Game of Thrones may be one of the smartest shows on TV, but it’s kinda dumb when it comes to women’s bodies.
In a recent episode of the HBO series Game of Thrones, the character Osha, a servant in the kingdom of Winterfell, strategically seduces Theon Greyjoy, a prince from an invading territory. Osha is a “wildling” from the north, and when we first see her in season one, she is hunched over, her dark brown hair a tangled, matted mess, her body shapeless under swaths of black cloth. When she seduces Theon midway through the second season, her hair is straight and her body—of which we get a generous glimpse—is clean and hairless. Funny, I never considered that straightening irons and body waxing would be so readily available in the mythical land of Westeros.
The tricky thing about Game of Thrones, which ends its second season on June 3, is that it has so much artistic merit that it’s easy to justify, or at least shrug off, the problematic depictions of sex. But this aspect of the show, which has become considerably more prominent in season two, threatens to drag Game of Thrones down to the level of the outlandishly racy, teen dude–titillating stuff that cable-TV is known for, lesser shows that use naked women as both bait and reward for viewers who put up with the rest of the episode to get to the goods. (See: Californication, True Blood.)
Game of Thrones is based on a series of books by George R.R. Martin. He created the world of Westeros, which happens to include lots of beheading and raping and pillaging. It’s perfect fodder for an epic HBO drama, and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have done an impressive job of adapting it for the small screen. Earning the right to call yourself a fan is no easy feat—the volume of characters and subplots can be overwhelming, but if you put in the time, it’s also incredibly rewarding.
To make the time pass more quickly, Benioff and Weiss heap on gratuitous amounts of what one critic called “sexposition,” scenes in which characters fill in plot gaps or narrate their own back stories while women (usually prostitutes) supply aesthetic distraction.
Sexposition, it’s true, can tell us something important about a character: We know from Theon’s earlier scenes—one of which concerned an unfortunate case of mistaken identity involving his sister—that he is particularly prone to making bad decisions when an attractive woman is in front of him. It is because we know this about Theon that we appreciate Osha’s cleverness. She seduces Theon, after all, in order to help Winterfell’s young royals safely escape in the night.
So, in addition to fulfilling an implicit promise to HBO’s male viewers that they’ll see ample amounts of female nudity, sexposition serves a larger purpose on Game of Thrones, one of the many ways in which this show is deceptively more than just another blood-and-boobs period piece. Game of Thrones is ultimately devoted to the question of authority, and at its most thrilling it shows us how even a prostitute can help herself to a sliver of the power pie.
To be sure, it goes overboard, especially this season, when the plotlines got a little kinkier, the costumes a little weirder, and new characters multiplied like rabbits. The end of the first season ushered in a sprawling, multi-player war, and as that war unfolded in season two, so did a sense of societal deterioration. War erodes the boundaries of polite society, including those between men and women, and sex becomes just another weapon in the enemy’s arsenal.
Yet as the token sexposition scene became a centerpiece of almost every episode, I found it harder to convince myself that it was there primarily to reveal crucial information about a character. Game of Thrones offers both trashy soft-core porn and a complex fantasy series that demands much more intellectually from its audience than trashy soft-core porn. If the show asks that its audience be smart enough to follow its maze of intertwining plots and players…well, that’s an audience that should be smart enough to know that a Medieval prostitute, or a princess trying to make her way through a vast, treacherous desert called the Red Waste, would not look quite so clean and smooth with her clothes off.
This isn’t about censorship. It’s about a slow, gradual, almost organic shift in what we have come to accept in depictions of women’s bodies on TV. Cable networks may be exempt from federal regulations of “obscenity, indecency, and profanity,” but HBO’s cultural reach—Game of Thrones has become the most pirated series of 2012—means that it should be held accountable for its graphic and often disturbing portrayals of sex. Something went wrong somewhere along the path to TV’s sexual liberation when torture and rape are fair game, but body hair is obscene.