This week, the Daily Beast asked Natalie Dormer, she of the lopsided smile and career playing excellently manipulative women, whether she'd like more male nudity on Game of Thrones. She responded cheerfully in the affirmative, and sarcastically called the imbalance between male and female nudity on cable channels "just the rules of broadcast television." And she's seriously right. On shows from GoT to True Blood, women's bodies are naked often and prominently, while men's largely aren't. It isn't a new issue, but it remains unresolved, and we keep asking: what's so potent, so dangerous, about the naked male body that keeps it under wraps when breasts and female butts can be shown without remark? Why do male characters need to "keep their dignity" long after their female counterparts have stripped?
When Charlie Hunnam's bare thrusting butt arrived on Sons Of Anarchy last week, a conservative group was up in arms, but female characters on cable television are almost expected to go without coverings for dramatic or sexual effect, unless they're over fifty or on Downton Abbey. Flavorwire actually called Game of Thrones "a sausage fest without enough sausage" in its survey of male nudity. It's a pervasive problem in a climate that perpetually displays women for the sexual fulfilment of male characters and viewers, without much counter-balancing.
Perhaps networks think of male viewers as all-accepting of female nudity and averse to men with their kit off, and believe that women would much rather lie back and think of England than be confronted by an in-your-face male member. A penis? A real one? Ye gods, I shall faint.
But why does male nudity on television matter? It doesn't really, in of itself. It's only when it's stacked against reams and reams of naked ladies that it comes into focus. The problem is that nudity goes hand in hand with sexualization and objectification. Naked women are much more readily on hand on cable TV than men because they're more easily seen as sexual items. Men aren't allowed to take their clothes off because it makes them into objects, able to be ogled and used, just like (gasp) ladies. That would be a step too far!
There is, of course, the argument that no objectifying, sexualized nudity is good nudity. While this (frankly unrealistic idea) would even the scales, it would also remove a large human element from television storytelling. People get naked. It's a fact of life. If stories involve sex, characters aren't perpetually going to wear a bra to keep themselves decent (shout-out to Sex And The City). Telling television characters to be clothed all the time would be both silly and much less fun.
But the more telling aspect keeping more nude Hunnam buttocks from our screens is the perceived level of discomfort audiences feel at male nudity. Female nudity is far more acceptable and viable because, well, that's what ladies are for, amiright? But the nude male is often a vulnerable or shocking figure: it's a sign of sheer barbarism (Khal Drogo), being reduced to base elements like King Lear in the storm, or fighting for your life (Spartacus). A female will strip down at the slightest provocation, but a male nude is discomforting — particularly any that actively welcome ogling, because that "reduces" them to the level of the female.
Part of this is plain aversion to seeing male genitalia, either because they're perceived as slightly weird-looking, or they're seen as simply too sexual, or homoerotic. It's an odd combination of childish squeamishness and immunity. Our continual exposure to the female form has meant that it's no longer a shocking or arrestingly sexual choice (sorry, Kim Kardashian), but the hidden nature of the male nude has raised the impact of its sudden appearance to RED ALERT. Near-naked ladies are so common we barely yawn, but a hint of a testicle is so strongly intimate, so frankly alarming, that it makes headlines.
This imbalance is deeply ingrained in our media consciousness: female nakedness in television and films is natural and expected, male nakedness is alarming, notable, and rare. Perhaps networks think of male viewers as all-accepting of female nudity and averse to men with their kit off, and believe that women would much rather lie back and think of England than be confronted by an in-your-face male member. A penis? A real one? Ye gods, I shall faint.
This completely overlooks the fact that sometimes women can be the sexual viewers, the ones delighting in a naked figure. The female gaze and what it involves have been an item of interest to television critics this season: Jenny Trout over at HuffPo wrote that Outlander is "a drama crafted for the straight female gaze" because its sex is real, and its nudity isn't perfunctory or exploitative. This is an idealized version of how women think, and it overlooks a truth: sometimes, oddly enough, women like to see sexy nude men, too. Whether they're the audience or a female character, letting a woman regard a naked man in a sexual light is, I think, empowering in its difference.
More male nudity would help to resolve these difficult dynamics. If women are going to be taking their clothes off — which, on HBO, is inevitable — a matching amount of male nakedness would shift the balance of objectification and dignity to a more diverse way of thinking. It's not a case of "if everybody is objectified/vulnerable, nobody is;" it's a move to see nudity as a personal rather than a gendered element of narrative.
Nudity is a multi-layered choice, incorporating sex, desire, comfort, bonding, vulnerability, and strength. Allowing more male characters to make that choice would shift the focus from the female nude body as sexy toy to nudity as storytelling device. And really, that's much more fun for everyone.
Images: HBO, Giphy