A few months ago, a group of friends and I marathoned the second season of Game of Thrones. I’d been distracted whilst it was airing on Showcase by work and reality and had had to resort to IQ’ing the suckers. It worked out well in the end as we piled onto my couches and watched the season through. We bore witness to all the corruption, tension and deceptions that make Game of Thrones such addictive television, and sat there edge-of-our-seats a lot of the day
Of course, marathoning the show like that also meant that we saw the HBO title card ten times. The static background and bold letters are synonymous with the network itself and almost as iconic as the show that follows. Seeing it that many times though was this sort of penetrating thing and on the sixth or seventh go-round my friend, let’s call him Tom, said “Home Box Office is kind of a shitty title for a network though.” We agreed. The next few episodes were spent watching the show whilst tossing around increasingly ridiculous titles that fit with the HBO acronym – names like Hella Bad Opiates or Horny Blow Outs. After a particularly vigorous and athletic scene in a brothel on the show though, Tom threw his hands up, triumphant. “Heaps Boobs Out,” he said, and it stuck. I can’t watch a HBO show anymore without referencing Heaps Boobs Out, made better and more relevant each time by the fact that it’s exceptionally rare that an episode of anything created or endorsed by the network doesn’t feature full breasts and erect nipples. From Game of Thrones to Entourage, Girls, Sex & the City, True Blood, Hung, HBO likes it’s stars front, centre and naked (to be fair, it also likes them from behind, tressed up and spread eagle).
I feel like I should disclaimer here that I enjoy nudity in TV and film. I’ve never really been the type to shy away from it or get embarrassed. That aside, man do I love it when it’s relevant. I love my televised nudity narrative and character-centric, instead of just gratuitous. The problem is the latter is far more prevalent as a device than either of the former, especially in recent years. A study by The Parents Television Council earlier this year found that between 2010 and 2012, full-frontal nudity on network television rose 6,300% (read the full study here). Regardless of whether you’re for or against some T&A (tits and arse for those playing at home), that’s a pretty huge spike. HBO is far from being the only network going full-frontal though; Showtime, AMC, NBC and ABC have all been utilising explicit scenes in humour, in shock factor and in fanservice.
Unfortunately there are no solid figures on the ratio of how much of this full-frontal is female over male, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of tracking to realise that for every flaccid penis you see on a show like Game of Thrones you’re sure to see a dozen pair of breasts or shaved vaginas (the latter I find interesting, because surely that’s a modernisation of what is essentially a historical drama? Sure, historical fantasy, but historical none the less. Also, that’s a whole other thing.) The gap is pretty blatant and pretty reflective of a society that caters more to male gaze than it does to female. Think about Showtime’s Californication – a show about male sexuality that spends far more time sexualising every fleeting or long-standing female character than it does exploring Frank’s relationship with that or with his own body.
Like I said, I do like nudity in television and in film. I think it can be such an incredibly powerful plot device, because television is a visual medium and nudity in it is rarely just nudity. It can be used to flesh a character out (no pun intended), and explore his or her relationship with their body, with other people’s bodies. It can represent power or the loss of it, births and rebirths, absolutions and revelations. It can represent the right choice or the wrong. In many ways, it’s more a matter of treading that line between what is pornographic and what is telenarrative – what is a narrative at all. To bring it back to Game of Thrones, the season one finale has a prime example of nudity done right, as Khaleesi steps out of the fire, out of the burning bodies, nude barring the three dragons curled around her body. This scene is already close to iconic, and her nakedness is integral to the character’s rebirth, to her strength of character and her resolve to pursue the title owed her. It’s a Heaps Boobs Out moment for sure, but it transcends that and shows the power nudity can have in television. With the increased regularity of full-frontal in the medium, I really do hope that it means we get more of these sorts of moments, instead of the ones where a naked body is just another naked body.
This was first published on the Lip Mag blog.
Growing up, one of my favourite shows was Gilmore Girls. It was the sort of wholesome viewing that spoke to the fast-talking, coffee-drinking, small-village-dweller in me, and something I tuned in to weekly with much aplomb. It helped that my mum and sister liked it too, and it grew to encompass the three of us lazing around in the evenings, from our more tender years to more recently, where we’ve migrated from house to house watching episodes and warming wine glasses in our summery palms.
I can’t remember who said it, but after one particularly emotional episode, someone said, ‘I love Sookie, but man, she is a big girl.’
Huh. There are a few things wrong with this sentence – the but being a big one, and it got me thinking more and more about the representation of women’s bodies on TV. It’s not like the issue hasn’t been talked to death, but with the increasing push for all actresses to wriggle into a size 0, the disparity between body shapes has grown more visible.
The thing about weight is it opens up a bit of a free-for-all on an actress unless it’s a plot point. Take the American series Huge – a televised drama set in a fat camp – for instance. It had probably the most diverse representation of bodies in recent memory, but there was a purpose to that – the narrative objective being to lose the weight. In comparison, Girls’ Lena Dunham’s weight is a frequent point in media at the moment. Her abnormal-for-TV-normal-for-reality body has been the cause for an outright vicious commentary. She’s pear-shaped, plump with small breasts and a wide, flat behind and likes to show this off as much as possible, both for narrative’s sake and not. Her character makes no move to lose weight, and has no trouble attracting male attention – something that, strangely, has online reviewers scratching their heads. It’s an odd concept in itself and one that has proven pretty revealing of public views on bigger women and the idolisation still prevalent of the skinny – proving that, for many in media, desirable and thin are one and the same.
There’s this great moment in the first episode of Girls where Dunham’s character, Hannah, is in a bathtub, stark naked and eating a cupcake while her flatmate, the pretty, skinny Marnie sits beside her, shaving her legs in a towel. Hannah says, ‘Are you seriously going to leave your towel on? I never see you naked and you always see me naked when it should be the other way around.’ In many ways this encompasses this sort of perception – that public voice that places Marnie’s body as worth something more than Hannah’s and, for a body-worshipping society, one that places Marnie’s value generally over that of Hannah’s.
On the other hand though, shows like My Mad Fat Diary exist too, a series centring on Rae, an obese teenager who has recently been dispatched from a psychiatric ward. Melodramatic premise aside, the series is incredibly good, with smart writing, layered characters and some pretty hilarious comedy. Rae’s weight is a huge part of the narrative and plays a big part, not necessarily in Rae’s character as we see her, but certainly in the way Rae sees herself. Her value is, again, intrinsically tied to her weight and she feels that she is undeserving of good things until she loses it, something that she makes only one real effort to do in all six episodes.
In writing this, my thoughts migrated back to Gilmore Girls. I was really young when these episodes were airing for the first time, and missed a lot of the recaps and reviews that are now so much a part of my viewing experience (when I say I inhale a show, I mean that). What this means though is that I wasn’t around for the response to Sookie’s character, but I don’t remember it being as negative as what modern commentary says about, well, modern actresses. Melissa McCarthy, who played Sookie, now acts in shows where she is defined by her waistline – whether she’s playing butch counterpart to her svelte co-stars in film or the butt of fat jokes on her new series Mike & Molly, her size has become the main component of character for her, which is a shame because she’s damn talented. On Gilmore Girl’s Sookie’s weight was rarely brought up and certainly never utilised as a piece of visual comedy. Her character was funny and kind and fiercely loyal; she was feminine and sexy and career driven and was allowed her happiness before her slender friend. Her value with Lorelai was equal, and rightfully defined by her attributes and not by her size.