Nudity, prudity, and double standards on cable television

Yesterday, I mentioned the obligatory and gratuitous nudity featured in True Detective, one of the most interesting and original premium-channel series. The mention prompted a couple of challenges from readers to discuss that aspect of film entertainment at more length, which prompted my column at The Week today. I may well be a prude, but the issue — especially in this segment of the industry — isn’t really about whether nudity should be used at all in art, a fight that was settled in the Renaissance and later after the abolition of the Hays Office in Hollywood. It’s about what is being sold, and how.


In the beginning, premium-channel original series were about as subtle as a jackhammer about how they differentiated themselves from free-broadcast competition:

As anyone who has watched original series on premium channels knows, the only constants are bare breasts and slapping pelvises. Ever since 1982’s A New Day in Eden, the market has defined itself by its willingness to bare all. The fact that this definition holds to this day speaks to an anachronistic view of cable television and its audience, and to a stunted point of view from the people who produce it.

In the beginning, this nudity made at least some market sense. Series like A New Day in Eden had to differentiate themselves from their broadcast competition. Most of them couldn’t compete on quality — A New Day in Eden was a bad soap opera even for soap operas — so the only way to keep viewer attention was by putting skin literally into the game.

The selling point for pay-TV was that it was unedited and uncensored. Back before the universal access of HBO and Showtime, Los Angeles had ON-TV, a scrambled over-the-air service that advertised itself with a woman disrobing (with a strategic freeze-frame to make the ads airable). The sale was sex, sex, sex rather than high-quality original entertainment.


That changed over the next decade or so, when premium channels started putting money and effort into their original programming. The quality and prestige improved … but the sales pitch never did:

Defenders of the practice claim it shows authenticity and artistic honesty, but the examples seen by audiences seem like anything but honesty. In Showtime’s The Tudors, which ran for four seasons, we barely got past the opening credits of the first episode before the ridiculously young Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (playing a middle-aged King Henry) and a female bit player began discarding royal clothing. The series wound up making Tudor England look like a nudist colony.

HBO’s Game of Thrones is arguably even more licentious. One of its directors, Neil Marshall, talked in June 2012 about the pressure executives placed on him to amp up the nudity and sexuality. One executive producer, whom Marshall declined to name, told Marshall, “I represent the perv side of the audience, and I’m saying I want full nudity in this scene.” Clearly the motivation here isn’t honesty.

In fact, it’s particularly dishonest.  In most of these shows, it’s the girls undressing for the camera – and girls of a particular body type (with Girls being an exception). The men aren’t doing that, as True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto noted off-handedly while defending the series’ nudity to BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur:


The staging was more or less there in the scripts, and then Cary and I worked together on the execution. But there is a clear mandate in pay-cable for a certain level of nudity. Now, you’re not going to get our two lead movie stars to go full-frontal, but we at least got Matthew’s butt in there. There’s not a great deal of nudity in the series at all, though, compared to other shows on pay-cable. I’d be happy with none. Seems to me if people want to see naked people doing it, there’s this thing called “the internet.”

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are credited as executive producers, which means that they could have settled for “none,” too — or offered up as much nudity as they expected from their female co-stars. Like most series — Girls and perhaps Game of Thrones being exceptions — the nudity comes almost entirely from women who don’t have significant roles on the male-centric series in which they appear. The Tudors was especially egregious in this regard, shuffling in dozens of bit players to get naked with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

If women are overrepresented among the underdressed, they’re underrepresented in practically every other aspect of filmmaking:

The latest study on women in front of the camera finds that female characters are still significantly under-represented on the big screen. …

Female actors accounted for 30% of all speaking parts in the survey, which has examined some 7,000 screen characters across 300 pics since 2002. Only about 13% of 2013′s top 100 pics featured an equal number of female and male characters.

“Overall, we have seen little movement in the numbers of female protagonists and females as speaking characters over the last decade,” Lauzen said.  “Moreover, female characters are less likely than males to have identifiable goals or to be portrayed as leaders of any kind.”


In other words, women tend to get hired to service “mandates,” perhaps especially so in premium-channel programming. Most of it is just as gratuitous as Pizzolatto indicates, or as Game of Thrones director Neil Marshall indicated in June 2012 about the pressure he faced from producers to service the “perv side of the audience.” Naked female bodies don’t drive narratives in most cases,  but serve as sales pitches for products that shouldn’t need them in the first place.

As good as these series have become, they need to come to terms with their exploitation of women, especially those who don’t have much power in Hollywood. That may make me a prude, but the problem is too acute to ignore.

Update: I laughed when one commenter accused me of “basically being a lib,” because I had that thought myself when I wrote the column. However, I’m not advocating for government regulation as a solution (and I would oppose it, especially on narrowcast pay-for services). I’m offering criticism as a way to impact the market, its demand, and provide feedback to provoke some original thought in Hollywood.

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