For a show that doesn’t hesitate to portray the slitting of a woman’s throat; bloodied heads perched atop spikes lining crenellated castle walls; the repeated stabbing of a pregnant woman’s stomach, rounded with child; the gory decapitation of a horse; a woman’s lifeless, suspended body, riddled with arrows; and torture scene after torture scene (one involving rats, one involving a horrifyingly large scepter); Game of Thrones sure does seem to get uncharacteristically squeamish when it comes to showing male nudity. In short, where are all the penises?
Now entering its fourth season, HBO series Game of Thrones is known for the three Ds: dragons, direwolves, and… dicks? No, I guess we’re going to have to make that the two Ds, because for a show that served as inspiration for the term “sexposition” (in which essential plot points are verbally explained during scenes of graphic sex) there are remarkably few instances of full-frontal nudity. Or, at least, there are few instances when it comes to male full-frontal nudity. Rest assured, there’s an abundance (one would even say an over-abundance) of female nudity for viewers to enjoy. Or, you know, not enjoy, because when it comes to the female form on Game of Thrones, its liberal use means that it’s not only eroticized (as with just about any sexposition scene) but also used to discomfit the viewer in ways ranging from seeing a woman breastfeeding her ten-year-old son to bearing witness to one naked woman abusing and torturing another under threat of her own death. So, you know, something for everyone, right? It would be a daunting task to calculate how many times and in how many ways the female body has been exposed and exploited on Game of Thrones; the first episode of the fourth season alone features two completely naked women, one of whom is clearly an accomplished contortionist. (Of course, the four boobs seen in that episode are actually less than what’s usually on the show, so.)
Meanwhile, there have been (by my very, very careful count) only three instances of full-frontal male nudity on the show: one involved a would-be assassin who was punished for his attempted crime by being tied naked to a horse and forced to walk himself to death, the other was a fleeting glimpse of Theon Greyjoy mid-coitus, and finally, we caught an eyeful of Hodor’s, um, not-so-little Hodor in a nude scene that served more as a kind of comic relief than anything else. All of which is to say that despite the fact that Game of Thrones is one of the more sexually explicit shows on television, one which has never shied away from portraying naked women in a variety of circumstances (some sexualized, and some not), men on this show are very rarely seen naked, and when they are it is not usually in a sexualized manner. (The one exception being Theon Greyjoy, but—and no offense to Alfie Allen—if anything about Theon Greyjoy gets you excited, well, you might want to talk to someone about that.)
And it’s not like there hasn’t been opportunity to show men naked in a sexual setting—after all, not all of the sex scenes on GoT are between women (although… a lot are!), and some are even between two men. But what invariably happens in these sex scenes is a seeming rediscovery of propriety, and the show that doesn’t hesitate to show a nude woman giving birth to a smoke demon (spoiler!) suddenly won’t reveal anything more of a nude man than his ass, or, more likely, his bare chest. Never mind that there are huge visual narrative opportunities being missed here (who among us didn’t want to see where Melisandre put those leeches in order to extract every last drop of royal blood from Gendry?), but there is also something that rings patently false and prudish about being coy with showing penises. All of the reasons frequently given for not showing male full-frontal sound like so much bullshit. I mean, claiming that women don’t visually objectify the male body in the same way that men do for the female is ridiculous on many levels, but also ignores the fact that it isn’t only women who might want to be looking at a naked man, in the same way that it isn’t only men who want to look at naked women. And for those people who try to argue that a penis is not as aesthetically pleasing as breasts, well, I will not wax rhapsodic about the beauty of the male body here and now, but I will direct you to the extremely NSFW tumblr of Adult Magazine and invite you to scroll through and think a little bit about beauty and sex and appeal and, uh, Helen Mirren in the bath.
But so! The penis and Game of Thrones. The real problem with the lack of dick on GoT is that there doesn’t seem to be set rules about what sexual taboos should or shouldn’t be broken on this show other than that the erect penis is not to be seen. Again, this is a series that has shown an adolescent breast-feeding, the birth of a smoke demon, frequent incestuous relationships, women’s faces covered in cum, and too many vagina-shots to mention individually. So, why not the penis? Is it because HBO doesn’t think the audience can handle it? Is it because the penis is still thought to be more of a threat than, I don’t know, a scene of a woman being brutally beaten and raped? Or, for that matter, a scene of a man being flayed? Or even a scene of a baby being murdered? The preciousness surrounding the penis demonstrates nothing more than the reluctance to objectify the male body in the same way that women’s have been objectified in modern media for decades (and in society as a whole for, like, ever). Men are not used to seeing themselves portrayed as nothing more than sexual beings. Men are used to being complex in ways that transcend sexuality. But one of the most interesting things about Game of Thrones and one of the reasons why I like it so much and why it’s so popular among so many feminists is that the women on the show are explicitly sexual beings, but that only enhances their complexity, and doesn’t detract from it. For most people, sexuality is an integral part of their life and so it’s a relief to see it portrayed on the screen in all its glory—and its messiness. And sometimes in life—and as is frequently the case on Game of Thrones—a woman’s sexuality and her body are exploited and things turn ugly and perverse. But that happens to men too, of course, in life and in the GoT narrative. And yet it’s only ever visually hinted at, and rarely shown. Many of the male actors on the show have said that they would be happy to be nude on the show (and many female actors agree). So why not let them? The penis might be the last taboo on television, but isn’t HBO’s whole thing that it’s “not TV”? The best way to show that would be to show more penises, and not just for salacious purposes, but also for the integrity of the narrative and for the sake of vanquishing the sanctity of this particular body part. It’s just a penis. Let’s not give it any more power than it deserves.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen