark adopt masculine ideals of strength. Daenerys Targaryen—the woman who stands the best chance of actually ruling Westeros—combines her inherent intelligence and morality with the physical power of her dragons.
Yet as Game Of Thrones is crafting nuanced storylines for its female characters, the show is simultaneously presenting nameless naked women for the show's audience to ogle. And that's more than a little disappointing.
I want to be clear about the kind of nudity I'm talking about here: I don't generally have a problem with the show's main female characters disrobing (which happens less and less each season as the lead actresses gain more control over their contracts). Nudity is a part of life and because the show has humanized and developed its main female characters the audience isn't in danger of viewing them as just a body. Is it a bit weird that Melisandre takes her top off at the drop of a hat? Sure. But I'm willing to go with it because she's a three dimensional character. Same goes for Daenerys, Ros, Osha, Margaery, Talisa Maegyr, Ygritte, Shae, and Missandei, who have all stripped down over the years. (There sure are a lot of them though, huh?)
What I am criticizing is the way the show presents the naked bodies of nameless female extras as props in much the same way a set dresser might add a detailed tapestry or ornate candelabra to a scene in King's Landing. These women aren't really treated as characters, they're reduced to a pair of boobs and a perfectly manicured crotch—a historically inaccurate detail that for some reason doesn't seem to bother the show's fan base.
And this isn't equal opportunity eye candy. Yes the show will sometimes present a shirtless man or his naked butt and even on very rare occasions an actual penis, but this season in particular has featured several scenes where the camera carefully avoids full-frontal male nudity (Daario Naharis, Loras and his lover, and the High Septon all avoided that fate). Plus these female-gaze shots are few and far between, and they usually happen with male characters who are already humanized by the show.
But Game Of Thrones goes to absurd lengths to present full-frontal female nudity. In the Season 5 premiere, a castrated soldier visits a prostitute for some platonic cuddling—something we're told he's done many times before. After removing her top she then whips off her skirt for an extended full-frontal shot. "You don't have to," he tells her. "Habit," she smiles, before putting her skirt back on.
And just like that the show has met its nudity quota at the expense of depicting this prostitute as a bumbling idiot who can't remember whether or not she's supposed to keep her clothes on, despite the fact that she just clarified with him that he wants the "same as always." The scene also speaks to Game Of Thrones' tendency to use prostitution as comic relief or titillation while seldom exploring the reality of being a prostitute in a land as insanely violent as Westeros.
But am I just prudishly blowing this issue out of the water? In an interview with the Empire Podcast about the 2012 episode "Blackwater," director Neil Marshall was directly asked about the nudity in his episode and he had this to say:
It was pretty surreal. I've not done anything like that in my films before. The weirdest part was when you have one of the executive producers leaning over your shoulders going, 'You can go full frontal, you know! This is television, you can do whatever you want. And do it. I urge you to do it'…This particular exec took me to the side and said 'I represent the pervert side of the audience. Everybody else is on the serious drama side. I represent the perv side of the audience. And I'm saying I want full frontal nudity in this scene. So go ahead and do it.'
That makes it crystal clear that the reason we so regularly watch nameless female extras bare their breasts on Game Of Thrones has nothing to do with making the drama feel more realistic or deepening the world. It is—in the words of this executive—an attempt to appeal to the "pervert" side of the audience. That's why we end up with shots like this one in "Blackwater" where a naked woman sits happily in a room full of clothed men.
While we can view this image as a commentary on the patriarchy of Westeros, we must simultaneously view it as a reflection of the patriarchy of 21st century television too. In this moment, Game Of Thrones is no better than Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" music video, which also traded boobs for views.
Frankly, I'm surprised more straight dudes aren't annoyed at being catered to in such a patronizing way. The show is presenting nudity the way a parent might treat their child to ice cream after a trip to the doctor. "Stick with us through these complicated political machinations and we promise we'll show you more nipples!" It's more than a little insulting to male intelligence.
But to simply write off the show as sexist bullshit would be to throw out the naked lady with the bathwater. Game Of Thrones remains one of the only prestige dramas to feature a large female ensemble—only Orange Is The New Black can rival it for sheer number of well-developed female characters.
Unfortunately, when it comes to watching TV, feminist viewers too often have to compromise: either accept the limited female representation in prestige shows like Breaking Bad and True Detective or enjoy the fantastic female characters of Game Of Thrones while trying to ignore the show's constant objectification. The handful of shows like Orange Is The New Black and Orphan Black that offer representation without objectification are sadly the exception, not the rule.
But Game Of Thrones could change all that if it were to simply stop encouraging its creators to appeal to perverts (a difficult request, I know). The show could easily move away from these women-as-props scenes without sacrificing any quality, and fans are devoted enough that it's hard to imagine the shift impacting the show's popularity either.
Because right now Game Of Thrones is condemning men who would misuse women from a position of power, while simultaneously misusing women from a position of power. And that irony is as thick as the blood spilt on the show each week.