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'Game of Thrones,' Sex and HBO: Where Did It Go Wrong For TV's Sexual Pioneers?

By Bethany Jones | /Bent June 2, 2014 at 6:51PM

HBO has always been confronting and sexually explicit, but that used to be in the service of an unflinching look at the world and at adult complexity. Now it’s little more than an extension of an immature, crude desire to shock. When it comes to sex, has HBO jumped the shark?
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The view and the viewer

And I find, increasingly, that this is the problem with "Game of Thrones": the reflex swerve to violence and flesh ends up draining the very real significance of violence and flesh. And the view that we're given is so geared to the priorities and desires of young straight men with such insistence and in such bafflingly offensive ways that the camera's moves starts to resemble the rote faulty routing of a zapped neural pathway. It can only make the same moves, the same faux associations. And we always end up in the same place. If we're showing sexual exploitation and graphic rape as part of an inquiry into human darkness, as apologists claim, why is there so little directorial attention given to the darkness of rapists themselves? Why not focus on the flexed arms, the hard eyes or the violent rhythms of rapists as they rape? Why does the scene in Craster's Keep omit the rapist almost entirely, and focus instead on the displayed naked body of a brutalized woman? Why does the rape of Daenarys in the pilot (again, consensual sex in the books) block out the perpetrator in favor of the bared breasts of his shivering, milky victim?

The 'pervy' directive of that unnamed executive producer comes to mind. And the growing suspicion of many that the most explicit scenes in "Game of Thrones" are there because of the tedious tendency of its creators and producers to take already shocking scenes and try to make them more shocking, to revel in what cable TV allows, for the hell of it.

And that's why it's beside the point to justify these scenes in terms of the books or even the script, as some have done, because the presentation and direction of pre-written material alters in drastic ways the ethos and effects of that material.

If we want to shock, I tell you what would have been really and truly shocking? (Let's go back to the Jaime-Cersei scene for a moment). To follow the books, and to show loving, consensual sex between a brother and sister. Sure, that would have made me pretty uncomfortable. But it would have at least been explicable in terms of character. And yet it's exactly what the show hasn't dared do. It hasn't showed them love each other, really, at all. And maybe it's the case that a flagrantly fucked-up rape is less troubling to us now than genuine, adult, moral ambiguity. Maybe that's the world we live in. That's certainly the world you've come increasingly to inhabit, HBO. You give us comfortable titillation, then comfortable repudiation. And in this, paradoxically, you're actually sort of Victorian. Victorian, but without the troublesome demure drapery to withhold the pretty titties. With "Game of Thrones" we get the best of modern anything-goes-permissiveness (look! lots of bottoms!) within the same old myopic sexual outlook. Fun!

Because, "Game of Thrones", and ipso facto HBO right now, it's becoming hard not to think that what you've casting as a journey into the heart of darkness in "Game of Thrones" has revealed itself over time as something more conventional and adolescent: a desire to shock, to titillate the exhaustively titillated. Maybe that's what all the tits and violence comes back to. If you're an adult and think there's nothing naughty or surprising about titties, you don't have to show them at every opportunity as part of an adolescent gung-ho don't-care aren't-I-daring set of visual credentials to show how very grownup you are. You don't need to try to shock the principal.

In fact, in "Game of Thrones", I'm beginning to have the same feeling that crept up on me with "Rome", despite it being a much better show: the feeling that somewhere, somehow, two adolescent boys have been given an enormous budget, and haven't quite recovered from their luck.

And this is because to watch these shows is to feel at times not as though you're peering at the world through the eye of an intelligent camera, which can multiply and enhance and complicate our view of the world, but through some other, more basic, device. Let's call it a peniscope. Yes, it's as though in these shows the straight male dick has become a kind of specialized ocular instrument: a sort of sexual periscope, that rises up when interested, and squints through its single eye, and delivers its one framed take to everyone waiting below the waves. And it can only give the one distorting view.

And none of this to indict penises, with which I've spent happy carnal hours, and which half the people in the world I love possess. Nor is it a general indictment of straight men, many of whom have had similar reactions to "Game of Thrones" than the ones I've outlined here (I have one friend who hasn't been able to watch the show since the episode where Joffrey beats the prostitutes). What I'm talking about here is that stance of aggressive machismo, constantly upheld as some apex of manhood in popular culture, which is detrimental to both women and men. The kind of swaggering mentality that mistakes aggression for edge and thinks that to shock is to be interesting. At HBO, it's become a very sad sort of saturant.

Good art multiplies our possible views of the world, it doesn't shut them down. And that includes good television.

Which makes it that much more frustrating that the peniscope limits and distorts the field of vision to such an extent that even in some very smart shows there are certain day-to-day phenomena – like female humans with developed interior lives, and complex motivations – that seem genuinely beyond the conceptual imagination. "True Detective" is a recent and highly acclaimed example.

Because the peniscope's peeping cyclopean eye can only interpret the beguiling differences between the bodies of men and women – boooooooobbbs – as evidence for the compelling alienness of a woman. Faced with the body of a woman, the peniscope won't relate, project or identify. It will only stare. Even though in the whole of this lonely, cool and infinitely spreading universe the thing that is most like a man is a woman. And vice versa.

Which begs the question: if the guys who are making a lot of television right now can't for whatever reason switch up the view, though they live in a half-woman world, then who can? Is the answer to have more TV shows made by women?

But you hardly every commission them, HBO.  Under 8 percent of your original dramas and miniseries come from women, and only 2.6 percent from people of color. Over the past forty or so years, less than 5 percent of your one-hour dramas have been created by women. Meanwhile, women make up about fifty percent of film school graduates.

Maybe the ethics of that doesn't worry you. But even if the absence of these stories doesn't strike you as an issue of justice, aren't you at least curious about what these stories might be? Isn't curiosity a catalyst for great story-telling? Or, if you don't care about justice, and if you're not even curious, couldn't money be a motivation for you at least? I'm pretty sure that "Orange is the New Black" is making money.

The disappointment is real. HBO, you used to be the hot, pithy, guitar-playing lone dreamer leaning against his/her locker in the televisual high school in our hearts, beloved of geeks and pretty kids alike, too real to try and be cool, and all the cooler for it. But now you seem more like that other kid, the kid who buys the Che Guevera tshirt, the faux-punk reproduction, the one who mistakes callousness for edge - all the while fist-pumping his reflection and keeping in with the jocks.

Have you gone to seed, lost your mystique? Are you the Johnny Depp of the network scene?

Oh, HBO. Recent episodes with Jaime and Cersei and with Craster's daughters show no signs of you letting up, or of approaching this stuff with nuance. Add to this a recent hint that another major character in "Game of Thrones" will soon be raped in a 'beautiful' scene 'choreographed like a ballet' (as far as I can tell this character isn't raped in the books either), and I start to think that Daenarys Tragaryan and Brienne of Tarth aren't enough of a counter-balance to all the perviness and the callousness anymore. I just don't think I can keep watching. And if it weren't for Lena Dunham and "Girls", where the sometime-hell of sexual relations is approached with wit, complexity, and meaningful satire, I'd give up on you, HBO, completely.

This article is related to: Game of Thrones, HBO