Sep 242012

Closeup between woman and wolf

Spoilers ahead

…the function of the priests is to prevent the first, highest, level of cosmic eating, the eating of human mortals by gods. How? By way of performing sacrificial rituals. Gods must be appeased, their hunger for blood must be satisfied, and the trick of the priests is to offer the gods a substitute (symbolic) sacrifice: an animal or other prescribed food instead of human life. The sacrifice is needed not to secure any special favors from the gods, but to make sure that the wheel of life goes on turning. Priests perform a function which concerns the balance of the entire universe: if the gods remain hungry, the whole cycle of cosmic life is disturbed.

Slavoy Zizek, Living in the End Times

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Jun 092012

Despite the cliffhanger, Christian’s mother visiting is rather anticlimactic. Even though she’s perfectly pleasant, Ana feels self-conscious.

Christian switches into steel-hard business mode, and gives her a copy of the contract.

“This is the contract. Read it, and we’ll discuss it next weekend. May I suggest you do some research, so you know what’s involved.” He pauses. “That’s if you agree, and I really hope you do.” He adds, his tone softer, anxious.


“You’ll be amazed what you can find on the Internet,” he murmurs.

For a change, Christian is doing the right thing. He should let her read the contract, and give her time to process all of this new stuff, before going any further.

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Jun 032012

I’m still talking about this chapter because this is when this book’s deeply flawed understanding of BDSM is first exposed.

Please him! He wants me to please him! I think my mouth drops open. Please Christian Grey. And I realize, in that moment, that yes, that’s exactly what I want him to do. I want him to be damned delighted with me. It’s a revelation.

There’s a subtle but important shift in the verbs in this paragraph. In the first two sentences, she uses “to please” as something she does to him. But in the sixth sentence, she shifts to “to be pleased with me”, as something he is with her. In a single thought, she goes from something she does, to something she expects him to do. It’s the difference between doing something because you take satisfaction in a job well done or you believe the task is worth doing, and doing something because some external party will reward you for it. This underlines two different things kinky people mean when they talk about “service”.

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May 312012

Ana wakes up in Christian’s hotel suite the next morning. Christian not only had her undressed, but sent his bodyguard off to buy her a complete set of new clothes.

Um, wasn’t Ana’s friend and roommate Kate nearby when Ana passed out, and wouldn’t she have been a more natural choice to look after an unconscious Ana than a relative stranger like Christian?

Let me call process for a moment. I started thinking about the previous chapter’s commentary while I was still reading the text, and I was going to talk about how this wasn’t supposed to be a snarky commentary. That is, no cheap shots, no snobbishness, etc. Accept it for what it is, and understand how it fits into the world.

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May 302012

After saving Ana from the vicious bicyclist, Christian holds onto her tight. Ana practically has some kind of stroke at his touch, silently begging her to kiss him. She does ask him to kiss her, and certainly doesn’t move to kiss him herself. “Kiss me damn it! I implore him, but I can’t move.”

Christian Grey responds, or rather says, as she has neither done nor said anything to respond to:

“Anastasia, you should steer clear of me. I’m not the man for you,” he whispers.

He rejects her. And what does he do to make her go away? Mails her a set of vintage books that cost five figures. This kind of mixed messages indicates either a high level of manipulation or a moderate level of schizophrenia.

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Apr 092012

The theme of violence against women is front and centre in the Mad Men episode “Mystery Date”, and what leads into that phenomenon is a tangled web of fear, anger and desire.

The episode is haunted by the Richard Speck rape-murders in 1966, an incident which its own Gothic details: sexualized violence, women in danger, etc. The lone survivor of Speck’s massacre of student nurses escaped by hiding under a bed.

At the SCDP office, Joyce, a journalist friend of Peggy, brings in a sheet of photos of the Speck crime scene not fit for publication. Joyce describes the crime in melodramatic detail, as if imagining herself as the sole survivor and de facto hero of the narrative (Cf. the Final Girl of slasher filmes). Peggy and the other creatives are gruesomely fascinated and study the pictures. It’s new copywriter Michael Ginsburg who looks at the pictures but then denounces the others as “sickoes”, and says he wishes he hadn’t looked at them.

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Apr 062012

It’s been said that Hallowe’en is Christmas for queer people, but if there’s a holiday for kinksters, it is Good Friday. This is the day when a man was tortured to death for trying to get people to be nice to each other.

While I don’t have this quite figured out yet, I get the impression that the primacy of the Passion, the story of Jesus Christ’s betrayal, murder and resurrection, was a late medieval invention, and earlier depictions of Christ in graphic art and storytelling focused on his life as teacher and miracle-worker. The violence of the Passion came later. One person I know suggested that the cult of the Passion coincided with the Crusades, violent art reflecting a violent society, or even as intentional anti-Semitic propaganda.

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Mar 092012

Research in the previous post brought my attention to Venus in Fur, a Broadway play adaptation of the classic of male masochism, Venus im Pelz by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

Judging by the description, it’s strongly metafictional, as the two leads play a director and an actress auditioning for a stage adaptation of Venus. This presents an interesting angle on the story, in which Severin has an image of the cruel woman in his mind before Wanda appears and slots herself into it. This is very much a story about roles and scripts.

As I’m nowhere near Broadway, I have little chance to see this. Hopefully it will tour. I’m curious to know how this play was adapted for a mainstream audience. If female masochism is regarded as a problem, male masochism is regarded as a joke at best, and rarely if ever a sexually desirable trait to heterosexual women, at least not in mainstream media.

Mar 092012

A new, highly kinky novel called Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, which is getting play in surprisingly mainstream publications, few of which have anything good to say about its literary merits or gender/sexual politics. (The first book in the trilogy has over 6,600 ratings on Goodreads.)

What interests me in this book is that it apparently began as a fanfiction of the paranormal romance Twilight, called Master of the Universe with the two leads named “Bela” and “Edward”, and Edward’s Byronic flaw being ridiculous wealth and kinkiness instead of vampirism. (Bela’s still masochistic, virginal and co-dependent, and generally a clumsy twit.) This was rewritten for a pro-sale with the characters’ names changed to something else; basically, the serial numbers were filed off. (The original(?) text is still online.)

I don’t object to this kind of derivative work (see Harold Bloom’s theory of “strong misreading”), but I am curious what this means for erotica/romance publishing and writing. Female masochistic fantasy goes back at least as far as Wuthering Heights, but we seem to be getting closer to the core of it through a process akin to repeated distilling, resulting in the alcoholic syrup of pure masochism, but sold as romance. The problematic gender politics of Twilight become even more disturbing when removed from the world of vampires and werewolves and placed in the world of extremely wealthy and emotionally unstable men.

The Slate article on Fifty Shades ponders the prevalence of female masochism in this day and age, though in a narrow-minded way.

James has created perhaps the most relatable dominant and submissive couple to date, the Ross and Rachel of BDSM (for bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism) fiction. When faced with a room full of cables and hooks, Ana has the same reaction any average woman would have. She decides that Christian is a freak and a pervert with serious problems. Over the next few chapters her “thinking brain” is at war with her “subconscious,” which wants her to relent. “Stop thinking so much Ana,” Christian warns, sounding like an inspirational life coach, or Tim Gunn, and eventually she gives in, and of course, she is more “sated” and empowered than she’s ever been.

The article ends with the author reassuring the reader that men are far more likely to be masochists than sadists, “…proof that women have nothing to fear.” I’m not sure what to make of this statement. Is she reassuring the reader that men are really masochistic twerps?

Psychology Today has a more optimistic view, seeing the book as a good modelling of BDSM negotiation and also that the book should not be taken too literally.

The subject of this book should not be viewed through a socio-political lens since it lies in a realm that is beyond in a psychological, emotional and sensual world. It is an adult form of play that many people would rather just keep in their fantasies. Therefore, just because the book has become a hit in the suburbs, does not mean that all these female readers want to enact these roles. Some may and some may not, but you have to open up the topic with yourself and your partner in order to find out what you might want to try.

So, is fanfiction ready for the mainstream? Will there NYTimes bestseller lists be full of slash, hurt-comfort and Mary Sue stories and other tropes of bad fanfiction? If it does, I confidently predict it will be critically scorned. Does it need to be? There is a kind of rawness in fanfiction, that makes it a kind of outsider art, fiction written without any influence of criticism or commerce, and what it expresses is unfiltered, insatiable emotional need for affection, or even just attention, wrapped in complex manoeuvres to avoid being seen as being as powerful.

PS: is “E.L. James” supposed to echo “E.M. Hull”, author of The Sheik?

Mar 022012

Williams, Tennessee. “Desire and the Black Masseur” Tales of Desire New Directions, 2010. Originally published 1948

Dipping into the “literary figures who wrote kink” well, we find Tennessee Williams’ short story, “Desire and the Black Masseur.” A meek man wanders into a steambath, gets pounded and later killed and literally eaten by an African-American masseur. The end.

As a narrative of homoerotic interracial masochism, it works pretty well. The fact that the masseur is not named and only identified as “the Negro” means that is isn’t exactly racially progressive, but this is a story of fantasy, of a masochistic desire for regression and annihilation.

The narrative suggests that the drama of Burns’ masochism and the sadism of “the Negro” is a kind of cosmic drama of revenge and redemption for slavery and racism. I wonder if there’s a parallel between this story and, say, the race and gender subtext of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs and other works: the white, Christian man submitting to the (possibly Jewish) woman.

You could say there’s two kinds of masochistic scenarios: one which goes against the dominant flow of power in society (e.g. this story, Venus in Furs) and the other which follows the dominant flow of power (e.g. Story of O), though the last case may subvert the dominant paradigm. E.M. Hull’s The Sheik does both: female submitting to male, white colonizer submitting to Oriental colonized (who turns out to be an Englishman anyway).

The subversive element may be secondary and optional to the experience of masochism, but it does render masochism more visible and legible.

Jack Fritscher’s commentary on the story, emphasizing the difference between Burns’ initial passivity and his later active surrender and submission.