10 Nov 2016

How Kink is Represented in "Transparent"

**Contains spoilers for series 1, 2 and 3 of Transparent**

There's so much good to say about the representation of sexuality in the Amazon original series, Transparent: the three-series show has so far shown older bodies being sexual, trans bodies being sexual, a breast cancer survivor being sexual, and has also managed to show lesbian sexuality in a way that's not viewed through the male gaze. While there are issues about the show's use of a cisgender man to play a trans woman, these have already been explored by people more qualified than I to speak on the issue in pieces like this; rather, I want to talk about how the show represents something I do know a bit about -  BDSM.

The show's kinky scenes are woven in to its complex fabric in a way that makes them feel fairly incidental; experimental youngest sister Ali experiences a D/s dynamic with a trans man in Series 1, oldest sister Sarah discovers the joys of kink at the hands of a professional, Pony, at the end of Series 2 and beginning of 3. Neither kink relationship ends the way Ali and Sarah - both the "bottoms" in their particular dynamics - may hope. In Ali's case, trying to have a raunchy bunk-up in a bathroom stall is disrupted by the real-life concerns about the dildo slipping and ending up on the floor, and the excitement goes out of the scene. In Sarah's case, it ends much more darkly--she tries the top role, loses control of her anger, and violates her bottom's safeword.

By using gender non-conforming individuals for the scenes, the makers do a powerful job of subverting our expectations about who should be a top or a bottom. Although the scenes initially fit the template that feminine presenting people "naturally" should assume the bottom (submissive) role, they also do a great job of showing that dominance--in BDSM, at least--is something that is given rather than taken, is conditional, and subject to change at any time. In Ali's case, her top only has as much power over her as she gives him. Although their play seems deeply gendered (he calls her "little lady," shaves off her pubic hair and orders her around), Ali is the one who chooses to dress up femininely for him, call him "Daddy," and, er, chooses the dildo they play with. When their sexual relationship doesn't work out, they still interact on equal and amicable terms. Sarah actively seeks out her kink relationship with Pony, having seen her (although played by the excellent genderqueer porn actor Jiz Lee, who prefers they/them pronouns, Pony is referred to as she/her in the show) walking another woman around on a leash at a women's festival in Season 2, episode 9. Rejecting the earth-mother vibe of one tent at the festival, Sarah is instead drawn to the kink area, with its intriguing yet discomfiting sounds of paddles hitting flesh and cries of pain/pleasure. She soon finds herself blissfully clutching a tree aiming her backside at Pony's flogger, and after the festival ends, returns to Pony as a client. Sarah may be femme and playing the bottom role, but any power that her butch top exercises over her is both actively requested and paid for; Sarah's pleasure from bottoming is also very apparent.

Furthermore, Sarah later takes on the dominant role with Pony's permission, showing that the capacity to switch is not so unusual. The more mainstream media shows people switching in BDSM, the better; as I wrote in my book Thinking Kink, "when it comes to mainstream pop culture and its love of simple and easy binaries, the switch is often the ugly stepchild--ignored, left out, invisibilized." And I think that a big reason the switch gets left out is that they're a figure who challenges the idea that power roles are set, unchangeable, and somehow natural. D/s dynamics can easily get hijacked by those outside the community, who use them to make pronouncements on what a particular group really wants--I remember reading a quote from anti-BDSM literature that claimed any gay man who liked to be dominated was really just living out mainstream culture's homophobic hatred of him. When the bottom becomes the top so easily, or demonstrates that being on bottom does not mean being weak or self-hating, it confounds these overly simplistic takes on kink, and that can only be a good thing.

Sarah's experience is also a dark one which shows how BDSM can go wrong in a distinctly unfunny way. Whereas Ali's experience is more slapstick (and all the better for it--I feel like expectations of sex would be much less intense if there was more mainstream representation of people falling off beds, bodies making unplanned sounds, and lovers being able to giggle about it afterwards), Sarah's topping of Pony leads her to release her anger in an abusive and unsafe way. She's not in a good headspace, having met her ex-husband's much younger lover recently, and is clearly feeling challenged and mystified by their connection. Although she's admitted that in some ways she's grateful to the younger woman for meeting the sexual demands she can't keep up with, the fact she's still living with her ex-husband and co-parenting with him means Sarah's feeling territorial. After a jokey start where Sarah tries on funny headgear and totters unsteadily in thigh-high boots, her play scene with Pony quickly goes awry. Sarah's verbal teasing about what she's going to do to her bottom escalates from sensual threats to screamed abuse, and she continues to bellow in Pony's face even after she has safeworded twice.

Showing kink going wrong is a risky venture in mainstream media culture. It risks feeding into the belief that kink is dangerous, damaging and only practised by psychologically unstable people. It risks muddying the message that like any contact sport, BDSM has its risks, but, as Gayle Rubin puts it, "S/M sex generally involves a much lower level of force than the average football game, and results in far fewer injuries than most sports." The only other mainstream depiction I've seen of a BDSM scene going wrong is in Secret Diary of A Call Girl, which, while being a more sensationalised and much less analytical depiction than in Transparent, does at least acknowledge that "hurting people is a very special talent," and that being a domme is not the same as being an escort. However, the trauma caused by Sarah's loss of control during her scene isn't just a punchline: she goes back to visit Pony only to be told "I think you're the reason she moved to Boulder," and find out that her domme has left town, left all her equipment behind and given up her profession. That's a pretty damning indictment of Sarah's behaviour, and her inability to control her anger is made further apparent when she loses her temper with her children soon after finding out Pony has moved--she has clearly been using their sessions as an outlet, and without them, can't express her rage healthily.

It's noticeable that none of the scenes I've described take place between a cis man and a cis woman (with the man as top), and there are many potential explanations for that. It could be that, as I've just said, there are already enough misconceptions around BDSM that it seems like too much of a risk to show it in a way that could replicate already oppressive gender roles. There are enough feminists out there who believe that male-top, female-bottom kink simply is patriarchal abuse, that even the relatively mild kink depicted in the 50 Shades of Grey movie was enough for women to descend in droves to accuse the movie (and myself, for not condemning it in my review) of glorifying domestic violence. It could be that programme-makers are trying to be less hetero- and cis-normative, which is probably true in Transparent's case, and no bad thing at all. It could be that woman-on-woman aggression is seen as less upsetting for the viewer, which although it sounds patronising, could indeed be true. There are already some pretty harrowing true stories out there of male doms ignoring their female subs' safewords; we are forced to ask ourselves fewer uneasy questions about men, women, sex and power when there are no cis male doms in a scene. Indeed, Transparent acknowledges the disproportionate availability of professional female doms who top male bottoms, whereas there are very few professional doms catering to women, and its suggested answer is unequivocal about why: "it's really not hard for a woman to find someone to treat her like shit for free."

That said, we do see Sarah's ex-husband trying to top her after she has apologised for her rage and admitted "Pony's gone...I scared her away." Offering to step into the role, Len says "What does she do, boss you around? Slap you a little?" and begins to top her, asking with each act (hair pulling, spanking), "Is that what Pony does?" Sarah's enthusiasm and consent is very clear with each nod and moan, and her eager expression and movement as Len brandishes his belt and ties her to the bedpost with it. Although we're seeing the BDSM pairing most likely to discomfit us - a cis male topping a cis woman - there is so much communication from the top and clear consent and pleasure from the bottom that the scene achieves what so few vanilla sex scene achieves; it makes active, ongoing, enthusiastic consent deeply sexy. Len keeps asking Sarah "Is this what she does to you? Yeah? Is that what you want?" and she keeps responding yes, yes, uh-huh. Unfortunately, the scene fizzles out when Sarah is reminded of their emotional intimacy and complex relationship (Len makes the mistake of saying "I know you better than anyone else," which is a pretty psychologically risky thing for anyone to say in the middle of a BDSM scene) and tells him to stop and untie her. Which he does, straight away. Wow, look at that--someone stopping when they're told to stop. Such a simple concept, such a regularly overridden one. I think we can't have enough scenes like this in pop culture.

In a media culture still too apt to try and make blanket statements about BDSM or how it looks, Transparent does a great job of not offering simplistic depictions or easy answers about why anyone seeks kink or what they get from it. It also shows how players let real-life anger bleed into their play at their peril; far from the image of out-of-control thrashings and savage violations, anyone in the BDSM scene will tell you that a responsible dominant exercises extreme control at all times. It's nice to see that shown in a way that doesn't demonise BDSM or its practitioners, and rather acknowledges that like in any contact sport, shit will happen when high emotions get the better of us. 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy my Thinking Kink blog series for Bitch media, or my book, Thinking Kink, available in the US and UK now! 

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