‘Game of Thrones’: Why Dany’s Nude Scene Wasn’t “Empowering”

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After a slow start to Season 6, things finally began to pick up on Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones. Viewers were treated to Jon and Sansa’s reunion — the two characters hadn’t been in the same place since Season 1 — but the biggest moment came at the end, when Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) torches the Temple of the Dosh Khaleen, killing the Great Khals and earning the loyalty of the Dothraki widows who bow down in awe when she emerges from the burning temple unscathed.

And unclothed. In an echo of the first season finale — in which she enters Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre and exits fully intact, accompanied by three freshly hatched dragons — Daenerys is naked when she comes out of the temple. Chatting over Slack, my colleague Matthew Ismael Ruiz called it her “goddess moment,” and pointed out, “Unless she has clothes that can also be unburnt…what was the other option?”

In reviews of the episode, “Book of the Stranger,” many critics also expressed approval of Dany’s nudity. “Dany might be naked, but she’s also just a little terrifying,” Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff wrote. “She’s less objectified than she is some kind of demigod.” Bustle’s Kelly Schremph declared the scene “absolutely the most empowering use of female nudity in the history of this show.” An interview with Clarke in Entertainment Weekly, in which the actress professed how “proud” and “happy” she was to do the scene without a body double, was happily passed around pop culture blogs like a lit joint. Call me cynical, but flooding the internet with Clarke’s cry of empowerment feels like a savvy move on the part of the GoT publicity machine. It’s harder to cry “exploitation” when the actress who takes off her clothes says she was happy to do it.

I get why people might be in a rush to explain why this instance of nudity is “good” nudity: We see Dany naked during a triumphant, heroic moment. She’s standing strong and proud and unashamed, and she just proved her dominance over a bunch of big, tough men. But the near-unanimously positive reaction to the scene speaks to our lowered expectations for “tasteful” nudity on premium cable shows, particularly this show, which was notorious in its early seasons for dressing the set with shimmering, inexplicably hairless nude female bodies. Just because Dany’s nudity comes at a moment of triumph and not shame doesn’t mean it was “necessary.”

When Dany steps out of the burning temple — her perfectly round, perky breasts radiant from the light of the fire — I counted four tight shots of Clarke’s bare torso, in between shots of the Dothraki women bowing down to her and a wider shot in which we can see that Dany’s naked but can’t make out any features. (In one shot, the camera does pan up and zoom in on her face, but it cuts away the moment her nipples are out of view.) If nudity here is “necessary” or “makes sense” because Dany’s clothes would have been singed off, why don’t we see her full body? Well, because Clarke obviously didn’t consent to full-frontal nudity, so we only see her chest. In that case, we could have just seen her bare shoulders and that wide shot and intuited the rest.

Once again, this is nudity not for the sake of the story but for GoT’s male viewers; instead of finding Dany’s nude scene “empowering,” I thought it undermined her big moment of heroism. We still see far more female flesh than male on this show, and just because Dany isn’t being raped or tortured while we ogle her boobs doesn’t automatically dignify her nudity. And just because Clarke now has the leverage to consent to nude scenes only when she feels comfortable and “in control” doesn’t mean there aren’t thousands upon thousands of actresses out there who don’t.