Game of Thrones’ Peen Problem
By this point, five seasons in, even casual Game of Thrones watchers understand the sprawling fantasy series’ most basic rules. Beloved characters die, ladies get naked a lot, Jon Snow knows nothing. Oh, and penises. There will be almost never any penises onscreen.
The gender-skewed imbalance of nudity in Game of Thrones is, at this point, a well-worn point of contention. We get it: This series has always, and will always, favor full-frontal shots of beautiful, immaculately waxed women over men—no matter how hot the new Daario Naharis is or how many men Loras Tyrell seduces. Like gratuitous gore or incest-rape, a nonsensical squeamishness toward medieval schlongs is, for better or worse, a part of this great, gloriously messy show.
But the problem comes when that squeamishness interferes with the one aspect of this show that should be held sacred above all: the storytelling. The show’s makers keep refusing to depict full-frontal male nudity even in scenes where it plays a direct role in the plot. In the context of Game of Thrones and its otherwise unflinching gaze on sex and brutality, this is worse than ridiculous. It’s distracting for viewers.
When in Westeros, viewers understand they are subject to graphic depictions of rape, torture, dismemberment, eye-gouging and more beheadings than anyone can keep track of anymore. Sex (minus dicks) generally gets the same treatment: If a character wanders into a brothel, expect to see several pairs of naked breasts, butts, maybe a vagina, a generous amount of side-labia and, occasionally, two prostitutes fingering each other.
But the minute a character finds him or herself in a situation where a bare penis comes into play, the camera abruptly becomes a prude. Better not to look, it seems to say. This might actually be too much for you. This side-stepping feels a little condescending (Believe it or not, HBO, a few of us have seen real penises before and lived to tell the tale.) It's not like the FCC can say anything about it; its powers extend only to programming transmitted via public channels (i.e., not cable). Isn’t this show known for confronting the ugliest of taboos? Why are penises beyond that?
(HBO declined to comment for this story.)
Sunday’s episode, “The High Sparrow,” featured a humiliating scene for the Faith of the Seven’s High Septon, a holy man caught in very unholy circumstances at Littlefinger’s brothel. The ultra-conservative, fanatical Sparrows catch the Septon in a blasphemous role-playing ritual, then punish him by making him walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing. The Sparrows aim for pure degradation: They flog the High Septon in the crotch as he walks through swarming crowds shouting “Sinner, sinner! Shame on you!”
Yet for some reason, both the camera and the High Septon’s hands tastefully shield us from the sight of his limp, old dick—sparing the corrupt man’s dignity and undermining the entire point of the scene.
In the opening episode of Season 5, we found Loras in bed with one of Littlefinger’s employees, Olyvar, the part-time spy, part-time gay prostitute (they are currently the show’s only gay couple). Throughout the several minutes-long love scene, no matter how each man maneuvers in bed, shadows and camera acrobatics miraculously obscure even the faintest hint of private parts.
This is confusing given that gayness, and the consequences of being gay in the capital once conservative forces come into power, become an important subplot this season. (Think of Olyvar’s face when he saw what the Sparrows did to a gay couple in Littlefinger’s brothel in “The High Sparrow.”) Game of Thrones will mine gay persecution for plot but shy away from anything so actually gay as two penises during a love scene?
The list of scenes like this goes on: A Season 4 scene, in which Melisandre seduces Robert Baratheon’s illegitimate son, Gendry, relishes in depicting the Red Priestess’s fully nude body, gyrating on top of her would-be victim—but balks at showing you exactly where she drops that leech moments later (onto his quickly deflating member). Another Season 4 scene in which Prince Oberyn explains his bisexuality and open-mindedness to a naked Olyvar in the middle of a foursome draws the line at showing the very thing Oberyn is talking about.
How many times have we seen Littlefinger entice clients with a full-frontal lineup of nude women prostitutes, shimmying and contorting themselves to lure in business? One instance in which a man admires another man’s body and suddenly showing the audience what he sees—a valid narrative reason for showing nudity—is too much?
Yes, there have been exceptions, most memorably Hodor’s comedy-relief-intended, 14-inch prosthetic piece. We once caught a glimpse of Theon Greyjoy’s favorite toy, before Ramsay Snow sliced it off. The merchant who tried selling Daenerys Targaryen poisoned wine was stripped naked, tied up, and forced to follow the queen’s Khalasar on foot—until he died. And on the opposite side of the Hodor spectrum, we once saw a newborn wildling boy’s little willy—important to the plot as he was Craster’s son and therefore doomed to be sacrificed to White Walkers unless his mother, Gilly, got him away in time.
And yes, this shortlist of flaccid counterexamples against the show’s heterosexual, male gaze is symptomatic of an overall HBO (and TV, and movies) problem, rather than just Game of Thrones’. True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto told Buzzfeed last year “there is a clear mandate in pay-cable for a certain level of nudity,” except when it came to his male movie star leads, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
And at least one Game of Thrones director has copped to feeling pressured to disrobe his actresses as well, telling Empire Online about an unnamed executive producer taking him aside and saying, “Look, I represent the pervert side of the audience, okay? Everybody else is in the serious drama side—I represent the perv side of the audience, and I’m saying I want full frontal nudity in this scene.” The director, Neil Marshal, obliged.
This seemingly extends to other HBO shows as well, even purportedly progressive ones. Lena Dunham’s Girls took the prize for (likely) the first-ever cum-shot on the network, sprayed all over a female character’s chest (the dong responsible for the cum, of course, remained tastefully off-screen). Even Looking, HBO’s drama revolving around gay men, shied away from showing stiffies.
But Game of Thrones actors themselves have voiced a desire for a more balanced distribution of nude scenes. Carice Van Houten, who plays Melisandre on the show, told The Daily Beast this month that, sure, “a female body is nicer to look at, to be honest!” But, she said, “I think the nudity should be equal because we’re showing real life. I think it’s still quite a taboo to see a penis, and if you’re showing reality, then I wouldn’t mind seeing reality. I think it would be good to show the male body more frequently to take away taboos about sexuality. A breast is something that your mother has, and a penis is something that your father has. It’s the human body!”
Sibel Kikelli, who played Shae until the end of Season 4, told The Wall Street Journal, “I want to see more nudity. Because why always the women? The women are really beautiful and of course it’s a part of the show. That’s maybe one of the rules [of] why it’s successful, of course. It’s not, ‘Oh my God, they are naked.’ It’s a natural thing. There are whores, there are prostitutes. But I want to see more naked men. I try. I tell Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff] and George [R.R. Martin] all the time.”
Natalie Dormer, who plays Margaery Tyrell, answered “absolutely” to the question of whether the show should feature more male nudity and Kit Harington answered in the words of Jon Snow himself, saying “it’s only right.”
Even if gender equality isn’t a convincing enough reason to balance the nudity on Game of Thrones (and it is), servicing the show’s masterful plots about sex, power, and family should be. When the rules of the world you’re watching change suddenly from “show ’em everything” to “show ’em everything but that,” it sucks you right back out of the frame.
Besides, penises aren’t that weird-looking. What’s the harm?