Sexposition, “Spartacus”, and the male gaze

“Game of Thrones” and “Spartacus” aren’t two shows that are generally discussed side-by-side, and there are many reasons why such a separation isn’t surprising. While both ostensibly genre shows, the two share little in common upon first glance. But it’s worth thinking about the pair in tandem with the second season of the former just ending and the finale season of the latter just announced. “Game of Thrones” attempts a grittier, more realistic approach to its vision, whereas “Spartacus” employs hyperstylized, greenscreen-heavy visual approach. However, both possess interesting approaches to the ways in which onscreen nudity is presented in the modern cable era. For all the talk of “sexposition” within “Game of Thrones,” it’s clearly a show that employs nudity as a part of its narrative worldview. It helps illuminate something about Westeros as a whole. “Spartacus” uses its flesh in the same fashion, but in ways that are both more expansive yet potentially more limiting.

game_of_thrones_season_2_finale.pngEven if people tire of scenes in which women get undressed while men discuss backstory in “Game of Thrones,” few question the existence of nudity in and of itself. Rather, they discuss the merits of its deployment. The question of whether someone needs to be naked in a scene doesn’t deal so much with its placement inside the fictional realm of Westeros so much as its placement inside an episode of television. People understand at this point that it’s as much a part of the world as the banners that signify the various Houses at war within the realm. If you’re against seeing bare breasts, you’re already long gone at this point in the show’s run.

There’s the false assumption that the nudity in “Spartacus” is, by contrast, simply pornography enmeshed in a pulpy television program. Under this line of thought, rather than being an integral part of the show’s worldview, nudity is something designed to titillate rather than explore character and/or theme. And sure, if you casually flip the channels to an episode and see a long, slo-mo laden shot of people having sex inside a seedy brothel, you could be forgiven for assuming the worst.

But nudity serves several functions on “Spartacus.” On one level, it speaks to the appetites of its characters, for whom sex is just another way of slaking their bodily thirst. (That wine and sex so often go hand in hand on this show isn’t an accident.) On another level, it’s a visceral way for two people to show healthy affection for one another. Batiatus and Lucretia were horrible people who also happened to be head over heels in love with one another, and copulated frequently as an expression of that love. Both these aspects reflect the ways in which Roman society, in the eyes of “Spartacus”, viewed consumption as something to be cherished and repeatedly practiced. They treat their bodies as temples: places of sensual worship. But as with all holy items, those bodies can also be desecrated.

Where “Spartacus” achieves greatness lies in the third aspect in which nudity is deployed in the show: as an expression and demonstration of power. “Game of Thrones” does this as well, but “Spartacus” expands its scope far beyond what HBO’s hit program currently does. When we talk about “sexposition,” we generally talk about a scene in which a female is undressed as part of the scenery, serving as background for a male figure to spout wisdom, impart information, or potentially reveal his own shortcomings. We’ve yet to see a scene in which Cersei rhapsodizes about the history of her house while her cousin undresses behind her, eventually revealing his little Lancel. The words in sexposition scenes belong to the man. But our eyes are drawn to the woman. He receives our ears. She receives our gaze.

The gaze of the camera, and thus the audience, falls not on simply women in “Spartacus,” but equally upon men as well. Lucretia and Ilithyia hold as much power over their male slaves as Batiatus, Glaber, and other Roman males do over their female slaves. “Spartacus” lovingly shoots the chiseled physiques of its gladiators, but those men are as trapped within those bodies as there are empowered by them. Physical strength is worth little when the men are paraded about at parties for the Roman elite, helpless to do anything besides the whims of their social superiors. Here’s a show in which men sing “My C#ck Rages On” as the national anthem of virility. But that phallus is silenced in servitude once its owner is placed under the rule of another.

This is all well and fine for most people on a theoretical level. But “Spartacus” takes things a bit further and show full frontal nudity for both sexes on both sides of the power dynamic. Seeing Crixus submit to Lucretia’s desire is one thing. To see him literally stripped down for us as well as her to see appears to be another thing altogether for some. And here we get into much more complicated, much more fascinating, but also much more problematic television. It’s problematic precisely because neither male not female audiences are particularly trained to handle viewing male frontal nudity in mass-market entertainment. If we do see it, it tends to be an isolated, controversial piece of pop culture (such as “The Crying Game”) or treated as something to laugh at (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Hall Pass”). We either prevent discussion or seek to disarm phallic potency upon visual contact. But in “Spartacus,” showing nudity is part and parcel of expressing the power dynamics at play. And many people simply can’t handle viewing it as a general principle.

liam-mcintyre-spartacus-vengeance-empty-hands.jpgThat doesn’t completely explain away the large ratings disparity between “Game of Thrones” versus “Spartacus”, of course. The former has roughly four times the audience of the latter, but we can’t chalk that up entirely to people afraid to look at Hodor’s…hodor. But I do wonder how many people are afraid of watching perceived exploitative nudity on “Spartacus,” and how many are simply uncomfortable with the idea that the playing field is leveled when it comes to the skin on display. Men don’t enjoy seeing the gaze they so often deploy towards women reflected back at them. But “Spartacus” goes well beyond the gaze, and pushes itself and the audience into far riskier territory. “Spartacus” isn’t about the insinuations and dry-humping of “Horrible Bosses,” a movie in which female-on-male sexual harassment is played for a hoot.  This show demonstrates how power, more so than gender, influence the ways in which our bodies can be exploited against our will. That’s not to say gender doesn’t play a part in this show. But it’s hardly the sole, deciding factor.

Speaking for myself, it’s fairly horrifying to have an episode like the “Blood and Sand” episode “Mark of The Brotherhood” end with an emasculated man crucified for all to see. There’s the pure shock of the image itself that is disturbing. Did I find it horrifying because it was a male sexual organ? Perhaps slightly, but that had less to do with some sort of psychosexual panic and more about having a psychosomatic response to the visual onscreen. Still, seeing his split manhood onscreen served a narrative, albeit graphic, function. After all, Ilithyia wanted to have the same type of power dynamic with her own slave that Lucretia did with Crixus. Ilithyia chose this particular man, Segovax, as her personal concubine in no small part due to the size of his penis. It’s her actual deciding factor in making him her champion. And when Ilithyia’s plan to use Segovax to murder Spartacus inside the ludus fails, Segovax’s emasculation serves as much a message to Ilithyia as it is to other slaves. Graphic? Absolutely. Excessive? Possibly. Exploitative? Hardly. It’s baked right into the storytelling of “Spartacus.”

According to internal numbers at STARZ, “Spartacus” skews male in terms of its viewership. But it’s not a strong majority, which suggests a large number of those watching the program are female as well. That obviously doesn’t help illuminate how many of those watching accept equal opportunity frontal nudity and how many simply tolerate it to get to other aspects of the show they enjoy. But if the numbers for the show are relatively small, the crosstabs also suggest an audience willing to invest in both men and women equally onscreen. That reflects the ethos of the show. “Spartacus” is perfectly happy to put both genders through the ringer, both emotionally and physically. But it’s also willing to show the ways in which men and women celebrate their lives through their bodies as well. Seeing Naevia attempting to heal her mind throughout “Vengeance” is also to see her attempting to heal her body as well. The two acts are intertwined. And by the end of the season, she’s able to take her rightful place at Crixus’ side. The pair can’t move forward alone. Nor can the men and women of “Spartacus” as a whole. It’s quite the eye-opening experience for these characters, even if so many at home have a hard time even looking at “Spartacus” in the first place.