May 132013

I’m surprised at how much material from AMC’s Mad Men I find for this blog. First there was protagonist Don Draper’s masochistic sessions with a prostitute who slaps his face. Then there was the episode “Mystery Date”, which showed that Don was trying to be faithful to his wife, while a toxic cocktail of lust, fear and rage boiled inside him. Meanwhile, other characters had their own reactions to sexual violence.

And now, in “Man With A Plan”, Don goes full on dominant. Since the season began, he’s been having an affair with his downstairs neighbour Sylvia, the wife of a heart surgeon. While Don’s been lacking in sales meetings, he makes up for it by expertly playing on Sylvia’s Catholic guilt, setting her up for their trysts in the maid’s room.

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Jul 152012

For a limited time, Smart Pop Books has posted my essay “Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse: 21st Century Neo-Gothic” from the essay collection Inside Joss’ Dollhouse as a free read. Get it while you can.

This is one of the first paid published pieces that emerged from my research, and I think it turned out pretty well. I am, according to one friend, “the world’s biggest Dollhouse fan”, and I love it the way you can only love a child that died young after a long struggle.

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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Feb 242012

Special Victims Unit has always been the black sheep of the Law & Order franchise, with a tendency towards ratings grabs with has-been guest stars and clumsy discussions of issues. With last night’s episode, “Hunting Ground”, something has definitely changed in its treatment of violence towards women.

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Jul 282010

In the fourth season premiere of Mad Men, Don Draper should be on top of the world. Instead, he has a ratty Greenwich village apartment, a carefully maintained pretense that his new agency has a second floor, and a standing appointment with a prostitute whom he orders to slap his face while not taking off her bullet bra.

In art, everything means something, particularly in Mad Men, in which much information is conveyed in minor shifts in behavior rather than over speech or actions. That Don hires a prostitute and has her smack his face a few times during sex is indicative of his internal state of chaos, along with almost yelling at Peggy and throwing prospective clients out of the agency when they don’t like his pitch. In previous seasons, Don has masterfully handled jittery clients and a string of mistresses, one of whom had a masochistic streak herself. His masochistic behavior is meant to indicate his decline and his self-loathing, after his divorce and starting a new agency. He’s actually becoming a bit of a cliche, the high-powered executive in a suit who hires a pro domme to dress him as a French maid every Thursday at 7pm.

However, does masochism always indicate a disordered or self-loathing mind? I don’t think it does. BDSM can be integrated into a functional life. If Don owned up to a few things to himself, he might use his masochistic sessions as a way of getting some stress relief. However, Don seems to be using his scenes the way he uses cigarettes and booze: maintaining the impression of control without any moderation. Thus, he’s not an example of healthy BDSM, not that that idea had been developed yet in the show’s current year of 1964.

Phrased another way, will we ever reach a point in which a TV character has some form of non-normative sexuality without it being some exterior sign of some inner mental flaw? A parallel with homosexuality’s depiction in mainstream instruction is instructive. It used to be that homosexuality was a problem to be explained, and it could not be an incidental aspect of his or her character. I think we’ve reached a point where gayness is no longer an overriding element of a character. Sadomasochism is somewhere on that same trajectory.

Jul 102009

If the Old West is America’s mythic past, then the South is its xenotopia, its Orient. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as discussed previously, partakes in both the Oriental and the Gothic. The HBO series Trueblood focuses on the small Louisiana town of Bon Temps in a world in which vampires have “come out of the coffin.” Likewise, it takes part of the Orientalism and the Gothicism stereotypically associated with the South, using the South as a blank screen for fantasies of, among other things, deviant sexuality.

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Jun 092007

Elizabeth of the Alternative Journey blog calls Jack Bauer, the hero(?) of 24, her “ultimate conquered male.”

Bitchy Jones followed up with a related post on male suffering and heroism.

Male submission and the archetypal heroic narrative are basically interchangeable. But somehow submissive men (and, I guess, a lot of people in general) seemed to have been tricked into thinking submission is basically feminine; that submissive men need to create feminine personas to make their submission make sense, get I touch with their feminine sides.

Which is bollocks.

Submissive men are heroes. Every time they take off their clothes. Which they should do both frequently and often.

Look, Prometheus stole fire for humans and was, in retaliation, tortured daily for 30,000 years (sm). Atlas holds up the fucking sky on his shoulders (predicament bondage).

And then there’s Jesus Christ. Where to begin? Sacrifice? Submission? Dying for all our sins? Nails? Hot jewish guy in pain and mostly naked? My god, my god, why have you forsaken me? He safewords on the cross! I fucking loved Sunday school.

Do you see what page I’m on? Every story of heroism. From then to now.

Dr Jack says to the evil ‘others’ in Lost – let my friends go and you can do what you want with me.

Angel goes back to fight in the Ring even when he could walk free because he can’t leave the other demons to their fate.

Goddamnit, Indy, where doesn’t it hurt?

And Elizabeth has covered Jack Bauer in detail. (She’s an inspiration – that woman.)

Bauer suffers, certainly, but is he a masochist? His suffering is incidental to his mission. He does not suffer for its own sake, or find meaning in it. Arguably, he undergoes torture out of guilt for his own actions. Bauer’s distinguishing characteristic, at least in my mind, is sadism. Over the course of the series he mentally and physically tortures several people, kills a man in cold blood and cuts off his head with a hacksaw, and executes people on his own side. Like Richardson’s Lovelace and Sade’s libertines, Bauer justifies his actions by claiming he is aware of a higher truth about the nature of the world.

I’d call Bauer a stoic, not a masochist. Masochists suffer; stoics endure. A masochist wants to feel deeply, while a stoic wants not to feel pain or pleasure.

Old school male heroes, the John Wayne/Humphrey Bogart/Gary Cooper generation, were defined by stoicism, their immunity to fear, pain, exhaustion and loss.

The thing is, stoicism can easily shade into masochism. In order to prove one has the proper stoic’s indifference to pain, one seeks out suffering, makes a performance out of it. Is masochism the sign of a person insecure in stoicism?

It’s later on, starting around 1990, that we get male action heroes who not only suffer, but make flamboyant displays of suffering. Mel Gibson’s characters are often tortured in his films, while Bruce Willis weeping while picking broken glass out of his bare feet in Die Hard is a far cry from Sylvester Stallone as Rambo cauterizing his own wounds with gunpowder.

Furthermore, masochism can be a relief from stoicism, saying, “Yes, it does hurt, but I can still take it!” Masochism was defined as a specifically male problem by Kraff-Ebing when the masculine ideal was the height of stoicism, and self-sacrifice was the female ideal. Sacher-Masoch could be viewed as a holdover from the previous century’s culture of sensibility.

I’ve been talking about male characters so far, but what about women? Currently, there are two female characters on TV who are defined by their capacity to withstand suffering. Claire Bennet of Heroes and Jane Vasco of Painkiller Jane both have superhuman regenerative abilities, being nearly impossible to kill. Their storylines offer plenty of scenes of them being injured and recovering, and their willingness to undergo harm is a big part of their heroism.

However, Jane feels pain, while Claire doesn’t, or not as most people do. Does that mean Jane is masochistic, while Claire is stoic? Or does it mean that Jane is the stoic, ignoring pain, while Claire is the true masochist, experiencing intense physical sensations as pleasure?

Ariel Glucklich’s book Sacred Pain emphasizes that we do not just experience pain, we interpret it, assign it meaning in our life stories. A stoic sees pain as a distraction, to be ignored, or perhaps as proof of determination to accomplish goals. A masochist sees pain as a way to get outside our self.

Jan 022007

A highly personal and idiosyncratic list.

1. Nearly all of the original Planet of the Apes. This is a classic “world upside down” scenario, animalistic humans hunted and abused by sentient apes. Charlton Heston is mortally offended by this not terribly subtle allegory of race politics, but who needs subtext when he and his beautiful, scantily-clad and mute companion Nova spend most of the movie being chased, bound, cages and otherwise mistreated.

2. Star Trek’s idea of sexy is usually along the lines of green-skinned women bellydancing, which is classic Orientalist kitsch for a science fiction idiom. One notable exception came in Star Trek – First Contact. The Borg Queen, resplendent in skin-tight latex and body piercings, had captured Mr. Data, the android who yearns to be human. Instead of torturing him, she removes his artificial skin piece by piece and grafts on patches of living skin removed from humans. When she blows on it gently, it gives him his first true experience of physical pleasure. When he tries to escape, a tiny slash on his new living skin gives him his first true experience of physical pain.

3. Amanda Donohoe’s performance in Ken Russel’s The Lair of the White Worm, based on a story by Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s a recurrent trait of Gothic fiction that the antagonists are so much more dynamic and appealing than the protagonists, and it’s hard not to root for Donohoe’s sexy performance as a snake-worshipping priestess, cruising around the English countryside, seducing and murdering boy scouts and police officers before putting on the body jewelry, strap-on dildo and blue body paint to deflower/sacrifice the virginal blonde love interest. Add in raped nuns, catfighting airline stewardesses and a very original use for bagpipes.

4. The work of Canadian film director (and personal fave) David Cronenberg is full of skewed forms of sexuality. I could cite scenes from Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Rabid, Shivers or other films, but the finest example is Crash. An ennui-ridden couple drifts into a subculture of car crash fetishists, people who have had their bodies transformed by technology and invent new forms of sexuality to go with it. I would not be at all surprised to know that something like this exists out there somewhere, if not something even more alien to conventional ideas of sexuality.

5. Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels. Liu has the thankless (and underpaid) role of Hollywood’s top Asian star, so she gets cast in the Dragon Lady roles, which at least has a bit more flavor than the Madame Butterfly archetype. While her co-stars Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore dress up like corporate drag kings, Liu draws attention to herself as a leather-clad, riding-crop wielding corporate efficiency expert that has an auditorium full of programmers eating out of hand. Her turn as Chinese gangster/dominatrix Pearl in Payback is also worth checking out.

6. An oldie but a goodie. Captain Blood came after Hollywood’s pre-Hays Code era of sophistication and sexuality, but even in the mid-30s there were edgy scenes that squeezed past the censors. Somebody figured out there was box office gold in filming Errol Flynn with his shirt off, and in this classic swashbuckler, he gets auctioned off as a half-naked slave to Olivia de Havilland.

7. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If The Ten Commandments contains the only orgy you’ll ever see in a G-rated movie, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is the only homoerotic snuff film to get a major theatrical release. Gibson’s cinematic career is full of torture scenes, manfully suffering through the ordeal only to set the world right through bloody retribution.

8. Lucy Lawless as Madame Vandersexxx in Eurotrip. If you remember Lawless from her six seasons as Xena: Warrior Princess, the world’s favorite homeless bisexual reformed mass murderer, then you’ll love her all-too brief scene as a pro dominatrix. Her polymorphously perverse sexuality, impish humor, fearlessness and commanding presence shine through. It’s also a good object lesson in how not to pick a safeword.

9. Maggie Cheung first caught my eye when she played the “Thief Catcher,” a shot-gun toting, motorcycle-riding bounty hunter in The Heroic Trio, alongside Michelle Yeoh and Anita Mui. In the French film Irma Vep, she plays herself, a Chinese actress recruited to play the lead in a remake of the French silent-era serial Les Vampires. Her part requires her to wear a black rubber catsuit, and the film shows a lot of the problems with wearing such garments, such as their fragility and the fact they need polishing to get that photogenic sheen. There’s a strangely beautiful sequence in which Cheung, wearing the latex (which squeaks loudly every time she moves), sneaks around a hotel late at night, creeping into people’s rooms and stealing their jewelry, only to throw her gains away. It’s been suggested that kleptomania is a distinctly female kind of fetishism. If that is true, this sequence is the first kleptomaniac fetish film.

Bonus: When I was very young, perhaps nine or ten, I watched a very cheap, very dull adventure show called “Mystery Island.” I recently discovered it was part of a kids show called “The Skatebirds”. The “Mystery Island” segment featured a trio of scientists and a redressed version of the robot from “Lost in Space”, on the run from a mad scientist, his henchmen and his cave full of WWII surplus equipment.

The scene I most remember featured a group of aliens who had, for no reason I can recall, captured the woman of the group and were transforming her into one of them. This show had cheap special effects, even for 1977, so this consisted of her standing still in a beam of blue light. Every so often, the camera would cut back to her and a little more makeup would have been applied.

I don’t know why, but I found this utterly riveting, as as arousing as a pre-adolescent male could find anything arousing. I think this was the first conscious awareness of my masochism, the thought of being held helplessly and Having Things Done to Me.