I should start this by saying I’m not opposed to nudity in television.
After all, I watch Game of Thrones religiously. Nudity in television has always come with its fair share of controversy, with articles and discussions debating whether a steamy scene aired the night before was “necessary” or not. However, with the popularity of shows such as Game of Thrones, Girls, and The Tudors, the general consensus from audiences tends to be that nudity, at least in cable and streaming networks, is a-ok.
And for the most part, I would agree. While the line between gratuity and storytelling is thin, and shows can easily fall to the latter side, nudity has its uses. For shows like Game of Thrones or True Blood, nudity establishes the world just as much as any violence or visual setting does and it sets the parameters for the audience (aka there are none). It can be a way to create a character; after all, can we imagine Samantha Jones without her complete openness and sexual freedom? For similar shows to Masters of Sex, the Showtime drama about the work of two pioneering researchers of human sexuality in the 1950s, nudity and sex are integral to the plot and are active elements in creating and developing storylines.
Sex and nudity can even prove to revolutionize and break tropes, as with the highly lauded wedding night scene in the first season of Outlander, which was considered a feminist darling and as Jezebel put it “One of the few sex scenes I’ve ever seen that felt like it wasn’t written explicitly for men”.
But the popularity and critical acclaim drawn by these kinds of shows appear to be leading to a negative trend. In a market saturated by good content practically every week, nudity and sex have become a requirement. It’s become a stamp writers throw in prove it’s modern and adult, whether it fits into the plot or not.
Nudity in television is so prevalent now, it’s expected in everything. When doing press for The Crown, the Netflix bio-series about the first few years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, stars Claire Foy (Elizabeth II) and Matt Smith (Prince Phillip) were repeatedly asked whether the show featured sex scenes between the royal couple. In a show about an older political and cultural icon, is sex really appropriate? The show did bare some skin, specifically Prince Phillip’s bottom twice throughout the season. However, for the sake of reality and character in a bedroom scene, the series stayed true: Prince Phillip factually sleeps naked. The fact justifies the nudity.
Reality is often the excuse for nudity in television. Back in 2014, Lena Dunham defended the nudity on Girls as “a real human expression”. But what happens when nudity comes at the expense of the audience’s interest and attention to the story?
Netflix’s new teen drama 13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes for her classmates explaining how each of them influenced in her death. Many of those reasons focused on sexist rumors and high-school bullying. In the third episode of the series, Hannah storms into the men’s locker room to confront a classmate for spreading a list throughout school, labeling her as having “the best ass” of the student body. Setting the scene in a men’s locker room is brilliant, and sets-up the sharp duality between female and male sexuality in high-school when Hannah’s told she can’t be there. She reacts perfectly: “Why not, you’ve all been staring at my ass all day”.
Until that point, 13 Reasons Why seemed to be teetering on who its desired audience was. The topic of suicide is decidedly more mature than most teen dramas, and social clique issues of high schoolers felt a bit juvenile for the average Netflix viewer (who tend to fall in the 20-25 range). But with that scene and its brief flashes of nudity, the show firmly planted itself on the mature side of the audience. And while changing in a locker room is realistic, the sudden inclusion of nudity seemed forced and distracting. It pulled attention away from Hannah’s own response and development and pinned all the attention on a random background character of no consequence. All for the sake of a trend, or “reality”.
Even for HBO, where baring everything is the norm, falls into the trap. In episode 5 of The Night Of, an entire scene takes place in a morgue during an autopsy. Helen, the district attorney in charge of Naz’s prosecution, asks the coroner working on a naked body for his opinion on a cut on Naz’s hand. Helen brings in a photograph of the cut, which the coroner has her place next to the dead man’s penis. They then cut to it intermittently throughout the whole discussion, genitalia in plain view.
The point? Not entirely clear. While part of it might have been to heighten the audience’s discomfort, or delve further into the gritty reality of coroners working on naked bodies, the end result is just confusing. Before, The Night Of brilliantly set up its world without resorting to graphic images, but simply with great writing. Yet suddenly, in the middle of an important discussion pertaining to the lead character’s fate, this image feels dropped out of nowhere. The scene could easily have taken place with the body covered without compromising the truthfulness of that world.
In crime dramas like The Night Of, where the culprit isn’t clear and someone’s knowledge or belief can cause a giant turning point in the story, the audience can’t afford to be distracted. And unfortunately, a shot like that can lead audiences spending more time thinking “why is that there?” and less time on what’s going on.
Even my precious Game of Thrones commits similar mistakes. During a scene in Season 1, the mysterious Little Finger gives a monologue while two prostitutes “teach each other” how to fake passion for paying clients. The scene is essential in revealing the background and motivations of a character who is possibly the most secretive and enigmatic in the show, and is delivered with a great performance. However, the entire speech is overshadowed by the two women and allows important details to slip past the audience.
And this isn’t even taking into account the obvious disparity between male and female nudity in television. We’ve become so accustomed and de-sensitized to female nudity on screen that it’s much less likely to shock or distract us. Whereas male nudity will always catch the viewers attention.
While nudity serves a purpose and can be a useful tool in storytelling, it should never surpass the story itself. However, as more and more shows jump on the trend and bring in viewers and praise the question becomes if the line will become too blurred as to what the real draw should be.