Author: Maureen Ryan
In the 15 years I've been a critic, there have been any number of debates about how sexuality, nudity and sexual violence have been employed on television. Many programs have lazily used those things to give their stories "edginess" or "darkness," or to give their program an unearned aura of adult sensuality. All too often, it's clear that many storytellers don't give depictions of sexuality or sexual violence any real thought; the same tropes, cliches and predictable points of view are shown again and again (so much so that it's worth celebrating when a show like "Outlander" does something radically different). It gets tiresome to have to point out depictions of sexuality and sexual violence that are exploitative, incomplete, clueless or simply offensive; they keep turning up with exhausting regularity on networks and shows that should really know better.
"Spartacus," on the other hand, is frequently exemplary in these areas, in part because of its consistent devotion to its premise. The whole show is about the use and abuse of bodies and a system that allowed an exclusive ruling class to have absolute power over every aspect of the lives of the less powerful. We saw characters freely enjoy each other's sexuality without shame, but DeKnight and his writers never forgot that every character existed within a power hierarchy that they rarely controlled.
The show was wonderfully respectful of female desire and agency, whether the women were in bed or in battle; it was also realistic about the fact that women (of all classes) had little power, and the less powerful the woman, the more common and accepted the abuse of her body and spirit. "Spartacus" isn't feminist because it handled rape with rare sensitivity: This drama — which, by the way, successfully appealed to a dude-heavy audience — is feminist because it depicted the gamut of the female experience with intelligence, nuance and compassion. The women were allowed to be as lusty — and as angry and as devious and as kind — as the guys.
"Spartacus" never shied away from depicting how excruciating it could be for all of the slaves when their sexuality and their desires were ignored, exploited or used against them. It frequently depicted physically strong male gladiators being used as pawns for their owners' amusement, and showed that it cost these men parts of their soul when they were viewed as nothing more than pieces of meat.
Everybody was objectified on "Spartacus," and the show sustained an impressive balancing act: It both gloried in the physical specimens on display (every viewer, whatever their sexuality, got an eyeful), and it also showed how thoughtless and cruel objectification can be, in the wrong hands.
It's also worth noting that DeKnight put gay characters at the center of the overall narrative and made sure their adventures were just as important as anyone else's. Sex between men and sex between women was shown regularly. As DeKnight told me in one interview, in the early seasons, he was "inundated with mostly guys saying, 'I love the show, but can you cut it out with the gay shit?'" DeKnight said. "And my reply was always 'No. If you don't like it, stop watching the show.'"
That's the thing about "Spartacus": It always had an agenda, one that prized human dignity, egalitarian ideals and bravery. It did its own thing, and it didn't necessarily care whether it was everyone's cup of tea. It was bonkers at times, but it owned that bonkers-ness and had fun with it. And as wild as things got, the show could also be restrained and heartbreaking when necessary. Five years after it debuted, I wish I had the time for another binge. Soon*.