Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

I’m just about settled into my new place and I couldn’t be happier with its extreme peachyness. I’m sitting here at my quiet desk and finally ready to answer some questions again.

Fucking *phew*.

This week I watched the 2002 movie Secretary with my lover of 10 months, who is the first person with whom I’ve really explored any power exchange. He’d seen it before, but I hadn’t; I had heard that the kink community had some issues with the movie, and having now seen it, I can kind of understand why: I wasn’t thrilled myself with some of the connections it made, issues it glossed over, and so on. Still, since it does pick up themes of integrating one’s kink into one’s overall psyche in service of greater coherence and fulfillment — taking two people who are clearly pretty broken at the start of the movie, and moving them a fair distance along the path to wholeness — I’d be interested in your professional opinion and better-informed insights (personal or cultural). What was your take on it?

This isn’t so much an advice question, but I have such a love affair with this film that I had to take the opportunity to answer it anyway.

Secretary is by no means a perfect movie when it comes to portraying healthy kink, it’s true. The complaints I’ve heard include that the lead characters never talk about their desires, never negotiate, and that they’re both pretty severely damaged people.

When I hear these complaints, I have to think of Secretary the way I think of democracy: it’s the worst movie about kink, except for all the others. Yes, the film has problems of consent and agency and conflation with mental illness. But it also has something no other movie about kink I’ve ever seen has: compassion, love, acceptance, and a happy ending.

Besides: how boring a fucking movie would it be if it were full of happy healthy characters who talked about their feelings?

There’s always a difficulty when we attach political significance to a piece of art. How well, we ask, does the piece of art represent a particular culture? Does it break away from common stereotypes of marginalized people? Does it present a realistic view of their lives? Does it, in essence, make us look good?

The problem with this is that conflict is the essence of story. In my view, Secretary chooses a fantastic conflict for a couple of kinky characters: they’re both closeted and fearful about their kink, and unable to talk about it or exercise it healthily. For a while, they engage in the type of relationship I imagine many people engage in: one that is fraught, entirely without discussion, and filled with ambivalence. It has some healing effects, but is mostly Extremely Fucked Up. Only when one of the characters lays down the law in the form of an ultimate sacrifice does the other character see what responsibility he has taken – and picks up that mantle with pride and love.

At the end – which I think is what a lot of people miss – she tells him all of her stories, all of her scars, and he tells her about his. It’s touched on briefly, in voice-over, and it’s hard to hear because Maggie Gyllenhaal is lying there all naked and everything – but it’s there, and to me it’s the heart of the movie.

I also love that essentially, it’s a movie about a submissive who saves a dominant – by forcing him to stand up and be who he is.

I don’t think that Secretary is a great movie to show people whom you want to introduce to kink as a concept: it doesn’t portray the healthiest relationship (until the end), and it suggests that kink is, if not the result of a mental illness, at least a substitute for one. I think this is more of an advanced-class type thing: it portrays a particular couple with particular histories, and gives one example of how kink might work. But then, I don’t think the filmmakers made it to be a guidebook.

What it is to me, above all, is a beautiful love story, and an idealization of service. When he tells her that she will never cut herself again (one of the hottest scenes in film, in my opinion), she takes him seriously – and holds him to the responsibility he’s taken for her life. When he orders her to put her hands on the desk and not move, she enters a realm of sanctity in service that few submissives ever have the opportunity to experience – and at the same time, continues her challenge to him: can he stop being a furtive, noncommital, self-hating dominant and actually care for his submissive?

Of course we’d all rather they worked all of this out by talking. But would you watch that movie?

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I’ve been loving on Trinity’s blog enough that I’ve been reading the back issues. Yesterday I took a look at this post on the commonalities she draws between some radical feminist camps’ views on BDSM, and the rhetoric of ex-gay movements. In a nutshell: while both are careful to say up-front that they’re not interested in forcing anyone to not be gay or not be kinky, both are also sure to point out that if you are either of those things you are broken and need fixing, and even if you think you’re happy you can’t possibly really be, because it was your mother/your abuse history/the patriarchy that made you that way.

She goes on to quote a previous post of hers, citing her own experience, not with either of these groups, but with standard-issue mental health professionals:

The people I relied on for mental health care told me that my fantasies came from my trauma, and that once I’d really healed, I’d not have them any more.

I spent so much time worrying about my sexuality not changing…that I didn’t allow myself for years to take pride in the actual progress I was making toward healing. I became obsessed with the idea that my sexuality wasn’t changing and therefore there was something wrong with me, even as I slowly felt better about myself, less inclined to self-harming (again, maybe to you the desire to do SM and to self-harm are the same, but in my experience they are very different), etc.

I think promoting the idea that SM fantasies are *always* scars from trauma is harmful.

I have to agree with this, and I want to go it one better: I think that even if a desire for BDSM comes from trauma scars, that BDSM may be a path to healing.

I’m not even necessarily talking about the obvious one, where someone decides to ritually relive their trauma in the safe, sane and consensual setting of a BDSM scene in order to reclaim it and heal. I think there are subtler things at work, and I’ve seen examples of it.

Trinity’s own example, of being less inclined to self-harm over time while still wanting to do BDSM, strikes me as important: I don’t know if this has been her experience of it, but it seems like it could be an example of self-harming behavior being replaced with healthy behavior that fills some of the same needs for intensity and focus. The film Secretary provides an excellent example of this as well: when under stress, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character is prone to cutting and sometimes burning herself. Once she finds a relationship in which she can safely experience intensity of sensation as a loving act, she is able to stop. The dominant character, too, has issues: he exercises compulsively whenever he has sexual thoughts, of which he is clearly ashamed. The relationships he does engage in are short, compartmentalized, and dysfunctional. Once he’s able to embrace his desires and take responsibility for the person he engages in those desires, he is able to live fully in himself.

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday who was reveling in the bruises on her upper arms for a few days after playing with someone who loves to bite. She went to her job wearing longer sleeves to hide the bruises, and was having fun secretly enjoying them beneath her clothes. Once they faded, she joked that she’d never been more disappointed to put on a tank top.

After reading some of the material I’ve been linking to lately, she and her equally super-smart husband decided to have some fun coming up with really good arguments against BDSM. During that game, she called up her own abuse history, and found herself going, “Oh, shit.”

The abuse she received was entirely mental, and when she was a kid she wished her abuser would hit her, so she would have something to show the authorities.

So there’s a link. And yeah, finding that can be disconcerting; I had a similar experience where I realized that the games I was playing with my top weren’t as innocent and without basis as I thought. And yet, I realized in myself at the time, and as I pointed out to my friend: these things that we’re doing now are healing us from those traumas. Even if that’s why we’re doing them. It’s not that we’re unable to have normal relationships because we’re damaged. It’s that we’re repairing the damage by re-writing our histories.

In her present, she’s experiencing the joy of having bruises that she doesn’t have to show anyone. They’re there for her enjoyment and remembrance of a fun time with someone who cares for her. If she shows them to people, it’s not because of her relief that she finally has evidence that someone is hurting her. It’s because she’s proud that now, someone cares for her the right way, and the bruises she carries are her choice.

In my present, I sometimes regress to being a little girl who is held and cared for by a loving Daddy. Maybe it’s because my dad was never there when I was young, and my mother didn’t know how to show affection. But is enacting this re-traumatizing me? No. It’s allowing me to write over the parts of my brain that tell me I’m not worthy of love.

It all goes back to Trinity’s question about “asking why.” I.e., is it ever a good idea to delve into the reasons why you like the things you like, sexually? Having thought about it a bit more, I think it’s still valuable to examine one’s own navel a bit on this one. But out of all the possible results of this venture, the results mostly seem anywhere from bleak to pointless. Here are the possibilities I see:

1. You question your kink, and discover a strong link to abuse or trauma in your past. You realize that you’re miserable in part because you keep re-enacting that abuse or trauma in your relationships, which are generally abusive and end badly. You get help, and either a) you find a way to fulfill your desires in a safe, sane and consensual manner with someone who loves you, b) you stop doing kink entirely and you’re miserable, or c) you stop doing kink entirely and you’re happy.

2. You question your kink, and discover a link to abuse or trauma in your past. But your present life is healthy and happy, and the kinky activities you do turn you on and fulfill you. But now you’re worried that your kink is not okay.

3. You question your kink, and can’t find anything from your past that links to it. But now you’re worried that maybe you have repressed memories from a childhood trauma and all your crazy kinks are about it.

4. You question your kink, and can’t come up with anything. You smile and go about your day.

In the first result, there are several possible outcomes, some good and some not. In the others, the question is either meaningless, or brings problematic meaning where previously there was none. I think it’s extremely valuable to question your patterns if you keep finding yourself in abusive relationships, not just kinky ones. Notice that even in that eventuality, a person might continue to enjoy BDSM activities (as Trinity does, as Lee in Secretary does) once they have dealt with their traumas. So in a sense, what that person is asking themselves is not “What draws me to kink” but “What draws me to people who want to harm me?”

I think it’s true that abuse can masquerade as BDSM. Just as abuse can masquerade as possessive love, just as alcoholism can masquerade as a simple fondness for drinking, just as a wolf can masquerade as a goddamn sheep. That doesn’t mean that a sheep is always a wolf.

There is value in searching for answers when your life seems out of control and you can’t figure out how to change it. There is very little value in seeking to pathologize behavior that fulfills you and others in your life.

Question yourselves, by all means, yes. But if you’re happy and not doing others true harm, stop trying to figure out what’s wrong with you that you like something that other people think is wrong. We are large. We contain multitudes, for the love of Bob. Go out there and grow.

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I cannot stop watching this movie.

And I can’t believe I went all of these years without seeing this beautiful, strange, moving and problematic piece of cinema. I finally saw it this weekend – twice in as many days – and I’m ready to watch it again, soaking in it the way I soaked in A Perfect Circle’s first album when it came out, or my first collection of Nick Drake.

Like so many before me, I’m troubled and intrigued by the “love scene” between Deckard and Rachel, seen here.

I’ve often been troubled by the facile way some kinksters manage to look at certain scenes in movies. In particular, many folks of my acquaintance really get hot watching men get hurt. There’s no doubt that the suffering of the male body can be terribly attractive; I’m totally with it, so long as it’s consensual.

But in a world where desire is a strange beast and so much of our input comes from film and TV, images of suffering, nonconsent, ambiguous consent, and rape become iconic. These days, it seems acceptable to enjoy masculine suffering, but it’s still terribly problematic – and I think, rightly so – to enjoy scenes that are or may be rape of women. We are nowhere near far enough along in the deconstruction of millennia of patriarchy to put women on equal footing with men in terms of their susceptibility to sexual violence, and fetishizing non-consensual violence against women is simply not okay. Still: why is it okay to do it to men? This is something of a tangent, I know, because what I’m really getting at is the following.

Most of the time, I find it horrifying when I detect that a scene of sexual violence against a woman is imminent in a film or TV show. It is never sexy or fun or titillating. Which made me look at this scene in Blade Runner in a different light: i.e., it turned me on. So what does that mean about me, or about the scene? Am I trying not to have the scene be a rape, because if it is I’m a sicko for being turned on by it? Or is it just because I want this film to be more complicated than that, which in all other ways, it is?

For those of you who didn’t feel like watching the video, here’s the scenario: Rachel has recently learned that she’s an android, not human. She’s having a lot of trouble dealing with the idea, especially, that her memories are not her own. She has just saved Deckard’s life, and is herself on the run; he is sheltering her in his apartment.

Seeing him sleeping, she softens her look, taking off her jacket and taking her hair down. She plays something on the piano, which wakes him. He comes on to her, to which she reacts ambivalently, seeming to like it at first, then backing away and trying to leave when he goes to kiss her on the mouth. He chases after her, blocks her exit, and slams her against the blinds. She looks afraid but aroused, too, and he kisses her.

“Now kiss me,” he says.

“I can’t rely on…” she begins.

“Say, ‘Kiss me,'” he says.

“Kiss me,” she says. He does. Then he says, “I want you.”

She says, “I want you,” with her eyes downcast. He doesn’t say anything, but seems to prompt her again. She looks into his eyes and says, “I want you,” once more.

Then, without prompting, she says, “Put your hands on me.”

Now, naturally, his violence toward her is unwarranted. And the way he prompts her responses suggests that she is going along with him to prevent further violence. But the context says something more to me.

Deckard is a man who has known only violence, in particular in his interactions with Replicants. His initial treatment of her, when he feels he might be rejected, is not excusable, but is consistent with his character. Rachel is an android struggling to be human, who has a fascination with Deckard, with love, and has mixed desires. In some readings I’ve seen of the scene, including the actress Sean Young’s, the scene is a teaching by Deckard to Rachel, a woman who “do[esn’t] know the meaning of love, but…want[s] to.” This reading is much more compelling to me than that of a “simple” rape, where Deckard overcomes Rachel by physical, and then by emotional, force and manipulation.

But the overwhelming first experience I had of watching the scene was a kinkster’s reaction: “Oh my gods,” I said, “they’re fetishizing consent.”

I seriously doubt whether Ridley Scott or anyone else involved had this in mind when they shot the scene, but it was the first interpretation that jumped into my crazy kinked-up head. “Say ‘kiss me.'” Tell me you like it. Tell me you want me. Beg me for it.

Nonconsent fantasies are one thing; though they can be problematic, and I still have issues with exploring them through scenes in movies that are clearly meant to be about real nonconsent, not consensual nonconsent. But for me the hotness lies even more in the fetishization of consent: getting the person you’re doing horrible wonderful things to to tell you how much they like it. It’s one of my gooshiest hottest embarrassment buttons as a bottom, to have my top put words in my mouth expressing my desire and enjoyment of what is happening to me. And as a top, I’d much rather hear my bottom say, “Please” than say, “No,” though both have their place.

Please. Yes. Ahh! God… Breath sucked between teeth. A whimper.

I’ve distracted myself again.

But this scene. Like the rest of this film, so complex, so tied into questions of misogyny or commentary thereon, of human versus non-human, of what it means to be capable of consenting. In my view, this is a scene wherein Deckard goes through wrenching changes: he’s long felt that Replicants don’t deserve to be shot in the back just for being Replicants, but his training tells him to treat all Replicants the same. What happens when he finds himself desiring one, falling in love with one? The idea that she might reject him is intolerable. His first response is violence, but his second is to try and be sure of her, to know that she actually wants him, that she actually is consenting, is capable, as a machine, of consent.

And her response to him. Earlier in the scene, she asks if he would “hunt” her if she ran. The question has desire in it as well as fear: if she left, would he follow? When she tries to leave and he prevents her, she is scared, but wanting, too: she feels the desire, but it is new, and she needs guidance. Her interrupted line, “I can’t rely on…” suggests that she doubts her own ability to make decisions or even to have desires, and he wants to show her that she can, that she does. She choses a tragically broken teacher, but then everyone in this world is broken. And when she finally says, “Put your hands on me,” I do not believe that she is simply acquiescing to make things easier on herself: she is making a statement of agency, of humanity.

Feel free to argue with me if you like. I’m open. I’ll be over here, watching this movie again.

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