BDSM in Popular Culture

BDSM in Popular Culture

A while ago, I was asked to fill out a survey on how accurately I thought BDSM and kink in general was portrayed in modern media and it really got me thinking about just how narrow the presentation of kink is in popular culture. Certainly for many, myself included, modern media is the first exposure we get to kink. We aren’t taught about BDSM, kink or fetishes in general at school. Sex education is still massively lacking in these areas and so it makes sense that when it comes to kink, young people largely rely on representation in the media.

I feel that in media, kink and fetish are largely misunderstood. BDSM is often regarded simply as a trauma response, or as a taboo niche reserved for the 'perverted' or 'depraved'. It's often spoken about as punitive or abusive, with little understanding of the nuances of power exchange roles. I think in more recent years, BDSM has become fetishised in its own way by popular culture, as it has been seen as 'daring' and 'cool' by some, as some sort of show of bravery (despite this usually being a very sanitised and face-value idea of what BDSM 'should’ look like - see Rihanna and Britney Spears’ S&M).

Aftercare is often touted as the most crucial part of play, but I believe it is just as important to implement the same level of care before and during any kind of play. Even "non-consensual" play can be performed and enjoyed in a safe and consensual manner with the appropriate discussion of limits and boundaries, regular checking-in and thorough aftercare. Dominants are often misconstrued as having "all the power", when really it is the submissive, as they always have the power to stop any act they are engaging in. Having safe words and systems to convey one another's comfort levels is also very important, but I would say trust and understanding between the sub and dom is the most important element of any play.

I have seen very few TV or film depictions of BDSM that have conveyed the reality or made any real commentary on the community. The same goes for BDSM scenes - I don't know that I have ever seen a BDSM scene that accurately depicts any of what BDSM play is really about. In my experience, such scenes are largely bland, heteronormative, punitive, abusive and related solely to a character's trauma or ego. There is never any depiction of communication between participants, safe play practices or any indication that these characters are real people with full lives - it is always about seeking a "dark" or "dangerous" form of pleasure, almost always in secret and in unsafe ways. The array of gear, mechanisms or toys displayed are always largely the same few bland items that have gained some visibility over the years. I get the sense these scenes are hardly ever directed by anyone with any knowledge of or experience in BDSM.

The community is - if depicted at all - often shown to be a group of damaged outcasts, and are usually depicted as being extraordinarily beautiful by traditional heteronormative standards, yet alienated by their trauma. Some darker meaning is so often thought to be the "reason" they "are this way" and they are depicted as depraved or seeking purely pain. The "beautiful yet damaged" image is so widely prevalent I find it in advertising to demonstrate extremity or the "dark side" of carnal desire. BDSM is almost always depicted as being highly sexual and often aggressive, volatile and dangerous. This naturally feeds into heavily problematic gender relations, with violent misogyny being the most common. The instances of this being reversed are usually at the comedic or otherwise negatively-depicted expense of a male character to demonstrate cowardice, weakness or depravity, whilst the feminine dom is most often depicted through an entirely male gaze. The heteronormativity of these scenes also limits this to being the most common kinds of depiction, as few gender identities or roles outside of such are ever shown.

The survey specifically mentioned the depiction of contracts in BDSM, citing the dreaded Fifty Shades of Grey (which I have, unfortunately, seen), something that is typically reserved for long-time sessions of total power exchange. Contracts can be a useful way to convey crucial information to consenting parties. However, unless signing a contract is part of the play, the contract's purpose is to act as a written agreement over which two consenting parties must discuss in length their intents, desires and limits. The film instead depicts this as a standard template Grey uses not to discern his submissive's limits and needs, but to faux-legally bind them to agreeing to solely fulfil his will and desires, many of which go far beyond the scope of what the characters intended. The contract is also written and given out in a setting where a vanilla character is heavily pressured into signing it in order to have any kind of relationship with their love interest, which is an incredibly concerning misunderstanding and damaging portrayal of how to implement a contract.

The narrative mishandling of an abusive partner using kink and BDSM as a means to control or abuse their partner is far too prevalent in film and television stories depicting BDSM. The most prevalent of these, naturally, being Fifty Shades of Grey, where the romantic angle is based in an assertion that the main character can "fix" the damaged parts of Grey and his behaviour. Her willingness to engage in some very light BDSM foreplay - and her obvious discomfort throughout - is depicted as a romantic betrayal on his part when she discovers the "horror" of what he wants to do to her. This romance is shown to be at odds with his desire for kink. In spite of its content, the film is also unwilling to actually depict BDSM in any meaningful way beyond minor aesthetics. It is no coincidence that it was conceived and originally written as fan fiction for Twilight. As most know, Twilight was a Mormon writer's teen fantasy novel series romanticisng a relationship of stalking, female masochism, sexual abstinence, abuse and pro-life assertions at the expense of the female lead.

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Needless to say, I had a very different idea of what BDSM was growing up and of what it could be. I saw impact play as mean and cruel, pup play as sleek and cliquey and ABDL as depraved and bizarre. Never fun and always perverse. Impact play looked terrifying and painful. I couldn’t understand it because no media had tried to explain it to me, so it was the biggest surprise when I found out just how much I enjoyed it. Similarly, safe play practices are not being communicated because of these depictions. I hadn’t even heard of aftercare when I first started playing barely a year ago. The dangers of media misconstruing play are very real and it’s no wonder that the only education for the dangers of breath play seem to be found on social media.

It feels like modern media should be better at portraying fetish in this day and age. ABDL’s depictions in film and television are so rarely positive. I turn to Inside Number 9 and Chewing Gum as recent instalments of British television that have depicted ABDL characters in ways not wholly negative, but neither were they positive. I did get a minor kick out of a brief depiction of clown play in an episode of Rick and Morty, but with so little representation available, it felt bittersweet. I’ve noted before that Bob’s Burgers actually deals with and communicates information surrounding kink quite well. Sex workers are portrayed in a positive light, as is the parent of one of the main characters having a balloon fetish. There is no judgement from the other characters. The same can’t be said for the way in which the main character’s rival was portrayed as an ABDL and this was leveraged against him, although for better or worse that has never been brought up again.

I did, however, recently watch a film called Pleasure and was absolutely blown away by it. It is a fantastic film depicting the LA porn scene very realistically from the view of people involved in the industry. I actually laughed at how true to live the BDSM shoot scene was, in that everyone involved in the main character’s suspension scene were delightfully kind, caring and fun. In stark contrast to how fetishists are normally portrayed, I would recommend this film for far more than just their representation.

I can’t help but feel that there should be better representation in the media. There needs to be better education for these sorts of things, especially for those of us who always felt alienated because kink simply wasn’t mentioned. I assumed no one else had a clown fetish, because how was I supposed to know anyone would? No one explained these things to me, I just had to muddle through like the rest of us and sadly, so many of us never learn to accept these parts of ourselves.

Barney

Barney

London, England