13 Jul 2015

Subversive or Complicit? The Female Dominant in Popular Culture (Extract from "Thinking Kink")

“To fall at the feet of an imperious mistress, obey her mandates, or implore pardon, were for me the most exquisite enjoyments. . .”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions

The first time I was asked to dominate a man, it came as something of a surprise to me. I was attending my first play party, ostensibly as part of research for my writing. I had found some knee-high boots with pointed toes at a flea market the previous weekend, and with the help of sale rails and thrift stores, had put together an approximation of what I thought constituted a kinky enough outfit to allow me to blend in. An older man began chatting with me and complimented me on the boots, and then said “Can I ask you a question?” I tentatively responded, “OK,” and he said “Would you kick me in the balls?” 

Being asked to deliberately hurt another human being, especially in a way that women are taught to strenuously avoid unless the man in question is attacking us, disrupted my thought process to the extent that I was actually speechless for a good 30 seconds. The devil on my shoulder said “Well, you could…” while the sensible voice in my head said “Don’t be ridiculous!” I finally opted for a terribly British and polite “No, thank you” and the man drifted off. I was later told that he found a woman to fulfil his desires, and I was glad for him, but also glad that I had said no. I figured that there was a right way to inflict that kind of pain, and since I didn’t know what it was, it was best that I refuse. Later, while watching The Notorious Bettie Page as part of my research for this book, my experience as a reluctant domme came back to me as I watched the scene where one of Bettie’s fans approaches her at a party. “Doesn’t it just make you sick to see guys like me groveling?” he hisses lasciviously. “Doesn’t it just make you want to crush us, humiliate us, punish us?” he asks, hopefully. Bettie gently lets him down by saying “No, I’m sure you’re a very nice guy.” 

This brief and rather sweet scene highlights the difference between the female dominant as she is constructed on camera, and how she is in real life. Bettie Page may have been the first and most famous bondage model, but off the clock she had no interest in fulfilling her male fans’ desires to be humiliated by her. Yet it can be hard to get past the mainstream media depiction of the female dominant (domme, dominatrix, domina, mistress, etc.) when we’re given so few nuanced representations of her: movies, TV shows and music videos tend not to deviate from a fairly repetitive, and some might say unimaginative, stereotype. The domme must be a ball-buster (pun sort of intended, given my aforementioned experience), a man-hater, an aggressive, sadistic shrew. She must exhibit no traditionally ‘feminine’ qualities, as these are equated with weakness. Her clothes must signal her role in an exaggerated fashion, be this through a uniform implying a position of authority, or the restrictive costume of corset and spike heels. 

To the average feminist, the idea that strength can only be signified through aggression and the ability to inflict pain is little more than a belief that traditionally masculine qualities are superior ones-- “might is right”, if you will. Yet despite these troubling nods to a restrictive gender binary, in my research I repeatedly came across misguided attempts to defend BDSM as feminist via the very existence of the female domme. People’s (sometimes understandable) discomfort with the idea of women submitting to men in kink, and inability to reconcile this with feminist thought, was often allayed with the argument “There are dominant women and submissive men too!”. While I could understand where these people were coming from, I thought that their dividing of kinksters into “Acceptable/Feminist” and “Unacceptable/Anti-feminist” involved the kind of judgmental imposition of artificial categories that those fighting for free sexual expression should reject. I also thought it rested on a misperception of feminism that harks back to the ugly stereotypes put about by right-wing conservatives--that feminists wish to oppress, harm and possibly even kill men in their ‘FemiNazi’ quest to create a matriarchy. To me, women dominating men is no more or less feminist than any other configuration of kink--male dom/fem sub, fem dom/fem sub, male dom/male sub--unless we believe that to take a spanking represents some kind of crushing defeat for one’s gender, and furthermore, that what feminism wants is the crushing defeat of men. 

The very fact that the female dominant is treated as such an artificial construct perhaps says the most about how we view power and femininity. Until Christian Grey came along, there were few, if any, images of a male dominant in a BDSM sense in popular culture. One might suggest that this is because dominance is assumed to be the default position for men, therefore there is no need to create a character to represent such a figure. Aside from the odd stereotype of the “leather daddy” turning up in shows such as Arrested Development (and usually in the context of gay male culture anyway), there is not much of a flipside to the female dominant--she stands alone, defined by her difference from her gender, whereas the figure of the male dominant often blends in as simply another man. The assumption that dominance is naturally a male state, and therefore unnatural for females, is another reason we should treat the pop culture depiction of the female domme with caution. There is much to suggest that she is held up as special, interesting, comical, a character with which to make a statement by pop culture producers, precisely because she doesn’t “act like a typical woman.” 

The above is an extract from Thinking Kink: The Collision of BDSM, Feminism and Popular Culture, published by McFarland. Copyright Catherine Scott 2015. All rights reserved.

To read this chapter in full, check out Thinking Kink: The Collision of BDSM, Feminism and Popular Culture, now available to buy in the US and UK, online and in all good bookstores!

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