‘You’ve Made Mistress Very, Very Angry’: Displeasure and Pleasure in Media Representations of BDSM
Summary: It has long been a convention of mainstream Western filmmaking to characterise the fetishist, the sadomasochist and the dominatrix if not as psychopaths, at least as individuals with self-destructive obsessions or behaviours that are dangerous to society. These so-called ‘perverts’ and their practices are also lampooned regularly in the mass media and continue to be narrative short-cuts in situation comedies, advertisements and so forth, stereotypes there partly to represent and fix the maladjusted sexual deviant living in ‘normal’ society. This paper considers some of these stereotypes from an alternative viewpoint, that of the BDSM community in Britain, based on a questionnaire conducted during May 2006. Since the range of practices that go to make up this lifestyle are predominantly based upon implied or fantasy narratives and vivid stereotypes, it seems appropriate to propose that pleasure may be drawn by the fetish and BDSM communities from their representation in the cinema.
Key Words: BDSM, Cinema, Stereotype, Fetish, Sadist, Masochist, Mental illness
Pandering to Stereotypes
Despite an evident softening of public opinion towards the alternative lifestyles of BDSM and fetishism, traditional representations of the community and its practices have helped to fix a collection of stereotypical characters and scenarios in the public imagination. For a vast range of practices, it is represented by a restricted collection of signs and character types, some of which I shall explore below. Similarly, the costumes and props of the stereotyped fetishist or the sadomasochist, predominantly PVC, rubber or leather outfits, whips or floggers, savage high heels and gimp-masks, are incorporated into mainstream movies, advertising and music videos as a sign of the highly sexualised or dangerous man or woman, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman,1 or the cast of Madonna’s ‘Erotica’ music video2 for example. Certainly, a common construction of the villain in mainstream Western filmmaking has been that of the sadist, a character with implied ‘perversions,’ such as homosexuality, transsexuality, confused sexuality, a suspension fetish or a history of child abuse, who draws pleasure of a kind from the infliction of pain or even the death of a vulnerable victim.
Consider, for example, Soviet double-agent and torture expert Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), of From Russia with Love,3 whose dour expression, military uniform and masculine hairstyle construct a dyke stereotype, and who wields a metal knuckle-duster to test the strength of recruits. Her connoted lesbian sexuality inevitably becomes associated with her expertise in sadistic torture. Famke Janssen’s performance as Xenia Onatopp in another Bond incarnation, Golden Eye,4 takes sadistic pleasure to new heights. Her particular fetish is murder, gasping in orgasmic delight whilst asphyxiating a man with her thighs, or becoming sexually aroused whilst indiscriminately machine-gunning the staff of a satellite control centre. Think also of the long-running television situation comedy, Allo Allo!,5 with the light-hearted sadomasochistic relationship between Herr Flick (Richard Gibson) and his secretary, Helga (Kim Hartmann), who wears suspenders beneath her uniform. Herr Flick himself is seen wearing stockings and suspenders in at least two episodes. His full-length leather coat, clipped German accent and strict demeanor send his submissive employee into paroxysms of erotic anticipation that are repeatedly postponed, only serving to intensify her excitement or, at times, exasperation. These characters are comic constructions of the sadist and masochist; the comic mode is frequently the arena for these character types, creating a gaze that makes them, to adapt Mulvey’s phrase, to-be-laughed-at.
Another television example is the popular Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch, ‘Blackmail,’6 which features Michael Palin as a gameshow host presenting a game called ‘Stop the Film,’ extorting money from an unnamed gentleman who is secretly filmed visiting a dominatrix. In the sketch a flickery, hand-held 8mm film is shown of the man secretly visiting a suburban home, in Thames Ditton to be precise, whilst a sum of money rapidly increases on the screen. The gentleman in question is encouraged to telephone the studio to prevent the revelation of his identity, which he does, just as the dominatrix brandishes a flogger. The sketch works to both to ridicule the practice of sadomasochism and to expose the hidden perversions of the middle class. The Monty Python team was no stranger to giving fetishes a comic turn; even cross-dressing and transsexual desire figures in ‘The Lumberjack Song’: ‘I cut down trees. I wear high heels, suspendies, and a bra. I wish I’d been a girlie, just like my dear Papa.’7 The enthusiastic lumberjack is rejected by the rugged male chorus and his sweetheart, since his urge to wear women’s clothing and to ‘hang around in bars’ insinuates a perceived ‘perversion,’ namely homosexuality. With core Python team member Graham Chapman being an openly gay man, the goal of the sketch is clearly not to demonise homosexuality, rather it is to expose prejudice and enjoy a stereotype, to laugh at and draw pleasure from the happy confession of a man who likes to wear women’s clothes. There is a suggestion in the sketch that it is good, therefore, to laugh at oneself and to pander to the stereotype. It is this potential enjoyment of the sexual pervert stereotype that I wish to explore in this article, pondering on the positive – as well as the negative – receptions of common constructions of the sadomasochist, from which this select minority might gain pleasure.
This article does not aim to expand upon the history of BDSM, nor on the writings of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. What is important to emphasise, however, is that BDSM (Bondage, Discipline and Sadomasochism) is not a lifestyle or routine founded on the infliction and reception of pain, although this might be an element of some people’s practices; it might instead be regarded as ‘pseudo-violence’ if at all. As Anita Phillips puts it, ‘[…] S/M practices are nothing like real violence […]. In consensual sado-masochism the idea is to control pain for sexual purposes, to stop when it goes beyond that limit. To equate the two is like comparing traffic noise to a sonata.’8 Phillips implies here that all sadomasochism (or S/M) involves pain, which is misleading, but her comment encourages a re-consideration of the kind of intention behind the practice. In fact, much that is practiced in this lifestyle is along a binary relationship of dominant and submissive, character roles if you like, that are played out by practitioners. It may include pain, it may include sex, but certainly not always. There are those that indulge in practices such as genital torture and needle play, whilst there are many whose fetish involves the worshipping of feet or the wearing of rubber. Whilst there is a general consensus that fetishism and BDSM are different spheres of practice, there is a large crossover in costume and behaviours that tends to draw them together into the same community. Many individuals are in long-term, monogamous relationships, many are not. This community is, in fact, little different in its sexual identities than the world at large, and what they practice takes place in private at home as much as in dedicated club-environments. Ironically, the BDSM community itself celebrates stereotyping, to a degree, in the roles that individuals assume, the strict, immovable dominant, the obedient submissive who must be punished, and so forth. These stereotypes are closely linked to fantasy scenarios, narratives even, that are played out for the pleasure of all involved. They are usually, however, far removed from the scenarios typically found in the cinema that involve sadists and masochists.
I am indebted to the individuals from within the BDSM and fetish ‘scenes’ in the UK that I contacted via my questionnaire, many of whom provided very honest and carefully considered comments on how their lifestyle is represented in the media and on public perceptions of BDSM. I will be referring to a number of these responses throughout the article. The questionnaire was open, uncomplicated and anonymous and was devised to encourage as much candid honesty as possible through four questions:
Please list films or television dramas/comedies that you have seen which feature a sadomasochistic / fetish story or character.
In your own words, please describe your response to the representations found in these films and TV shows. Did you find them pleasurable, offensive, faithful, misinformed, misleading, humourous, etc.?
Please list films or television dramas/comedies that you have seen which seem to feature sadomasochistic / fetish imagery, costume, etc., but which DO NOT have a story concerning the scene or the lifestyles associated with it.
In your own words, please describe your response to the representations found in these films and TV shows. Did you find them pleasurable, offensive, faithful, misinformed, misleading, humourous, etc.?
I received responses on a range of films, TV programmes, advertisements and general public opinion towards BDSM from a total of 25 individuals. Out of these, nine were female submissives, four were female dominants (or ‘Dommes’), four were male submissives and six were male dominants. The remaining two were ‘switch,’ or ‘omniviant’9 BDSM practitioners who enjoy expressing both a dominant and a submissive side in their behaviours. The diversity found in the community is reflected in the range of opinions expressed, but certain common agreements are evident that are explored below, together with textual analysis of some of the items discussed.
The Four Principal BDSM Stereotypes in the Media There are, I believe, four key stereotypes that are part of a public consciousness or assumption, deriving principally from the sensational media, particularly tabloid newspapers. I have labeled them as: the Mature Dominatrix,10 the Young Male Sub, the Vamp Dominatrix and the Public Authority Male Sub. The male dominant and the female submissive are not commonly found in the sensational media. As one male dominant wrote in response to the questionnaire: ‘It’s okay to be a female Dominatrix, but if it’s a male then it’s an advantage-taking pig-man of a misogynistic chauvinist.’ Certainly, contemporary perceptions of gender and gender-relations are such that the dominant male and the submissive female go against common sensibilities. I explore some examples of these in mainstream cinema later in the article.
One common media stereotype, then, the Mature Dominatrix, is a sexually voracious older woman, probably upwards of forty years old, dressed in PVC, with high heels, red lips and wielding a flogger or a riding crop. She is not truly sadistic, she is not genuinely harmful, rather she is a comic character who tends to be found in situation comedies and advertising. Since so many stereotypes operate as binary oppositions, the partner of the Mature Dominatrix is the Young, Male Sub. He is, in comparison to his Mistress, slim or even ‘weedy,’ naïve and impressionable. He is the perfect submissive partner to the Mature Dominatrix who is dominant in age, appetite and experience. An example of the Mature Dominatrix and Young Male Sub can be found in the ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ advertising campaign presented in cinemas in December 2005, developed to target the 18-24 year old cinema-goer, in which the mature dominant woman punishes a young man for dropping litter, brought to my attention by a female submissive.11
A young male walks along a suburban street that has been ‘dressed’ to appear obviously artificial with large false flowers and strips of bright green turf in the gardens. He absent-mindedly throws litter onto the pavement as the soundtrack plays a light-hearted melody reminiscent of the Carry On and Confessions Of series of films, cheeky British comedies of the 1960s and ‘70s regarded today with a mixture of nostalgic affection and politically correct repugnance. As he passes a house, cheekily numbered 69, he is lured from an upper window by a blonde Mature Dominatrix in a low-cut blouse, fishnets, PVC skirt, thigh-high boots and heavily applied make-up. Her presence on screen is accompanied by a brief shift to a calypso beat, signifying, with her costume, a cheeky, trashy glamour. Once inside the house, which is gaudily decorated, filled with porcelain ornaments and featuring one long, phallic cactus, the dominatrix orders him to strip, then dresses him in a rubber gimpsuit, complete with full-head mask and dog chain. She dons a short faux-fur coat and thenceforth takes him ‘for a walk,’ forcing him onto all fours and making him put litter into a bin. Once his punishment is over, he is released from his chain and sent off running down the street, still in his rubber outfit. As the advertisement ends, the Mature Dominatrix spies another young man dropping litter, and the tagline ‘Don’t be a gimp,’ with the Keep Britain Tidy logo, appears over a rippled, black rubber background.
The scenario, for the older viewer at least, may bring to mind the Monty Python ‘Blackmail’ sketch mentioned above. Both the Python sketch and the Keep Britain Tidy advertisement incorporate a dominatrix who entices men into her suburban home, lending a certain middle-class identity to the stereotype. A second resemblance, for those who remember her, is to the British Madam Cynthia Payne, whose sex parties at her home in Streatham, South London, brought her fame, nationwide affection and notoriety in the late 1970s and ’80s. It is through true-life characters such as Payne that the Mature Dominatrix stereotype has become fixed in the public imagination. Instead of seeming dangerous she is regarded with fondness, much as Payne herself has been over the last thirty years. She plays the role of the kinky Madam, she is not by any means a true sadist, whatever that label may connote.
The Vamp Dominatrix, the younger, truly dangerous ‘Miss Whiplash’ is the most common of the four stereotypes. She will tend to be devastatingly attractive, often in full-body PVC suits and thigh-length boots with six inch heels. She is far more extreme in her behaviours than the Mature Dominatrix, and although she also has comic associations, she is much more sadistic. The Vamp Dominatrix is often sensationalised in the tabloids with her partner in the binary relationship, the Public Authority Male Sub. As one male submissive wrote to me, because of media stereotypes: ‘most […] people see BDSM as women in latex whipping rich, professional men.’ These rich, professional men will often be mature, possibly overweight, frequently from the legal or political professions, dressed in underwear or leather posing-pouch, stockings and a ball-gag or gimp mask. The conventional scenario finds the Public Authority Male Sub seeking discipline and punishment from the Vamp Dominatrix as an outlet or escape from his position of power in society – a typical power exchange, or PE as the BDSM community has referred to it.
An example of this partnership can be found in another recent advertisement, this time from Friends of the Earth as part of their ‘The Big Ask’ campaign. The short viral movie, called ‘Sticky Question,’ has an elderly cleaner in a hotel walking in on a Vamp Dominatrix who is punishing a Public Authority Male Sub.12 The hotel room, naturally, is number 169, with the first digit hanging down. The male is tied to a four-poster bed with a satsuma in his mouth, the slim, young, PVC-clad Vamp Dominatrix standing over him with a red suede flogger telling him ‘You’ve made Mistress very, very angry.’ The cleaner is played by the British comic actress Bella Emberg, a virtual fixture of television comedy in the UK since the 1960s, principally in the shows of Benny Hill and Russ Abbot. She enters the room and launches into a verbal attack on the man who, it turns out, is her local MP, about not involving himself in issues of global climate change. Like most advertising, the length of the piece demands fast assumptions to be made and so makes use of the implied narrative that attaches itself to these stereotypes and, like the Keep Britain Tidy advertisement, this BDSM scenario is presented in a comic mode, encouraging laughter at the MP caught in such a scandalous situation. The message, however, is that his lack of action on climate change is more scandalous than his secret liaisons in hotel rooms. It did not escape the attention of the female submissive who commented on this advertisement to me that it has an uncomfortable association with the Conservative MP Stephen Milligan, who was found dead in his home on 7th February 1994, in stockings and suspenders, an orange segment in his mouth, and an electrical flex holding a black bin liner over his head. It is partly from such news stories as this that the Public Authority Male Sub stereotype hails. The implied narrative that is already known by the viewer of the advertisement is that the Public Authority Male Sub seeks, and can afford, release or relief from his professional duties in our society. Like the stereotypical Young Male Sub of the Keep Britain Tidy narrative, the irony is that he is genuinely guilty and deserves punishment.
The viral movie, the short movie designed specifically to be consumed on the internet, has the same imperatives as the advertisement, and a large number of commercial businesses now use the viral movie for this purpose (the viral ad). Like the conventional advertisement, the viral movie must communicate information quickly and so the use of stereotypes is abundant, as are the employment of a comic mode and the appeal of sex. One of the first viral ads to become internationally popular was the Agent Provocateur campaign, in which Kylie Minogue rode a bucking bronco wearing only underwear – a less likely choice for a television advertisement. A recent viral ad released by Mates, the condom manufacturer, makes full use of the sex ‘appeal,’ but also public perceptions of BDSM and fetish stereotypes.13 The narrative, like the Friends of the Earth movie, is located in a hotel, the stereotypical setting for secret and kinky liaisons. Four couples in separate rooms are shown indulging in their particular fetish: a Domme in PVC with a young man, a doctor and nurse, a scantily clad gentleman applying strawberries and cream to his partner, and a plushophile couple14 dressed as rabbits with a briefcase of large carrots. Each couple is young, good-looking and heterosexual. Their kinky games are interrupted by the shaking of chandeliers and sounds of sexual intercourse taking place in another room. Overcome by curiosity, the four couples venture along the red corridor to the room from which the sounds are emitting and knock on the door, only to find that a straight, conventional couple is having fantastic, fulfilling sex. Better sex, in fact, than that which has been interrupted amongst the fetishists. A tagline explains why this is; the couple has been using the new Mates ‘Intensify’ range of condoms and lubricants, implying that they do not have to artificially ‘spice up’ their love-life with ‘perversions’ in order to have great sex. The narrative ends with the rabbits walking sadly back along the corridor, one discarding a carrot over his shoulder. The ad is clearly aimed at the viewer who will relate to the ‘normal’ heterosexual couple, referred to as ‘vanilla’ in the BDSM community, and who will regard the fetishists and BDSMers as ‘other,’ not-normal, perverted, to-be-laughed-at. Its message is based upon an assumption that such people must resort to these perversions because their sex-life is lacking in some way, all communicated instantly through stereotypes.
Interestingly, the comic constructions of the BDSM participant found in the advertisements I have outlined, as well as that of a Vamp Dominatrix in the recent on-line Mini advertisements,15 do not seem to cause offense amongst those in the BDSM scene. Rather they are appreciated for their comic potential. One female dominant wrote that they ‘depict BDSM as perfectly normal and natural while milking the humour.’ A female submissive argued: ‘Why should we not laugh at ourselves, just like everyone else does? It is funny to see a cleaning lady being more dominant than a Domme!’ Perhaps, then, there is a case for the proposal that pleasure can be gained from even the most stereotypical representations of the BDSM scene.
Responding to the Stereotypes on the Screen
Out of the four stereotypes found in familiar perceptions of BDSM, only the Vamp Dominatrix is commonly found in feature-length movies. One memorable example of the overt use of the stereotype is in the Mel Gibson movie Payback,16 in which Lucy Liu plays Mistress Pearl, a Vamp Dominatrix who takes her job very seriously and who has implied links to the Chinese Mafia. Despite her vicious sadism, her presence in the film is as comic relief to some of the more serious narrative events. A brief appearance of the Vamp Dominatrix appears also in Mr. and Mrs. Smith,17 with Angelina Jolie as an assassin who dons the Domme’s typical outfit for a kill. This overt stereotype, however, is much rarer than covert encodings of the Vamp Dominatrix. What I mean by this is the contemporary construction of the femme fatale and of the dark, dangerous woman who bears the visual signifiers of the dominatrix, principally in her costume. I have already mentioned Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, but other examples include Halle Berry’s incarnation of the same character,18 Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld films19 and Geena Davies’s alter-ego in The Long Kiss Goodnight.20 Black leather, PVC and rubber are used as signifiers of power, of carefully-honed violent potential, accentuating, as these materials do, the shape of the woman’s body. This costume is also, clearly, an erotic signifier, encouraging a gaze at the dangerous female. She may even, as in the case of Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, wield a whip, a stock prop in the construction of the S/M scenario. Although these characters are not in themselves Vamp Dominatrices, they carry the associations of the dominatrix through their costume and, to an extent, their attitude.
This visual reference is just as common in male characters, principally vampyric or monstrous villains or dark superheroes such as those found in the Batman films,21 the Blade films,22Van Helsing,23 the X-Men films24 and even Terence Stamp in Superman II.25Much of the fetish ‘look’ of these characters, both male and female, owes a lot to the comic books and graphic novels from which many are derived. The look, and even behaviours, of BDSM and the fetish culture seem evident in many examples in this form of story-telling. A female submissive, when describing her response to such films asked: ‘Were the artists [of graphic novels] interested in BDSM and drawing their ideals, or has fetish clothing drawn from teenage fantasy images?’ It is an interesting question; which came first, the gothic, fetishist images of the graphic novel or the distinctive costuming of the BDSM community? I will not be dealing with this particular question here, but the respondent’s personal feeling was that ‘The costume and imagery link with a perception of a kinkier, darker sensuality that is now part of our consciousness.’ She is recognising the look of these films as signifiers of something menacing yet erotic, something that suggests that which is forbidden yet desired, the territory of the dark anti-hero. She believes that we understand these signifiers implicitly; they have entered the schemata that we employ to interpret the narrative media.
As far as some within the BDSM community are concerned, a lot of pleasure is taken in the viewing of these images on screen, with several replies to my questionnaire expressing a fondness for the latex or leather outfits of certain superheroes. Some clearly recognised the dominant ideology that allows the dark superhero success in his/her goal, whilst the sadomasochist must be restricted or punished. As one male submissive wrote:
These [the heroic characters] are often better than truly sadomasochistic characters, as one can enjoy the costume and the attitude of the characters without the expectation of their come-uppance. A great example is Jennifer Garner in Alias: she looks like a Domme, she acts (sometimes) like a Domme, but because she is doing it for duty rather than sexual pleasure, she is permitted to succeed.
She is not, in other words, a sexual pervert as perceived by the public. She is a powerful, highly sexualised female stereotype, the contemporary femme fatale, but without sin and therefore without punishment. The conventional femme fatale, the archetype found notably in post-war Hollywood, had access, as Janey Place puts it, to ‘her own sexuality (and thus to men’s) and the power that this access unlocked.’26 She is aware of and employs the power of her own sexuality, in tandem with another form of law-breaking, usually a crime of some kind such as theft, adultery or murder. In the patriarchal order, in which the sexually independent woman is a threat, this ‘dark’ woman is punished, often even killed, for her transgressions. One contemporary rendition of the femme fatale, identified here as a covert version of the Vamp Dominatrix, diverts her power and energy into laudable goals, such as the saving of humankind or the fighting of crime. The external signs of the powerful woman in this character are not accompanied by ‘wrongdoing,’ so unlike the traditional femme fatale, she is not punished.
The apparent popularity of this character construction, and of the female dominant generally, was considered by one of the male dominants who responded to the questionnaire. Starting from a position that the media is a male-dominated ‘market,’ he writes: ‘there is a natural need to feed that market. And what with? Imagery of the breast so fondly suckled.’ Fascination with the powerful woman, he believes, is down to ‘male-mothering fantasies.’ He asks:
Who is the person in the male’s formative years, that administers most punishments, physical or emotional? Mommy. Who is the person who administers most of the cuddles, of lovey-icky stuff? Again Mommy. […] Mommy is the one we need to feel proud of us, as we mature into work-drone.
This response reveals a particular understanding of heterosexual male fantasy, that it revolves around what psychoanalysis might describe as a pre-Oedipal desire for Mother. The Vamp Dominatrix fulfils the role of punishing mother, and her presence in the media, whether overtly as a sadist character or covertly as the powerful, sexualised woman, might suggest that, indeed, she serves a widespread male fantasy. However, as the same respondent went on to note, she is celebrated by female performers, such as Madonna’s recent live show in which she re-enacted pony play on stage with four young men in reins. This kind of construction of the Vamp Dominatrix implies an embracing of the stereotype and the power it lends to the woman herself. Although there is not space here to investigate this, a feminist analysis of the female celebration of this stereotype should be conducted.
It is worth noting that, like any social grouping which negotiates or subverts the meaning of a film text, the S/M viewer is likely to draw S/M-related pleasure from mainstream films that have no overt BDSM imagery or characters. A female submissive wrote to me:
For me, many seemingly innocent films and scenes sexually arouse me in a BDSM way, because the character is dominant. For example Sharpe doesn’t have any overt images that I can think of (other than the bull whip in the latest one) but conveys far more to me than Lady Chatterley’s Lover ever could because the character is so strong.
What she describes as ‘innocent films’ that offer pleasure were affirmed by other respondents who listed films such as The Sound of Music,27All About Eve,28Doctor Zhivago29 and Gone with the Wind,30 none of which have deliberate BDSM imagery nor even the slightest hint of ‘kinky’ sex. This corresponds to Bill Thompson’s review of research conducted into S/M practices, in which Gone with the Wind, horror films and pirate scenes are listed as films that first aroused participants at an early age.31 One respondent to my questionnaire wrote that the pleasure is a response to ‘combinations of power and desire,’ concluding that she could see ‘what I need or want to see within a film.’ Another, a male sub, wondered if the reason he is attracted to certain domination / submission scenarios in historical films is because D/S is something inherent in class systems. The implied role of many submissives is, after all, that of the servant, or even the slave, who is punished for failure to fulfill duties appropriately for the Master or Mistress. This power dynamic is something that is re-enacted in many D/S behaviours. It might not seem strange then that a BDSM viewer of a film not directly representing the lifestyle should discover this dynamic at work.
Returning to stereotypes, the four key characters that I have listed so far are rare in mainstream cinema, being the material instead of advertisements, TV comedies and tabloid newspapers. Vivid representations of sadomasochists do, however, exist in cinema, some of which are important to mention because of the implications they present for a public perception of a person with such tendencies. I will highlight two examples, one sadist and one masochist.