Getting Naked:The Red Priestess and Ageism in the Media

2:56 PM

So the first episode of season six has come and I feel like I have more questions than answers... Jon Snow has yet to come back to life (seriously...I am still convinced this is going to happen), Tyrion looks as though he is failing miserably in Meereen (I still believe in you Tyrion!), Sansa has fianlly accepted Brienne (FINALLY!), and Daenerys seems to be in a lot less danger than the season five close lead viewers to believe (of course if you read the books you probably were not all that worried...).

But even through all of the turns from last night's episode of HBO's Game of Thrones, all I really want to talk about is Melisandre's old, wrinkled, and naked body.


Of course Game of Thrones is no stranger to nakedness, not an episode goes by that viewers are not meant to endure several instances of nakedness. Of course the typical display is young, toned and, what most would consider, classically beautiful. The media is largely guilty of acting as a visual gate-keeper. Only those who meet specific aesthetic criteria are usually deemed worthy of being seen on screens both large and small. These exclusionary practices are particularly brutal for women.


I would be remiss not to give credit where credit is due, however. Efforts have been made in recent years to center women with varying body-types and allow them starring, rather than co-starring, roles, but I would argue that these women are still relatively young, have some degree of classic beauty in their facial features, and are typically white (e.g. Melissa McCarthy, Rebel Wilson). Even with a degree of flexibility in the body shapes present there is little movement to be inclusive of "women of a certain age" unless they are already well established celebrities. Even then, several of these well established female celebrities are refused roles by casting agents for being "too old" to play opposite males of similar, if not older ages. For example, just last year, Maggie Gyllenhaal cited an instance when she was turned away as a potential love interest for a man nearly 20 years her senior. Gyllenhaal's claim triggered an influx of Hollywood's women to share similar stories.


In addition, older bodies are very rarely seen naked. For a show that has notoriously been criticized for its generous use of nudity, even causing critic and academic Martin McNutt to coin the term "sexposition" to describe its over-use in scenes of plot exposition, the ending scene of "The Red Woman" episode (S1.E6), in which Melisandre bares both her true age and the body that corresponds, certainly feels like something different from the nudity that has been seen thus far. And let's be honest, in the wake of Melisandre's big season six reveal, the twitterverse was BRUTAL. Here are just a few tweets:



I will not argue that this turn in Melisandre's physicality will not have a more narritorial purpose in the future of the show (how would I know now that they are off book), but there is arguably something to be said about this bodily display from a cultural standpoint (especially considering some of the more cruel reactions). What I think is important about this scene is that it speaks loud and clear to a culture that is obsessed with youthful beauty and the, often, unobtainable bodies that correspond with these cultural ideals. People age and bodies will inevitably show signs of this process. Melisandre's aged body in all it's nude glory is clearly a stark reminder to viewers that physical beauty is fleeting and even those who seem to possess it may be flaunting bodily falsehoods.


I am a firm believer that it is only through naturalizing diverse bodies (age, size, race, ability etc.) through media outlets that we can begin to disillusion ourselves from some of the more culturally prominent and destructive notions of beauty and worth to which we so often find ourselves beholden. Regardless of the direction that Melisandre's character takes in future episodes, I find myself grateful for a reprieve from the usual onslaught of the homogeneous female body type that Game of Thrones typically has on fully nude display. There is nothing unnatural about aging or the body showing signs of wear and only through showing this in the media can we disabuse ourselves of the notion that the aging body (especially the aging female body) is something to be feared and thwarted at any cost.
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15 comments

  1. I have to agree that the way the last scene was shot was a welcome change from how nudity typically appears on TV. It is typical for scenes in TV and film to use from the neck up camera angles when more mature women and (sometimes) men are supposed to be naked. I also agree that the main reason for this is ageism and sexism, but one other factor could be at play too. Although Americans have a lot less reverence for the elderly than many other cultures, many viewers will have the attitude that it is wrong for older actors to be nude onscreen. I think some of that is aside from notions of beauty and instead rooted in a belief that it is somehow disrespectful to show old naked bodies. I disagree with that view but I have personally heard that attitude expressed several times in the past.

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    1. Interesting take. I would definitely be interested to try and find the impetus behind that line of thought. There is a part of me that still wonders if such ideas are still rooted in perceptions of aesthetic. For example do people that harbor the belief that it is disrespectful to show nude individuals of a certain age feel this way because of a cognitive dissonance between the perception that age is often a sign of heightened wisdom and the state of their body which is often equated with less positive traits (i.e. deterioration, weakness, etc.)? I am not claiming this is the case but it is a question that came to mind with your comment.

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  2. Maybe this is a little flip, but I thought she looked pretty good for being 400 years old. This show is all about pretty people getting killed or raped, but the non-normative types surviving: Brienne, Tyrion, Arya, Samwell. What I am wondering about is whether Melisandre ultimately is a force for good or a force for evil. She burns people at the stake, but maybe through Jon she's our only hope against the White Walkers. But to think about gender: Tyrion defies the image of tall, handsome male hero. But our culture has managed to recuperate him--didn't People magazine or some such publication name Peter Dinklage the sexiest man alive? Somehow I can't see that happening for Melisandre--instead we get the jokes like the Saturday Night Live skit where she shows up at a Bridal Shower. Anyway, I think the ultimate direction of Game of Thrones is towards some sort of overthrow of the patriarchy--Dany and Melisandre are going to be right there, with maybe Arya, Sansa, and Brienne not too far behind. (We'll keep Cersei out of it.)

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    1. I would have to agree with this. I think this is one of the reasons that I largely appreciate the show. This show certainly has its share of non-normative characters that survive and earn audience praise. However, the female body "on display" has been relatively homogeneous and in line with certain cultural ideals up until this point. This, in my eyes, was a welcome change to that paradigm.

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  3. I appreciated the mysterious plot twist and also enjoyed the reprieve of physical nudity being, so obviously, for the pleasure of audiences. This one actually seemed to add something to the plot. And while it could have been done from the neck up, there was something marvelous about acknowledging the entire body's transformation. And to me, it was interesting paradox that to resign the beautiful Melisandre to such an inferior body type is actually displaying a type of significant power she has (had?) through the use of that necklace.

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    1. I agree. Making it full body was a great choice, we get the full impact of it. Plus, if it were just the neck up, wouldn't that further the display of only "pretty" bodies? Suddenly this old woman's body gets the same, lengthy, full frontal display that so many young bodies on the show get.

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    2. I really like this idea of the paradox that you propose. I think there is definitely something too this. I believe in my post "Mean Girls of Westeros" I noted that there are two prominent types of positions of power for women 1.) wisdom/knowledge from age and 2.) beauty based power. Clearly these power centers are generationally divided. Melisadre seems to embody both of these simultaneously, something that is often not the case for women.

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  4. House Lorch, this was a great analysis of the ending scene of episode 6.1 and of body types, in general. As you mentioned, this scene was a reminder that physical beauty is fleeting. This is a very important lesson. However, I don't quite understand what you mean when you say "even those who seem to possess it may be flaunting bodily falsehoods." My partner is beautiful in every way, including physically, and she is not a bad person. Perhaps I am misunderstanding but I think it would be wrong (and prejudice) to assume that people who meet classic standards of beauty must be hiding something or flaunting something false. Please correct me, if I misunderstood this point of your argument.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! In writing about “bodily falsehoods,” I in no way meant to demean those who possesses classically beautiful traits. Rather, I was attempting to distinguish between those who have that “classic” look naturally and those who acquire it by other means (i.e. plastic surgery, spanx, crafty make-up, etc.). I also do not mean to imply that there should be any value judgement placed on either of these (natural vs. acquired beauty) but, rather, to I wanted to simply point out that what one sees is not always the “truth” (or put more simply, looks can be deceiving).

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    2. But since you put it in those terms, is this strange jewel she wears around her neck a symbol of "acquired beauty"? Much on-line talk has focused on the earlier scene with Stannis's wife where she appeared nude in the bath tub but was without the necklace/jewel.

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    3. I would definitely consider the necklace a symbol of her acquired beauty. So far as the earlier scene, I saw a video online (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prGLBG-ESvU) that suggests that this scene was done in such a way that Stannis's wife actually does see the true Melisandre in this scene (even if it is not revealed to the audience). There is a conversation in this scene where Melisandre suggests that she does not need to use potions on her but she does on Stannis. Perhaps this can explain what, some, might have initially considered some sort of continuity error.

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  5. An interesting analysis of how physical traits and nudity are seen in this episode. I do think that it was interesting that they portrayed the older melissandre the way that they did, but the twitter sphere went full blown after the scene, and the tweets you added in your blog. Have you seen Emilia Clark's video where she wants to start the FreeTheP hashtag for more male nudity? An interesting take by the Khaleesi. Curious to see how nudity is portrayed moving forward and if it is as prominent as it was in previous seasons.

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    1. I have seen some things related to Emilia Clarks want for more male nudity in the show. Interestingly, the show has shown the male member on several occasions now and have used several body types and ages (Theon, Hodor, peasants in the Cersei walk of shame, etc.). Obviously it is no where near equitable to the display of nude women but compared to other shows, they are quite progressive with the male nudity as well.

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  6. I think there was an interesting juxtaposition with something we NEVER see, an attractive person turning into a centuries old person before our eyes, with a normal mundane activity like laying down in bed to go to sleep. They somehow normalized a really supernatural scene.

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    1. I agree! The scene was really well done and interesting on a variety of levels (visually, narratively, etc.).

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