Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As I mentioned in a previous essay, I recently started watching HBO’s Game of Thrones. In addition to noticing the predominance of evil, I also noticed that the show apparently had a budget for boobs (a large budget, as a friend of mine commented on Facebook). When talking about the show, I jokingly claimed that HBO stood for wHores, Boobs and Obscenity but a bit of reflection on shows like True Blood and Game of Thrones revealed that that this was rather dead on. Of course, the display of breasts in not limited to Game of Thrones. As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I am well aware that the breast is a standard guest in many works of the genre.
While I was dismayed by the evil in Game of Thrones, I was also somewhat dismayed by the amount of nudity. To be honest, my reaction was somewhat split. As a straight male, I am reasonably confident that I am hardwired to be very much in favor of boobs and accept that, in general, the more boobs the better. There is no doubt a circuit in the male brain says “if boobs, then yay!” Of course, this is a fairly base reaction and is not a matter of reflection. There is, not surprisingly, clearly an interesting issue here.
In terms of objecting to the display of nudity (specifically boobs) in such aesthetic works as Game of Thrones there seems to be to main avenues of approach. The first is ethical and the second is aesthetical.
In regards to ethics, one stock moral objection to nudity is that nudity is something inherently wrong and is something dirty or filthy. This view is typically grounded on a religious foundation which casts nudity as something shameful. Not surprisingly, this is commonly based in the story of Adam and Eve in which the pair learn to be ashamed of their nudity and this seems to set the stage for a puritanical view of the human form that persists to this day. There is, of course, a strong tendency to cast female nudity as being especially bad—there is an abundance of feminist literature addressing this point and hence I will not expand on this here.
Some people take a somewhat different view, claiming that it is men that are the problem and the moral weakness of men entails that women must always be covered. However, the result tends to be a similar view: female nudity is a moral threat.
While this sort of view is popular, it is not one I subscribe to. As far as the religious foundation, there are two obvious replies. The first is that the burden of proof rests on those who make such an argument—they need to prove that God exists and that God is okay with the idea that the human form is “dirty” and should be covered in shame. That is, God’s own handiwork is a shameful thing. The second is that the human form does not seem to be dirty and although some people might stand some more time working out, there does seem to be a beauty to the human body—as the ancient Greeks and others clearly believed. Thus, while the shame argument is not without merit, I do not find it convincing and it is certainly not the foundation of my dismay at gratuitous nudity.
A second stock moral objection to nudity is from Plato, namely that the portrayal of lustful behavior will corrupt the viewer because the viewer will not be on guard against said corruption. On this view, it is not that the nudity itself is bad; rather it would be the lustful behavior that is typically associated with said nudity. As such, the concern about nudity would be secondary, although the display of nudity would presumably augment the alleged corrupting power of the art.
This argument does have some appeal. After all, what people experience (even fictional experiences) does help shape how people think and behave. Hence, exposure to nudity and lustful behavior in art could shape people in negative ways. This is similar to a common argument against pornography. Of course, the nudity in science fiction and fantasy is supposed to not be of primary concern whereas pornography is supposed to be focused primarily on the nudity and sex.
While this argument does seem reasonable, the corrupting power of the occasional breast or other nudity in science fiction or fantasy works seems rather limited. To use an analogy to radiation, the amount of exposure does generally not seem enough to provide a dangerous dose of boob (and this assumes there is a dangerous dose). As such, the corruption argument does not really motivate my dismay at the typical nudity in such works.
A third moral argument is a specific variation on the corruption argument and is one that is commonly presented by feminist thinkers in regards to female nudity. The idea is that the use of female nudity in this way demeans women by using them as mere sexual objects. This is harmful to both females (who are demeaned and objectified) and males (who learn to demean and objectify) and hence wrong.
This argument does have some appeal. After all, looking at the demographic target for science fiction and fantasy that includes nudity (usually boys and nerdy men) it seems very likely that the nudity is there to attract and titillate the male viewers. That is, the women are being exploited as objects for the amusement of men. This does work—I recall, as a young guy, people talking about seeing certain movies specifically for the nude scenes.
Even then, this struck me as a bit odd—I recall asking a friend why he just did not get a Penthouse or Playboy if he wanted to see nudity (this was long before the internet). These days, of course, the internet is chock full of all the nudity and sex anyone could want and this seems to make gratuitous nudity make even less sense. My suspicion is that the situation is rather like with the way it was with Playboy. People used to say that they got Playboy for the articles and perhaps people do the same thing with science-fiction and fantasy works that feature nudity—they can say they are watching it for the story and that the nudity just happens to be there. Presumably this works in a way similar to the psychology that allows a person to feel that they are dieting when they have a diet soda with their megameal.
Getting back to the main subject, this line of argumentation does have merit—most cases of nudity in such works occurs simply to appeal to the target demographic and clearly seems to be objectifying and demeaning women. This does not, of course, even take into account women being cast as sexual victims (prostitutes, rape victims and so on) in such works.
That said, there is a reasonable concern that this sort of argument can bring one into the moral territory of the other two moral arguments. After all, if it is claimed that nudity demeans a woman and presents her as a mere object, then this would seem to entail that there is something wrong about the female body, which seems somewhat problematic from many feminist perspectives. The easy reply is, of course, that it is not the woman’s body that is wrong, but rather the way the woman is being treated and the specific context. This seems like a reasonable reply.
In my own case, I do admit that this is part of the reason that I often feel dismay at such nudity. It is not so much the nudity itself, but the way it is used and the context, which is often demeaning. However, the moral aspects of the matter do not exhaust the issue and there remains the aesthetic aspect.
When it comes to aesthetics, I am something of a traditionalist. To be specific, I draw much of my aesthetic theory from thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. While I have already mentioned Plato’s argument, I will now borrow a bit from Aristotle.
When I teach my students how to write the paper for my classes, I discuss the matter of deciding what should and should not be in the paper. I base this discussion on Aristotle’s view that a work should be a complete whole as defined by the purpose of the work. I tell my students that there is a simple test to decide whether something should be left in or left out, namely to leave it out and see whether this improves, worsens or leaves the work the same. Obviously, if leaving it out makes the work worse relative to its purpose, then it should be retained. Otherwise it should be removed. This same sort of principle can be applied to nudity in works of science fiction and fantasy.
While a discussion of the purposes of science fiction and fantasy would go beyond the limited scope of this essay, it does seem reasonable to accept that their primary purpose is not to serve as a platform for displaying boobs to men. That is, of course, the purpose of pornography. As works of fiction, their main purpose is to present a story (at least as Aristotle would argue) and that should be the main focus. Sticking with Aristotle, the display of nudity would typically seem to be part of the spectacle rather than part of the story. That is to say, that the nudity does not (in almost all cases) advance the plot in a way that is probably or necessary in order to achieve the purpose of the work.
What is hardly surprising is that science-fiction and fantasy have a long tradition of gratuitous nudity that has no connection at all to the plot. For example, in Moontrap there is a completely gratuitous stripper scene that has nothing to do with the plot (what little plot there was). As far as why I used that example, the image of Chekov (Walter Koenig) in a strip joint stuck in my mind. Obviously, gratuitous nudity by its nature lacks an aesthetic justification.
Interestingly, some movies and shows have attempted to merge plot and sex, creating what Myles McNutt called “sexposition”, which is when characters present exposition while having sex.
Not surprisingly, this attempt to merge sex/nudity and exposition seems to be an aesthetic failure. First, it seems to be rather odd to have people engaged in lengthy exposition during sex. While I am not an expert on sex, it seems that is not something that people would do. As such, this makes the scenes less in accord with what is probable. Second, the nudity still seems to add nothing to the plot—the exposition is doing all that and hence the nudity is gratuitous and would seem to have no aesthetic justification.
In addition to not adding anything to the story, the use of gratuitous nudity seems to have two other flaws. The first is that it can be seen as an insult to the audience—that they need to be thrown a boob or two in order to retain interest in the work. Of course, this might be true of some people. Second, it would seem to show a lack of talent on the part of those creating the work. After all, if they cannot sustain interest through aesthetic means and need to throw in nudity to keep people interested or to fill the visual space while characters are engaged in lengthy exposition, then they would seem to be lacking in their craft. Of course, it is fair to keep in mind that a show or film is subject to many influences and creators and that the nudity stuck into a work might not be the idea of the writer or director and hence should not be held against them. For example, some of the nudity and sexposition in the Game of Thrones need not be what Martin envisioned and what was added to his work is not his fault.
These arguments do not exclude all nudity. After all, there can be cases in which the nudity is warranted on aesthetic grounds. For example, the nudity in a scene might be required for realism and the scene might be an important part of the plot. That is, removing the scene or the nudity would result in an inferior aesthetic result. I am sure that there are such cases, but none come to mind.
As another example, the nudity might actually be an important part of the experience the work is supposed to create. For example, From Dusk Till Dawn can be seen as intentionally embracing the stereotypes of the genre which must, of necessity, include gratuitous nudity. As such, the nudity does serve a legitimate aesthetic purpose in that work. Maybe.
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