Common wisdom has concluded that of all the series on television the most woefully misplaced is Hannibal. Residing on NBC and in theory constrained by the rules of decency associated with network television, the creators of Hannibal have been pulling off an impressive tight rope act for a season and a half now, pushing the limits of violent imagery on television. There are still limits, however, primarily in areas of sex and nudity. “If only,” the thought goes, “creator Bryan Fuller and his team weren’t held back at all. If only they had the freedom of cable.” The notion carries sympathy, but it’s faulty. The last thing Hannibal needs is the freedom to show nudity, and it’s the last thing the show’s audience should want.
Hannibal is a sexually charged show. It always has been. Often that charge is homoerotic, but it’s generally more nebulous than that. A notable sequence in the most recent episode, “Naka-Choko,” finely intercut multiple sex scenes, subjective perceptions and dreams into an erotic fantasy nightmare of attraction, manipulation and psychopathy. This is not a show that shies away from complex sexuality. It revels in it. It even goes so far as to explore the sexual charge associated with the power of taking a life.
But what of nudity? Why not go the extra mile? At first glance, the lack of nudity in a sex scene like the one in “Naka-Choko” is surprising — are the show runners suddenly feeling shy? But perhaps there is something more than network prudishness at work here. Hannibal, for all its violence and fetishistic scenes of gore, is staunchly non-exploitative. Rather, it’s contemplative; it always minds the philosophical implications of its grim subject. To include nudity would be to rub up against exploitation in ways the show has smartly avoided.
Hannibal fans are known for decrying NBC as being irrationally prudish about nudity while permitting extreme gore. Fuller addressed their concerns during a Comic-Con panel:
So we had two people who were nude, and we saw their butt cracks. They were flayed open, they were cracked in many ways. And NBC said we couldn’t show that shot, which was this great sort of cinematic shot. ‘Why? Because of the exposed spine and ribs and muscle tissue?’ And they were like, ‘No, we see their butt cracks.’ And I said, ‘What if we filled the butt cracks with blood so we couldn’t see the cracks?’ And they said okay.”
That’s a startling and blatantly ridiculous anecdote, no question. That said, the lack of nudity in a death tableau is not something we should be upset about.
In the episode “Su-Zukana,” viewers were treated to a similar picture — a grotesque murder scene featuring a dead woman being pulled from a horse’s belly — and director Vincenzo Natali later revealed that great pains were taken to avoid exposing her nipples. In other scenes, victims’ bodies, both male and female, have been airbrushed to remove nipples and genitalia. Many find all this silly and feel the show would be better served on a cable or online outlet that didn’t carry such constraints. Yet while the debate over our cultural willingness to allow violence and not sex is an important one, the specific issue surrounding Hannibal concerns the use of nudity in murder crime scenes on TV and film.
Nudity in such scenes is not very common. In film, the dead prostitute in The Godfather Part II comes to mind, as do the young girl in L’humanité and the dead woman in Dark City. There are several others, but it’s a rare occurrence. In TV it’s even more rare, even on HBO. One scene from the first season of The Wire features photographs of a murdered woman, naked, nipples exposed, in a crime scene. The nudity exposed the stark reality of a scene described earlier by a witness to the murder. Game of Thrones last season had a horrific shot of a murdered woman, naked and strung up for her tormentor’s delight, an arrow piercing her breast and one near her groin. The scene was meant to shock the audience with a special degree of sexually violent depravity, and at that it was successful.
Most shows and movies carefully avoid showing murder victims nude outside of a clinical setting like a morgue. Such nudity, rightly or wrongly, can easily be seen as exploitative (see: Bad Boys II). True Detective ran into such accusations, brought on by its frequent graphic sex scenes, but also its use of artfully arranged dead naked women. And even that show avoided more graphic nudity in crime scenes. Such imagery is deemed unnecessary in most entertainment, and it almost always is.
Hannibal is especially concerned with avoiding this kind of representation due to its specific aesthetic sensibilities. The show designs itself as removed from reality. It stays at a distance. When the camera moves slowly over scenes of extreme mutilation, it does so in the same way as with the meals Lecter prepares. The gore, graphic as it is, remains in the abstract. The abstraction is heightened by the fact that the audience is rarely privy to actual acts of violence and rarer still the construction of the elaborate death tableaus.
Within that aesthetic, there is something fitting about the lack of nudity. If the dead bodies are to be taken in the abstract, then it figures they’d be airbrushed and contorted to look as sexless as Barbie and Ken dolls. Any nudity in those scenes might bring them too close to recognizable reality. That reality would remove a component of the abstract and marry sexual imagery to the already fetishized violence, which would be unsavoury to say the least. For a show so infatuated with violence, it’s practically a blessing that it doesn’t fall into the common trap of reveling in sexualized violence. We should be thankful for that.
Hannibal isn’t afraid of violence, nor is it afraid of sexuality. It plays with both more intelligently than almost anything else on television, and it takes both extremely seriously. The limitations on nudity may be forced on the creators by a skittish network, but that doesn’t make them bad limitations. In fact, the lack of nudity is perfectly in keeping with the thematic intent of the show, and whether or not the series eventually ends up on cable or even Netflix, I would hope that aesthetic is maintained.