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Pay cable's woman problem is bigger than 'True Detective'

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BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF

Although we’re still less than three months into 2014, it seems safe to say that the most talked about new show of the year is HBO’s True Detective. Spawning many memes, intricate fan theories, and heated debates in the weeks leading up to its March 9 season 1 finale, the show has been kind of a big deal.

But although True Detective may have been an Internet phenomenon amongst its many fans and critics, not everyone has been singing its praises. The most frequent criticism revolves around the show’s treatment of women. Probably the most notable piece written about this issue came from Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker, which branded the show "shallow deep talk."

What Nussbaum is getting at is a problem that extends beyond True Detective, and into larger norms that pay-cable networks have established over the last decade or so. As women’s bodies are continually used as props in a world where the best stories are still given to men, it has become evident that shows like True Detective may have a problem not only with women but with female nudity specifically.

True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto recently said that he would be fine doing the show without any nudity. However, it’s not necessarily the nudity itself that makes shows like True Detective problematic, but the way nudity is presented. In the same interview, Pizzolatto bluntly says: “You’re not going to get our two lead movie stars to go full-frontal, but we at least got Matthew’s butt in there.”

Matthew McConaughey’s butt aside, Pizzolatto’s comments reflect an attitude that’s all too familiar in Hollywood. That is, women are encouraged to get naked for the sake of art because their bodies are beautiful and it will bring some kind of honesty to a project. But male nudity is still undignified and unworthy of most serious actors.

On HBO, the show that best exemplifies pay-cable’s conflicting portrayals of sex and nudity is Game of Thrones. The show has become one of the best on television for showcasing strong women, asserting that sexuality can be just as much a driving force for female characters as it can for male characters. And women are watching it too, so in theory, they’re doing something right.

On the other hand, why does a show with such strong female characters continue to need "sexposition" to draw viewers in? Game of Thrones has become famous for dishing out important information to the audience during its most titillating scenes. Not only does this assume the audience is too dumb to invest in the story without seeing naked breasts every episode, it’s also the definition of treating the female form as a set piece.

And by catering most of the nudity to its male audience, Game of Thrones is also sending a message to its female viewers that their enjoyment matters less. One solution might be that for every naked woman, they also throw in a naked man (for some, McConaughey’s butt might not be enough.)

Compared to most shows, Game of Thrones doesn’t do too badly with this. South Park even did a whole song about it. But considering just how many naked women have appeared on the show, is it fair to question whether they’re diversifying their nude scenes enough? A post from last year on HBO Watch (an “unofficial HBO community”) goes into this, declaring, “Of course there are women out there who actually enjoy seeing an attractive naked man. Yes, we actually do exist!” This argument was also hilariously featured in a College Humor in a sketch entitled "HBO Should Show Dongs."

The rules simply remain different for women. Think about HBO’s original masterpiece, The Sopranos. Tony works at a strip club, so there are always naked women around. While this says just as much about the culture Tony lives in and that culture’s views on women, would the show have been appreciated the same way if it wasn’t faceless strippers’ bodies we saw every week? It’s not like Edie Falco has had any problem with nudity throughout her career.

But it seems pretty unlikely we would’ve looked at her character the same way if it was her or Jamie-Lynn Sigler getting naked every week. Like Pizzolatto said, getting a leading man to go fully nude is almost unheard of, but getting a leading lady to do it comes with it’s own set of complications.  

The mindset that female nudity is okay, but only if you’re a nobody, or only if you’re a conventionally beautiful star who is prepared to be ridiculed for their artistic decisions, has been challenged most fiercely by another HBO show, Lena Dunham’s Girls. The debate on the show’s use of nudity was reignited earlier this year when Tim Molloy, a TV critic for The Wrap, stated once again that he didn’t "get the purpose" of it. Over at Slate, Amanda Hess posited that the problem with Molloy’s inquiry was that:

His question was not a question; it was a rambling statement of his own inability to understand how Dunham uses nudity. ... The only legitimate reason for nudity that he purports to understand is its use for titillation purposes. That statement may not reveal Molloy to be an outright misogynist, but … it does reveal him to be willfully naïve to Dunham’s work and its larger context.

At other pay-cable networks, the problems with female nudity are even worse. As its title suggests, Showtime’s Masters of Sex has a frank approach in its portrayal of human sexuality. But there’s a discrepancy between a show like that and network’s ultra-masculine comedies. Californication has featured a countless lineup of naked women overtime who existed for no purpose other than to pleasure its over-sexed protagonist, Hank Moody. Hank has insisted for years that he respects women, including the naked ones who frequently find themselves in his bed. But as the years have gone on, it seems more like Californication thinks that if you just tell a woman you’re interested in more than her body, she’ll freely give up her body to you.

Meanwhile, the very first scene in House of Lies features a black man diving head-first into the naked butt of an unconscious white woman. Daring? No, in fact, such a blatant attempt at edginess comes off as just the opposite in the landscape of modern television.

Then there’s Starz and Cinemax; all of the nudity without any of the story. These networks have taken HBO and Showtime’s formula and whittled it down so that the nudity and the violence is more frequent, more extreme, and more unnecessary.

None of this is to say that there isn’t hope for pay-cable yet. Although it’s not technically the same, Netflix is certainly positioning itself as the new HBO, and with Orange Is the New Black, they’ve already proven that all women, leading ladies and otherwise, can be complicated, diverse, and yes, naked, at the same time.

The use of nudity on True Detective or any other show alone isn’t the problem. But the way pay-cable has marginalized women through the use of nudity is a problem. Because without clothes on, everyone is a naked body, but we’re all a lot more than that too.  

Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University's Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.

Illustration by Jason Reed