It’s been a while since I last wrote an instalment in my ongoing endeavour to respond to each of the articles in the book Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures, by Drs. Peggy Kleinplatz and Charles Moser. But I haven’t forgotten about it… there’s just been so much else to write about!
Today’s response is to the article entitled “Mainstreaming Kink: The Politics of BDSM Representation in U.S. Popular Media,” by Margot D. Weiss. Here’s an excerpt from the summary that gives the basic idea:
“Survey, focus group, and interview data indicate that popular images of SM promote the acceptance and understanding of sexual minorities through two mechanisms: acceptance via normalization, and understanding via pathologizing. Rather than challenging the privileged status of normative sexuality, these mechanisms reinforce boundaries between protected/privileged and policed/pathological sexualities.”
Neat. I like it. Makes sense. In fact I agree with pretty much every political point this essay makes. The author takes a pretty clear political stance about media representation of BDSM. More or less, she says that increased visibility of BDSM in the popular media is not necessarily a good thing in and of itself; that politically, its effects are questionable. Fortunately she stays away from saying “so don’t portray BDSMers at all” and instead simply focuses on the ways in which the current specific forms of visibility are less than ideal.
Indeed, people tend to see visibility as being an indicator of political success, but in truth there’s often a glaring discrepancy between visibility and political progress. Take gay and lesbian visibility for example: “The L Word” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” (just to pick two easy ones) have rendered gay and lesbian existence hugely visible within pop culture, but in the States, queer people and same-sex couples have virtually none of the standard civil rights we enjoy (however recently) in Canada. I don’t have stats or references handy, but there are still many states in which being gay is a totally legitimate reason to get fired from your job; gender expression is protected in only a handful of states; same-sex marriage is still illegal, and in some ways (i.e. legislative amendments etc.) more illegal than it was before groups started fighting for it; same-sex adoption isn’t easy to access; and so on, and so forth.
Now, this particular article doesn’t talk about civil rights per se. But it does talk about the ways in which specific and common forms of BDSM media representation don’t do us any favours in terms of how kinksters are perceived by the mainstream. And that public perception, however difficult it may be to define or quantify, certainly does affect much more concrete questions – for example, the standard responses from law enforcement (in terms of child custody, domestic violence, etc.) and the medical establishment (in terms of psychological diagnoses and treatment) with regard to BDSM practices and practitioners.
In the context of gay and lesbian rights, the States and Canada are definitely on different planes, but in terms of BDSM, not so much. In practical terms I’ve never heard of a Canadian BDSM case similar to the ones that happen in the States – revoked child custody, people losing their jobs, people being tossed in jail as violent offenders and more – but that’s not because our laws are any more progressive. It just seems to have not come up so much, or perhaps it has but so quietly that nobody’s reported it within the BDSM community at large or written about it. At least not in anything I’ve come across, and I have made a point of asking around about this stuff. So I do think that unlike some articles focused on the American end of things, this one’s quite relevant to Canadians too.
Weiss argues that the “acceptance via normalization” media representations make SM acceptable “only when it falls under the rubric of normative American sexuality.” In other words, SM is shown as being not really kinky in a bad/sick/disgusting way; it’s just something mildly naughty and flirty that a happily married couple might do to add some spice to their very reassuringly normal sex life. She also argues that the “understanding via pathologizing” media representations make SM understandable “only when it is the symptom of a deviant type of person with a sick, damaged core.” In other words, people may think they’re gaining an understanding of SM, but what they’re really getting is a deeply flawed psychological caricature which they may then apply to anyone who shows signs of being kinky. In her words:
“When viewers accept or understand BDSM in these ways, they utilize a mode of distanced consumption, where representations of SM offer a tantalizing glimpse of something other (sexy, exotic, kinky) that is safely viewed and evaluated from a detached, privileged and normative position.”
Yep. Agreed. However, the next bit is where her thesis shows some cracks.
Weiss then goes on to say that the mainstream public doesn’t like these representations, alternately sanitized and sensationalized. She writes,
“They are disappointed when these representations fail to challenge boundaries and transgress norms, when instead popular culture presents a disciplined, commodified version of BDSM, already bound by these ideological dichotomies. The continued popularity of mainstream media representation of SM signifies the growing desire of the public to experience something authentic, unalienated, undisciplined, and noncommodified. This article reads this disappointment and desire as a nascent political protest.”
Hm. There’s a problem here. I’m not entirely sure how Weiss manages to read an increased appetite for mainstream BDSM representations as an indication that the mainstream is disappointed with what they’re being shown and wants something different. I’d be much more inclined to see it in the reverse: the mainstream is very happy to remain unchallenged and to continue eating up sanitized / sensationalized representations of BDSM. In fact, they’re so happy with it that they want more of the same.
And why wouldn’t they? Such representations manage to make them feel both titillated and safe at the same time – excitingly transgressive and yet still quite comfortably “normal.” I don’t see many people letting go of the privilege of normalcy when they have it. And many people who aren’t entirely “normal” crave that normalcy, sometimes to a point of ridiculousness. In fact, entire swaths of the queer community are so caught up in wanting to be normal that they bend over backwards to look and behave and shop and vote and live that way and distance themselves from anything challenging or alternative. So the idea that the mainstream public is savvy and self-reflective enough to want more out of their BDSM representations is a little bit of a stretch, in my mind. This is, after all, the same mainstream that watches Britney’s every move, discusses “Survivor” at the office water cooler and shops at Wal-Mart.
Let me be clear, though, that I think Weiss is right. I do think desire and disappointment, in the way Weiss explains them, are a valid spot to begin finding nascent political protest.
I think the problem here lies in Weiss’s definition of “the mainstream.” Her methods for the study include a survey of media representations, a focus group and Internet survey (2001) and interviews with 12 non-BDSM-practitioners (2002-2003), and the respondents don’t strike me as being accurate representations of the mainstream at all.
The focus group “was conducted in a graduate seminar on popular culture in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. (…) Twelve of the participants in the focus group were female, two were male; ten were graduate students, and four were undergraduates.” So first of all, this group is overwhelmingly located among some of the highest educated people in the country. In the USA in 2002, only 15.5% of the population held a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 8.9% of the population had a graduate degree or higher (census article here). While certainly this highly educated segment has great influence over popular culture, I hardly think that a study focused exclusively on their opinions represents the average.
In addition, this wasn’t just any group of highly educated people – it was people who were attending a graduate seminar on popular culture. Presumably these are people who’ve devoted somewhere between one and ten years of post-secondary study to a field that’s at least sufficiently related to the observation and dissection of popular culture that they’d turn up at a grad seminar on the topic – so they’re certainly likely to have a pretty fine-tuned sense of what pop culture is, and what they’d like it to be, and how to critique it. It would be remarkable for such a group not to find something to critique about the representation of BDSM in that context. This is not a group that happily gulps down “Survivor”; this is a group that writes academic papers tearing it apart and analyzing the shit out of it.
Next we look at the group that responded to the anonymous Internet survey. They “ranged in age from 17-58″ and “specifically indicated that they were not ‘into BDSM’.” Good so far. But then we find out that “Participants were recruited via e-mail using snowball sampling from my initial social and academic networks.” Of course this is not as glaring an indication of bias as the graduate seminar, but nonetheless, if a person who herself is an academic in the field of pop culture uses her personal and academic networks to recruit study participants, it’s fairly likely that those participants will bear at least some resemblance to her in terms of education level (particularly the academic network) and cultural literacy. It’s hard to picture a pop-culture academic having a network of friends who are all electricians, gas-station attendants and the kids playing basketball on an inner-city street corner, which would be a far more accurate representation of the mainstream, at least according to US census figures. So again – “mainstream?” I’m not so sure.
Lastly, the interviews. Weiss interviewed “12 individuals from the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago and New York who had (a) seen the film Secretary and (b) identified as not being into BDSM.” A bias towards urban dwellers (in cities with large and visible kink and queer scenes) doesn’t necessarily bother me; even a bias towards people who’d already seen the film Secretary doesn’t bother me, because despite being marketed and reviewed quite explicitly as being a quirky, unusual and thoughtful film about love and BDSM, the film met with some pretty noticeable mainstream success, so it’s not a huge stretch to imagine the “average” person seeing it for kicks. But again, participants “were recruited using snowball sampling of informal social and research networks.” Weiss doesn’t specify that such networks were her own this time, but surely they’re not those of a complete (and completely dissimilar) stranger, either, so the same problem still stands.
Weiss also cites certain reviewers’ opinions about Secretary, which include many references to the film being overly conventional and otherwise disappointing despite its ostensible portrayal of edgy sexuality – which she interprets as support for her disappointment / desire theory. Such film reviews are perhaps a somewhat more accurate reflection of the mainstream, in that the places where she found these reviews included everything from TV Guide to The San Francisco Chronicle, which are certainly mainstream publications read by a mainstream audience. But even then, a movie reviewer is someone who critiques film for a living – hardly the average mainstream take on a box-office hit. And it’s extremely common for reviewers’ takes on films to be out of step with those films’ success. I mean, how often does a critic gave a laudatory review of the latest summer blockbuster? That happens infrequently at best. And yet the studios keep cranking out crappy, predictable big-budget flicks with tired plots and way too many special effects, and people – the good ol’ mainstream – keep on paying to go see ‘em.
Add all this together and I can’t really stand behind the idea of this study as being representative of mainstream opinions about BDSM representation in the media. I would love to think that mainstream is disappointed in the current state of affairs and desires to see more nuanced and authentic depictions, but I think it’s probably a lot more accurate to say that a certain reasonably small segment of the population that’s highly educated, interested in pop culture, media-critical and liberal-minded would like to see richer representations. As Weiss writes (emphasis mine):
“The respondents and reviewers chronicled in this text are reaching for the out-there, the uncontained, and it is in this reaching that political potential lies. Using the language of disappointment, they are protesting the failure of transgression, decrying the ways sexual strangeness is disciplined out of existence. I find their disappointment hopeful; it suggests that, even as the state dedicates itself to policing and marginalizing alternative sexualities, even as the popular landscape becomes more sensationalistic and media-driven, even as sexuality becomes increasingly bound to consumption, there is nascent protest against these constraints.”
She’s quite right – the people in this text do have a wonderful critique of BDSM representations, and it is politically hopeful. I just think it would be more hopeful still to avoid generalizing by attributing some pretty specific perspectives to a mainstream that did not supply them. Instead, the information gleaned from this study could be used as a starting point for people who want to create or support the creation of richer depictions of BDSM, in the hopes that such representations may infiltrate the mainstream and turn a greater portion of it on to the idea that there’s more available than safety and sensationalism… which in turn could begin to change people’s minds about what BDSMers are really all about.
I have no idea if the mainstream will ever become more interested in such portrayals; in some ways, it seems to me that the mainstream is always going to have more room for simple, entertaining, non-thought-provoking work, almost by definition. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just reality.
So how should BDSM practitioners go about altering the way we’re portrayed such that people have access to images that don’t fit the safe/sensational dichotomy? I’m not entirely sure. It’s a good place to start asking questions. Just as it’s becoming passé to portray “the gay character” as being either endlessly (and non-threateningly) entertaining or pathologically fucked up, perhaps one day SMers and other people on the “next layer out” of so-called sexual deviance will cease to be portrayed in safe / sensational ways. In my opinion, that will be most likely to happen if it’s done in tandem with other forms of political activism – legal challenges; media and PR campaigns; popular education; targeted sensitization work with health care providers, the medical establishment, psychological diagnosticians, and law enforcement representatives; the publication of academic works that de-pathologize BDSM; and so on, and so forth. In some ways, political progress could inspire new types of representation as much as the other way around.
In short, in addition to critiques of and changes to the media’s representations of BDSM inspired by the disappointment and desire of some (if not the majority of) media consumers, BDSM practitioners’ disappointment with the current state of our rights, paired with our desire to see that change, is also a promising site of political protest.