The Movie Waffler Her Boob's Out! HBO's Ongoing Human Body Obsession | The Movie Waffler

Her Boob's Out! HBO's Ongoing Human Body Obsession

HBO's new tentpole drama, Westworld, continues the network's obsession with female nudity.

Words by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

“TV is now better than cinema” is an opinion that’s become increasingly popular in recent years. The merits of this argument are debatable. Cinema as defined by this argument is generally limited to the output of mainstream Hollywood, as though U.S indies and world cinema didn’t exist. Likewise, those who argue in favour of TV conveniently ignore the hundreds of reality shows, formulaic police procedurals and clichéd sitcoms that make up the majority of the public’s TV experience. When people now talk about great TV, they’re generally referring to the output of American cable networks like HBO and Showtime.

Cable TV is proving increasingly attractive to film-makers, who cite the creative freedom afforded to them by long-form storytelling. As cable networks are funded by subscriptions, their shows are uninterrupted by commercial breaks. This leaves writers unencumbered by the need to insert a cliff-hanger every six minutes to ensure the viewer returns after a two minute barrage of capitalism at 25 frames a second. Similarly, an episode needn’t end on a cliff-hanger, as the network isn’t relying on the return of a viewer next week to satisfy advertisers; they’ve already got their subscription fee.

Whereas Hollywood now rarely produces films targeted at an adult audience (packing a family of six into a screening makes a lot more financial sense than a lone adult or a couple), the cable networks aim their dramas at precisely that demographic, because children don’t have credit cards (though it’s probably only a matter of time before they will) and can’t subscribe to these channels.

Specifically creating drama for adults guarantees a degree of sophistication, but “adult drama” has another meaning, as British director Neil Marshall discovered when he signed on to direct an episode of HBO’s smash hit show Game of Thrones.

In a 2012 interview with Empire magazine, Marshall spoke of how a HBO executive shadowed him during the shoot, complaining at times that the Dog Soldiers director wasn’t including enough full frontal nudity from his female cast. When Marshall insisted the scenes didn’t require it, the exec replied, “Look, I represent the pervert side of the audience, okay? Everybody else is the serious drama side, I represent the perv side of the audience, and I’m saying I want full frontal nudity in this scene.”

Through his crude explanation, the exec summed up the dilemma U.S cable networks currently face. They want to be seen as award-winning purveyors of quality drama, while at the same time holding on to the subscribers who pay their monthly fee not to experience great writing, directing and acting, but rather the tits and ass they can’t see on regular U.S TV.

Ever since the 1930s, on-screen nudity has been a taboo in Hollywood. Under pressure from the Catholic Church, Hollywood passed the Hays code in the early '30s, and nudity, which had been a lot more common in cinema than many are aware of, was banished from the screen, along with practically any reference to sexuality. It would take the sexual revolution of the '60s for nudity to return to Hollywood, and by the early '70s, female nudity was everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except TV. To this day, American network TV refuses to air nudity, and this is where the cable channels come in.

Home Box Office (HBO) was established in the early '70s as primarily a movie channel, though exclusive sports events were also a big draw. For its first couple of decades, the channel was known for screening exploitation movies, laced with the sort of sex and violence that made such fare unacceptable for network TV. The joke in the mid-80s was that HBO stood for “Hey, Beastmaster’s On!”, but it may as well have been "Her Boob's Out!" The draw for many subscribers was in being guaranteed female nudity on a nightly basis.

The execs at HBO were quite happy to take the dollars of horny subscribers, but they were aware that their network was considered something of a joke, and so decided to produce their own shows. The first arrived in 1983, an anthology show titled The Hitchhiker, which aped the format of 'twist in the tale' shows like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but with the addition of something those shows lacked. You guessed it: gratuitous female nudity.

The show also featured something unique at the time in having episodes directed by respected film-makers like Philip Noyce, Paul Verhoeven and Roger Vadim, the latter two no strangers to sleaze. Stars like Elliot Gould, Kirstie Alley and Gary Busey appeared, but for many viewers the appeal came in the exposed breasts of the various soft porn starlets who spiced up each episode.

In the '90s, HBO became synonymous with adult-oriented comedy, the first of which was Dream On, which debuted in 1990. Executive produced by director John Landis, the show followed the exploits of a thirty-something New Yorker. Or rather the “sexploits”, given the amount of times leading man Brian Benben found himself in the company of a topless female co-star.

With accusations of misogyny fired at HBO from critics, the network found a way to appeal to a female audience, while also guaranteeing the nudity expected of its shows by the more hairy-palmed of its subscribers. Sex & the City proved the network’s biggest hit by portraying sexually liberated, successful women, who just happened to get their kit off quite a bit. For a show aimed at women that dealt with sex, male nudity was conspicuously absent, a taboo even HBO was unwilling to break.

It was the 2000s - the era of the TV boxset - that saw HBO become the dominant force in U.S TV, thanks to a show based around the life of a mid-level Mafioso. The Sopranos was just the sort of sophisticated drama the network had been after, but how would they manage to keep “the pervs” happy? The answer came in the form of the Bada-Bing, a strip club that provided the backdrop for many of the show’s more dialogue-heavy scenes. Similarly with the western series Deadwood, many expository scenes occurred in the town’s brothel. This was the beginning of a technique that would become an integral part of HBO’s original shows: sexposition.

It was the 2005 show Rome - a co-production with BBC, whose relationship with female nudity stretched back to the '70s and another historical Roman drama, I, Claudius – that took sexposition to its logical extreme. If two characters need to have a conversation that’s heavy with plot detail, why not have them shagging while doing so?

The network’s most watched show, now approaching its seventh season, Game of Thrones ramps the sexposition up to 11, so much so that it seems anytime a conversation occurs between a male and female character, the latter is probably going to be in some state of undress. Initially, it seemed like a show that would appeal to an overwhelmingly male audience, but Game of Thrones is one of the most popular current shows with female viewers. This has led to something of a backlash against the show’s insistence on female nudity. A highly controversial rape scene (one that occurred between a brother and sister no less) drew the ire of many critics, who condemned HBO for going too far in its desire to keep “the pervert side of the audience” happy. The scene left a nasty taste in the mouths of most viewers, with some claiming to have dropped the show from their weekly schedule.

HBO has given us shows that achieved success without nudity, most prominently the revolutionary comedies The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but the network seems reluctant to pump money into a flesh free drama series. The highly acclaimed True Detective carried on the trend by having Woody Harrelson’s character conduct an affair with a busty young girl, half his age, played by Alexandra Daddario. The network's latest tentpole show, an adaptation of the cult sci-fi thriller Westworld has two devices that conveniently allow for female nudity - a Deadwood style brothel in the Old West themed park, and a repair shop, where female robots lie around fully exposed while technicians work on their programming. The latest episode featured 43-year-old Thandie Newton running around in the nude like a struggling 22-year-old starlet rather than a veteran star.

HBO will continue to receive accolades, but awards don’t pay the bills. Female nudity won’t be disappearing from its shows anytime soon, so film-makers wishing to work for the network will continue to enjoy creative freedom, so long as they agree to keep “the pervs” happy.

An earlier version of this post previously appeared at This Greedy Pig.