Marco Polo, Game of Thrones, & Ambient Female Nudity

Marco Polo, Netflix’s new 10-episode series about the eponymous 13th century explorer’s life in the Mongol Empire, launched on the streaming service on December 12th, and critics are already comparing it (often unflatteringly) with Game of Thrones. I’m not sure the comparison is apt; the two series have entirely different aims. However, two areas do exist where the association with the current Titan of HBO is spot on: Marco Polo’s sumptuous production values, and the sheer number of boobs appearing on screen.

Two disclaimers are necessary before I go any further. First, I’m only four episodes into Marco Polo (maybe five by the time this runs) so perhaps by the end of the series my observations may change – but I doubt it. Second, I have absolutely no problem watching shows with graphic female nudity. It doesn’t attract me to a show, because I’m not attracted to women, but the presence of naked ladies isn’t my problem – it’s the lack of equivalency in the quantity of naked men.

(Mild spoilers follow for Marco Polo, but only for those people who can’t put together what a historical epic free from network censors would look like.)

By the fourth episode of Marco Polo, we have already witnessed: a woozy, intoxicated harem scene full of naked ladies, a stark naked lady kung fu fighting, multiple naked ladies lined up repeatedly in the harem, a naked lady-on-lady harem audition, and a clothed lady invite another naked lady into a bed. As far as scantily clad men go, we saw one shot of Marco Polo getting scrubbed down in the shadows.

I call this “ambient female nudity” because it’s important to note that I’m not suggesting all this female nudity is gratuitous (although some certainly is). Nakedness and sex can be instrumental to the plot, and suggesting that all uses of naked women onscreen are extraneous and meant solely to attract salivating male viewers is frankly insulting to men. The men I know are all smarter and more discerning than that.

Ambient female nudity means treating the nudity like scenery or set design – it isn’t crucial for the action in the scene, which is often conversation (hence the term “sexposition”). However, the nudity often serves the purpose of costumes in this instance by widening our window into the show’s universe: its power structures, its morality, and its customs. Used effectively, it can be an incredible tool for world building.

The overuse of nudity does have its drawbacks, and it can have the opposite effect from the one discussed above, namely desensitizing us to the point where we don’t notice its purpose. In Marco Polo, the very first harem scene, where Marco stumbles out of the harem, forbidden by the Khan to touch as he watches multiple women writhe all over the other male characters, is one of these scenes. We already know Marco is the low man in the Khan’s organization, and earlier shots and dialogue established the presence and importance of the harem. The scene adds nothing in terms of character or understanding.

Later shots in the harem are imbued with more meaning. The fact that the potential recruits are forced to line up completely naked makes a clear statement about their helplessness, in stark contrast to the lavish costumes of the women already chosen to serve. When the women audition for the harem by pleasuring other women, the context is immediately made more interesting by the presence of a woman of high rank from the court who is doing the judging, bringing a juxtaposition of class as well as gender into the performance. (I’m a sucker for intersectionality.)

Game of Thrones has the same issue of blending effective and overused exposure of the female form. Much of the sexposition is just an excuse to get boobs on screen, and could easily be done without it (think anything that ever took place in Littlefinger’s brothel). Yes, it would be harder to come up with ways to make dense information dumps more interesting – especially when the pace of shooting a television show is as grueling as it is – but it is possible.

Which brings me to my second point: the lack of an equivalent attempt to capture the female gaze. Audiences for these shows are not overwhelmingly male; close to half of all Game of Thornes viewers are estimated to be women. If showrunners are as committed to quality storytelling as they claim to be, then it would behoove them to widen the range and type of perspectives in their story.

It isn’t like these shows have a lack of female viewpoints – both feature sprawling casts where some of the strongest, most interesting, and most well-written characters are women. Game of Thrones has Cersei, Briene, Daenerys, all of whom subvert expectations of what women in their world are expected to be. Marco Polo’s women work within their proscribed gender roles (not all of which are straightforward), but the Empress Chabi, courtesan Mei Lin, and warrior Khutulun are all far more interesting and developed than the blank-slate lead and the Khan’s advisors.

Therefore, I’m not saying get rid of or even reduce the female nudity; this is a call to increase the amount of naked men. I’m not advocating romance-novel-cover type male nudity, but rather context-appropriate nudity that contributes to the narrative.

Game of Thrones made progress last season by including the fantastic scene where Daenerys orders her male military advisor Daario Naharis to strip in front of her. In addition to being scorchingly hot, the act drove home Daenerys’ transformation into a more ruthless kind of queen by mirroring a scene in the pilot where her scheming brother stripped her. In Outlander’s penultimate episode this summer, (spoilers) the five-alarm sex scene between newlyweds Claire and Jaime smoked even more by making sure it lavished attention on both of the characters’ perspectives. Even Arrow, on the CW, does a network-tamed version of equal-opportunity sexiness. Sure, there are lots of tight dresses and cleavage-enhancing spandex and leather suits on the women. But then, there’s Ollie. Oliver Queen’s frequent shirtlessness – in battle, on the salmon ladder – is sexy as hell, but also drives home how completely badass he is through his athletic prowess and scarred, tattooed physique. Just like female nudity, ambient male nudity can be present in service to the plot and without alienating male viewers. After all, all the naked women aren’t driving the ladies away.

In today’s day and age of fragmented television audiences, where viewers have so much choice among quality shows, it makes sense to acknowledge that a good portion of the potential audience is made up of people who aren’t sexually attracted to women. (The issue of heterosexual versus homosexual gaze, and if they can even be lumped together, is even another compelling point to consider.) Women like sex, and lots of women like being reminded of sex in their entertainment. Including some more ambient male nudity would not be remiss in an attempt to attract and retain heterosexual female viewers, with no downside for the show itself. If writers can find so many context-appropriate opportunities to insert boobs, then I’m sure they could find some for male butts.

In short, my holiday wish to cable/streaming historical dramas is: more naked people for everyone! As wishes go, that’s a pretty fair cry.

  • Amy Beltramini Chasse

    I hope your Christmas wish comes true, I know I’d like to see more nakedness!!