The nudity in the early seasons of Game of Thrones was so famous that it spawned its own Saturday Night Live skit. Lengthy exposition was usually relayed in brothels, as if the writers were worried the audience would get bored if there wasn’t skin on display (usually a woman’s). Worse were the frequent scenes of sexual violence, which served little to no purpose in furthering the plot – despite showrunners insisting that they did.
Emilia Clarke, who starred as Daenerys Targaryen in all eight seasons of the hit HBO show, recently spoke about those early scenes, revealing that she had no idea nudity would be required of her until after she had signed on for the role.
“I took the job and then they sent me the scripts and I was reading them, and I was, like, ‘Oh, there’s the catch!’” she said, on Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast. “But I’d come fresh from drama school, and I approached [it] as a job – if it’s in the script, then it’s clearly needed. I’d been on a film set twice before then, and I’m now on a film set completely naked with all of these people, and I don’t know what I’m meant to do and I don’t know what’s expected of me, and I don’t know what you want and I don’t know what I want.”
Clarke has, she said, become more “savvy” in the years since. “I’ve had fights on set before where I’m like, ‘No, the sheet stays up’, and they’re like, ‘You don’t wanna disappoint your Game of Thrones fans’. And I’m like, ‘F*** you.’”
It is a little sad, though, that she felt her lack of experience was the culprit in those early days. It’s not the actor’s job to make sure they feel safe and secure on set – that should be a given. Too often, it isn’t. So it was a relief to see, a day after Clarke’s comments were aired, that Directors UK has published its first guidelines for scenes involving nudity and simulated sex.
The guidelines advise a ban on full nudity in any audition and no semi-nudity in first auditions. By their nature, it says, auditions are based on a “power imbalance”. Performers can feel as though they have no choice but to do things that make them feel uncomfortable. “The director, as the creative lead on a production, should set the tone for a professional and respectful on-set environment,” said Susanna White, chair of the Directors UK film committee.
From the sounds of it, Game of Thrones showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff could have done with such guidelines. Rarely was there a scene in which a female character didn’t disrobe. Somewhat disappointingly, Clarke went on to partially defend her scenes, claiming that “people wouldn’t care about [Daenerys] if you hadn’t seen her be abused”. It’s the same logic that Weiss and Benioff used every time critics questioned the relevance of a scene of sexual violence, such as the horrific rape of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) in season five – which sparked such an uproar that the show finally started to tone it down.
In a conversation between Sansa and the Hound in the eighth and final series, she tells him that if she hadn’t been raped, or suffered myriad other horrors, she wouldn’t be such a strong, confident woman. What the writers failed to realise was that Sansa was strong in spite of being sexually assaulted, not because of it. This is the essence of survival.
Why was the violence inflicted on women in the show so frequently focused on their gender? And why did the audience need repeated examples of this to be reminded that certain characters were evil? Given that Ramsay had already gelded Theon and had his hunting dogs tear a girl to shreds, why was it necessary to show him raping Sansa? To paint him as even more of a monster? Even if this was the case, it only serves to prove that women’s bodies were used more like props to make the male characters seem more evil, more deranged. Hence the graphic close-up of Ros, who was killed by Joffrey after being strung up naked so he could shoot crossbolts into her groin and breasts.
Showrunners also proved themselves to be tone deaf when it came to issues of consent. In one scene in George RR Martin’s book, Cersei and her twin brother, Jaime, are in the Sept of Baelor, mourning their dead son, Joffrey. She kisses him lightly, he kisses her back and she briefly resists out of fear they might be caught, before asking him to continue. It’s hard to imagine why such an already awful scene needed ramping up, but Benioff and Weiss apparently disagreed. In the on-screen version, Cersei repeatedly tells him to stop because “it’s not right”, but he ignores her. Viewers came to the conclusion that Jaime, who was up to that point presented as a sympathetic character, was a rapist. The fact that the writers denied this was the intention only further exposes their ignorance.
If the depictions of nudity and sexualised violence feel gratuitous or unnecessary, it doesn’t feel like a reach to suggest that the people behind those scenes lack care and consideration for their cast and crew. When the nudity and sexual violence decreased, Weiss and Benioff clearly had no idea what to do with their female characters. They decided to make Daenerys insane, Cersei die (in one of the biggest anticlimaxes of the show), Arya have sex (completely out of turn for her character), Brienne have her heart broken, and Sansa claim that men abusing her is the only reason she survived that long.
In 2019, there has been a proliferation of shows, such as the critically acclaimed drama Unbelievable, that depict scenes of sexual violence sensitively, and only if it is essential to the narrative. As reports proliferate of directors abusing their powers on set, and in the midst of the #MeToo movement, it’s not overly cautious to introduce guidelines that ensure the safety and comfort of your cast and crew.
As this improves, I can only imagine that eventually those old Game of Thrones scenes will feel positively medieval.