Monday, August 12, 2013

Unpopular Opinion: Enough With the Nudity

... on television, that is.

Warning for the squeamish: extensive, sometimes graphic, talk about nudity.  If that's not your thing, get out now.  

I like when characters are not afraid to get naked on television.  The scenes on network TV where the woman and man sit post-coital, with the woman's chest carefully concealed, always make me snicker.  So I was grateful when premium cable channels like HBO said: "Fuck it all.  Let's show people the way they really are."  And real people get naked.  Not just above the waist, but below.

However, there was a point where the nudity started to feel less "real" and more exploitative.  I feel this way often while watching Game of Thrones, but noticed it much sooner.  It was during an episode of Boardwalk Empire, a show that I've tried really hard to like, but which leaves me cold.  Investigators were in a coroner's office looking at the body of a murdered woman.  The corpse lay on the table completely exposed while the men talked over it.  I thought: "Is there a reason we need to see a full view of the corpse in this scene?  What narrative purpose does it serve?"  The fact that it was a woman being gawked at by men made me squirm.  It felt like she was being violated three times over: first by the man who murdered her, then by the men gazing at her corpse, and finally by the audience.

I felt this way again while watching the pilot episode of Ray Donovan on Showtime.  The protagonist visited a client who awoke to find his one-night stand dead from a drug overdose.  While the dead woman lay mute like a doll, her breasts were completely exposed.  Again, men stood around and talked over her.  "Why do her breasts need to be exposed?" I demanded.  "She bled out through her nose, not her nipples."

Maybe I wouldn't be so sensitive if the nudity were split evenly along gender lines.  But it seems as though 90 percent -- at least -- of the full frontal nudity is female.  Game of Thrones is a frequent offender, with its infamous "sexposition" scenes.  Though I will give it credit: it is the only series that I know of that has shown full male frontal nudity.  I can count exactly two times.  Still, that is two more times than any other show that I've watched.

The reason for the double standard is unclear.  While the Federal Communication Commission prohibits nudity on network television, cable channels have no constraints.  In theory, whole casts could be naked all the time.  But of course that's not how it works out -- examples of female frontal nudity are increasing, while male penises remain tastefully concealed.  Without network interference, the best explanation is that male producers are sensitive about their ding-dongs and don't want to give women (or other men) the chance to judge.

Maybe the examples of male backside nudity are increasing, but it's not the same thing.  First, the men are usually standing and active in some way, not lying mute while women ogle them.  Second, the ass is not the most private thing on a man's body, and does not carry the cultural stigma or significance of breasts and the vagina.  Third -- hell, women on TV show backside nudity all the time, too!  Often in the same scene where they show frontal nudity.              

The nudity is fine when it serves a story purpose.  For instance, there is a scene in the Game of Thrones pilot episode where Daenerys disrobes and walks into her bath.  This happens right after her brother Viserys treats her like body parts meant to please a man.  Daenerys enters the scalding water in order to cleanse herself of these associations.  There are also scenes where female nudity showcases the character's power.  I rolled my eyes when Melisandre joined the long list of nude women, in her seduction scene with Gendry, but the way she moved, she showed the character's confidence.  She was being viewed by the audience, but she was also using her nudity to her advantage.

Yet despite these examples, nudity is often just an "extra," in scenes, such as when Littlefinger explains one of his schemes while two of his whores simulate sex.  It isn't just there for realism, and it doesn't enhance the character or the story.  There is a reason why characters tend to be clothed during their most powerful moments.*  

So what is the solution?  Not "no nudity at all," because the prudishness of networks can be ridiculous.  But if a television show is going to have nudity, then it ought to consider how the nude scenes are used and what messages they send.  Does an explanation scene really need random nudity to make it interesting?  Do TV shows really need to have female full frontal nudity to show how cold and "gritty" they are?  Are they so confident that viewers (especially female) can shake them off, or will they come away with the message that female bodies are objects and sources of shame?

If television shows must have nudity, why not use it toward a story purpose?  Or even it out so that there is more male full frontal nudity?  Surely that would not harm the show's "artistry," would it?  

* The example in the photo being an obvious exception.

The above image was used under the Fair Use Doctrine.  


  1. Re: GoT having two (TWO!) scenes of male frontal nudity.

    Rome had a lot of male frontal nudity, including a memorable scene in which Mark Antony has a lengthy discussion while standing nekkid in a courtyard, being bathed by a slave.

    That was the first HBO original series I really watched, so it made the double standard in nudity REALLY obvious to my eyes. It was all downhill in equality from there.

    Great blog post!

    1. I'm glad to know GoT isn't the only one. It's been a while since I've seen any Rome episodes, but I remember really liking that series. And geez, it's not like a huge hammer came down when the male nekkidness was shown, so why the reluctance now?

  2. I think you're right. There's a gratuitous feel to much of it. As for showing more men from the front, I bet a lot of actors aren't too keen to show the goods, though they could go the Mark Wahlberg route in "Boogie Nights"...