As a follow-up to my previous post recommending the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, Salon’s TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz commented yesterday on the wave of negative commentary that has been elicited by the presence of allegedly gratuitous nudity on the show. Heading up the flock of critics calling on cable television to take it down a notch, Mary McNamara suggests in the Los Angeles Times that “it’s time to tone down the tits.” Taking the successful fantasy show as an example that “points to a larger problem,” McNamara uses the opportunity to take HBO to task more generally for the levels of “unnecessary” full frontal nudity on shows like Boardwalk Empire, Rome, and others.
Making a pointed and detailed argument in favor of the alleged use of “sexposition” on Game of Thrones, Seitz argues that there are in fact very few scenes on the show where scenes of sex and nudity do not fulfill a narrative, dramatic or thematic function. Instead, he makes the point that the ongoing criticism shows up American prudishness at its worst: “This is America’s Puritan mentality coming home to roost in criticism. Closeups of throats being slit and limbs being lopped off are an expected part of R-rated entertainment aimed at adult viewers, and not even worthy of comment. But nudity and sex must be ‘justified.'”
Now there are plenty of cable channels that routinely go to the “sex sells” well in obvious attempts to cash in on HBO’s success with adult-oriented content. Showtime is the most obvious offender, every one of its high-profile shows (from The L Word and Californication to The Tudors and Dexter) a high-concept weak sister of a superior HBO production in one way or another. These shows douse the audience in T&A in ways that make you feel like taking a long, cool shower after watching even a single episode, their appeal largely defined by their network’s naughty deviation from American television’s puritanical restrictions. (AMC meanwhile seems to have chosen to push it in the other direction, its biggest hits like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead offering R-rated levels of violence, but playing coy with nudity.) But again, none of Showtime’s productions seem to have led to an outcry among critics in the way that Game of Thrones has.
It seems to me that it’s no coincidence that critics and viewers find it uncomfortable to witness onscreen nudity on a genre show like Game of Thrones, while similar amounts of naked flesh on The Sopranos and True Blood are rarely remarked on. The fantasy genre, after all, has been all but neutered by the absurdly chaste narrative worlds of Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, and others who have kept it mired in stunted pre-adolescent sexuality for decades. A popular TV show like Game of Thrones that forcibly relocates fantasy into a decidedly adult sensibility is therefore bound to ruffle a few feathers. As Seitz rightfully points out, there is something absurd about how extreme violence in a show like this is perfectly all right, while the relatively restrained and almost always matter-of-fact approach to sexuality is considered exploitative and inappropriate in that context. And perhaps this will help increase the profile of fantasy and sci-fi authors working outside of the more traditional, “neutered” version of the genre. Besides George R.R. Martin, whose books have naturally flourished with the success of the series, these also include the phenomenal China Miéville and Kim Stanley Robinson, whose work would indeed lend itself to intelligent adaptations aimed at mature audiences.